Originally posted July 29, 2010
I had a bit of free time yesterday (messed up somewhere), so I decided to chill out with a well known book from a multi-award-winning author who everyone knows of. It was the first time I'd looked at that book in several years - and I was really disappointed with the writing quality. In one scene, the hero - elderly, cynical, and world-wise - had to have a common sex toy explained to him. The author went on for a couple of pages to discuss the social ramifications of that sex toy in tedious detail. This is a textbook example of the chronic problem of infodumping.
Every book - fiction or nonfiction - needs to have background and circumstances laid out so the reader can follow the context. Speculative fiction is particularly vulnerable to this, since we delve into so many off-the-wall ideas. So one of the major issues an author has to be on the lookout for is infodumping.
I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou about this: I'm sure that if I go through my works (again?) I'll find occasional infodumps despite all my efforts to eliminate them. But one thing that separates serious authors (published and non-published) from the legions of info-dumpster divers is the ability to feed background in unobtrusively.
Robert A. Heinlein was probably the all time champion at this - so much so that the process is known as 'Heinleining'. With certain exceptions, he would feed his background in bit by bit, often in ordinary conversation or character thought or action.
Sometimes you can't avoid it, especially early on when you are setting up the story premise, but wherever you can, you should try to disguise information so that it doesn't disrupt the story line:
But the best thing is to keep infodumping to a bare minimum. Taking two or three pages out to explain the social ramifications of a common sex toy might be interesting (or titillating); and, yes, that sex toy played a role in the story line, but that multi-page infodump brought the plot to a grinding halt. If you are hungry for word count, bring in a new character who is addicted to said sex toy, and explore how their problem relates to the plot line.
It's a subtle balance between providing adequate depth and disrupting the story line, and the only way to learn, I suppose, is endless trial and error.
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