The Best of Erik Marsh: The Information Dump
Erik is under the weather and at the mercy of multiple assignments. We hope you enjoy revisiting the article below, hand picked as his favorite. It was originally published 3-16-2011.
If you haven’t already, check out Dr. William’s fantastic poetical compendium, Stars Through the Clouds!
In this post:
- Information Dumping is the bad habit of dropping large amounts of exposition on your reader
- This is very ineffective writing and can be avoided
- In some cases, the writer has a character explain plot points at length to other characters who already know about them. This is unrealistic and cliche, and can be avoided by making sure that there are characters present that actually need the explanation, and by making the scene less like a monologue.
- Another bad habit is the use of extended internal monologues in which a character explains a great deal of plot points to himself. This cuts off the story and confuses the reader, and is usually entirely inappropriate for the character. This can be fixed by integrating the thoughts into action and keeping the exposition at a minimum.
Hello everyone! This week I’m getting back to my Science Fiction Problems series with a more basic problem that many forms of fiction, and narratives in general, tend to run into. You may not have heard it addressed before, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it: the infamous Information Dump. A prime source of boredom and confusion, this nasty little habit seems to rear its head more readily in the pages of Science Fiction, and so today I will do my best to arm you with the tools you need to defeat it
Information Dumps are common in science fiction usually because, depending on how hard the science is, science fiction tends to need a bit more explanation, especially when it is written for people who are not familiar with the jargan and terms of the discipline involved. Also, the author has usually put a great deal of thought into their story’s technologies, so they’re understandably excited to show off. This innocent intent leads to breaks in the story, overdone exposition, and generally annoyed and/or confused audience. All that said, you can’t just not give the reader that information, or else they won’t understand your intricately crafted futuristic world!
Fear not! Here are a couple of the biggest ways people attempt to handle their information in science fiction, and my tips about how to manage it effectively.
The Impromptu Seminar (a.k.a.: “As you all know…”)
Tsk tsk- this one has to be the worst, and is definitely my biggest pet-peeve. We’ve all seen this technique before, usually at the beginning of a story, but frequently somewhere later after a big realization or event has happened- one character starts talking, making some kind of big presentation to the rest, and spends the next 5 pages explaining the interractions of humankind with the dreaded aliens, how the rapidly-evolving virus will destroy all life in the universe, or various other plot points that everyone in the room already knows about, usually because they were there. Everyone nods and makes glib little comments, accepting the absurdity of the situation and moving on to tackle the problem.
No exposition should ever begin with “As we all know.” If the characters already know what they are being told, then
the presentation is a waste of their time. This method of portraying important information is a rather weak attempt, artificially constructing an unrealistic situation in which the author can shoehorn exposition so that he can get on with the action. It is both cliche and obvious, and while many readers won’t mind overly much, this technique will still generate quite a few groans, and may turn some off to the rest of your story.
Solution: Careful Scene Writing. The goal here is to present all necessary information in the most effective way possible while not halting the story and keeping the reader interested and entertained. The Impromptu Seminar technique scrapes by with the first and may manage with the second, but only if the reader has not seen this done 4000 times before. If you feel that this sort of situation is appropriate and necessary (which does happen), have a character or two there who legitimately need to hear the explanation- don’t invent anyone strictly for that scene alone that won’t be seen ever again, but have someone there to whom this is actually new. If your heroes are about to rescue the king from a fortified lair, it would be reasonable to have some extra troops present for the planning session. Regardless, make sure that this is not a monologue unless it really should be, and have an ample amount of dialog between characters so that it does not feel like a lecture.
The weight of your hero’s burden upon his mind has become too great, and he has finally snapped, becoming prone to extended periods of talking to himself and staring blankly into space. Well, not really- but that’s how it might seem if you try to explain too much through the thoughts of a character. This method is similar to the Impromptu Seminar technique in that the character is explaining information to another character (himself) who already knows it. If you think about it (heh), people don’t generally go into very much detail while thinking about things they already know, usually sticking to new ideas that are related to the problem they’re pondering. So, if you have your character inexplicably running through the entire history of the United Space Confederacy in his head while sorting his laundry, you’re going to make your readers think that either A.) He’s finally lost it or B.) You couldn’t figure out anywhere else to put this information. You will also disorient the reader with long, uninterrupted thoughts such as these, so that by the time the character’s done thinking, everyone’s forgotten what he was doing.
Solution: Proper Integration. This method only works in short bursts, and even then it’s likely that you could find a better way. However, there are times when a character would certainly be deep in thought about recent events or even contemplating very intricate issues (we all do that sometimes), and it can be done well. The trick is to integrate this process without trapping the reader inside the character’s head (unless that is the desired effect), and allowing the thoughts to mesh with the actions of the scene. Use your better judgement here, and tread carefully. Would Captain Marsus really be thinking so hard about the dreaded Zagriphth Plague and its impact on world politics, all in the midst of a full-scale bar brawl? Maybe he would, but it would certainly have to be consistent with his character, and you’d need to have him landing a few punches and dodging a few bar stools here and there so that it doesn’t seem like he’s mindlessly standing in the middle of the room.
These are only a few of the patterns I’ve seen in science fiction, and next week I’ll cover a few others as well as their antidotes. With a watchful attitude, this menace (like the apostrophe crisis already discussed by Stephanie, among other grammatical issues) will be defeated, and your story will stand above the amateur ramblings of the unenlightened.
So, what are some expositional faux pas you’ve encountered in your science fiction? Leave your comments below!
Posted on March 28, 2012, in Erik Marsh, science fiction problems, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged info dump, Information Dump, science fiction problems, writing hints, writing science fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.