Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Info-Dumping

I was thinking about the subject of this post recently, while reading a futuristic YA novel.  Good story, interesting premise, tense and intense opening scene.  And then, just as the scene got REALLY gripping....


It stopped everything cold.  It lasted only a page or so, during which time the author filled us in on the history of the world that had brought the protagonist to this moment in time.  But for me, it killed the scene.  I wish the author had let us find out organically, as the plot unfolded, how the world had come to be.

That, to me, is the definition of an info-dump.  Providing information isn't bad in itself; in fact, providing information is precisely what novels do.  But when the information appears grafted onto the plot, or distracts from it, or reeks of "my readers might not know what's going on, so I'd better tell them," it's an info-dump, and it's generally a bad idea.

To give a personal example, here's a draft of a scene I wrote for a novel titled Ecosystem.  This scene occurs early in the novel--maybe ten pages in--and I tried to insert the information more "naturally" into the story by presenting it as someone's speech to an audience.  But I still think it's an info-dump.


I am first of the Sensors to return.  Not surprisingly, as my circuit was by far the shortest, my track the safest.  A hundred rods into the forest beyond the sward, a quick kill, the same distance back.  The others will have gone deep into the Ecosystem, to places of which I have only heard, places I can only imagine.  In time, if I’m successful, I will seek out those places as well, where the game is thickest and the dangers greatest.  In time, if I live to Aaron’s age, I will train the next generation of Sensors to plunge into the Ecosystem’s everchanging maze.

But today, I will celebrate.  The village will celebrate.  They will celebrate me.

They will meet as always in the great hall, the entire community gathered as one, with the exception of those few assigned this day to ward the periphery.  In the flagstone hearth they will light the fire that is the Ecosystem’s chief grievance against the village, that and the cutting tools with which the threshers keep the greensward from encroaching on the pavilion of stone.  The Sensors will step forward to be acknowledged, to bask in the village’s thankfulness for the risks they take on the commoners’ behalf.  In their identical uniforms of close-fitting brown fur, cut short to expose muscled arms and long legs, the Sensors will stand in a line, aloof, imperturbable, their Sense of the Ecosystem removing them always from the community they are pledged to serve.  And for the first time, wearing the same uniform as they, I will stand among them.

Then Chief Warden Daniel will deliver the customary address, rehearsing our history, reminding the populace of how the Sensors came to be.  He will talk of the old days, when humans were numerous and powerful, when their cities stretched for miles across a landscape subdued by machines.  He will speak of species driven to extinction by the hand of man, of habitats despoiled, life’s essence corrupted.  For us who have known only the Ecosystem these past thousand generations, such a picture will seem fanciful, but none of us will laugh.  And then he will tell of the rise of the Ecosystem, how unseen and undreamed of by those who thought they had secured Earth’s domination, the innumerable threads of life and will knitted themselves into one, sentience burgeoning from dim, disparate signals to full roaring consciousness.  He will speak of cities overwhelmed by jungle, of food sources turned to deadly poisons and others to deadly predators, of virulent pathogens borne by vermin and birds and insects and cultivated crops, of newly weaned livestock feasting on their owners’ blood.  It was a coordinated attack, and it succeeded.  It gave birth to the world we know, a world in which the Ecosystem rules and we who were once its masters hide in its angry shadow.

Then Daniel will talk of the relearning, how the few who were left discovered a Sense of the Ecosystem’s will, and in so doing found ways not so much to fight back but simply to survive, to establish small enclaves the Ecosystem could not breach.  These few were the first Sensors, and as they gathered the people around them there grew the first villages of stone, the first walls and firewells, the first masters and apprentices.  But the Sensors, Daniel will tell us, were meant not to rule but to serve, and once they had established those first villages they willingly relinquished their authority to become what they are today: messengers and mediums, interpreters of the Ecosystem so finely attuned to its ways only they can pass safely through its winding passages in the daily hunt for food, drink, and fuel.  They are selfless, Daniel will say, so selfless they have agreed to serve the communities of which they can never fully be a part, the communities where they can never know the joys of love and family and children.  Perhaps, he will say, his lips curling in a grateful smile, it is their selflessness that is their Sense, their abjuring of mortal pleasures that enables them to project themselves into the Ecosystem and know its will.  Perhaps, too, it is this quality that makes them immune to the Ecosystem’s snares: for when they enter it, they enter it without the concentration of self that marks other humans as objects of the Ecosystem’s rage.

When he is finished the community will applaud, and I will glance at the other Sensors who stand silently around me, and wonder if, like me, they doubt this portrait Daniel has drawn of our class.  I’ll wonder if it is me alone who draws the Ecosystem’s fire, who taunts it, who hates it beyond all measure for what it has done.  And I will wonder too if it hates me with a special fury, if it knows me not just as a human, not just as a Sensor, but as the particular concentration of self that is me.
But I will voice none of these thoughts.  As the village's newest Sensor, I will step forward....
From "Then Chief Warden Daniel" on, the info-dump takes over, not relenting until the paragraph beginning "But I will voice none of these thoughts" returns us to the narrative.  It's too much, too soon.  It tells the reader so much about the history of this world, s/he might reasonably feel there's little point in reading on; what's left to discover?
It's no good, and the simple solution was to take it out (which I did) and let the reader discover the world's history through action, dialogue, and context.  I kept the info-dump in a separate file in case I needed it later, but the truth is, everything I said in it emerged much more plausibly and inobtrusively elsewhere in the book, so I never needed it after all.
So, what do you think?  How do you define or deal with info-dumping?  Why is it so easy to fall into that trap?  I'd love to hear what others think.

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