Ah, the infamous info-dump. As writers of science fiction and fantasy, there are times when an info-dump is vital to the comprehension of the reader. But fear not! Info-dumps are an accepted practice in legitimate literature, and as long as you keep a few things in mind, your info-dump will be fresh, entertaining, and not at all overwhelming to the reader.
Tell Me More!
Before we dive into your own info-dump, let’s look at some examples of this winning strategy from the masters. Yes, really successful writers have embraced the info-dump, and they have done so without shame.
MARCELLUS. Good now sit downe, & tell me he that knowes
Why this same strict and most obseruant Watch,
So nightly toyles the subiect of the Land. . . [info-dump here]
Who is’t that can informe me?
HORATIO. That can I,
At least the whisper goes so: Our last King,
Whose Image euen but now appear’d to vs,
Was (as you know) . . . [super info-dump here]
Shakespeare uses info-dumps unapologetically throughout his plays. Why can he get away with it? Well, before we answer that question, let’s look at a few more examples.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen . . . [long info-dump]
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means—[long info-dump about the house and the inhabitant thereof]
William Goldman’s Princess Bride
I’m not going to post an excerpt here, because Goldman does this so often and so well. He is the master of short, quip-like info-dumps. When were jeans invented? What about soup? And what about that lady who was married to the man making eyes at her mother, with the chocolates?
But Wait! Are Those Really Info-Dumps?
An info-dump is any spot in the writing where the author takes the time away from the action to give the reader information—about the characters, the setting, the culture, the props, the etymology of words, the weather, or the significance of symbols and rituals within the world of the book. If the reader is getting information about the world of the story straight from the writer, it is an unapologetic transfer of backstory or context; this is what an info-dump is.
You Can Embrace The Info-Dump
A failed info-dump occurs when the writer stops telling a story, and cheats by pushing bare facts at the reader.
Here is a bad one:
Gerard was forty-two. His mother didn’t like him. He had two gold teeth, and he smiled because he liked feeling the glint of light on his teeth. His favorite color is blue, which is important because later on he chose the blue gun, and that one had a lower charge threshold. And that’s important because he ran out of charge in the middle of the battle for the ship later on. He dated a green lady in cadet school. He doesn’t like the taste of honey.
And here is a good one:
Gerard, forty-two, and the wearer of two gold teeth that shone pleasantly when he bared a smile, was disliked by his mother. He always wore blue, and had a habit of accessorizing in matching hues as often as he could, which proved disastrous when he went so far as to choose laser guns based on their casings, rather than their power.
His chief emotional hang-up from his past, and the reason for his inveterate piracy, was an emerald-skinned Velashan woman he had met in his cadet days; she had told him he didn’t have the guts to make a name for himself as a pilot, and since he had lost his license, his ambition was limited to illegal channels of space flight.
This morning, as he strolled through the cafeteria on the asteroid market, he passed a counter lined with honey-glazed torfe rolls, and the smell made him grimace. Honey! he thought, wrinkling his nose.
You Can Write Info-Dumps With Confidence When You Think Of Yourself As A Storyteller
You are, in essence, writing yarns, or telling fireside tales. As long as you take your readers on a journey, and satisfy their desire for an entertaining ride, you can depart on whimsical or informative derails from the main action as often as you like.
Info-Dumps Are Your Friend
Readers of science fiction and fantasy stories often want to escape, or to journey to strange lands and different places. How will your readers experience these exotic locales if you do not take the time to describe them? Embrace the info-dump, and tell your story with confidence; as long as you keep in mind your role as the storyteller, you can master this time-honored tool of novel-writing and tale-spinning.
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