“Beware the Infodump, my son!
The facts that bite, the plots that catch!
Beware the exposition itch, and shun
The frumious dialogue.”
I’ve been reading a lot of self-published novels recently. For me, it’s part of the deal about being a self-published author myself. If I want people to read my books, then I should read theirs too. It’s a fair exchange.
And one thing I keep coming across is the dreaded infodump. This is where the author takes time out from the plot to explain how the world works.
Of course, readers do need a bit of explanation. We need to know who is who, and how technology works and a little bit of the back story. This is especially important in science fiction and fantasy. But too much explanation quickly becomes dull and unnecessary. It is a fine line between useful exposition and excessive infodumping.
A case in point – how does a light sabre work?
It’s a staple of Star Wars, the weapon of both the Jedi and the Sith. But how does it work? Is there a power source? Does it take AA batteries in the handle? For that matter, is there a switch on the handle? A safety catch to stop you accidentally switching in on in your pocket?
We haven’t a clue. It is never explained. All that Obiwan says is this:
“Your father’s light sabre. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
That’s all we get, and frankly it’s all that we need. Shortly afterwards we get to see the light sabre in action when Obiwan uses it to defend Luke in the cantina scene. It’s our old friend “show don’t tell” again. Don’t tell me what a light sabre can do. Show me.
I can sense budding authors grumbling at this point. “But I really need to tell the reader this stuff.” How can I get the information across without infodumping?
For one thing, we can engineer exposition through plot. Most James Bond stories have a scene where M tells Bond what the mission is and Q describes how the gadgets work. Most of the original Star Trek episodes started with the device of Kirk dictating his “captain’s log”. Then supplementary information came from Spock or Uhuru.
If you spot someone in a white coat in a film or book, you can bet that they are there to deliver a bit of exposition.
Then there is the “As you know, Bob” technique. This is when two characters tell each other something that they probably ought to know already.
“Good morning, my Queen Arabella, princess of the spider women. Have you any news of Multhazar, your father, King of the Murmidons, in his ten year war against the Cylon hordes?”
If you think that is far-fetched, take a look at the movie Avatar. There is a scene where Sigourney Weaver playing the head scientist (Grace) storms in to the base commander (Selfridge) to complain that she has been sent an ex-marine to drive one of her avatars. This is the screenplay:
GRACE: The last thing I need is another trigger happy asshole out there!
SELFRIDGE: Look, you’re supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? If you look like them, if you talk like them, they’ll trust you?
Selfridge crosses to his office, behind a glass wall nearby. Grace follows.
SELFRIDGE: But after — how many years? – relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.
GRACE: That tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.
On Selfridge’s desk is a magnetic base, and hovering in mid-air, in the invisible field, is a lump of METALLIC ROCK. Pure UNOBTANIUM. He grabs it and holds it up between thumb and forefinger, in front of Grace’s eyes.
SELFRIDGE: This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little grey rock sells for twenty million a kilo. No other reason. This is what pays for the party. And it’s what pays for your science. Comprendo?
It’s not pure unobtanium (sic). It’s pure infodumping. Grace has been on the planet for years. She should know all of this. The characters have no reason to explain it to each other. What they are really doing is explaining it to the audience.
Another classic technique is to invent a character who needs to have things explained to them. That’s Dr Watson’s job in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He is the proxy for the reader. His role is to ask the questions that we, the readers, want answered. “So, Holmes, how did you know that Carruthers murdered Lady Alice?”
It is surprising how many science fiction stories involve a person from our time being transported to the future. But of course that means that this person has to have things explained to them. Again, they are acting as a reader proxy. Keanu Reeves goes through the entire first half of the Matrix mostly asking questions.
Tank: Main power offline. EMP armed and ready.
Trinity: Electro-Magnetic Pulse, disables any electrical system within the blast radius, only weapon we have against the machines.
The Matrix needs Neo to be ignorant so that other characters can explain things to him. That’s why the hero of the Lord of the Rings is a hobbit and not Gandalf. It’s why Star Wars focusses on Luke. It’s why the hero of Avatar isn’t a trained Avatar pilot. The Will Smith character in Men in Black comes from outside the MIB.
For me, the best exposition is when it is just hinted at. Where did the rebel alliance get the plans for the death star?
“Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”
That’s all we need. We don’t know who or what a Bothan is. We don’t need to. Our imagination does the rest. The impact of the line would have been massively reduced if we had been giving page after page of explanation.
If in doubt, leave it out.
There is another thing. There can be a tendency to have very complicated plots and back stories. There’s this race of robot, you see. They were made by the lizard people in their fight against the toad people. But then the great monkey god was so annoyed at the lizard people for making robots that he sent down an angel armed with a super sword. This angel fell in love with Queen Amidodo, and she …
Simplify, simplify. If a plot gets so complicated that we have to explain it in the book, the most straight forward answer could be to change the plot.
I think all writers have the same problem. I know I do. When we invent worlds, characters, stories we generally invent more than the reader needs to know. We need this background information so that we can be confident that our world works. This information is buzzing around our heads. It’s important. It matters.
But the reader doesn’t need it.
By the way, I use Star Wars as an example because there is a good chance that you will have seen it. But the irony of Star Wars is that it could have been a flop if George Lucas had been allowed to make the film he wanted. His original vision had a lot more exposition and back story. For example, he wanted to show more about Luke on Tattoine, developing the characters of his friends who would later be involved in the space fight against the death star.
His editors quite rightly cut all that out. The success of Star Wars is a combination of Lucas’s vision and the skill of his editing team to chop large amounts of it out. Without the editors he would have infodumped his way to a far less effective film.
Self-published authors don’t have the luxury of editors to restrain our infodumpy urges. We need to do that for ourselves.
Many aspiring writers were rejected to bring us this information.