On Writing [Fantasy World Building]: Info-Dumps and How to Avoid Them

Ah, info-dumps! The bane of fantasy writers the world over.

A large volume of data supplied at [one] time, says the internet.

Czech: informace o výpis

In writer terms:
A great wad of information on backstory placed at an inappropriate time and/or in an inappropriate manner.

What's the lure of this? You've spent all this time developing your world and you desperately want to let the reader know all about it!

Give it time.

Your readers are smart. They don't need to know everything from the beginning. The most important thing in the first three chapters is to hook your reader into the adventure.

Start where the story starts (more on this in another post) and stay relevant to the action.

The biggest info-dump offenders are prologues and first chapters (Ryan, I'm looking at you).

Yes, yes, I've written a prologue and in my old draft I had a nice, juicy info-dump. I can tell you now, my new first chapter is much stronger without the storyteller character, and without it being seven years before the story even starts.

Don't bother reading the next five hundred paragraphs unless you really want to. This is an example of an info-dump from my old draft -- in Chapter One -- and an example of what not to do. (It also involves the fantasy trope of the storyteller!)

Also, this was almost 70,000 words ago and I'm a much better writer!

“And so the Great Peace of the Gods returned once more. Since then our country, Duthonne, and Meira to the north-east have not warred due the differences in our beliefs.”
One of the children chimed in, “Old Hanne? Do you think the war will ever start again?”
“I hope not, child, for the War of the Gods was one of horrors beyond your imagination. Ah, Eoin...and Saera, too. Please come join us.” They sat on the grass in front of him.
“What was so horrible about the War of the Gods?” asked one of the children.
“They didn’t just use normal weapons. At the beginning of time the Gods sent down gifts into our world. These gifts were supposed to make the world perfect. The Gods hoped that our people would be able to use these gifts to solve our problems. Careus Aura would allow a person to alter time. A man could decrease the amount of time it took for a berry bush to grow. There was Kathes Aura. With this gift one could take control of the nature around them. The Gods were confident that their Solution was the key to the success of this world, but not all had gone to plan. While the Gods’ plan was near to perfect, humankind was, and is, imperfect. If things had been different, if humans were better people, the Solution may have worked. But we were blinded by our hatred for each other. People began to exploit the Auras to their own ends.
“Duthonne and Meira have differing concepts of which Gods are good and which are evil. For example, Maechre, the God of the Passing, is revered by our people as the one who allows our friends and family to pass into the Overworld so that they can rest in peace. The people of Meira, however, fear him as they believe that he is the one responsible for the deaths of those close to them. It is due to humanity’s flaws that the War broke out between the two countries. Humanity’s ‘Blindness’ was our inability to see the good in others. We could not understand that there is no such thing as good and evil, right and wrong. There is only what people think. Yet people still believe today that they must be right. The Church teaches us that the Aundes, the Goddess of Light, is to be held in contempt. It is taught that with her light she blinded us, and in doing so she began the War of the Gods.”
“What about Arlea? What Gods do they look up to over there?” asked Eoin.
“Ah, the island to the north,” said Old Hanne. “It’s quite simple. Arlea didn’t adopt a preference to any of the Gods. It is in fact the only place which retained its traditions fully. Duthonne and Meira have changed so much now that they are but a shadow of what was. The two countries adapted separately from one another until now they are quite different. Come to Duthonne and you will see in each town a hint of culture, different from what you would see in Meira. However, travel to Arlea and you will not only see Arlea as it is, but Duthonne and Meira as they were. It is the nature of humankind to adapt and change. The people of Arlea had been served well by tradition, though, so they continued to live by tradition.
“Now, didn’t you three say you had to be home about now?” Old Hanne directed his question to the other children.
“Oh!” Quickly the three got up and ran off, leaving just Eoin and Saera with Old Hanne.
“Tell us another story, Old Hanne!”
“Well,” began Old Hanne, “do you know the Tarne River to the east?”
“Of course we do.” This was the river that the two would spar at to pass time.
“I’ve heard tales about a waterfall that can be found if you follow the river south. Do you remember what I said about Aundes, the Goddess of Light?”
“Yes,” said Eoin. “She’s evil because she started the War of the Gods.”
Hanne lowered his voice to a whisper. “Well, that’s what the Church says, but what they say isn’t necessarily true. I told you that Aundes blinded us and because of that we can’t see the good in each other.” Old Hanne raised his voice back to normal. “I don’t believe that. You see, people don’t like to think that some things are their fault, and so they blame them on other people.”
“So, Aundes didn’t blind us? It was just made up as an excuse?” asked Eoin.
“Probably. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t just believe what the Church says. In our society, the Church has the greatest influence. Too many people today think that just because they says it’s true, it must be. I know much because I’ve always asked myself questions. From my studies of the world I now understand that there isn’t really good or evil. This idea is based only on what people want to believe: that they are right.”

Eight . . . hundred . . . and . . . fifty . . . four . . . unnecessary . . . words.

Why are info-dumps so bad? Because they slow down the real story, the story your readers are actually interested in.

How to Avoid Them

Stop! Reconsider before throwing them down in slews in the first three chapters. What your readers do need is grounding -- they need to know where the characters are, what they're doing and why. But of course, don't tell us these things (otherwise it would become an info-dump), but show us.

My new first chapter that I plan to write in my next draft, the main characters start out alone, hungry and desperate. But I don't want to go telling everyone why they're desperate. I'll show them instead. So in my first scene the MC will be sneaking into a house at night-time to steal a loaf of bread. That shows that they're desperately starving -- it doesn't need to be said

Later, we will find out through the dialogue of the characters that their father was taken away by the government. Or perhaps another way to approach this would be for the characters to have a discussion, which would then prompt a thought by the MC as to what had happened with the father.

And I think that's an important technique to take away from this.

Demonstrate your world-building through prompt.

When your character sees something for the first time in the book, that's a good time to throw in a line or a paragraph about it.
The path came to a gradual incline, and the horses soon began to pant. They continued to the top of the hill, where Eoin could see the entire capital city from where he stood on the hill. The water surrounding it sparkled in the thirteenth-hour sunlight. Three bridges spanned the water to link the city to the mainland. Two of them were in ruins.
Within the city, great buildings rose higher than the ones Eoin was used to back in Tarne. Rising above almost all the others he could see the church. The front of its roof was adorned with statues of the four good gods. The only building that rose higher than the church was that of the Grand Tower. Here lay the seat of power in all Duthonne. Since the King’s death several hundred years ago, they held dominance over the land as there had been no royal blood to replace the King.
The great thing is, once you've cut all those info-dumps from the beginning, it's much easier to find things to write about when you come to new places, because you didn't blow it all in the beginning.

World-build to your heart's content; it can only make your world richer and truer. Just don't expect it all to get mentioned.


mooderino said...

I do see a lot of info dumping and very poorly integrated exposition. You do need to get some of this across to the reader so they can feel part of the world they're in, but too often it ends up like a shopping list. And no one reads those apart from the person who's doing the shopping.

Moody Writing

Ninja said...

I used to be a huge culprit of this. /looks at her first four novels--all badly written and full of info-dumps. But now I feel like I spend so much time trying NOT to info-dump that my writing keeps being accused of something almost as bad: being too sparse. Argh. I love writing, but man. It's really become more work than play. Yet I still keep plugging on...

Ryan Sullivan said...

And that's all you can do. :)

Diane Carlisle said...

Personally, I don't mind info dump if it is done well and I'm entertained by it. Usually if the author has a unique voice or a style that is fun, I'll excuse it. One thing I really don't like is the info through dialogue when both characters already know the information and the author is trying to spoon feed it to the reader. Hate it.

"Remember, mom said not to do that last week when Uncle Ben came for your birthday dinner and cousin Lacy broke out in hives."


Ryan Sullivan said...

Hahahaha, of course.

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