The Artful Infodump by C.C. Finlay



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Info-dump: Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as "expository lumps." The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as "kuttnering," after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as "heinleining."

     Bruce Sterling, "The Turkey City Lexicon", Paragons


Example 1: James Clavell, Shogun "Prologue"

(This originally appeared as an email to The Sock Monkey Parade crit group in September, 2000. We had been taking one of our members to task for his overuse of infodumps and he responded rather defensively that James Clavell did them all the time, so I pointed out how Clavell did them well.)

Yes, like lots of other writers, Clavell does do infodumps. The thing with Clavell is that he does them so artfully.

Shogun begins with a prologue in which John Blackthorne, the Pilot-Major of a fleet of dead ships, fights against a storm after being too long at sea. The Captain and the other sailors walk on eggshells around Blackthorne. On p. 12 of the paperback, Clavell begins a long infodump that tells us why.

The first paragraph of the infodump begins with this setup:


He knew they were all afraid of him...


The first paragraph ends by saying that Blackthorne is the one who brings them from port to port. It's an image of a voyage. The second paragraph begins with this:


Any voyage today was dangerous.

 

The second paragraph explains why, saying how difficult it was to find one's way from port to port without fixing longitude. Look closely at how the second paragraph ends:

 

And there was absolutely no way to fix longitude.


Here's where Clavell uses word association and dialogue to transition into the flashback containing important backstory. The third paragraph begins:

 

"Find a way to fix longitude and you're the richest man in the world," his old teacher, Alban Caradoc, had said.


Caradoc then provides the political backstory about Portugal, Spain, and England through his comments. That paragraph ends with this exposition:

 

"Out of sight of land, you're always lost, lad." Caradoc had paused and shaken his head sadly at him, as always. "You're lost, lad. Unless..."


And then the fourth paragraph begins:

 

"Unless you have a rutter!"


Notice the smooth transition. It's Blackthorne shouting the correct answer, and the rest of the paragraph explains how he knows this correct answer. It's personal backstory related directly to the conversation. The fifth paragraph gets to the question the reader that has been in the reader's head the whole time.


A rutter was a small book...

 

The next three paragraphs give the history of rutters and navigation. These paragraphs are linked as carefully to each other as the examples I've already given. The third of these paragraphs returns to the ultimate importance of the pilot -- "But a rutter was only as good as the pilot who wrote it..." All of this provides context for the next brief paragraph:

 

At sea the pilot was leader... alone he commanded from the quarterdeck.


See! We've come full circle! We now know exactly why the Captain's afraid of him, and why the Captain can't do anything to him! The next paragraph lets us know that Blackthorne knows too...

 

That's heady wine, Blackthorne told himself.


Which then leads to the next part of the story: Blackthorne's will to survive while everyone else dies or fails to adopt.

Clavell tells us this backstory, but he makes a self-contained little story out of it that returns back where it started, gives us fresh insight into the character, and leads to the next part of the story. He carefully structures the paragraphs, especially the first ones, in order to maximize the transitions, pulling the reader along through things.

It's masterfully done. He's really very good at it. If you really want to include big infodumpy sections in your novels, you can get away with it. But in order to do so, you'll have to structure them as carefully and purposefully as a writer like Clavell does.


Example 2: Terry Bisson, "Charlie's Angels"

(This originally appeared as part of the discussion in a short fiction focus group I moderated for The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in November, 2001. We were discussing infodumps and the problem of pacing.)

Bisson has written novelizations of screenplays and that cinematic sense of pacing shows itself throughout this piece. People are never just talking, they're also doing something even if that something is as simple as ordering a pizza. Take a close look at this exchange:

 

Night was falling. I pulled out my trusty cell phone and ordered pizza, with pepperoni.

"Pepperoni?" Prang was back.

"The moon doesn't come up until after midnight," I said. "If I'm staying the night, you're paying expenses. And I don't eat pizza plain."

"Make it pepperoni on one side and mushrooms on the other," said Prang, as she tore open a new pack of Camels with her teeth. "I'm a vegetarian."


This is a simple direct conflict between two characters over the ordering of a pizza, the kind of ordinary conflict all of us go through and resolve just as easily every day in our regular lives. But in it Bisson does the following things:

  • defines the characters through their physical actions (cell phone, smokes)
  • develops the characters: Villon is self-serving, Prang's a vegetarian
  • makes an ironic comment and humorous pun by juxtaposing the carnivorous teeth-ripping of the Camels with the vegetarian comment
  • gives us important information about the moment of moonrise


Instead of telling us that Villon is self-serving, Bisson shows us. Instead of telling us Prang is complicated and contradictory, he shows us (and gets a laugh at the same time). This is character development by accretion, giving out small details as the story goes along, filling in the bigger picture. The information about the moonrise that we need as a reader is shown by giving us the characters' concerns at that specific moment -- notice that they're talking to each other about what they care about and not to us! I can't emphasize how important that last element is (mostly because it's a lesson I haven't completely learned yet).

It takes more space to describe what he accomplished than to show it, and all we have here is banter around the ordering of a pizza. This kind of density in writing is one way to get very fast pacing in a story.

Bisson starts the story off as a supernatural story with elements of an ancient curse, then turns it into something SFnal. The horror expectations are used to draw the reader in, even though we have the nagging feeling we've read that curse story before (or at least seen it on Scooby Doo), and then the reversal part way through makes the story much more interesting and holds our attention to the end.

Let's look closely at that very effective second scene. Bisson doesn't give us long physical descriptions of Prang's driving or Villon's physical reactions of gripping the dashboard or things like that, just key phrases to break up what would otherwise be a massive infodump.

I'll comment on the whole scene paragraph-by-paragraph. It starts here:

 

"Now that I'm on retainer," I said, folding the bills as I followed her out onto Bourbon Street, "perhaps you can tell me what this is all about."

"As we go," she said, unlocking a sleek BMW with a keychain beeper. The 740i. I had seen it in the magazines. Butter leather seats, a walnut dash with an inset GPS map display, and an oversized V-8 that came to life with a snarl. As we roared off, she lit another Camel off the last. "As I mentioned, I am the Director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Antiquities."


Notice the details here: Bisson literally puts us *inside* the car to start the conversation, then reminds us of Prang's title/role.

 

"Didn't you just run a red light?"


He doesn't bother to describe running the red light because it's not important. This method gives us that sensation and shows that Villon is paying more attention to the driving than to Prang -- the characters are working at cross-purposes...

 

"Two years ago, we began a dig on the Gulf Coast of Mexico," she continued, accelerating through an intersection, "opening a pre-Columbian tomb."


Prang continues giving out info. Her driving is slipped in as an action tag on the dialogue.

 

"Wasn't that a stop sign?"


Same effect as before, except that by following the action tag, this is more vivid. Notice the conflict: Prang and Villon are still focusing on different things, their own concerns, and not talking to each other. This happens all the time in real life but rarely in fiction.

 

"We made a remarkable find-a large statue in nearly perfect condition, which the natives knew of by legend as the Vera Cruz Enormé, or Giant. We contacted the Louvre..."

"The Louvre?" We were approaching another intersection. I closed my eyes.


This is Villon's third comment, so Bisson has to do something different now otherwise it gets too repetitious. This time he responds to Prang by doubting her -- there's still conflict. The sense of driving is reinforced by Villon's physical action.

 

"Our sister institution was called in because the statue had rather remarkable features for an artifact from the East Coast of Mexico. As you can see."

She was handing me a photograph. I opened my eyes just wide enough to see a picture of a statue, half again as tall as the man standing next to it. Its bulging eyes, hunched shoulders, and feral, sneering face looked familiar.


We've been getting all our information through dialogue so this breaks that up and gives us a more physical image to work with. Again, there's variation.

 

"A gargoyle?"


This reverses the order of the dialogue -- now it's Villon going first by asking questions.

 

"Indeed," said Prang. "Very similar in fact to the gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre Dame."


He gets the first one right...

 

I was beginning to get it-I thought. "So you assumed there was a supernatural connection?"

"Certainly not!" Prang spat. "Our first assumption was that this was perhaps created by the French during the brief rule of Emperor Maximilian in the nineteenth century. A forgotten folly, or hoax."


And the second one wrong! Notice the conflict again -- it's based on the supernatural premise that's misdirection.

 

"You're supposed to slow down for the school zones," I said, closing my eyes again.


This refrain is more humorous and pulls us back the first part of the exchange -- what I've heard comedians call "tagging a line" or  "callback" -- repeating an earlier punchline for an easy laugh. Note the irony here also: this is the "school zone" part of the story, but Bisson isn't slowing down.

 

"But even then, it would be of great value, historically. The Enormé was placed in a warehouse, under guard, since Mexico is rife with thieves who know perfectly well the value of antiquities, even bogus ones."


Now we're back to another piece of important information.

 

I could hear sirens. Though I am no friend of the cops, I rather hoped they were after us. Though I wondered how they would catch us.


Villon's reaction here breaks up Prang's dialogue. Notice all along that Prang's paragraphs aren't overpacked. Each bit of dialogue contains one important point -- with maybe some other pieces of misdirection. Also notice the sensory detail of sirens and the foreshadowing: when the cops do come after them at the end of the story, it's a disaster.

 

"That was almost a month ago, the night of the full moon. The next morning, both guards were found with their heads missing. The Enormé was back in its tomb."


One more piece of important information...

 

"I see," I said. "So you realized you were dealing with an ancient curse "


Another reminder of the supernatural element...

 

"Certainly not!" Prang said, over the wail of tortured tires. "I figured somebody was trying to spook the peasants so they could blackmail us. I spread around enough cash to keep the authorities quiet, and crated the Enormé for shipment to New Orleans."


Conflict between the two of them. Another piece of info.

 

"You covered up a murder?"

"Two," she said matter-of-factly. "Not hard to do in modern Mexico."


An ominous comment, and...

 

The BMW skidded smoothly to a stop.


The infodump is over.

In less skillful hands, the same key information would have been imparted in huge dry chunks that slowed down the story. What does Bisson want us to know from this exchange? Let's cut and paste Prang's monologue together...

 

"As I mentioned, I am the Director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Antiquities. Two years ago, we began a dig on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, opening a pre-Columbian tomb. We made a remarkable find-a large statue in nearly perfect condition, which the natives knew of by legend as the Vera Cruz Enormé, or Giant. We contacted the Louvre. Our sister institution was called in because the statue had rather remarkable features for an artifact from the East Coast of Mexico. Very similar in fact to the gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre Dame. Our first assumption was that this was perhaps created by the French during the brief rule of Emperor Maximilian in the nineteenth century. A forgotten folly, or hoax. But even then, it would be of great value, historically. The Enormé was placed in a warehouse, under guard, since Mexico is rife with thieves who know perfectly well the value of antiquities, even bogus ones. That was almost a month ago, the night of the full moon. The next morning, both guards were found with their heads missing. The Enormé was back in its tomb. I figured somebody was trying to spook the peasants so they could blackmail us. I spread around enough cash to keep the authorities quiet, and crated the Enormé for shipment to New Orleans."


We've all seen paragraphs like this, and not just in unpublished fiction. It's pretty obvious that Bisson's method is more effective.

Instead of giving us this info in one huge dump, Bisson breaks it up with humor, and develops the characters as individuals, the conflict between them, and the theme of the story (supernatural vs. scientific explanations) all at the same time.


© C.C. Finlay 2017