Apr 12 2012

Arrrrgh! Info Dumps! And Complaints About Them!

Posted by Mathias in Form and Style

Every novel has them; the often dreaded info dump. Long paragraphs of backstory crammed in either as uncomfortable, droning dialogue between characters or pages of omnipotent exposition on past events are supposedly frowned upon from the opinions I have been gathering. Yet, surprising, every novel that I have read in recent memory has contained them. For something so universally reviled, it sure does get included quite often as a tool an author to pass information on the reader.

I refer to this as the “And then …. Nothing happened” part of the story. For example, I am reading Theft of Swords right now and I swear that, literally, nothing of great importance has happened in quite some time. I just got done with a passage of the book where there was a long discussion about the various gods of the world just to get the reader informed about who they are. Interesting from a backstory component, but a little uncomfortable and seemingly out of place. That followed what amounted to a lot of travel to the location of a secret prison, which itself followed a lot of information on a monetary that was burned down.

Don’t get me wrong. So far the book is good even if I think some of the recent info dumping currently going on could have been broken up. But I hear it all the time from people who think they know so much about how to write that these sorts of methods for conveying backstory sink a story’s chances of being published. Obviously not!

I am told by people, other writers mostly, that I have too much info dumping in drafts they are critiquing. They tell me how such sequences are too long. They tell me how I must take them out or never be published. Then I show then passages from books where there are info dumps three times as long and make he obvious point that those books were published. I ask them how is their opinion valid in the face of evidence to the contrary. To that question I get a lot of convoluted answers, but never any that really answer the question.

People might complain about info dumps in stories, but the facts are that they exist. And they exist often. And the funniest thing is some of my fellow writers who are critiquing my current works are some of the worst offenders because I have been reading their drafts as well. One lady, for example, complained that a three paragraph sequence (3/4 of a page) putting some backstory forth was “too long” just as a “general rule of thumb”. Yet her most recent work has nearly 4,000 words, some fifteen pages, of backstory dumped in one instance!

I am sure that there are horrendous examples of the info dump that are unreadable. I know, even though I cannot think of them off the top of my head, they exist. I think most people that hate the dumping of backstory remember only the worst of the worst and then proclaim all as bad.

I do not fear using the info dump however. In my own writing I try to keep them small and within the flow of the story and not let the reader get drawn too far away from the here and now and what the characters are currently doing. Hopefully I am succeeding so that my own little info dumps don’t get lumped in with the worst of them.

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