Info Dumps Suck

This can be counted another Stupid Story Mistake. Summer posted at the Kick Ass Mystic Ninjas about a discussion between her, Jack Mangan, and Mur Lafferty about info dumps, long descriptive passages in the middle of a story, also called core dumps, expository lumps, death to the reader. Mur should visit us at be the story. She may not even be in the minority. Info dumps suck. Yet writers seem to be addicted to them.

On the writing boards, people are always asking how to write good descriptions. This or some variation of it is one of the most common questions. And the right answer: How do you write good descriptions? Dont! Just tell the story, and let the descriptions take care of themselves. As Holly Lisle points out in her Create a Character Clinic, you can be expository without entering exposition hell. I’ll touch on this subject in my next podcast. But for now, let me just say that descriptions suck. After you’ve established momentum, you might be able to convince the audience to coast through a short one with you. But long descriptions, including info dumps, never work.

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Even a master like Stanislaw Lem has done info dumps on occasion. Lem is a brilliant thinker and a brilliant storyteller. But sometimes even he lets the first overcome the second. The info dumps in Fiasco, for example, are one reason why it’s not my favorite of Lem’s novels (though there are others, too). He stops to explain how faster-than-light travel works, or to expound on the dangers of operating a strider, or to pontificate on alien-human relations. This is all great stuff, truly, but boring in its own right. Tell me a story, and make it come alive to me.

-TimK

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

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Comments

Wow, our little podcast insighting so much discussion. I normally agree that infodumps are the kiss of death to good storytelling, but like I said in the show, since one of the topics of the info dump in Snow Crash was a personal interest of mine (Goddess worship) I didn’t mind so much.

I just downloaded your podcast, and I’m enjoying it very much. I’d like to hear more on your idea that character’s names don’t matter, as that is also a topic I’m fascinated by, as I think naming things and people is an essential aspect of sci-fi and fantasy.

Catch you later.

J. Timothy King

Hi, Joe. For me, this was timely in that that it’s one of the topics in my podcast this week (February 6).

It is true that a writer can obey the rules, and some people won’t like the story. And he can break the rules, and some will still like the story. Now, I haven’t read Snow Crash, so I can only comment on dumps in general. You have to understand that for someone like me, the whole experience is about the story. And anything that interrupts the flow of the story, as an info dump is prone to do, is going to tick me off no matter how interesting the topic of the dump is.

Ironically, this also means I can ignore some story elements that are poorly conceived, like plot clichés in a character-driven story, because the focus is not on those story elements.

I also forgot to mention— Boy am I saying that a lot lately. I forgot the mention that the original discussion (MP3), on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that spawned this whole thread is at http://www.kickassmysticninjas.com/2006/01/31/kamn-show-7-snow-crash/.

-TimK

[…] Info Dumps Suck […]

Woot- I’m not alone! I’ve always felt like the only person who could see a glaring, boring flaw with Snow Crash. Sure, the samurai bits were cool, and YT was awesome, and even the long bits of detail on her mom’s workplace politics were amusing. But if the Librarian had suffered system failure after the first page of exposition, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more.

I didn’t know you had a podcast! How did I miss that? I’ll definitely take a listen.

J. Timothy King

Hi, Mur. The novel I’m reading right now is doing something similar. He keeps going into these paragraph-long artsy scenes that would make great visuals in a movie but about which I really don’t care. (It’s March of the Penguins all over again.) Then when he describes something I do care about, I can’t figure out what he’s talking about. Too much wordsmith, not enough storyteller. Why doesn’t he just tell me, in plain English, what I need to know, all of what I need to know, and only what I need to know? Sheesh!

You didn’t know about “be the story” because I didn’t market it effectively. (In other words, it’s my fault, not yours.) The blog/podcast is still very young, and I’ve been really encouraged by the people who have written me about it already. Still, this week is the first in which I really feel good about rewriting the “about” page, recording a promo, and going on a marketing blitz. Stay tuned.

-TimK

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