Because I mention him, I’m using a picture of Cthulhu, and nobody can convince me not to.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you are a fantasy or sci-fi writer. And if you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, chances are that you are a fantasy or sci-fi reader. Which means that, at one point or another, you have been subject to the info dump—the long-winded, pages-length description of a setting or creature that could have easily been two paragraphs at its longest. If you love these genres, you probably have spent time reading the greats of them, and be it Tolkien or Lovecraft, you were probably initiated into the genre learning that info dumps are The Way Things Are Done in fantasy and science fiction.
There are a lot of reasons that these long passages of information worked the way they did, but it all boils down to one important factor: time period. Using the two aforementioned writers as an example, The Hobbit was written in 1937, “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926. When these stories were written, there wasn’t a huge, multimedia bid for our attention day in, day out. When you sat down with a book, you sat down with a book. The world outside ceased to be for a while and your entire attention span was on that book. We were not in a world of instant gratification and limited attention like we see now, and people were used to pages-long exposition to get the information across.
Flash forward to our present time, and we would see both Tolkien and Lovecraft have a difficult time selling their writing to the extent that they did before (albeit, Lovecraft’s fame rose posthumously) and would probably be lost in a sea of millions of stories that are published daily. This is not to say that their work isn’t amazing; I love both authors and I know countless other readers that share the sentiment. This is to say that what we once called exposition is now info dumping and is seen as a barrier in our quick, distracted world that we inhabit now.
The struggle is obvious: be it fantasy or science fiction, you are creating a new world and have to explain the rules to your reader. So how do you do this without pausing the story to explain? Below are some good tricks to get your information across without disrupting the flow for today’s readers.
Show, Don’t Tell
As much as that rule makes me cringe, because it is, admittedly, one I struggle with, I find that the quality of my story rose steadily when I went in during my editing and applied it to places that seemed stagnant. Today’s readers are all about action and pacing. You can write a long exposition about why your werewolf’s mate will be known to him by the scent of gardenias and jasmine when she’s near and you’ve only succeeded in two things: ruining the pacing and denying yourself a great chance at a mystery that the readers will keep reading to figure out. Instead, trying to show your werewolf becoming love-drunk when he’s around gardenias and jasmine, or catching whiffs of it out of nowhere with little explanation until the big reveal.
Showing the information as opposed to telling it does a couple of things. It manages to keep your pace, keep a mystery going, yes, and it also helps to not overwhelm your reader. They are more likely to remember the information as they read on and not have to flip back and forth throughout the book to try to find the exposition later. Back in the 20s and 30s, this flipping back and forth may have been a necessary evil for a good story, but in 2019, we have other distractions that we can resort to if the book we’re reading seems to be too cumbersome to continue. Keeping the story moving is the main goal for today’s writer and showing the information is a remarkable way to do just that.
Let Your Character Do Your Job
There are times when info dumping seems inevitable. In Hubris, I needed to explain the story of creation as the Sirens know it. The last thing I wanted to do as a narrator was stop my story to explain it to the reader. Instead, I delegated that task to Telese, my main character, and had her explain it to Eric, the human who had just discovered the world of Sirens, Light Lords, Dark Lords and Eternal Beings.
This took a lot of editing and re-editing to get down correctly, but it was done with two things in mind: what would be the crucial information that the reader needed for the story and what would the reader (represented by Eric) ask about this information, given the previous events? The information became a conversation with the questions that a reasonable person would ask in this situation thrown in. It is most certainly not all of the information in the story, and it’s even questionable as to whether it’s the correct information, as it’s passed down to the Sirens from their father, who does not have their interests at heart to begin with. It’s the information that is needed, however, at that point in time.
The story lasts a couple of pages and includes the past, the present and introduces one of the main challenges to come for the character that is hearing the story. The pace keeps up and the reader has the information they needed without missing out on the sense of forward action. Again, this took a lot of rewriting to change it from info dump to productive storytelling, but having your character introduce the information at the most appropriate time (not last minute and not in an awkward moment that it wouldn’t have come up otherwise) keeps the story moving while giving the reader the information that they need.
Plead the fifth
If you’re like me, you have files and files on your world-building endeavors and can’t wait to explain them to your readers. Sometimes, however, there needs to be acceptance that you won’t tell them about every single nuance of the world that you’ve created.
It’s a hard task for writers; we want to explain everything because we want to cover all possible questions that our readers have before they realize they have them. The last thing you want to hear about are plotholes in your story. The trick is to make sure the story gets as much information as the reader needs across and only that information. In the meantime, you, as the writer, do not have such luxury. You need to be aware of your world’s rules, even if you never mention them to the reader. I have rules for my characters that I have never written about in the story, but followed closely, and the readers that enjoyed my story (the only ones that have been vocal so far) have never critiqued needing to stop the story to ask about them. Listen to your readers about the issues that come up, and don’t make up any more issues than that.
Offer the Information Outside of Your Story
Keeping mum about every rule also creates that lingering air of mystery and gives you something to address during speaking engagements and interviews. If your reader is invested in your story, they will love any extra information you give them outside of the story itself, and these different rules and world-building information can be great “extras” to offer your readers. Try posting a couple of them to your official Facebook or Twitter account for some interesting tidbits that your readers will love. The same goes for quirks and backstory on the characters, themselves. Anything that doesn’t “fit” into your story can be used to engage with your readers later.
For my anti-hero, Mortimer, my readers know from the story that he is original from Rus in the 1300s (now modern-day Russia and Belarus and that area), that he was from the only Catholic family in their town and that his little sister was burned at the stake as a witch to answer for a drought. The reason this information is in the story is important: Mortimer is the devil-may-care Chief of Minions and who breaks every rule my main character sets to bind humans into pacts with the Dark World. The story is the origin of his own pact and serves to make him more faceted in the main character’s eyes. However, Mortimer is possibly the character I have the most notes on, aside from Telese. I have his entire backstory, his likes and dislikes, his favorite colors and music, his top three movies, etc. It’s all information that will never make the stories, but as he is a reader favorite, it’s all information I can offer separately for fun.
Making the story move at a steady pace is key to keeping readership. Avoiding info dumps at all costs is how to succeed in this. What worked in the early days of fantasy and sci-fi is now at risk of being stagnant and cumbersome. By keeping your story moving, you will find your readers are happy. And when your readers are happy, you can know you’ve done a great job as a writer.