I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position.”
- Kim Stanley Robinson
Sooner or later, a story has to give some background on the characters or the setting. That is especially true in fantasy and science fiction, both of which often have to sketch in an invented background. However, even in a mainstream story, at some point you need to describe characters or give some of their history. For this reason, “infodump” and “expository lump” are thrown around far too freely. As I reflected on Robinson’s comment at thirty thousand feet, my eyes closed against the vague claustrophobia of economy class, I concluded that he was right. Infodumps are an unavoidable part of writing. The question is not whether you should have them in your fiction, but whether they are done poorly or well.
Poor examples of infodumps are easy to find. They are common in novices’ writing, identifiable by the way they stop the story from advancing. Here’s an improvised example:
“We’re surrounded,” Tyler said. He was young giant, blonde haired and with outsized hands. He wore black jeans and wore a sleeveless shirt that might have been called a wife-beater on a man with a less cheery grin. The son of Appalachian coal miners, he spoke with a slow accent that many took for a slowness of mind until they heard his ideas.
“Better break out the guns,” Antoine replied. He was a small man, whose skin showed his Mexican ancestry. Wiry, he was quick with his feet and hands, and his tongue as well. He had met Tyler one night in the student pub, when his fast-talking had kept Tyler out of a fight with a woman’s jealous boy-friend.
This is a parody, but only barely. I have seen dozens of similar passages that interrupt the action to give background. They are the written equivalent of a stage actor who steps out of character to talk directly to the audience about their character.
However the usual correction is no better. Told to mix the background with the general narrative, many beginning writers come up with something like:
His white-skinned hand wiped his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-blue eyes.
This strategy slows the story just as much as my first example, but by overloading the sentence with adjectives. Yet another doomed strategy is go to painful length to have a viewpoint character see themselves in a mirror or a reflection. All these mis-steps are often caused by a writer wanting to have done with the necessary exposition as soon as possible. After reading Robinson’s comment, I have reserved “infodump” and “expository lump” for passages like them.
So how do you fit necessary description or background into a story? One technique is to start each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional document, as John Brunner did in his classic, “The Sheep Look Up.” Removed from the action, such excerpts become more acceptable, especially when kept short. Similar excerpts can be added within the narrative itself as a character reads or hears them. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently uses poems in this way, offering only snippets in moments of actions, such as the poetry that Theoden quotes before the Riders of Rohan break the siege of Minas Tirith, and long ones only in scenes where nothing much is happening, such as a quiet night in Rivendell.
However, the easiest way to weave information into a narrative is to take advantage of your viewpoint character. If a character has a background that includes the information you need to convey, all you need to do is put them in a position in which they would naturally think of it. For example:
Gareth leaped for the door, but he was too late. The door clicked shut, and he was trapped in precisely the part of the castle he had been warned not to go. In his childhood, he had heard stories of headless and hungry ghosts who haunted this wing, and now he looked around, half-expecting to see them.
In this passage, instead of halting the narrative, the background information is also used to give the character’s reaction to the setting, and add some tension. You could even make the information part of the character’s thoughts:
Gareth leaped for the door, but it had already clicked shut. Trapped, he thought, and in precisely the part of the castle I have been warned against. I wonder if the headless and hungry ghosts I heard about as a child are still around?
Or if you wanted to describe the character a bit:
Gareth had always prided himself on his speed, but his leap for the door was too late.
You might be able, too, to combine both the descriptive detail and reaction, although probably that would be too busy. Often, dialogue can convey information:
“I leaped, but the door had already clicked shut,” Gareth said.
“What do you do?” Linette said.
“Tried not to think of headless and hungry ghosts,” Gareth said ruefully. “Remember those tales we were told as children? I remember all of them.”
Any of these strategies would work, depending on what you want to do. Still, as a general rule, if a passage has more than one purpose, the chances are that it will convey information without any slowing of the story.
When integrated, background needn’t slow down the narrative at all. At times, as in Tolkien’s descriptions of Rivendell or Lothlorien, the description can even become an attraction in its own right. The next time you see background added to a story, don’t rush to condemn it. Rather, ask how well it integrates with the narrative. The question is not whether anyone can avoid such elements, but how well they serve your story.