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How I explained infodumps and saved humanity


"And now," Dr. Zurückgeschichte said, "please explain to me how an infodump works."

"But why would I have to explain infodumps to you, Doctor?" I asked. "You invented the infodump! And it has become one of the basic principles upon which our society is founded!"

"Ah, but you see, I would like to hear it in your own words. Pretend that I don't know anything about it."

"Very well, Doctor," I began nervously. "But I wonder where this is headed. At any rate, an infodump, also known as an 'expository lump,' is a literary technique for providing information to a reader in concentrated form."

"And how is it most often used?" the Doctor prompted.

In speculative fiction stories, I knew, there were a variety of infodump content types and delivery mechanisms. "In speculative fiction stories--" I said, but the Doctor cut me off. "You said that already in narration," he said. "Continue."

I swallowed. "Doctor, your reputation for firmness but fairness is allowing me to continue without fear that you'll fire me from this lowly job as your assistant."

"Good, good," he smiled. "Go on."

"Infodump content types include the Backstory Historical, the Backstory Personal, and the Explanation Specialized (which has subtypes Scientific, Magical, and so on for other fields of human endeavor). Infodump delivery mechanisms include Faux Dialogue Naive (in which one character explains something to another character designed to be the reader-identification character, a character who doesn't have the necessary background and thus must have it explained to them), Faux Dialogue Redundant (in which one character explains something to another character who knows it already, as I am doing now), Faux Thought Redundant (in which a character thinks something to themselves that they already know), and Narrative."

"And are there specialized techniques for delivering infodumps?"

"A great many, Doctor," I said, gathering confidence. "For example, as you know, there is the famous 'As you know, Bob' introductory phrase. Another example: one character may interrupt to ask another character questions, avoiding the problem of an infodump turning into one gigantic endless paragraph." Then, too, I thought, pieces of an infodump may be provided using different delivery mechanisms, again breaking it up. "I trust that you read that bit of narrative and thus that I don't need to rep--"

"Yes, yes. Now, quickly, before our reader gets bored and turns the page: tell me the reasons that authors use infodumps."

"That one is almost too easy, Doctor; like all members of our society born in the past thirty years, I learned it while I was but a mere squalling babe. As the scriptures tell us (the scriptures you should be familiar with, having written them yourself): 'Thou shalt provide the reader with all of the information needed to understand everything in the story.' In the old days, before the advent of the Total Narrative Society, fiction sometimes contained ambiguous or unclear passages. These days, thanks to you and your colleagues, all fiction is completely clear. It may be, as some critics allege, that it has become a bit dull--"

"I leave it to History to judge the charge of dullness, my young friend. But what I really want to know is this: Can the infodump be done well? Think carefully before you answer; humanity's future may depend upon it."

I mused over all the infodumps I had encountered. As you know, self, I thought, so many of them are so bad! And in recent weeks, they had only gotten worse, with many stories in which my eyes had glazed over at paragraph after paragraph of poorly delivered backstory and quasi-scientific explanation. Furthermore, in many of those cases, the material presented wasn't remotely necessary to the story; they were cases of the author being so enamored of their worldbuilding and ideas and research that they felt they had to stop the story to explain them to the reader.

And yet, I had to admit to myself, sometimes infodumps are presented well. The best infodumps I had seen were generally presented as narrative, told directly to the reader, without explicit attempts to disguise them as dialogue or thoughts. Then, too, sometimes they took the form of encyclopedia or dictionary entries, though that was a technique that could easily be overused.

"Still," I mused aloud, "most of the time the information presented in an infodump would be better handled as subtle cues integrated into the rest of the story. A character might refer to having been injured in the War, for example, and leave the reader to infer that there was a war, without pausing to explain the history of the war."

("In this case," noted the Doctor, in a hasty parenthesis, "the war in question is the Great Narrative War of the Year Zero, so-called because it was a war over the fundamental question of Narrative itself, and it took place during the year that was subsequently renamed to zero to indicate that we had begun a new era. I myself took part in that war; in fact, I was the leader of the Ninth Verbose Battalion, which--during the great climactic Battle of Nuff--took the city of--"

"Now, now, Doctor," I interrupted. "I was in the middle of my own infodump. One of the key principles of your Infodump Manifesto was that one should never nest infodumps, as that may lead to reader confusion."

"Quite right, quite right, my lad," the Doctor replied. "Carry on.")

"And so, in conclusion," I stated firmly, "I must conclude that some infodumps are indeed well done, though such instances are--in what has become known as the Cooking Paradox--rare."

"Excellent," said the Doctor. "Your stirring defense of the infodump has led me to decide to spare humanity after all."

So that's how I saved humanity.


one should never nest infodumps, as that may lead to reader confusion

hee hee hee.
that was inspired.
(now, to mop tea off my screen...)

Okay that just wasn't fair. There should be a rule about generating giggles anywhere close to computer keyboards.

tsk tsk...

Timely. So very timely.

Though I have achieved the unusual feat of writing a chapter-long infodump -- and having one of my beta readers praise it.

That's beautiful.


Splendid stuff. You know, I thought something fairly important had happened. It was as if millions of extraneous characters suddenly cried out information and then fell silent.

Oh, this is good stuff. Thanks, Jed!

I almost choked on my tea--it's really hard to drink and laugh at the same time. Memo: do NOT start reading this journal while drinking tea.

You could probably get this published.

As you know, Jed, David Marusek's novel Counting Heads is an astonishing collection of magnificent infodumps. I don't know if he deliberately did it as a textbook, but I lost track of the number of ways in which a Bob was created who needed to be told, for one reason or another, the background information. There’s the elderly guy whose memory is going. There’s the increasing reliance on subvocal conversations with mentars or whatever they’re called, sentient computers that provide elaborate logistical assistance and exposition. There’s the use of proxies and sims, that allow characters to interact and still have to have stuff explained to them later. There’s the training video. There’s the sales pitch. There’s the nostalgia effect. There’s the going-over-the-orders-to-make-sure-everybody-knows-them. There’s the prove-you-are-who-you-pretend-to-be. There’s the this-is-all-on-TV. If I’m remembering correctly, there’s even the interpolated news story. It's marvelous, and terribly instructive.


There are way too many info dumps done today, mostly very poorly. I think that the master of how it should be done, when done at all, was RAH - see for example the way he just mentioned "in passing" that one of the characters in Star Beast had divorced her parents (letting the reader infer what that meant), and the superverbose way David Gerrold takes on the same subject in his "jumping off the planet" trilogy.

I much prefer "Don't mind what Jim says... He's been a bit strange ever since he came back" (why did he become a bit strange? how? he came back from where? what?) to "Don't mind what Jim says...He's been a bit strange from the war that, as you know, started in 2221 and ended in 2223 after yadayadya...

"As you know," she said, "that was terribly amusing." She giggled, and thought, It was informative, too.

*cackle chortle grin snort*

What would we all do without our Jed to amuse us so?


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