14

In the second book of his Inheritence Cycle, Christopher Paolini makes the grievous error of landing his main character in the middle of a serene woodland where he must sit and talk with an old elf for many seemingly unending days. It isn't a true info dump - there are emotions and even some action - but it is still mind-numbingly boring from the expected action, especially compared with the adventurous side story that intersperses it every few chapters.

That being said, this boring section is very necessary. The main character learns many important things, not to mention that he undergoes a vital transformation at that time. Not least of the things learned is how the magic of the world works. This is referred to for the rest of the series.

I now find myself faced with a similar problem. I am developing a fantasy novel of my own, with my own variation of magic. I have successfully managed to explain its inner workings to the reader without info-dumping; but now I have a real problem: it turns out that the protagonist and the reader weren't told the whole picture. There is an entire side of magic - a very important side - that the protagonist must be informed of by the dreaded 'old veteran.'

So far, I have fallen back on the assumption that the 'old veteran' (we'll call him Pete) sits the protagonist down and tells him what he's been missing. Pete does his best to avoid info-dumping. He relates the necessary knowledge in the form of a story, telling how he discovered it. The story is full of action. On top of that, the whole story only lasts for roughly four pages. Despite all this, Pete's tale is still in the form of a narration, and as such, is dangerously close to an info-dump.

Question: In many fantasy novels, there usually comes a point where the magic has to be explained to some extent, so that the rest of the novel can be fully understood. The result of this need is usually an info-dump. How can one relate this necessary information so that the reader does not become bored and fall asleep?

EDIT: This question is similar to this one. However, I feel it is different. While this question deals with a relentless-if-short narration, that question deals with a chapter of inner realization.

  • Note that the original Star Wars trilogy does the same thing in the second movie, with Yoda teaching Luke (and the movie watchers) about the Force, while Han, Chewbacca, and Leia are getting tortured. For about 10 minutes there's not much going on -- and that's a LONG time for an action movie -- but the tension is building. I think that is key: build the tension, somehow. (Paolini's second storyline helps immensely in that regard, IMO.) – dmm Dec 30 '15 at 20:07
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    @dmm The second storyline helped - I think it's what kept the book alive at that point. Whenever he switched back to Eragon though, I found myself wanting to get back to Roran. I think switching like that might work better with an action movie, where the explanation literally only lasts at max ten minutes. For a book, you're forced to read through it for closer to half an hour or more. You have a good point though: building tension is the only way to get through it if you have to include it. – Thomas Myron Dec 30 '15 at 20:56
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As you may know, Thomas, there was a question quite similar to yours put by KeithS a little while ago: Avoiding the "as you know" trope in exposition.

There were several answers including mine which boiled down to the desperate need to introduce more drama into the explanation or we're all gonna die! The drama could be in the form of character conflict ("Why the hell should I believe you about magic, Pete, after what you've just told me you did?"), literal conflict in which correct understanding of how magic works is necessary to fight then and there, or the need to make a difficult decision based on the main character's new understanding of magic.

I stand by all those points in general, but maybe you don't want any more drama or conflict right then. In that case I'd like to put in a word for the sheer pleasure of hearing the solution to an intellectual puzzle that has been built up throughout the story until that point. Detective stories are powered by this. If you take this tack, it's not Pete's explanation that has to change, but the earlier chapters. Have the main character wrack his or her brains earlier on for why that curse rebounded so disastrously. Describe step by step his or her earlier failed attempts to find an explanation, or to track down this mysterious "Pete" who some said could explain the mystery.

  • Thank you for bringing that question to my attention, Lostinfrance. I do recall it, though I don't think I perused it in any detail at the time. Your methods seem sound to me; thanks for the answer! – Thomas Myron Dec 28 '15 at 17:53
  • After re-reading this answer, I just realized how completely genius the second paragraph really is. I'd upvote again if I could. – Thomas Myron Dec 4 '17 at 16:09
  • Thank you! To be honest the genius wasn't me but whoever first analysed why certain types of exposition work so much better dramatically than others. I am pretty sure I have seen the same point made by several writers. But I'm glad that I was able to help your writing by passing it on. – Lostinfrance Dec 12 '17 at 20:38
6

Good question. I'm tossing and turning over a one-and-a-half page info dump at the end of my first chapter (psychiatric drama). There's no way anybody gets it if it's not explained, right?

There's only so much random dialogue you can propagate before you just have to go for it. You can do it in bits and pieces like The Will and The Word from Eddings' Belgariad, or you can lay it out all at once like Morpheus in The Matrix to Neo. Movies are time limited, so it makes sense to just get it out of the way after a cool, mind-boggling action scene.

Books can flow, and transitions should be smooth. (I have my protagonist do a bit of daydreaming about the wonders of modern medicine before I not-ever-so-briefly describe the draconian past. I guess it's smooth, but still.)

Finish writing your book. Then decide if there's anything unnecessary from your info dump. Does the reader really need it? All of it? Really? Are you sure? Then include it. If you get to the agent and publisher phase, this is one of the things they will simply tell you: more, less, or just right.

(I'm including my info dump with my manuscript, but piling up rejection letters is unnerving--no matter how many times you play the game.)

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    I agree; four pages doesn't sound like a lot, and it sounds like you've done everything you can to mitigate the Great Gray Wall of Text. When your book is done, pass it off to an editor or two and flag that specifically. Ask if it's too much or if it reads well. It may be fine. – Lauren Ipsum Dec 28 '15 at 12:41
5

This is a complex question. The business of balancing information and story is always tricky.

One good approach is to give minimal information, then bury further descriptions in the course of the story. Tolkien often works like this. He offers a brief description of a character's appearance, and other details appear in the course of the story. He does the same with magic. At one point, Gandalf uses his fire magic to burn wood, but when the wood has gone, so evidently he can't create fire from nothing. This is important in the story, but the facts aren't set up in advance and don't need to be.

A related but more deliberate approach is to withhold information and make a virtue of the mystery.

I saw Virgaz in the marketplace. Fortunately, he didn't see me. I crushed a seed between my finger and brushed my sandal against the ground. Moments later, a horrified crowd was forming around his fat, dead body.

This might be better than describing the wonderful magic system I have just invented.

I saw Virgaz in the marketplace. Fortunately, he didn't see me. I carefully took a Mesher seed from the pouch at my belt. I looked at it. Within this tiny seed was an infant demon. If the seed was crushed or broken, the demon would be released, and its first task would be to feast upon a human life. A rune, drawn into the ground with finger or even foot, was sufficient to protect me from the demon's hunger, and, if I concentrated my thoughts, keeping Virgaz foremost in my mind and suggesting him as a target, the demon would follow my instructions...

We writers often overexplain in this way. What might be seen here as vital information is boring and probably unnecessary. In a fantasy novel, it can easily turn magic into a mechanistic and rather un-magical routine.

3

I wanted to give another answer that goes in a different direction than my first. Write down every detail about what you're dumping about. Then look at each detail. Is it REALLY vital that the character know everything that there is to know about the entire history and every nuance of the magic? Probably not. You may feel it's vital, but it's probably not. If it's vital to the story, you can work it in little bits at a time later, but I see no need to do huge dumps that explain 200 years of history in one sitting.

Let's say you had a guest over that had no experience at all with electricity. They say it's dark and they'd like some light in the room. They are standing next to the light switch. What do you do?

Do you tell them the history of electricity and the invention of the lightbulb? Do you tell them all of the science involved to make it work? Do you tell them about how the house was wired with copper and how electricity comes from a power station far away? Do you tell them all the other things you can do with electricity besides make lights?

No! You tell them that there's a thing next to them called a switch. If they wiggle it, the light will turn on. They may be fascinated and ask all sorts of question later, but chances are that if they've never been exposed to electricity, they won't even know what questions to ask until they've been around it longer and notice that it seems to work in predictable ways.

You might step outside a day later and point to the telephone poles and say that electricity comes to the houses through them. You might be cooking and show them how electricity makes the stove hot. If you dumped out all of this info at once the poor guy would have no idea what you're talking about.

Also, as a writer, it may be important for you to know everything, but the reader doesn't really have to know what you know. You have to know it so your rules. Of magic are consistent, but really, the characters don't have to know everything in the world about it to understand it well enough to use it.

2

This is tricky, because you can't explain the way magic without, you know... explaining the way magic works. The trick is to make it interesting.

I think one of the best examples I've seen comes from The Final Empire, the first Mistborn book by Brandon Sanderson. It opens on a plantation on a very foggy night, with the arrival of a traveler, Kelsier. The superstitious slaves are afraid of the mists, but Kelsier isn't, and when something starts to go wrong, the slaves begin to freak out, but Kelsier remains calm and burns tin.

Burns tin? What does that mean? the reader asks himself. Then it's explained: he has magic that lets him swallow metallic tin and "burn" it, slowly consuming the metal to fuel enhanced senses that let him see through the mists.

After a while, Kelsier meets a street urchin, Vin, a girl who has "luck", where she can sometimes bend people's will and make them do what she wants. Bad guys find out about her ability, but Kelsier rescues her and explains to her that her "luck" is actually allomancy, the magical ability to burn metal and use it to produce effects, and that she is a Mistborn, a person with access to all the metals, just like he is.

He takes her under his wing and teaches her some basic things about allomancy, then hands her off to various friends of his who are mistings, people who only have the ability to burn one metal, so she can further refine her training by working with specialists. Instead of dumping all the info on the reader, the author slowly spreads it out over the first half of the book as a part of Vin's training, with the reader learning how allomancy works along with her, and with the way allomancy is integrated into the society of the Final Empire, (all of Sanderson's work is like this: magic isn't just something that's there alongside normal life; it's a part of life that affects culture and society deeply,) the reader feels like he's discovering it as part of the world. This avoids the biggest problem with infodumps: the way they bring the action to a screeching halt so characters can talk about infodump stuff.

If you want to know how to explain your magic really well, read Mistborn: The Final Empire and take notes. :)

1

I'm not a fan of info dumps. They can get boring and cause the story to drag. Also, I think readers like to make their own speculations and guesses about things. With an info dump, they lose the opportunity to do this. Also, I don't think characters really want to sit down and be told pages and pages worth of information. They might glaze over and get bored themselves.

I'm not sure if it would be possible in your situation, but I faced a massive info dump in my current story. Instead of laying it all out, I leaked it out very gradually with several different characters having short conversations throughout the entire story at different times for different reasons.

It helps my story because I made mages in my fantasy story chronically immature. They get bored easily if not working on their magic. If they had to be subjected to an info dump, they'd wander off or just stop listening after a few minutes. So I broke things up. Different characters knew different bits of information for different reasons and had different motivations for giving the information.

Here is an example. Part of my info dump had to include the true nature of the divine -- or God in their world. Instead of a wise sage doling out the truth, I have one character making fun of another one because he believes that the God he worships is a real person who sits on a real throne in a real castle in the clouds. While he tries to explain things, several other characters start asking their own questions and showing their confusion on the subject. It only takes a few paragraphs. It doesn't nearly go into explaining everything, but it's enough for the characters to get the general idea and the possible future readers could speculate and make their own theories.

Throughout the story this subject comes up over and over. Sometimes there's just a sentence or two alluding to the subject and giving more information. Many times the discussions happen between two minor characters and the protagonist overhears them.

0

Brandon Mull has a very well-paced narration in his series Fablehaven. In the book Kendra and Seth have to get used to this new side-of-reality. While Kendra and Seth are in this preserve(land in the book), they have to learn about creatures and such. Reading his books should give you an idea on how to disperse the information. Beyonders is also another one by Brandon Mull. Just explain stuff as you go. Have the character learn fast but paced.

  • Unfortunately, I believe this only works because the main characters are also learning as they go. In certain novels, like the one I am trying to write, there is a necessary dump at some point, no matter how small I've managed to make it. It's a realization, so you can only have so many steps leading up to it until it's figured out. – Thomas Myron Jan 23 '16 at 1:59
  • @ThomasMyron and FWIW, I found the Fablehaven series spectacularly boring, so much so that I put it down after book 2 and sold the box set rather than slog through the next three stories. What is "well-paced" for one person is "tortuously grinding" for another. YMMV. – Lauren Ipsum May 16 '16 at 20:14
  • @LaurenIpsum Strange; I found Fablehaven to be quite good. Perhaps not spectacular, but still quite good, and definitely not boring. I guess readers differ quite a lot. – Thomas Myron May 16 '16 at 21:28
  • @ThomasMyron I was surprised myself, TBH. The premise sounded good, but I found myself completely unengaged by the characters and their plight. Several times the kids got the Idiot Ball just to advance the plot, and I have no patience for that. But you enjoyed it, and the series is very popular. So yes, readers differ quite a lot. :) – Lauren Ipsum May 17 '16 at 10:07

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