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In hard-SF the writer has to adapt to the world and its limitation. Under normal circumstances, this shouldn't a problem, as you can always make something great, even with the limitations.

However, sometimes detailing and establishing a plot/normal device tends to yield huge infodumps:

Note: my comments will be in italics

"Okay, here's the plan: Those Warbots are the result of some megalomaniac idiot's attempt at creating walkers. Needless to say, their power source and extra weaponry means that their armor had to be reduced significantly, and they are still slow as heck. This weapon right here is the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a reasonable DEW (Directed-Energy Weapon). It fires a coherent beam of Hard X-rays, capable of easily penetrating armor and wiping information from sensitive electronic devices when not frying them."... (Explanation: Warbots operate via through dummy plugs, which serve as an artificial brain, and in many respects, is similar to an SSD. They were originally created to prevent haxxor attacks on important machines and enable offline operation.)

..."Not so fast! Sadly, Hard X-rays are kinda good at getting through things and not even the weapon can reliably stop some of the extra radiation, and in this merry little club of epic-fail GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), I'm the only one who happens to be radiotrophic, in other words, I handle it and you'll provide the overwatch."

See, I hadn't even mentioned the technical details of the weapon, and it's still a huge dialog.

Ad there are many, more: Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation, the function of delta-v (change in the velocity of an object) in space travel, the Dyson-fleets, and so on and so forth.

So, is there any way to deliver the info without making the reader fall asleep?

22

The best way I have seen to infodump is through conflict, preferably between people that (at least for the moment) don't like each other, or are trying to top each other. Here is my analysis.

Those Warbots are the result of some megalomaniac idiot's attempt at creating walkers.

This is unnecessary, where they came from or who built them doesn't make any difference to the plot or how to deal with them.

What follows is my take on what could work, for this snippet. The number of words doesn't matter. It could even be more than your infodump, in fact infodumps done correctly usually use many more words. Part of your problem is trying to impart too much information in too little space. Spread it out!

Here is an example of what I mean. A little conflict helps drive the dialogue.

"These Warbots were an early shot at walkers, but most people don't know that their armor is actually pretty thin. So here's my idea ..." Mike said, but Joe interrupted him.

"That makes no sense," Joe said, irritated. "Look at the armament on it, you think the armor is paper?"

"No, I know the armor is paper," Mike said. "The nuke powering these things is from two hundred years ago. All that armament is heavy, so it can't carry much armor, and it is slow as hell. Now class is over, you want to hear my idea?"

"Sure, you go ahead professor," Joe said.

"I will. This is the most modern DEW in the universe. It can penetrate that armor and wipe the electronics, those things will come to a standstill. All you have to do is get me within a thousand yards ..."

Joe interrupted him again. "Yeah yeah, teach, now this is my class. The directed energy from that weapon is hard X rays, which I am sure you know, but you obviously don't know it isn't fully shielded. Pull that trigger and you're a dead fool, and so is anybody near you. Except me. All you Mods got some good genes in the lab, but I'm the only radiation resistant Mod in this crew. So here's the plan that doesn't kill you: you get me within a thousand yards, then kick back and have a drink while I do all the work."

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    Now, we don't know if this kind of dialogue makes sense between the characters in the story, but this is a great example of how you can split up 'infodumps' to show relations, knowledge, traits, mood, worldbuilding etc. without breaking the flow of the story. Nice! – storbror Nov 20 '17 at 9:45
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    Doctor Who has to invent a new world every time their story isn't set on Earth, so they have many classic examples of infodumps through conflict, usually early in the serial. Reading a few transcripts is a good exercise in seeing how to do it. – J.G. Nov 20 '17 at 17:57
  • @J.G. That's true, and as a Who fan, I don't get tired of it. Of course, the Doctor always has to explain to his current companion the nature of the difficulty; it is a very convenient way to cover an info dump, but as you say, it is usually done while something bad is happening to distract from the info dump nature of it. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 20 '17 at 18:46
  • @Amadeus Yes, Who does it two ways it's instructive to compare: the Doctor and companions, and new characters arguing about some policy. – J.G. Nov 20 '17 at 21:24
  • Sure, but Hard SF usually rules out that "simply understandable concept" common in Doctor Who, though it also prevents most retcons and Steven MOFO. – Mephistopheles Nov 21 '17 at 16:18
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I approached this as a challenge. See what you think.

I agree with Dale and A.T. to break it up. Sometimes more is better, believe it or not. Having said that, your block also benefits from some normal editing (look for run-on sentences, etc., and correct those.)

"Okay, here's the plan: Those Warbots are the result of some megalomaniac idiot's attempt at creating walkers.”

“They look like bad news.”

“They are. But they have their vulnerabilities. The power source and extra weaponry really packs on the weight. So, the armor’s been minimized. Even with less armor, they’re still slow as heck.

“They look heavy.”

“Heavy doesn’t begin to describe it. This weapon right here,” he indicated the (X-ray grenade launcher), “is the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a reasonable DEW. The beam of Hard X-rays off this beaut easily penetrates the armor. Not just the armor, it wipes information too.” He laughed. “If it doesn’t fry ‘em first.”

..."Not so fast! Sadly, Hard X-rays penetrate like hell, and not even the weapon shields the extra radiation. In this merry little club of epic-fail GMOs, I'm the only one that’s radiotrophic. Let me handle it – that’s safest. You provide the overwatch."

Some of the repetition allows you to emphasize the key points that you want the reader to clue in on. See if this helps.

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  • Good point with the repetitions! – storbror Nov 20 '17 at 9:47
6

Deliver the details through the viewpoint of a character who has an opinion about them. To do that, give a character a strong reason to think or talk about the details, or to react to them.

  • Introduce a character unfamiliar with the details, but with a desire to learn the details. Maybe it's mere interest and curiosity (like a newly arrived person). Maybe it's a job. Maybe it's a problem. But the character has some strong reason either to interact with the details, or to learn them from other characters. This can be a POV character, or someone interacting with a POV character.

  • Introduce a POV character who must solve a problem or make a decision where the details matter. Maybe the details are the problem. Maybe they're the solution. Maybe they're a rathole. But in solving the problem or making the decision, the character must talk or think about the details you want to convey.

  • Have two characters argue about the nature, meaning, or significance of the details.

  • Probably some other possibilities I can't think of right now…

If you can't find a character who has a need to think or talk about the details, then consider whether the details are necessary after all.

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    I came here to reply something similar. Usually screenwriters suggest to identify a character whose role is to level down with the public: someone who "knows as much as the reader". The one in charge of delivering the questions, who asks "what the hell is the [scientific buzzword]" so that someone else finds an excuse to introduce the knowledge, and through that character inform the readers. – FraEnrico Nov 20 '17 at 10:50
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Were the comments meant for us or are you putting them in the novel? Because if it's the second, you can create an index at the end of the novel where readers can go check the abbreviations and meanings.

About the long dialogue, at times it's necessary. But if you're afraid of it being long and boring, try to make the character who's talking do some actions. Maybe he has a blueprint in front of him and will point to it. Ex: "This weapon right here," he pointed to a long, thin firearm under the label Directed-Energy Weapon, "is the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a reasonable DEW."

Sorry if it's not the answer you're looking for. I'm not into Sci-fi. However, long dialogue can be cut through with the characters of the moment doing something other than sit down and talk. Even small gestures can break the monotony.

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2

This is a great example of when to show instead of telling. Infodumping is the act of telling a lot of information in a short amount of time. Sometimes it works, but usually, as you have noted, the reader simply falls asleep.

Amadeus has provided a great method with telling the information through dialogue and conflict. That's definitely better, but it is still technically telling. The conflict simply provides some tension to prevent the reader from falling asleep. He still has to wade through all of the information.

Instead of trying to tell this information, you should show it. Consider, for example, the second half of the first chapter of Harry Potter. Rowling had to alert the reader right away that this was a world with wizards and magic. She could have told us that. She could have opened with an infodump about how wizards have lived in hiding all this time; she could have even explained Harry's backstory. But she didn't. She just showed us some wizards and some magic.

The same principle can easily apply here. Remove the dialogue completely, and skip forward to the action:

Frank hefted the gun, and took a deep breath. He couldn't miss. The weapon was the pinnacle of DEW technology, but it still leaked radiation deadly to anyone else. Anyone but him.

Frank stood up behind the rock and swiveled on the spot, turning to face the warbots. He sighted along the gun, aiming for where he knew the electronics were. They were encased in armor, but that didn't matter to the beam of Hard X-Rays the gun could fire.

He pulled the trigger. The X-rays were invisible of course, but he saw the warbot stagger, and lurch sideways as the weapon did its work. Frank could feel a tingling on his skin and knew the radiation from the gun was washing over him. But it didn't matter. Out of their merry little club of epic-fail GMOs, he was the only one who happened to be radiotrophic.

Using this method, you remove the infodump completely, and not only convey all the information you need, but show it as true, rather than simply asking the reader to believe you. Inserting the information into the action like this also serves to cut down on mindless 'action-telling' (just relating what happened).

Best of luck in your endeavors!

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  • The first chapter of Harry Potter is pure telling. It is an omniscient narrator describing life in privet lane. A very snarky narrator, to be sure. But it is pure narration. Pretty good evidence that show don't tell is not a universal rule. A more apt rule would be, if you have something to tell, tell it well. – user16226 Nov 20 '17 at 19:48
  • Well by that definition, all writing is telling. Rowling is using action, versus simple exposition. To me, that is showing. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 20 '17 at 20:46
  • Note that I am talking about the second half of the first chapter, the scene involving Dumbledore. The first half is, indeed, primarily telling. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 20 '17 at 23:12
  • Right, it is the first half that is telling, and note that it is the crucial first pages in which the reader decides whether to read the book or not. You can't show everything. Inventing scenes to show what Rowling shows in that opening section would be tedious. But when you tell, you need to tell well, as Rowling does in the passage in question. – user16226 Nov 20 '17 at 23:22
  • @MarkBaker You will notice that I never say you should show everything. I happen to believe the opposite. This is an excellent example of you taking something I am not talking about and trying to fix it. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 21 '17 at 2:16
1

Hard SF is one of the few genres where you can put long info dumps and the readers somewhat expect them. You don't even necessarily have to do it in dialogue, and it's probably better that you don't if they're longer than what people would say or not in the context of a lecture by one of the characters. Often there's a framing device of the narrator's memoirs or suchlike which gives the pretext to talk directly to the reader. See for example the start of War of the Worlds. Or anything written by Neal Stephenson. Tom Clancy is quite good at this as well.

However, it still has to be interesting and relevant. You're telling a story within a story: how did this aspect of the world come to be so?

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