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I am writing a YA novel in 3rd person limited.

The first scene of the chapter opens in a high school classroom. We don't know the name of the school or where it's at just yet. The character does, but us, the reader does not. The next scene will take place with my main character waiting to go into the principal's office.

At this point I would like to reveal the name of the school - it has a long name - and a paragraph or two of background about the school. While it's not absolutely vital to my story, I feel it would be funny and interesting, and add some irony for what's to follow. I know the rule of show, not tell, so I am trying to think of a better way.

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  • How far inside your MC's head is the narrative voice? I've heard people use '3rd person limited' to mean anything from 'like first person but with different pronouns' to 'like omniscient but with only one character's thoughts'. Aug 28 '20 at 11:10
  • Also, there are different schools of thoughts about whether changing narrative distance within a story is an excellent tool or a massive no-no, but if that's something you're interested in learning about, I like this blog post from Emma Darwin: emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/… Aug 28 '20 at 11:17
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    I am trying to show the MC thoughts and feelings by her facial expressions, body language, or actions but occasionally I'll just say how she feels. For this scene, she's at a preparatory school awaiting a punishment. The part I am thinking of adding, is this is a prestigious school and how it's for only the best students etc. So I'm not sure if this is her own feelings or my own here.
    – Perry_M
    Aug 28 '20 at 11:54
  • "I am trying to show the MC thoughts and feelings by her facial expressions, body language, or actions" Ah, okay - that actually sounds more like an objective point of view, then? But I'm probably not best placed to give advice on this, because I don't really hold with any of the 'rules' about what 3rd person limited can or can't do, or about showing vs telling. Aug 28 '20 at 17:42
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The thing you have to always keep in mind is that in chapter one, the reader is not yet invested in the story. They don't yet care about your characters, your setting, or your plot. They're currently making up their minds whether they should keep reading or put the book down and go reread Harry Potter or something instead.

Your job, as an author, is to get them invested. This usually involves getting the reader to start caring about the protagonist, and/or making them curious about some minor mystery or point of tension you've introduced - give them some question they want answered. You need your reader to want to know what's on the next page ASAP. You need your story to draw them in. To some extent this is true for the whole novel, but it is especially true for your first few chapters.

This makes early chapter info-dumps really dangerous, because:

  • settings don't, as a rule, draw readers in the same way that characters do. Time spent explaining your setting is time you are not getting the reader into your protagonist's head, setting up tension/conflict, or otherwise making them feel invested.
  • info-dumping in first person or third limited can actively work against characterization, because it's not how people usually act or think. How often do you go on long mental disgressions about the history of the place you're in? "As you know, Bob"-style conversations or mental monologues can distance your reader from your protagonist because they're just plain unrealistic and out of character.
  • delaying explanations or only giving them piecemeal is an excellent way of leaving small questions to hook your readers. Why did character X react like that? Why is everyone so shocked she's acting up? How come she's at the principal's office frequently? etc. If they want to know the answers, they'll have to keep reading! Or maybe they'll have to put some clues together and draw conclusions on their own instead of having them spelled out, which is also a way to draw readers in. If you info-dump, you destroy this.

As a reader, I have abandoned multiple books first chapter because it became clear that the author was intent on spoon-feeding me every bit of information and that's not the reading experience I'm looking for.

In your particular case, I'd look closely at exactly what part of those several paragraphs of information you want to include would make the following scene more interesting and funnier for your readers. I'd also ask myself whether it could more compelling for the reader not to know it going in but infer it from the next scene. If not, I'd then see if there's an interesting, true-to-character way to communicate only that information. And like Anna A. Fitzgerald said, I'd want that information to be doing double duty in terms of also showcasing the POV character if at all possible, because you can't afford to drag your feet on that if you want to keep your readers.

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I don't believe that there is an all-encompassing answer to a question of this nature, but it's always best to keep in mind the rule of thumb: Anything can work provided it is good enough.

More specifically, it depends greatly on what you are trying to accomplish through this 'infodump.' Judging by the tone of your post, I find mainly two possibilities:

  1. Establish irony and set the general tone of the book to come. This is the scenario where infodumps usually work well, because much of the entertainment/beauty of the book comes from the style of writing — a common trope in postmodern classics. When done well, this can be game-changing. Off the top of my head, the beginning of Catch-22 does something similar:

In a way the C.I.D. man was pretty lucky, because outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals. All over the world, boys on every side of the bomb line were laying down their lives for what they had been told was their country, and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying down their young lives. There was no end in sight. (Joseph Heller, Catch-22)

This is not so much an infodump as it is Heller setting the scene for much of the irony in the book through a satirical description of the war. If this is your goal, I would say go for it in your first draft, but later consider whether you can accomplish your goal without it.

  1. Give the reader crucial information about the place through a paragraph at the beginning. This, in my opinion, is a hard no. The beginning of a book (the first chapter especially) should be dedicated to setting up your characters, most notably the protagonist, and introducing the first bit of mystery. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, for instance, begins with a very exaggerated description of the Dursleys, and then quickly introduces a central mystery — despite being a simple and perfectly respectable family, they have relatives they wish to hide. Thus the description of Albus Dumbledore works because it is obviously out-of-place:

Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore. (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)


Both of these are examples of situations where an 'infodump' works because they are not actually infodumps, despite appearing so at first sight. They instead reveal a great deal about the world without actually revealing much information at all!

What you are suggesting, however, can work if and only if it does the following:

  • introduces mystery/suspense into the story,
  • reveals crucial information trivially,
  • involves character interplay,
  • is not a straight-up description.

For example, if the description of the school is about the terrible sports team, you'll probably end up with something like this, which is both constrained and unnatural:

Tottenham High was the joke of London high schools. It was small, cramped, and the prime location of [character's] misadventures. Apart from a library that held a grand total of one shelf, it was known mainly for its junior sized football field, the frequenters of which had never failed to lose it a match.

Thus I would recommend against the infodump, unless you can contextually justify its existence by looking at the previous examples as well as ensuring that it is true to the themes and the core of the story.

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  • I don't know why but my dark sense of humor made me revise this sentence. and no one seemed to mind, least of all the boys who were laying dead face down in the dirt.
    – Perry_M
    Aug 30 '20 at 23:29
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    @Perry_M ? The repetition is where the humor comes from, your revision just makes it sound sinister imo. Aug 31 '20 at 2:17
  • I guess it depends on the context, but I have yet to read the book.
    – Perry_M
    Aug 31 '20 at 2:57
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Just like your last sentence mentions, always show and rarely tell. I believe there are some instances where telling might be good, but in a third-person limited perspective, it just doesn't fit.

There are a couple of ways of providing information about the school.

One way could be a new student who gets a tour of the school and its yards. Allowing you to infodump through conversation.

Another might be students giving bits and pieces throughout the dialogue as the story progresses.

You could have a yearly opening ceremony in which the principle rambles on and gives the same speech each year.

That's just three examples and there are lot more you could think of.
I feel you wrote a good and funny paragraph or two and would hate to see them go to waste. But a writer needs to be merciless and get rid of any text that drags his story down. You might think the text is engaging, but if it slows down your story at all and if you can feel it dragging the story on, it really doesn't have anything to do in it.
(I feel you know it's dragging the story down since you made this post.)

Be merciless, but fair.

EDIT Just for clarifications my answer is to infodump with the style. There is always a way to show.

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    "One way could be a new student who gets a tour of the school and its yards." But if the new student isn't actually important to the story, that sounds like it could end up feeling a bit artificial. I'm not sure about adding several pages to the story just to avoid one paragraph. Aug 28 '20 at 17:44
  • Exactly. In my mind, it was the main character who just joined a new school. It could still work even if it was an unimportant character if during the tour some plot-driving event happens. They find the body of a dead student, or they see an affair happening between two teachers. There is always a way to "infodump" without pausing the story. Aug 31 '20 at 6:50
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It depends on where in the writing process you are.

If you're on the first draft, underline the passage for later inspection and move on. The first draft is you explaining the story to yourself, and it's not productive to spend much brainpower on four sentences if you end up cutting or rewriting the encapsulating scene later.

The editing process is the proper time and place to put the other end of the pencil to the paper. When your story is 25k words over its intended word count, that digression about the school's name which seemed so pleasant at first now openly calls for a visit from your eraser. Or if your word count is just fine, upon rereading the scene the dump might stand out as a section which doesn't go anywhere. The cure is the same.

Every sentence in a story must do one of two things: advance the plot, or reveal something about a character. Some leeway exists in the sense an explanation of the setting is sometimes required for a reader to understand what is happening, but if you overdo it (or concentrate all of your explanations in one passage) you end up with an information dump.

If you're intent on keeping the explanation of the school's name, consider if the paragraph can also somehow either advance the plot (probably not, if you have an outline) or reveal something about the main character. For the latter you arguably have a case. If the event has negative consequences for him/her, is the ironic juxtaposition between the school name and the event salt in the wound? How does (s)he respond, and what are his/her resulting emotions? Are they interesting to the reader because they reveal who the protagonist is on the inside? Then the dump -stripped of all but the necessary parts- might be worthwhile keeping. This is a judgment you will have to make on your own.

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By definition, an infodump is a failed attempt at integrating exposition into a book or story. So you don't want to do that --ever. But not every instance of telling is an infodump. There are great novels with asides, editorials --even essays and manifestos --in them. But they aren't "infodumps." Typically, when they do work well, it's because they both are of intrinsic interest in themselves, and because they have a functional role to play in the storytelling.

Personally, I don't believe in the rule "show don't tell," as an absolute. It's primarily a rule of visual storytelling (screenwriting or other scripting). Everything we do in books is technically telling. With that said, I've been hard pressed to find a place where the exposition isn't more compelling when it's integrated into the story when and where the characters need to know it, rather than being handed to the reader in a lump on a platter.

A lot of great details and backstory belong in your back-pocket, where you can pull them out as needed, rather than forced onto the page at a place where neither the characters nor the reader wants them nor cares about them. I've personally found that the less hard I work on forcing my back-story into the book, the more it creates happy accidents and magical moments for me, without needing to be forced.

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I wouldn't call a paragraph or two of giving basic information about the setting an infodump. I'd say that's just describing the setting!

There's definitely a point where you're describing more about a location than is worthwhile. But setting is one of the most basic elements of storytelling. Giving the reader enough information to know where they are in the story's world is such a basic thing that it's hard to give words to it. And a handful of sentences isn't going to be so long that you risk losing the reader.

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