8

I have done this twice at the beginning of 2 of my stories (IIRC.) The first was a lecture on the Dust Dragon, an extinct creature in this world. The second was a schoolteacher giving a lesson on the making and history of their species.

I like this method of infodumping as it allows you to tell your reader info that would have otherwise been too hard or long to 'show' them, all without feeling too unnatural.

I understand it does not work in all types of stories, but in some it at least seems like it works well in some.

Is it really good storytelling in any works? Should other, better, methods be used in order to infodump readers?

6
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? A long backstory right at the beginning
    – user55858
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 15:20
  • Similar questions have been asked multiple times on this site. Use the site search to look for "backstory" or "prologue" or "description" or similar concepts. You should find your answer there. If not, please explain how your case is different.
    – user55858
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 15:21
  • No, I am talking like presenting this lore in the form of a school lesson or somesuch, not JUST a backstory/lore.Also not necessarily long per se. @user52445 Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 16:24
  • I saw no other posts about making an infodump using an in-universe school session or whatnot while typing it up. I think it is unique. @user52445 Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 16:26
  • 1
    I think the school lecture on Dust Dragon works well because the Dust Dragon is an extinct species, so it's a very cool topic for a school lecture and not something people talk about in their everyday lives. If the information you need to convey was about something more modern, more mundane (like a tool from everyday life, or like the country's political structure and pyramid of power), then the school lecture might be less appropriate, and just sprinkling glimpses of the thing in action could be better.
    – Stef
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 13:16

7 Answers 7

17

An infodump is just that: dumping a big chunk of information in a format that's convenient for the author, but (unless really well written) usually not that interesting.

The important part is that the reader cares about learning all that at this point in the story. If, previously in your story, the reader encountered clues to an intriguing mystery, they might be happy to finally get the answer, no matter the format.

If that's not possible (for example because you want to give information that will become important later), you could make it more interesting by introducing conflict, comedic elements, or character development.

For example, how do other characters (presumably the students in the lecture) respond? Are they barely paying attention, maybe chatting, doodling, or playing a game with their friend, with only key parts of the lecture filtering through? Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do they frantically take notes because this is bound to come up in next week's exam?

Have they all heard it before because of their familial/cultural background? Or maybe because the teacher gives the same lecture at the start of every year? Or maybe the lecture surprises them because they were told a different version at home?

And who's to say the lecture has to be a monologue? There could be interruptions, questions, or even a lively debate when a student contradicts the teacher. Done right, the lesson could provide all the necessary information without feeling like an infodump. However, that might mean not including the complete backstory, but only the most important bits and whichever parts you want to keep for flavour.

2
  • 1
    IMO, the 2005 sci-fi film Serenity nicely demonstrates the latter half of this answer. A classroom sequence provides the viewer with key information, but it is camouflaged well and jumps into an action sequence without overstaying its welcome.
    – Tim M.
    Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 23:52
  • 1
    +1 for emphasizing that it is necessary to keep the reader interested.
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 13:02
5

What a DUMP!

Wait, 1st let's address why an infodump is a 'bad story' trope. It comes from TV/film where writers have been forced to bridge scenes that otherwise would make no sense, and usually because of production limitations, not because any writer wanted it that way.

And if the script is being re-written mid-production (which isn't unusual) it's a sign other disasters are happening on that production. They aren't making the script as it was originally written.

Is 'infodumping' the important parts of a story via an in-universe lesson in school/documentary/the news/other educational medium bad storytelling?

An infodump is a lot of (necessary) information, that has been rushed and/or inelegantly presented. It's only 'bad' when it's bad.

There's no excuse for an infodump in a novel, we can't blame the production. But really any bad scene is... just a bad scene. If it clunks it needs to be edited. If it works, it's justified no matter how trope-y or cliché. Sometimes it's the lesser evil.

Diegetic Information

It sounds like you aren't too worried about it, and it's not the first time you've used it. I'm sure you're good.

Here are some reasons why you might want to open with an in-world 'infodump'.

  • It's the exact lesson the protagonist needs to learn (a bit on the nose, but essentially a setup with a payoff later)
  • Worldbuilding, genre signaling
  • Foreshadowing and tone
  • It's false or naive (it will be subverted later)
  • It's a fundamental tenet of this world (everyone already accepts this as gospel truth so: square one)
  • It's THE central conflict (again, foundational to the story)
  • voice of authority (not just information, but letting us know the person speaking is important and knowledgable)
  • It's a Greek chorus (able to 'debate' the conflict through disparate voices, or represent society's voice that is counter to the protagonist)
  • It's a stealth prolog (ostensibly we're meeting our characters in their 'normal', but we're being fed a LOT of information about how things got to be the way they are, which is not part of THIS story....

All of the above

Verhoven's Starship Troopers has a heck of an opening classroom infodump where naive students flirt, and debate a lecture about 'citizenship' (and how "democracy lead the world to chaos", and "voting is violence") from a gung-ho amputee veteran teacher –– the scene is subversively telling us they are a fascist society where citizens are disfigured in endless wars to 'earn' basic social rights (access to jobs, ability to vote, having children) – hard contrast to our own world values.

Since the characters never question their fascist perspective (even as it gets them slaughtered), this infodump scene establishes Verhoven is not celebrating war, but presenting a society distorted by galactic imperialism. The students don't seem to be aware they are at war, meanwhile their 'war hero' teachers display survivor bias and are patriotic about the sacrifices they've made.

1
  • It's Verhoeven, not Verhoven. But I can't edit because too few characters :-?
    – CompuChip
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 7:34
4

Where's the Beef?

A scene is only interesting if there's conflict. Someone needs to want something. They need to take a risk to get it. The desire and the risk need to show the reader something about the character.

Any info-dump is a weak scene because it lacks conflict - it exists to just tell the reader facts.

(If it's got stakes, it's not an info-dump; it's a scene with some exposition)

Classroom Conflict

A scene centered around a lecture is boring. It doesn't matter that the lecture subject is interesting - there's no conflict when a teacher talks and the students just listen!

So the scene needs to be centered around something else: a student asking another student out, a student trying to cheat on an exam, the lecturer trying to hide that they aren't qualified to teach, etc. Something where a character takes a risk.

The lecture occurs in the background. It's the background for the real scene. This is both more interesting, and more efficient because the one scene now does both character development and provides background knowledge.

4
  • 1
    The classroom conflict can also be unpopular opinions. Starship Troopers is a good example of this.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 7:12
  • A scene is also interesting if there's discovery and wonder for the reader.
    – Pablo H
    Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 18:45
  • @PabloH - the nice thing about art is that I can't stop you from doing something I think is wrong. --- But I think you're wrong.
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 13:31
  • @PabloH - I think a scene without stakes will fail to grab the reader's attention, and your attempt to create a sense of wonder will fall flat. The reader needs to care about the scene first, and then we can encounter something wondrous.
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 13:33
2

What can make infodumping a bore so often is that this dry delivery of information is the only information you're getting in the scene.

If your lecturer is just flatly delivering a monologue to their students, it really is just going to feel like the writer explaining story points rather than a person actually existing in this world. What does the environment of the classroom tell the reader? What does the character of the teacher tell the reader? How is the lecture being delivered? What does that say about the setting? What tone are you wanting to create?

By answering questions like this you convey info that is not only likely to be of more interest to the reader than the dump itself (allowing them to latch onto a character/setting/tone), but also offloads some of the information you might otherwise be dumping in the first place.

1
  • 2
    Not to mention: how are the characters responding to the lecture? If one character is studiously taking notes and another is fast asleep, that immediately tells you a lot about those two characters without them even saying a word.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jun 7, 2023 at 12:14
1

Is it really good storytelling in any works?

I'm reading the Temeraire series, and there is a bit where the author infodumps about dragons. It is just presented as an excerpt from a book by a naturalist. We (the reader) know the naturalist, and so get to enjoy guessing at how he obtained some of this information. It was also written in a humorously formal voice. I'm sure that would have gotten old fast, but it was a short excerpt, so I think it held up.

It's sort of a reversal of the normal way info-dumping works. Normally, you are literally reading a story, but you are supposed to infer background information. In this case I was literally reading a reference book, but I was inferring a story based on which details were available, not available, and which ones I knew to be incorrect.

I have no idea what the broader lesson here is, but I just think it was a good example of something that managed to be enjoyable to read despite being information-dense.

1

I think that it is a great idea to infodump without literally dumping info in an out-of-place exposition manner. The lesson idea is a great one, really interesting in my opinion. I usually infodump by giving chapters of a book that the character is reading like "Chapter Blahblah: Planets of blahblah, [proceed with info]". A good idea that I suggest is to make it fitting to the situation in length. A lesson should be concise so students can understand and ask questions (you can have a mini-Q&A), in my opinion. In general, the more creative you get with the infodump, the less obvious it is. I, as a reader, like such infodumps as I can take more information in than just reading out-of-place text. I also think that it can create a great universe with meta qualities, because while you are giving universe info you are also giving info on the way the universe works on how information is spread. On the lesson examples given, there is also a meta-quality of what the universe's education is like, which is a great way of building a universe. Lastly, I would not worry about in which places there are infodumps. While it is ideally preferred of such dumps to be in the beginning, if it is cleverly done, infodumps can be anywhere on the text.

0

I'd like to demonstrate this with examples:

  • Star Wars - every movie starts with such an info dump and they go well over the limit. You read it because you're new to the movie or don't have the ability to skip it (in the cinema). Or you let it run because you're still getting chips and soda. None of it is really needed though. What does the first intro tell us? Rebels = Good, Empire = bad, Superweapon under construction. Princess on the run. Period. All of this could have been conveyed in about as much runtime as the intro: outside view of ships shooting at each other. Cut. Goldie interrupts Leia making the recording on Beepy and says something like "The Empire has us in a tractor beam, we are doomed!" Beepy heads for an escape pod. Goldie throws in "what are you doing? the empire shoots down escape pods! beeps Yes, let's hope they bother to check if the pod is empty before shooting. That'll be fine." Cut. boarding action. Vader interrogates Leia about the stolen plans. Underling reports escape pod that they let go because it was empty. Gets force choked. There. You covered everything you need from the intro.
  • Dune miniseries - "Arrakis, Dune, the desert planet" this intro works because it is short, full of relevant information and teases the viewer about what's to come. Throughout the series there are a few dumps that are questionable but short enough (Chani explaining the sandworm breeding cycle, Paul watching a holo lecture) but also a few decent ones like the water banter around the banquet, which provides "dumpy" information about water but also carries another layer which informs viewers about the characters and political landscape.
  • Original Dune - is horrible with it's extensive info dump "lessons" that Paul watches. Not only is a lot of that information completely irrelevant to the plot but it's also long and narrated with the enthusiasm of a student suffering through a comparative analysis of Vogon poetry.
  • Game of Thrones - I can immediately recall two info sessions regarding dragons: When Dany receives the eggs (which is a typical info dump) and when Tywin discusses them with Goffrey (where at least as much info is packed into a tense back and forth). You watch the former because you have to. You watch the later because you like Goffrey getting the smack down - the information is just a bonus.

Information works when it:

  • creates or rewards investment
  • is incidental to a process that does the above
  • is succinct and relevant
  • has a "mental hook" to hang it on

That last part is more of a technical thing and thus particularly important when you do go with a lecture style. Whatever info you throw out needs a place to be stored in. This is the reason for the "tell them what you will tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you have told them" trick. You give them the hooks. You give them the coats to hang on them and then you make sure they're hung securely. In a story you don't have to be so explicit because the story will likely cover the first and last parts automatically. But if you dump information you have to remember that there may not be any hooks yet. This is why the holo lessons worked in the Dune miniseries but failed in the original movie. They threw a light shirt at you that you could hang immediately vs a heavy winter coat that didn't fit anywhere.

This is also why the Star Wars intros only work in spite of themselves. They throw way too much information out there to be stored so quickly but luckily most of it isn't actually needed.

The Dune intro works because it's light and relevant enough to fit the single hook labeled "Dune" that you start out with when you see the series for the first time.

2
  • 1
    The Star Wars intro scrolls are tradition based on old Saturday movie serial, which remind viewers of what happened last week.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 23:01
  • Star Wars is allowed to get away with it because it's Star Wars. I don't think any film besides Star Wars or parodies thereof can get away with it. Commented Jun 9, 2023 at 13:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.