Pandora Hope & Sean McMullen|10 March 2015
All of us have seen it, that lump of words sitting in the middle of our stories like a constipated bean bag. It needs to be there, because you have a load of information to get across to the reader quickly and you’re right on the word limit. It’s impossible to make a bean bag exciting. Right? Wrong.
I used to know some medieval reenactment people who dressed up in armour and fought mock battles. They even had siege engines which fired bean bags. If you got hit by a flying bean bag, you were declared dead and had to leave the field. Under those circumstances, bean bags were to be taken very seriously.
Infodumps are similar. If, for example, you want to show that a guy is dangerous, you can do a physical description of his haircut, tats and scars, followed by notes on his childhood, education, military and martial arts training, and police record. Or you can do what Neil Gaiman did at the start of an episode of the BBC series Neverwhere: “You can call me Mr Croup. You can call my brother associate Mr Vandermaar. You may have had nightmares about us.”
Think about it. What else does a viewer need to know about Croup and Vandermaar? The general feeling is that they are to be avoided if at all possible, and if you saw them in the distance you would definitely cross the road. All that in twenty-one words.
When getting the information across quickly and clearly while not losing the audience is the issue, film and television have a lot of lessons for those of us who write stories. Word for word, it costs roughly a thousand times more to get an hour’s viewing onto a screen than it costs to put an hour’s reading onto paper. Infodumps on screen cost serious money, and audiences are much more likely to reach for the remote if the show looks tedious.
The first Star Wars movie scrolled three paragraphs up the screen that told you, neatly and concisely, what you needed to know to follow the plot. It took me thirty-seven seconds to read the text – a background which later took three movies to cover. It took half a percent of the movie. The introduction at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring used a mixture of focused and dramatic visuals with Cate Blanchette narrating the background story. This took four percent of the original 178 minute movie. The second introduction took up eight times more of the movie. Was this a mistake? The answer is not straightforward.
An infodump is background gone totally feral. Editors, publishers and writers giving workshops on how to write will warn you about infodumps, because they hit the PAUSE button on the plot in order to present a slab of background. Generally speaking, they are not in story format, and no effort is put into making them entertaining. Now hold that thought.
The Star Wars introduction presented the information quickly and simply. The Fellowship of the Ring’s introduction is way longer, but it does not hit the PAUSE button. Why? This introduction told an engaging story, that led into the larger story. It earned its place.
The down side is that short, concise, engaging summaries are diabolically hard to write. The scriptwritrs for those two movies would have spent cartloads of time working out precisely what the audience needed to know to follow the plot, then spent even more time choosing words told the story as concisely as possible. Those words also had to make the viewer long to know what happens next.
Telling a story to get the information across is all very well when you have pictures and sound, but what about when all that you have is text? My novel Souls in the Great Machine featured a human powered computer, and you don’t see many of those in real life, so background is required. How to describe one without boring the reader to the point of medical danger? I originally had eight thousand words of system description, but I tossed this out and replaced it by telling the story of how the computer was debugged – the lazy components were put in front of a firing squad and shot while the rest of the computer was forced to watch. This let me advance the plot and describe the machine by telling a story. The firing squad scene was also the most popular with audiences when I did readings from Souls.
How long can a story when it’s only there to pass on information? The answer is, as short as possible. Remember the example from Neverwhere? A snappy one-liner is the ultimate way to sidestep an infodump. These are even harder to write than a good informative story, but when they work they make the reader think “Yeah, I get it!”
The Russian singer Feodor Chaliapin was known for a rather volatile temper, so how to get that fact across briefly in very few words? You could just say “He was known for his bad temper.” Boring. Lots of people have bad tempers. You could also say “When served an undercooked goose in a Sydney restaurant, he picked up the goose, strode out to the kitchen, flung it against the wall and shouted at the cook.” The second sentence may be longer, but it also demonstrates that Chaliapin was very theatrical when annoyed, and is vastly more memorable.
To bring it all together, the secret of turning an infodump into something positive is to hold the reader’s attention. You can do this by telling a story, or getting the information across quickly and cleverly. Merely presenting the information and hoping for the best is always a speed hump.