07 July 2006

Infodump Assumptions

I've been wondering about exposition recently, particularly exposition of the infodump variety, wherein an author needs to convey a lot of information and does so by coming out and stating it. Telling vs. showing. Choosing efficiency over subtlety.

Here are some ideas, questions, and assumptions about exposition that could be entirely wrong, because I haven't really analyzed them very hard, but perhaps they will spark some discussion. I've numbered them for easy reference, not linearity.

1. It seems to me that an aversion to exposition in fiction may be a 20th century thing. Earlier literatures seemed more comfortable with it than 20th century literatures. If this assumption is correct, does the new aversion come from a move toward more verisimilitude in writing?

2. Why do infodumps feel unrealistic to us, particularly in dialogue? Much of what we say every day is expository. But transcribed into dialogue in a story, most of our expository conversations would feel unrealistic.

3. Does a foregrounding of psychology rather than action in a story reduce the challenges of exposition? If we're deep inside, for instance, Mrs. Dalloway's mind are we less concerned about expository lumps than if we're reading about Mrs. Dalloway's adventures in time and space? It could be that the tangential and associational writing associated with the representation of a mind undercuts the need or desire for straightforward exposition. But probably only if the setting and situation are ones that a general audience can be assumed to have some familiarity with. If Mrs. Dalloway were thinking about buying flowers on the planet Xsgha, where the riuGsj splort the frunktiplut, the need for some sort of exposition would increase. But would it look different as exposition because we're so deep inside Mrs. D's brain than it would were we following her from a more objective viewpoint?

4. Are we more accepting of straight-out exposition in comedy than in drama?

5. If a narrative is obviously not trying to be realistic, why do we care if the exposition isn't "realistic"?

6. Is exposition a problem of point of view and tone rather than a problem in and of itself? (Is exposition a problem? That and why? are the metaquestions here, I guess.)

7. What is an example of a novel, story, or movie that is full of exposition and handles it with great subtlety? What is an example of a novel, story, or movie that is full of infodumps and it doesn't bother the reader/viewer?


  1. Some answers:

    2) Because infodup conversations aren't natural. Even though people have expository conversations all the time, those conversations are still littered with shorthand and assumptions about what the other people already know. When I have conversations about work with my peers, I don't need to explain what "core" or "multi threaded" or "native" or any of another hundred terms mean in the context of our work -- they already know that. When I have a conversation with friends about music or books, I don't need to explain what si-fi or punk or Bach mean/are or detail allusions to lines in songs or quotes from books come from. They know all that already.

    But when you are trying to explain a new world, you either have to leave out that shorthand, which makes the conversation feel less real, or explain it all, which makes the conversation seem forced.

    3) Deep inside someone's brain makes exposition seem even more forced to me. She already knows what a splort is -- I don't go around thinking "I need some eggs -- which are the sterile versions of the eggs that chickens use to reproduce by depositing them outside their bodies -- for dinner" so why would she?

    4) I think we are more accepting of everything in comedy. Comedy is already winking at us, so to speak, so another wink or two won’t matter that much.

    5) Because the characters are still human or modeled on humans. No matter how surreal you get, the characters' reactions to that surreal ness still have to feel natural within the confines of their established personalities, and I think the short-hand, shared experience mode of communication is so ingrained in people that anything that breaks it just feels wrong, no matter the situation.

    6) No, exposition is not a problem; just huge chunks of it. In fact, a throw away line is often better than an awkward moment of "showing". Having someone complain that their computer is slow because their husband got it infected with spy ware is more effective and less intrusive to the story than showing the clueless husband doing the infecting, at least is said clueless husband has no other real role in the piece.

    7) I think Kim Stanley Robinson does a good job in general with exposition. Years of Rice and Salt had a lot of complicated world building, and I don’t remember huge infodup.

  2. Check out the first few minutes of Rear Window.

  3. i'm always surprised by how much authors come out just plain say in older books, like say of the e.m. forsterish persuasion. he'll write things like "she represented X social sphere of england" (ok, i'm paraphrasing!)-- it's not subtle, but there is something a little refreshing about it, i guess.

  4. I think I'd draw a distinction between infodumps and exposition. The latter tells us about the characters' pasts - who married whom, who is whose child, who's having an affair with whom - whereas the former tends to be less personal - it's used to describe history, customs, geography, and scientific concepts. The gossipy quality of exposition, when done well, keeps it from halting the narrative in its tracks, but infodumps are usually impersonal and often quite a bit more information that the reader actually needs (I think I've answered question 1, by the way), with the result being that the reader just doesn't care.

    I think Iain M. Banks does a good job with infodumps in The Algebraist - he makes them funny, for one. Mind you, I thought his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas, did an absolutely disastrous job of introducing us to its world.

  5. Moby-Dick has to be the all-time classic, doesn't it? Although "doesn't bother the reader" seems to be debatable. (Me, I enjoyed reading a whole chapter about whether the whale is or is not a fish, but I'm told some people don't.)

    To the extent that exposition is a problem, I think that yes, it's a problem of point of view and tone. If the narrator has an interesting voice, I'll stay interested. If, like too many genre writers, the author seems to think there is no narrator in third person limited, and the narrator is therefore a half-realized tedious inconsistent bore, it's more likely to show up in the infodumps.

  6. I suspect the backlash against exposition has something to do with a reaction against increasingly ADD attention spans in our society, from which serious readers want, somewhat understandably, to distance themselves. Also, the protestant and critical ethic that nothing can be virtuous if it isn't work plays a role. Exposition's fundamentally pragmatic (and shortcut) character is seen as inherently damning.

    "Fiction consumers" may be far more tolerant of exposition than "serious readers," and I believe this is reflected in the greater abundance (and acceptance) of it in works targeted toward this demographic.

  7. Richard Powers, by all means, though I too would make a difference between info dump and exposition. Here is one of the things he says about his fiction:

    The novelist's job is to say what it means to be alive. I don't think there are any wrong ways of doing that; I think there are wrong ways of not doing that, of avoiding it, but I think there's nothing you could throw into that hopper that would be irrelevant. The more you can treat—providing you can continue to synthesize it into something that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging—the better. Right now a lot of fiction restricts itself totally to dramatic revelation, raising a lot of proscriptions about the way that fiction can and can't function. The direct introduction of discursive material has been considered anathema for a long time. I've been trying in different ways to violate that prohibition from my first book on. True, you can get more emotive power over your reader by dramatic revelation than by discursive narrative. But you can get more connection with discursive narrative. The real secret is to triangulate between these two modes, getting to places that neither technique could reach in isolation. Because that's how the human organism works. We employ all sorts of intelligences, from low-level bodily intuitions to high-level, syllogistic rationalism. It's not a question of which way of knowing the world is the right one.


  8. I think Neal Stephenson is also a good example of someone whose books do really have a bit too much infodumping but it doesn't on the whole bother his readers; I don't think he handles it with subtlety, just that his information is mostly interesting and enjoyable to read!

    I have spent much time thinking about these questions as I revised my alternate-universe speculative fiction; I had a very stringent reader who was tough with me on this. In general, if you're writing in third-person limited any lingering on information/exposition has to be more or less congruent with what the focal character is observing--which meant in the end that I had to trim out a lot of passages (particularly descriptions of buildings or of the various technologies of this alternate-universe 1930s) that couldn't persuasively be seen to relate to something the character herself was thinking. Much of the stuff I cut was the most enjoyable to think of and write (but perhaps some of the very infodump-preferring science fiction writers and historical novelists would really be sometimes better off writing narrative non-fiction?).

    I don't know that I think of MOBY-DICK as an infodump novel, by the way; those chapters aren't exposition so much as (what can we call them?) improvisatory flourishes....

  9. Good questions & ones I've been thinking about this weekend as I just finished reading Ian McEwan's Saturday. Certainly there are a lot of infodumps in that book on topics ranging from neurosurgery to 9-11, the Iraq war, and the Tate Modern being located in an old power plant. In parts maybe it's too much, although there are parts I don't think would have worked if there weren't the medical infodumps. It's pivotal to the plot that the main character, Henry, is a neurosurgeon, so it makes sense that he would think about it. But, some of the political issues do come off a little heavy-handed. Where the book works well, McEwan's writing flows seemlessly from expostion back to Henry's thoughts. And, it sets up scenes later in the book. Because the exposition was done chapters before, you understand the character's view and it navigates around the awkward filling in of backstory via dialog. But there are scenes in the book -- for instance, McEwan's lauding of the Tate for clever building re-use while implying that Tony Blair is a convincing liar -- where I could imagine one of the less-educated characters saying "Well, Ian, aren't you clever and all, working those little tidbits into your story. It's so well-researched! Bet you think us blokes are f*** idiots or something".

    As for Moby-Dick, it's been years since I read it but I remember being intrigued by the chapters the professor told us to skip because they were 'unnecessary'. Rebel student that I was, I had to read those. I thought those were some of the best parts of the book and certainly seemed less heavy-handed to me than some of the moral posturing in the rest of the book. Don't know that I'd think that if I read it now.

  10. I'm surprised no one's mentioned Tolkien's fondness for talking heads...scenes where the characters simply sit around and fill in the reader on all the background info. I suppose it could come under "exposition by dialogue" but certainly he is telling and not showing.

    And yet, I don't think many would argue that it is precisely that attention to detail...and Tolkien's insistence on telling it to us...that makes Middle Earth a place so vivid that artists can make their livings drawing and painting scenes from his novels. So should all that exposition/infodump be there? How do you imagine Middle Earth without it?

    Jumping to the other side of the fence: wouldn't less information amd more action make the books more accessible to a wider audience? How many readers begin Fellowship of the Ring and put it down in disgust when there still isn't any real action after forty pages? How much exposition can one take at one time...to me that question needs to be a part of the discussion. Not just show vs tell...but if tell, then in what increments?

    Good discussion...thank you!


  11. Lots of good ideas here. I'll just say some general things -- first that yes it does seem like we should probably distinguish between "infodump" and "exposition", particularly since "infodump" has such a pejorative feel to it.

    I should clarify, though, that when I wrote the post I wasn't really thinking about the kind of clumsy exposition where one character tells another something they already know. ("As you know, Ethel, that resublimated thiotimoline is the only thing that truly cures hemorrhoids in this universe.") That is, in most cases, flat-out bad writing.

  12. I've enjoyed how China Mieville uses his infodumps--most notably in Perdido Street Station--as he starts "on high" and lowers down to a character, and also only puts a flat out infodump in if it's something necessary to know to understand the world or the plot; that's why it seems so mysterious.

    Rober Jordan, however, pretty much kills the better parts of his novels by putting out infodump after infodump about places: some of it we just don't need (details about how large a random table is, for a whole paragraph, and the table is not important in the least and is never mentioned again? That was the point when I had enough; that was in book four, by the way, The Shadow Rising). Despite what people say, those slow downs started pretty early in the series, around book one; they just were not as frequent, as bad, or as noticable.

    Also, Terry Goodkind's books after book three: I hate how he throws in a paragraph or two into the book to retell events in the previous books, down to little details newcomer's could infer on their own (Richard's sword is magical! The Sword of Truth shows the truth in people!). The fact that sometimes it's completely random and has little at all to do with what's being said or thought by the characters is especially off putting.

  13. David Harmon7/17/2006 12:10 PM

    Well, Andrew J.'s complaints seem more about clumsiness in the art than infodumps per se. I find it much more enjoyable when we learn it along with a character, if the plot allows... but if not, I have no problem with even inserting relevant data in the form of "documents", song lyrics, invented epigrams, or such. Le Guin, Brust, and others have handled that very nicely. Another way is to follow someone's internal deliberations about some relevant matter....