Jonathan Wood is as tremendously entertaining as only an Englishman living in New York could be. His first novel, No Hero, which chronicles one Oxford cop’s confrontation with cosmic horror, was so funny and rad that is being re-released in just a few short weeks. (I have to confess that it was one of my favorite books I read in 2012!) I couldn’t be more delighted to have this Lovecraftian gentleman sharing pointers with us.
Four Tips on the Ancient and Venerable Art of Infodumping
Come close, young grasshhopper. Tell me, what have you learned? Yes: infodumping is bad.
All writers learn early that infodumping is one of the cardinal sins. Thou shalt not infodump if thou wantest anyone to ever finish reading your stuff. And it’s good advice. I’m not here to tear it down. Face facts: nobody wants to read your 2000 word tract on muffin flavors of the 1870s. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.
Except this advice can leave you in a bit of trouble if a working knowledge of the muffin flavors of the 1870s is critical to your plot. This is a steampunk bakery-oriented murder mystery, and the apocryphal artificial cherry flavoring is what the entire time-dilation mcguffin pivots around goddamit.
Well, the good news is that if it’s information the audience needs to know then you’re already halfway there. Infodumping is only a heinous crime when it’s self-indulgent, when it’s extraneous information that doesn’t help push forward another part of the book, be it plot, setting, or character.
So let’s assume this is necessary information. That just leaves you with the dumping part.
1) Little by little
Just like any pile of shit, an infodump is harder to spot the smaller it is. So the first trick is to break the larger dump up into chunks as small as possible and then scatter them through the book. Only give the information the reader absolutley has to know at that moment. Nothing else. Anything that can come later, include later.
2) Mask the flavor
Even if you’re conveying only as little information as possible, you can still be left with a fairly sizable dump. So mask the flavor. Cut the infodump with a little high octane action. Sitting down with a baker to learn about muffin flavors is boring. Learning about muffin flavors while a steampowered death-bot tries to shoot the baker with a death ray is fun. Simple as that. Hide the infodump in amongst something else and soon everyone will be chowing down.
3) Use your characters against your readers
Readers identify with characters. They want what the character wants. So if you can establish your character’s urgent need to learn about muffin flavoring then you have also established your readers urgent need.
This trick can often lead to the outsider character who needs things explained to them. I used to worry this might seem like a little bit of a cheap gambit, but as long as you have a strong character and they have a strong need to know, then readers tend to be very forgiving. And it sure beats a “Well as you know, Sally…” speech.
4) Be an entertainer
For the most part, people are reading fiction for fun. The reason infodumps aren’t fun is because they’re dry boring chunks of information. But they don’t have to be. We’ve all had the fun teacher. We’ve all seen the cool TED lecturer who brings the information to life. Be that person. You’re a writer. You have a unique, exciting, entertaining voice. Make your infodump sing and dance. Put it in the mouth of a funny character, a depressed character, a deranged serial-killing character. Have it downloaded into a character’s brain by an AI. Make it fun. Hell, if you do that you can even move into muffin flour consistency and not lose too many folk along the way.
And that’s pretty much it. A nice round number like “Ten Tips” would have made for a better post heading, but I don’t think you need any more than four. All you really need to do is work out what it is with you and this muffin obsession. Seriously, it’s getting a little weird.
Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.” Barnesandnoble.com listed it has one of the 20 best paranormal fantasies of the past decade, and Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels described it as, “so funny I laughed out loud.” His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Chizine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as anthologies such as The Book of Cthulhu 2 and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.