The Dreaded Info-Dump

The opening pages of novels written in the 19th century and before were often quite leisurely. The village where the action takes place might be introduced. The life history of the lead character’s grandfather might be briefly described.

This kind of opening just won’t work today. Authors are well advised to open the story at the latest point possible. If it’s not a moment of grave danger, at least start with the scene where the central conflict is out in the open. Fill in the background, if any filling in is needed, later.

Authors in the 19th century didn’t have to compete with television or movies, much less the Internet. A reader would settle down after supper with nothing better to do than be absorbed by the book for several hours. Today a novel has to compete with other options in personal entertainment.

The action opening, however, poses a narrative problem that 19th century authors didn’t have to contend with. How exactly, and how soon, should the author pause the action in order to make it clear to the reader what’s at stake and how the main character arrived at this harrowing juncture?

The pejorative term for the paragraphs that fill in the details of the story’s background is “info-dump.” Writers are sternly advised not to indulge in the dreaded info-dump. If your story is generic — if the reader can be relied on to make correct inferences about what’s going on, based on his or her knowledge of the genre — then no info-dump may be needed. On the other hand, writers of fantasy and science fiction are well advised not to indulge in a generic setting. Creating a unique and memorable world is important!

To illustrate, let’s consider a made-up example of an opener. Here ’tis:

The car wouldn’t start. Third time this week.

In a mere eight words, we have both an immediate plot problem (which we can guess will soon become a factor in or exacerbate the BIG plot problem) and a clear indication of time, place, and character. The time is 20th or 21st century. The lead character is middle class — he or she has a car, but not enough money or leisure to get the car repaired. The setting may be country or city, but it’s most likely a place that has roads. At a guess, the time of day is morning, and the lead character is on his or her way to work. All of that information is implicit. The author doesn’t need to spell it out.

Now let’s try to rework that opener as the lead of a fantasy story.

The dragon was being uncooperative, as usual.

That’s a perfectly serviceable opener; again, we can guess that the dragon’s inclination not to cooperate will shortly lead us to the big plot problem; but this opener tells us much, much less about the story. We can see that there are dragons in the story, and that some sort of cooperation between the lead character and the dragon is considered normal. But are dragons common or rare? Does everybody have access to a dragon, or only a few select people? What might one want a dragon to do? Is the viewpoint character human, elf, dwarf, or what? Rich? Poor? Why might the dragon be uncooperative? Are we in a castle or a cave? Quite likely, some sort of info-dump is going to be needed, and soon.

I started looking at my info-dump options this morning because I’ve written what I feel is a very serviceable opener for the prequel to my series. A cultural and geopolitical conflict is about to engulf two major powers, and the conflict is encapsulated in the moment on page 1 when a smallish military force approaches an isolated village and discovers the unfortunate nature of the village defenses. We’re not in a combat situation quite yet, and in fact there’s not going to be an actual battle scene, because I hate battle scenes, but the danger is real and the immediate stakes are clear.

This central conflict, which is the subject of the novel, has roots that go back a couple of hundred years, long before my lead character was born. What the village is doing there and why it’s a problem for the people who have deployed the soldiers could perhaps be outlined in a flashback showing how the lead character found himself standing on a hill looking down at the village through a telescope, but the flashback would likely rely on a lot of “as you know, Bob” dialog, which is an absolute taboo. I won’t go there. The alternative is a straight authorial info-dump, but the info-dump would be at least three times longer than the opening scene. I’m not sure an opening scene, no matter how tense, will support such a leisurely delay.

I’ll come up with something serviceable. I just thought I’d take a break from tearing my hair out by sharing the problem with you.

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