I’ve been reading too many fantasy beginnings lately.
For the record, I don’t consider any insertion of information into a fantasy story “infodumping.” Some is necessary to acquaint the reader with the story’s world, after all. I consider it infodumping when it becomes pervasive enough to be annoying, and especially when I consider the information too much at once or non-essential.
1) Beware the beginning. It’s the great victim of infodumpers. What better place, a fantasy author might reason, to tell her audience all about the story and the characters than right in the beginning?
How about, “As it becomes necessary?”
The problem with using the start of a story as a landfill for information is that the beginning has other purposes to serve. It introduces the setting and characters in sheer detail (such as dialogue) as well as directly stated information. It’s your best chance to hook the reader. It needs to be indicative of the rest of the story, in tone, content, pace, or, ideally, all three. And it’s very easy to make clichéd.
I’ve ranted before about extensive description and exposition at the beginning of a fantasy story. Too often the author tries to pan in cinematically, “incidentally” telling her reader about the famous town that King Blahblahblah built, or starts with a paragraph to “catch” the reader and then long paragraphs of description. Both are wrong. The cinematic technique is too overused at this point, and contributes to another common amateur fantasy author problem: not deciding who the hell is the viewpoint character. The paragraphs of description slam the story to a dead halt.
Information is only part of the story, not the whole. Don’t make someone decide she’d rather be reading Mercedes Lackey’s latest because you can’t control the impulse to run on at the mouth about the royal family’s genealogy or the way the mountains look oh so pretty in the sunrise.
2) Let your characters introduce themselves. Too often, even when authors do pick a viewpoint character right from the start, there are stretches where that viewpoint character vanishes into obscurity while the author rhapsodizes on about the other characters’ personalities, history, and eye colors. Just like extensive description in general, this is given no consideration for whether the viewpoint character would actually notice the things being described. Rare is the author who also takes into account just how much of that description the reader is likely to remember.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I know Sixsense the bard better when she speaks and snaps at Alatha the apprentice for carrying her case wrong, and her stupid dog for not guiding her steps properly, and does the world know how hard it is to be blind, and where is her tea?
Let dialogue and interaction do more to define your characters than the dumping on people’s heads. As well, guide your viewpoint character’s observations to what would most naturally intrigue him. If he’s known this woman for a long time, he’s unlikely to “realize again how pretty Rhaela looked, with her hair the color of ripe corn.” On the other hand, he might notice if Rhaela passes through a beam of sunlight and her hair flashes.
3) Don’t describe things your readers should already know about. These can be hard to spot, but at least half the fantasy books I read are full of the “snow is cold, fire is hot, the sky is blue” kind of information. Perhaps the laws really are different in your world, and you might want to mention that “the sky was a fine, light green this morning, echoing the color of the spring grass below.” But if they’re not, don’t waste time talking about how your character (gasp!) knows how to build a fire from spending years in the wilderness. Show him building a fire quickly and competently, and it won’t give your readers a shock when he’s revealed to be competent in other camping areas as well.
Similarly, don’t repeat too many of the same details too often. Perhaps it’s worthwhile mentioning that your character shivers at the sound of wolves howling, because he saw his family slaughtered by werewolves before his very eyes. However, if the wolves keep howling, don’t do the same “He shivered as the sight of his dying family tore out his heart once again.” We get it, he’s afraid. No need to keep repeating the memory.
4) Trim information when you do show it. Occasionally, there’s absolutely no other alternative to straight infodump or flashback. Your readers must know the royal family’s hierarchy of heirs, or why the werewolves wielding knives is a Bad Thing. There are tricks you can use to make your readers not wander through those pages with their eyes glazed and their minds yawning.
For one thing, don’t make it pages. A lot of fantasy exposition reminds me of my freshman students’ papers. They keep repeating themselves, circling back to clarify things that were clear the first time, or including non-essential details (see point 5) like the dead princess’s eye color. Something that could easily be five sentences becomes four paragraphs through lack of attention.
Be more ruthless with your exposition paragraphs than anywhere else in the novel. Slice and dice the details. Ask if you really need to write something like, “Trellion remembered how her ghostly pale face shone in the light of the moon,” when it could just as easily be, “Trellion remembered how pale her face looked in the moonlight.” Keep a harsh eye on the festering sores of details that pad the paragraphs or use purple prose, and rip them out when you find them.
For another thing, there’s absolutely no need to tell your readers everything about how your main character looks at once or what his heritage is, especially when you intend to repeat it 50,000,000 times. Slip in the detail about his blue eyes on page one, the detail about his brown hair on page 20, and mention that he was tall enough to reach the very highest peaches on the tree on page 50. Meanwhile, you can be developing his personality through dialogue and response to action and the other characters. I always feel I know a person I’m introduced to like that better than a person dumped on me as a page of garbage at the beginning of the story.
5) Know what is not essential. You might really love the description of how the ocean curls around the island of Kadeira. But is it important to the story? Does your reader need to know who founded this city? Do your characters need to note the placement and rank and coat of arms of every person who parades before the King’s court?
Most likely not. Gaze hard at those details whenever you wander into infodumping. There’s a time for tightening the language, as I mentioned above, and a time for cutting it out altogether.
There’s a simple test for this, really. Does it matter to the story? The story needs to come first, before your pride in your descriptive skills or your carefully worked-out history. And yes, I am insane and firm enough in my opinions to believe that this matters even if the story is “only” for personal entertainment and you never intend to show it to anyone else. In fact, I think it’s more important then. I write stories that I want to read. Why would I include a scene that I wouldn’t want to read in another book?
There’s a place for writing out those genealogies, those histories, those ranks, and the placement of every tessera in the mosaic ceiling. It’s in your worldbuilding notes. Those two, I am firmly convinced, should not be combined. Filter them out and use only the very best and most essential of the information for your story. I think authors should even change the wording. Who’s to say that you won’t find a better way of describing how the ocean rises than the pretty, pretty passage you wrote in your worldbuilding notes?
6) Trust your readers. Sometimes it may seem as if you must include the source of the green light that dances on the ocean on a warm summer night, because your readers might freak out if you don’t. Take a deep breath…and let it go.
Because so many fantasy authors are so bad at exposition and description, quite a few readers skim those passages. (I know I do this with clothing descriptions, no matter how much I like the author. I’m just not interested in how low the neckline goes or what fabric it’s made of, thanks). They might not even notice the details you’re so earnestly striving to put in there, or will think they’re mere clutter to the story. They may notice, and blink a little, and then rightly accept them as grace notes and dive back into the story. They may wonder, and want to find out more—but still read on, trusting that you will bring it back up and explain it more fully if the dancing green light on the ocean is absolutely essential to the story.
Most readers are not put off by this kind of thing. If they happen to recognize in-jokes from another story of yours they’ve read, great. If not, there’s no harm done. And sometimes, it can make the readers want to find out more about your world. This was the effect for a lot of people from the Silmarillion references in LOTR.
If you’re unsure of how much you need to explain, talk to other people about this. If all of them freak out about the green light, introduce a (terse) explanation. If none of them even notice, you probably don’t have to worry about it.
Odd how part of me as I read fantasy books can always be snapped right out of the story the moment the exposition begins, and turns into a sharp-clawed analysis beast asking how much of this is necessary.