Worldbuilding: Avoiding the Info Dump

Info-dumping. We’re all guilty of it at one time or another, especially if we’re diligent writers who have Done Our Research. Maybe it’s habits left over from too many school writing papers. Maybe we have a secret yen to write the next Moby Dick. Maybe it’s just that we did all this work, found out all kinds of new things we’d never heard of before, and of course we want to share it all!

A noble impulse. No, really. When I go after a reference book I want something exactly like that. Packed full of info, all the info, the more esoteric the better. Heck, I still have a copy of The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island for the extensive fictional ecology outlined in it. (The book is top-heavy with predators, real ecosystems have far more herbivores and omnivores, but eh, it’s fun. And pretty!)

Info-dumping in a reference book is great. In a story? Not so much.

Think of it this way. Stories are about people, first and foremost. They’re not about the info. They’re about what characters do with that info.

The trick is to make worldbuilding information part of the action. Something that moves the story forward, instead of a chunk of research-dry info dropped into the middle of an action scene. Here’s a few ways I’ve found that work, most of the time.

First, if you absolutely must drop a critical piece of info into an action scene, keep it short. Think a Hero Detective noticing that one critical clue as the Suspect tries to escape! Clothing wrapped left over right, instead of the other way around. Blood, dripping from one specific wound. An odd purple tint where magic fire should be green, and that’s important because….

Short. Simple. You can always expand on it when your heroes are getting over the adrenaline shakes, after the action is over. “Well, I hadn’t seen a purple tint to the Fell Flames spell since that time twelve years ago when we were fighting off the disguised Snakemen of Yith….” And so on.

Second, try to get in worldbuilding info as much as possible in setting descriptions. For example, as your character’s moving through the environment between action scenes, or on their way to the main Quest. If your hero is riding through the dazzling Rainbow Ice-Sculpted Valley, you have the perfect excuse for him to think about the legends behind this place. Or even how the legends have grown from the historical reality of his own band of companions seven centuries before bracing the last of their power so Demon Lord Icefeather’s fatal spell hit the landscape instead of a band of frightened elvish refugees.

Note, this one depends on the point of view you’ve got available and the character themselves. Make sure it covers what they think is important. Which may not be everything you want to get in. But keep people in character. Your reader’s far more likely to believe the details if the cowboy surrounded by a beautiful desert landscape is paying attention mostly to the hints of an ambush ahead, rather than stopping to rhapsodize on how the cactus needles catch the light of dawn.

…No, really, I ran into a men’s action-adventure that went on for about three pages this way, finishing up with, but of course the main character was paying no attention to all this scenery because it was irrelevant to his life of seeking an honorable death. If it’s not relevant to the character the reader doesn’t really want to know! Walled it.

Third, the explanation, or lecture. While you can give the reader info this way (I certainly have), it should be used sparingly, and in a context where it makes sense in-story. “All right, I’m a vampire hunter stuck in a monster-besieged building with a bunch of game but completely freaked-out civilians. Time to give them the rundown on How To Kill Ugly Stuff.” Actual lectures, if your character is some kind of instructor, are also a possibility. Just keep it brisk and to the point, without all the rambling and “um”s you remember from your own classes. Fiction should be better than reality!

Fourth is a method I’ve seen but not yet used personally: the mission report! Yes, if your character works for an Organization, they’ll likely be required to officially report on whatever they just got mixed up in. Which might include relevant background info for higher-ups not acquainted with, say, the alarm calls of velociraptors, the peculiar whine of a time portal about to go rogue, or the specific crackle of a storm-lightning offensive spell as opposed to a static-lightning ward.

What else can you come up with for getting information to your readers?

15 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Avoiding the Info Dump

  1. Personally I don’t really mind info-dumps.
    I like reading about worldbuilding, and I read fast enough that it would take a really, really long one to actually stand out to me as an info-dump.

    In fact, I’ve read several stories where I wish they would skip past the cringe-worthy “romance” and “heroism” (harems and cheat-skills) and go back to the much more interesting worldbuilding.
    Plenty of MCs are more bland and boring than a lecture on insect ecology.

    The most common time I see complaints about info-dumps is when a chapter is released that’s mostly worldbuilding.

    Honestly, I think that’s more of an issue of the chapter-release format than the writing.
    If you read it all at once in a book, then you’d never notice a few thousand words of worldbuilding, but if the readers are going back to re-read the story to refresh their knowledge and the only addition is an info-dump it can get irritating.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. One of the… weaknesses… of prose is that everything has to be described to the reader. Not just how the world works, but how the world looks. So those problems comepound each other.

      I’ve noticed comics can get away with sometimes having more world-buidling because there’s still a visual element to explaining it that you can’t get in a book.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. *Nod* A good point, and one reason manga versions of LNs sometimes come across better. Along with the fact that the manga generally get the chance to clean up and organize the timeline of the story a bit!

        Like

      2. Of course one must always work with the means of their medium. I’ve lost count of the number fanfics I’ve written that try to utilize visual tropes in their writing to…cringeworthy effect. The worst of them are utterly unreadable because it all ends up a jumbled mess.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. >>One of the… weaknesses… of prose is that everything has to be described to the reader.<<
        While this is true, prose also has its own strength.

        Take Sword Art Online (yes it's my go-to, but that's because it's what I'm most familiar with in this context). The anime is pretty meh and it's nowhere near as apparent as when comparing Kirito in the anime to Kirito in the novels.

        In the anime he's kind of a boring invincible character based on the way he's presented. You don't get to see inside his head in an anime the way you do in the novels where he spends a lot of time talking about just about everything. Sometimes acting as an exposition fairy as he goes over things in his head, but usually it comes across as him just plain nerding out over things.

        Really it's a case of tradeoffs. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Culture shock– have different characters from various countries in the same party, and then stage some scene where one of them behaves in a way that the others find atrange, leading to a discussion about how different cultures in your world view things differently.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David Weber’s books are a bit infamous among the Baen crowd for particularly long infodumps, to the point where ‘Weberian’ can refer either to equally massive infodumps or missile swarms.

    I try to work them in so that they aren’t noticeable, but this has sometimes had the effect of not infodumping early enough to communicate necessary details to the audience.

    -Albert

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The other end is what happens when you have insufficient infodumps, or possibly insufficient worldbuilding.

    Something I’ve seen a few times in dystopian stories, the character is running around getting kicked in the teeth at every turn and showing how terrible everything is that they never actually show how anybody survives.
    After all, even the most exploitative megacorp needs people to live long enough to be exploited!

    It’s like they think that because the world is “broken” they don’t need to finish building it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Only really an issue in longer series. For one-off works like a single novel or a movie it can work. Of course then you get sequelitis and things like Mad Max Fury Road where I couldn’t even contemplate watching the movie because I HAVE watched the other movies and the entire premise of Fury Road just doesn’t hold up. It’s been too long since civilization collapsed. Even if they hadn’t used up all the gasoline anything left would be useless because it had been sitting there too long. The stuff has a shelf-life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If you want to learn economical worldbuilding, try a good short midcentury sf novel. I’ve just been reading Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp and Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, and the worldbuilding in each is extremely economical, especially since both are rather short and fast-paced. (Harrison has a gun standoff about a page into the novel. No wasted time at all.)

    OTOH, pretty much every kind of information in a novel or story can be treated as economical worldbuilding, including action scenes and character introspection about their beloved. If you want people to believe there’s love or disagreement, you have to give corroborating information. And you have to give it at the right moment. And if you want to describe the heroine’s cute Regency outfit, you give her a reason to be thinking about it, and do not throw it into a bit where she is riding hard to save her country. (Unless you have her regret the rip in her nice new dress’ trim when she gets snagged by a twig. But not half a page worth of regret.)

    Of course, you can also see that both authors leverage the amount of alien-ness that they permit to occur in their stories, in order to push forward the action and keep the story moving. They also can do a fair bit with implication, which is a timesaver if readers are not going to get upset about entire planets being visited offstage. (These guys like to give the reader something to think about, so that they don’t notice what’s being skipped over to avoid boredom.)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Avoid the Info Dump!

    Reduce Info!
    Only say what is relevant and necessary.

    Reuse Info!
    You explained last chapter, that’s good enough.

    Recycle Info!
    Wait, isn’t that just being uncreative?

    Like

  7. For folks interested: listen to this gal on info dumps.
    She does info dumps that don’t feel like info dumps, both for normal people and folks who dont like info dumps.

    (I like like info dumps.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *Rueful* I have been known to squee in happiness when running across academic pieces where a guy’s comparing and contrasting two versions of a ritual in cuneiform and has come to the conclusion that the longer one is a direct copy, while the shorter with different wording was scribed down by another guy from memory, changing verb tenses, etc. so that what he wrote down had the right rhythm.

      Bunnies: “Yes! We can so steal this to have a modern character reconstruct an ancient Ritual of Power and get it wrong! But it’s close enough to right that it does something.

      The academic text in question was Beyond Hatti: A tribute to Gary Beckman, a collection of pieces edited by Billie Jean Collins and Piotr Michalowski. Awesome Christmas present.

      Yes, I read books like this for fun. I’m Odd. And you never know when a neat bit will turn up that makes the next story work!

      Liked by 1 person

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