Thursday, May 9, 2013

Avoiding info dumps

One thing writers often struggle with is how to convey information without big blocks of exposition (more bluntly known as an info dump). "But how will people know what I'm talking about if I don't explain?" the writer asks. "Readers have to understand the rules of this fantasy world." Or, "I need to explain this character's history."

A good example is how Neal Shusterman introduces the concept of "clappers" in his book Unwind. (Interestingly, Unwind begins with an expository document called "The Bill of Life," but this is barely more than 100 words. And it's clear from how Shusterman handles other details of this future/alternate world that "The Bill of Life" was a deliberate choice--not something he used because he didn't know any other methods for introducing backstory.)

I use the "clappers" example because of its subtlety. Shusterman never gives us an info dump on this topic. "Clappers" is just one of those terms that we figure out from the context. It first appears in this exchange between one of the main characters and his father:

"His father sits in a chair, watching the news as Connor enters.
'Hi, Dad.'
His father points at some random carnage on the news. 'Clappers again.'
'What did they hit this time?'
'They blew up an Old Navy in the North Akron mall.'"

We get a hint of violence, but we still don't really know who clappers are or why they are called "clappers." It's easy to overlook this bit of dialogue anyway because of what else is going on in this scene; Connor has recently learned that his father is sending him away to a grim future (as one does with rebellious teens in this dystopia). The next time we hear of clappers is about 80 pages later:

"The last time there were policemen in the school, someone called in a clapper threat. The school was evacuated ..."

Again, there's no explicit explanation. We're getting that clappers are dangerous because we hear all about the response to them, but we still don't know who they are, or how they operate, or why. We finally learn more not because Shusterman tells us, but because of what he shows us--first in chapter 17, and then later on in the book.

For an even more extreme example of introducing information through context rather than info dumps, check out Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The very slang that the narrator uses is invented (though based partly on Russian, so readers familiar with that language do have an edge). Here is a sample from the first page:

"Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe ..."

Because Burgess uses "milk" first, we know "moloko" is milk, and it's easy to figure out that vellocet and synthemesc and drencrom are all drugs put into the milk because they can't legally buy alcohol. We figure out the drug part because it's clear that this is a substitute for liquor, and because it induces visions of angels and saints in your footwear.  (And also because "synthemesc" in particular sounds like the names we still give drugs now.) At first, it's slow going, but it's amazing how possible it is to figure everything out from context, and not with a lot of conscious parsing either. I always find myself drawn so naturally into Burgess's world that when I think back on this book, I remember the story clearly but often forget about the language.

It works this way in real life, too. People around us don't stop to explain every little thing, every piece of their history, every allusion they make. We are used to gathering information and piecing it together ourselves. My suggestion to writers would be to skip the exposition and write a draft assuming that readers will pick up the important points and bits of backstory. Then use critiquers to find the places where exposition is absolutely necessary, and insert hints and bits of explanation only to the extent necessary for the reader to figure things out. Readers don't have to know everything about the book's world, just enough to follow the story.