Infodumps: The Allure of Oversharing

advice infodumping

I’ve heard many writers describe their process as follows:

It’s like there’s a movie in my head and I’m writing down what’s happening.

I totally get that. As a discovery writer myself, I would say my process could be described this way. Scenes almost always play out in my head visually, as if I’m watching my characters from a remote monitor in front of a director’s chair.

Heck, now that I think about it, I’m actually calling for camera angles and blocking while I’m writing. Never really put that together before, but when I use beats in dialogue:

Tandy shrugged. “I dunno.”

I’m actually asking for a medium shot of Tandy, not just cheating a dialogue tag. Granted, I don’t expect readers to interpret my ‘brain movie’ exactly as I do — but I think some writers try really hard to get that level of control.

I’ve seen plenty try to over-describe the movie in their head when they translate it to the page. Since we know that a picture is worth a thousand words, you can imagine how cluttered a page can get when trying to describe moving pictures.

That’s where you get two paragraphs describing what everyone in the room is wearing, how they’re standing, what they had for lunch, and what their hands are doing at any given second. This is, in its own way, an infodump. Maybe it’s not a flood of backstory or worldbuilding, but it’s a flood of needless information.

Knowing how I write, I’m at low risk for doing this. My danger lies in the other direction: the white room.

I don’t like writing descriptions of scenery or costumes. I mean, I could write volumes about these things in Jack’s universe, but I don’t enjoy putting those details in the prose. My goal is always to put the least amount of description possible, and to give it extra purpose (characterization) whenever I can.

My reasoning is simple: I just can’t imagine that most readers care that much about the minutiae, and even if they do care, it still slows down the story.

For example, I know exactly what the SA-14 rifle that is mentioned several times in the series so far looks like. I know that it’s a design that SevenArms stole from the PAC when a bunch of Chinese engineers from Norinco fled to Australia during the war. The rifle has a backstory.

Cool for me, but it has no bearing on the narrative (at this point). In reality, the look of the rifle has no effect on anything.

I can think of one example where a specific rifle was meant to characterize Monk (in the prequel short story) because it was decked out with accessories. Even in that case, I basically said it was decked out without going into specifics because, again, I’m sure most readers don’t care that the accessories included a helical drum magazine that attaches under the barrel and a laser designator for controlling GreySec’s automated turret systems.

Then it would take me a paragraph to describe all that stuff and how it works. No reason.

Nah. I’m far more inclined to just say it’s an assault rifle and let the reader fill that in however they want.

But how many times have you read a fantasy story where some hero’s sword is described down to the smallest detail? Elaborate descriptions of the metalwork, the taper, the grind, what metal was used and where the metal came from, who forged it, how many times it was quenched, and what the blade looks like when the sun hits it.

I mean…

I think that the painstaking description of the sword is really important to the writer who’s imagining it, but these are greuling details for everyone else. Am I wrong? Probably, because this is all opinion. But from the standpoint of writing advice, I would say it’s worth thinking about.

I’ll tell you another reason why I don’t think all the over-describing is warranted: adaptations to another medium hardly get it right anyway.

Yes, I would love for the Jack Universe to become a TV show. But I look at how some of my favorite book series, like The Wheel of Time, have been adapted, and I figure my descriptions don’t really matter. How much of that show looks anything like the book? Not much, and Jordan described minute details more than anyone else I’ve ever read.

And what about my other favorite, The Dark Tower? I can’t even name five things in the movie that I remember from the books. There’s a Gunslinger, and it’s a weird story, but the similarities seem to end at that point. And I don’t count character names. You can’t rename Luke Skywalker John Bosley and call Star Wars an adaptation of Charlie’s Angels.

Do I want to go deep into descriptions and backstory, really painting that visual picture? Sure, sometimes. I have a BeanStalk-based encyclopedia in my head at this point and I would like to use it.

But most of it doesn’t fit in the narrative. What I’m trying to figure out is how to best take a cue from the video game industry and incorporate “optional lore”. In games, this usually means books, videos, audio recordings, or other media that the player can find in the game world that enrich the lore. Encyclopedia pages, history books, and things like that.

In novels, we already have the epistolary method, i.e. Dracula, where entire stories are told through letters and ephemera. Authors have also used the “journal entry” approach, wherein epistolary content is added between the novel’s chapters.

The first draft of Into the BeanStalk actually had this and I cut it. To me, it just slows everything down. (I ended up using what was there to make the Excerpts from the MetaNet book.)

I’ve got other ideas, but some of my favorite ones will take time to put together. For example, I’m considering developing a simulated MetaNet portal with a search engine — an interactive place for readers to find all the bonus backstory and ephemera they want, but only if they choose to do so.

Also thought about adding parts of the story where the characters find something (like an isostick or a book) and shove it in their pocket. Then there’s a QR code on the page where you can go, if you want, check it out online. (Someone has tried this already, I’m sure. Anyone know?)

What do you think? Is more info and description your thing, or do you prefer to keep the pace up? How about additional content that can be found elsewhere, such as on this website?

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