Infodumping conversations

Infodumping has a bad rap until you let Rob Sawyer defend its reputation, and then you start nodding along and agreeing with him. So when I’m talking about this kind of infodumping, it’s not the kind of infodump where you stop the story to handwave away the physics of interplanetary travel that we’re not capable of with all of today’s technology. As long as it’s engaging, it’s in play.

What I’m talking about isn’t so much the “As you know, Bob” conversations, but the “I know Bob, let me tell you about him, now that you need to know this” conversations. There are times you can get away with rehashing old information both characters already know. People IRL do this all the time. It can feel very natural to have two people about to break up their marriage rehash every sore wrong because they don’t want to take out the trash.

There’s probably even a great time in a work where Character A tells Character B precisely what they need to know and have it sing off the page. You may be able to get away with using this a couple of times in a novel-length piece. Where it starts to drag is where it becomes a primary method of telling your characters and readers what they need to know.

Even through dialogue, it’s still telling. And even if you show the characters talking, it is the least exciting method of conveying that bit of information? There’s a reason that the bad guy spilling their guts over their evil plan only feels satisfying if the protagonists had to work very hard for that information.

Knowledge in the story has to be earned for it to have weight and value. To talk about my method, I write my stories so that almost no new information comes out in the second half. Every part of the first half is in the first half because it sets up things in the second half. By the time the reader gets to where they have to know a plot point, they already know it, just before it’s needed.

It’s why I don’t have three acts. I have football games. The first half is a build-up, from the start of the beginning to the halfway point. All the stakes are in place before the spectacular halftime show that is the point of no return. It’s then a downhill race to get from the beginning of the end to the end of the end as I tie up all the loose strings I cut in the first half.

I worked a kitchen job for one summer over my undergrad, and it was enough that I tip 20% to the waitress no matter the quality of the food ever since. But I never forgot my boss saying, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” For writing, if your characters have time to lean, they have time to scream. I think characters that stand around and talk should be the exception, not the rule. If the reader needs to read a conversation, either the stakes have to matter so the reader is on the edge of their seat, or the characters should be doing something else that’s important to the plot while they’re having the conversation.

One hundred thousand words aren’t that much to tell an engaging work. To waste it on characters telling other characters what they need to know more than once or twice just feels wasteful. Considering a story is defined by how the character changes, using dialogue to show the characters what they need to know isn’t going to change them as much as having earned it.

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