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Info Dump versus Being Left in the Dark

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Old 12-28-2013, 11:51 AM
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Default Info Dump versus Being Left in the Dark


“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’
~ Isaac Asimov

I recently read and critiqued a work in the Member's Only area that left me pondering both ends of this dichotomy. I told the author I was, in so many words, left in the dark.

The idea of the info dump being a deterrent to the reader seems to be an overused means of destructive criticism. Movies don't need to worry about the viewer understanding it all as much as the writer, still, consider "The Grudge." If there was no information for the viewer to read explaining the driving concept of the tale, the show would make little sense till close to the end, if even then.

If there's a strong, yet complex perhaps, theme, message, theory, etc. around which the story evolves, it can hardly be omitted. Is the writer required to coddle the reader because SAT's in one country or another took a real tailspin a generation or two ago? Trying to get a reader to enjoy a good blurb of information is beginning to sound a lot like coaxing a 1 year old to eat his or her oatmeal. God knows, there are enough DIY books out there on that subject alone.

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Old 12-28-2013, 12:10 PM
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Usually by the fifth draft I find the scenes are worked well enough not to require info dumps. I don't coddle my readers but I don't necessarily think they need to be subjected to my opinion and treatise either.

Most are intelligent enough once the story is worked through to fill in the blanks. My first novel is an epic fantasy but it is an absolute monarchy set in a contemporary world. Some of my readers struggled with the concept initially but they got the hang of it very quickly.
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Old 12-28-2013, 12:27 PM
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I think the idea is provide the information as needed, throughout the novel or story -- and not do it all at once. That people might get bored plowing through a bunch of information and back-story etc. doesn't necessarily mean they're ignorant or stupid. Even intelligent, well-informed readers want to be entertained and appreciate a well-paced story. No one likes a novel that reads like a textbook.
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Old 12-28-2013, 01:07 PM
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No one likes a novel that reads like a textbook.
...save for the ones who read the story well ahead of it being published and ask for the "new science" to also be explained. For my own work, I'm almost at the point where I want to do like everyone else and leave the reader to accept weird physics on blind faith.
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Old 12-28-2013, 01:10 PM
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I just made mine first person so I only ever had to explain the world within his ken.
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Old 12-28-2013, 01:17 PM
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Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
...save for the ones who read the story well ahead of it being published and ask for the "new science" to also be explained.
I doubt that.

Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
For my own work, I'm almost at the point where I want to do like everyone else and leave the reader to accept weird physics on blind faith.
I'm guessing you read a lot of science fiction -- how do your favorite authors do it?

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Old 12-28-2013, 02:33 PM
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I doubt that.
You have no reason to doubt I'm being honest.

I'm guessing you read a lot of science fiction
Far less than science itself. I have spent far more time writing the past couple years than reading more than writing tips, the Modern Writer's Handbook and currently I'm reading The Handbook of medical Psychiatry.
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Old 12-28-2013, 02:42 PM
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Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
You have no reason to doubt I'm being honest.
I'm not doubting your honesty. I'm saying that just because readers want more of an explanation, it doesn't mean they want the novel to read like a text book.

Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
Far less than science itself.
That could be a problem. They could be out there, but I don't know of any science fiction writers who haven't read a lot of science fiction.

It seems like the idea would be to include just enough explanation to make it plausible for those who care -- but not so much that it bores readers who don’t. If you haven't read much in the way of science fiction, then it seems like that would be a pretty hard thing to gauge.
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Old 12-28-2013, 02:55 PM
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Like Sheldon Cooper trying to write something that would enthrall Penny to the degree of skipping work.
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Old 12-28-2013, 03:02 PM
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That one went past me.

EDIT: OK -- I looked it up. Uh...maybe?

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Old 12-28-2013, 04:43 PM
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That one went past me.
Oh, dear. That's sad to hear writing must involve reduced exposure to frivolity. That manual has a section on emotionless behavior in depressives and schizoaffective types. I'll read ahead...
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Old 12-28-2013, 05:00 PM
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Cheer up. I gave the show a chance – just didn’t watch it enough to remember the character’s name. I didn’t think it was very funny.
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Old 12-28-2013, 05:37 PM
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Most science fiction authors who write about space travel are genuinely interested in it. For the most part, they can explain to you what a Hohmann Transfer Orbit is, in terms of delta-v budgets, and why delta-v budgets matter so much. (The way I originally learned these things myself, as a curious teenager, was through reading nonfiction books by Jerry Pournelle and Isaac Asimov in the 1980s.)

But if you read a science fiction story by Pournelle or Asimov, in which the characters travel from, for example, Earth to Venus, they won't mention Hohmann Transfer Orbits. They'll just tell you the journey takes about five months. Because that's what the reader needs to know in order to follow the story, and the conventional wisdom at that time was that rocket science is a bit complicated and most people can't understand it. I think this is still the conventional wisdom.

However, some of the brighter readers got curious and wrote to Pournelle or Asimov and asked them why their space travel took so long when the people on Star Trek and Star Wars seem to be able to hop vast distances in next to no time. So they both published separate books of essays explaining it all.

Me, I think the answer is to use footnotes and appendices. So you'd go:

The journey time from Venus to Earth was five months at this launch window.¹

¹ This is by Hohmann Transfer Orbit. See appendix 1 for details.

And then you could explain it all in Appendix 1 for those who're interested, and those who aren't mathematically inclined can skip it without the story being interrupted at all.
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Old 12-28-2013, 05:58 PM
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Me, I think the answer is to use footnotes and appendices.
Now that's a thought. An annotated sci-fi novel... not so different from The Annotated Mother Goose. Peter the Pumpkin Eater has a rather vile core.

Hohmann Transfer Orbit is, in terms of delta-v budgets
the delta-v, of course, can also be used, with all factors intact, to predict the minimum specific impulse, so fuel requirements, needed to achieve and inflect into the destination orbit.
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Old 12-29-2013, 03:07 PM
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Default the burden is 50-50

I believe the burden is shared 50-50. It is by no means the writers responsibility to spoon feed "comprehension". If the reader does not understand a book at his level he/she should take a hike and drop down a few levels to a piece they can understand.

Where the writers burden is, in my opinion, is being able to deliver a creative piece that is error free, and that follows the established standards of written work. These standards are of course the same that elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions teach around the world.
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Old 12-29-2013, 04:42 PM
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If a writer can depict the image of a sawed off, dried up arm, in a paragraph, like Jerry Bruckheimer does with 3 seconds of film time, that is a good writer.
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Old 12-29-2013, 04:51 PM
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The writer doesn't have to though. Many years ago I helped write museum labels - sometimes a story of thousands of years needed to be condensed to under 100 words. Before that I was an archaeology student my first assignment was to describe a building to someone who had never seen it before: I chose Winchester Cathedral and had to do it in under 1000 words.

Place the words correctly and a writer can evoke the image in a sentence.

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Old 12-29-2013, 04:52 PM
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The writer doesn't have to though. Many years ago I helped write museum labels - were sometimes a story of thousands of years needed to be condensed to under 100 words.

Place the words correctly and a writer can evoke the image in a sentence.
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Old 12-29-2013, 05:32 PM
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Originally Posted by egrizzly View Post
Where the writers burden is, in my opinion, is being able to deliver a creative piece that is error free, and that follows the established standards of written work. These standards are of course the same that elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions teach around the world.
You really want to set the bar that low? Geez -- no thanks.
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Old 12-29-2013, 05:36 PM
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This is going the way of most "how much is too much" writing questions. Same deal for back-story, description or just about anything else. Without context or examples -- it's pretty much a waste of time.
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Old 12-30-2013, 04:13 AM
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it's pretty much a waste of time.
Then why are you?


It can be done in a line or two. Consider Gilligan's Island. In every episode the Professor teaches everyone something that deals with chemistry or physics. Sometimes it's absurd, but it's pedantic.

Let's face it though; knowledge scares a lot of people the same as creativity.
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Old 12-30-2013, 05:14 AM
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I don't think we're talking about the same thing. I'm not talking about imparting information in a story -- I'm talking about how "much is too much" discussions in general.
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Old 12-30-2013, 05:49 AM
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I don't think we're talking about the same thing.
Actually we were. If the thread is too mundane or redundant for your taste, then why do you bother?

On topic:
Information has its wealth. It's one thing to write a story about Honey Boo Boo lifting her dress to display Marinara sauce on her undies, running from her mother into the woods, then running from a badger in the opposite direction. It's quite another to write one about Roger Wilco; Space Plumber. In the former, the writer can get away without much detail of the woods or even the badger, but in the latter, the reader's going to need to know a good bit about the sewer systems of a space station. The question is really whether it's better to get the "oatmeal" down the reader's throat right up front and get on with "dessert," or mix the oatmeal with the pudding.
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Old 12-30-2013, 06:43 AM
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I don't think it's just sci-fi, I think it's a fundamental problem of all decent speculative fiction. Sci-fi may involve dealing with bleeding-edge theoretical concepts in any science. Fantasy and sci-fi can both involve dealing with constructed cultures, societies and/or languages that are quite different to any earthly ones. Fantasy, sci-fi and horror can all involve dealing with entities that live by very different rules to creatures we understand.

You're not allowed to pause the story and give your reader a thirteen-page lecture entitled "Space Plumbing Basics", "Witchcraft In My Novel 101" or "Cthulhu: Thirteen Ways To Appease Him (In Approximate Order of Body Count)".

Game of Thrones tries to slip in exposition in sex scenes, so you get two characters discussing the %Plot_Relevant_Thing% in %World_Area% while doing it doggy-style in a barn. The series does this so often the critics have coined the word "sexposition" for this practice. It's a bit of a cheap way of doing things and risks distracting your reader from the actual information you're trying to get across.

J.R.R.Tolkien put 8 (eight!) appendices into Lord of the Rings and used no sex at all.
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Old 12-30-2013, 07:03 AM
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Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
It's quite another to write one about Roger Wilco; Space Plumber. In the former, the writer can get away without much detail of the woods or even the badger, but in the latter, the reader's going to need to know a good bit about the sewer systems of a space station.
Without reading it, I have no idea how much the reader needs to know about the sewer systems of a space station. You don't either -- because it's just something you said off the top of your head. The same can be said about your Honey Boo Boo/badger scene. It depends on the story and the author. David Foster Wallace includes pages of what some might consider "info dumps" -- but they work because they're so well written and entertaining. So it's not always about "what you can get away with." It depends on the writer and the context.

Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
The question is really whether it's better to get the "oatmeal" down the reader's throat right up front and get on with "dessert," or mix the oatmeal with the pudding.
You can ask the question all you want, but again, without context, it's rather pointless to speculate. I'm betting most people are going to say, "mix the oatmeal with the pudding" -- OK, so what? That's the easy answer. Of course, if it comes off like you're jamming something down the readers throat, you're obviously doing something wrong. So again, the answer is -- it depends.

Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
Actually we were. If the thread is too mundane or redundant for your taste, then why do you bother?
I consider it a public service. The message is, don't waste your time asking questions that can't be answered in a meaningful way. I'd circle back to what I said before -- read some science fiction. There are authors who know how to pull it off -- why not take your cues from them?
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Old 12-30-2013, 07:09 AM
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Create a character - give the plumber an apprentice and the oatmeal chef an assistant. As they work they can impart the information in a manner that isn't an infodump but a part of the story. Or put little notes/signs on the plumbing for the plumber to read as they work. Or have a really geeky guy who just loves sewage (we had a guy at college who specialised in slag heaps).

But like others have said the only real rule to writing is "Don't bore the backside of the reader."
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Old 12-30-2013, 07:24 AM
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Originally Posted by JoeMatt View Post
I consider it a public service. The message is, don't waste your time asking questions that can't be answered in a meaningful way. I'd circle back to what I said before -- read some science fiction. There are authors who know how to pull it off -- why not take your cues from them?
If you find a question too vague for your tastes, there are three possible ways of dealing with it.

1) "Could you be more specific about this aspect, please?"
2) Close the thread and move on without posting, or
3) Be a dick.

You're not normally a dick, so I'm a bit surprised to see you taking option #3.
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Old 12-30-2013, 07:51 AM
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you're obviously doing something wrong.
In the arts? Save for the medical arts, using that reference loosely, there's no wrong or right, yet there's good and bad, scientific or naïve et al.

You're not normally a dick, so I'm a bit surprised to see you taking option #3
Had me wondering that as well, but you've been here longer than I. I didn't realize he had option #2...
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Old 12-30-2013, 08:00 AM
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Originally Posted by Non Serviam View Post
If you find a question too vague for your tastes, there are three possible ways of dealing with it.

1) "Could you be more specific about this aspect, please?"
2) Close the thread and move on without posting, or
3) Be a dick.

You're not normally a dick, so I'm a bit surprised to see you taking option #3.
For number one, it's pretty hard to be specific enough without context. I'm not a mod, so number two is out. I guess that leaves number three. Oh well.

P.S. -- the OP said he hadn't read much science fiction -- you don't think "read more science fiction" is a good suggestion??

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Old 12-30-2013, 08:05 AM
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Originally Posted by TheDumbOne View Post
In the arts? Save for the medical arts, using that reference loosely, there's no wrong or right, yet there's good and bad, scientific or naïve et al.
Well, it's subjective of course, but if readers feel like you're shoving something down their throats, I'd say you are doing something wrong. There might not be right or wrong as far as up front rules go -- but I think you can recognize if something isn't working and say so, can't you? But again, this is all hypothetical -- based on some imaginary story.
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