The Dreaded Infodump

Exposition is a crucial part of any story. It’s how you create your world and how you share it with your reader. Yet it’s also a great way to bring your narrative flow to a crashing halt and bore anyone who was kind enough to pick up your book. Writers often decry the “infodump”, the long, uninterrupted section of pure exposition which sits in the middle of your tale like an undigested lump of carbs. Yet it sometimes seems like a necessary evil. If you’re writing about a secondary world, especially, you need to convey a lot of setting and character information in a hurry, information your reader cannot be expected to know on their own.

There are a couple solutions to this problem, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One is to simply not do it–to shift the burden to your reader. William Gibson is famous for never explaining any of the crazy concepts he dumps on his readers. I remember reading Neuromancer for the first time and having to constantly check dictionaries and encylopedias to figure out what he was talking about–and nine times out of ten, even that wasn’t enough. Gibson expects you to pick things up from context clues. There’s a good reason why he does this, and it’s not just to frustrate his readers. He writes his stories from the perspective of his characters–characters who already know what an Ono-Sendai Deck is for, and what carbon fiber is and why you would build an airplane out of it. He shoves you into their headspace and this builds an incredible sense of immediacy and presence. He makes you live in his world. He’s a master of this, and lesser authors trying the same trick usually fail. Their work becomes impenetrable and mystifying, and not in a good way.

A more common technique is to use “infodrips” instead. Rather than just blurting out setting data in long multi-paragraph dialogue sections, you can deliver your exposition just a little at a time. A sentence here, a few words there, spread out across action scenes and great character moments. This technique helps keep your readers from feeling like they’re cramming for a pop quiz, and it can be effective–assuming it’s done with proper timing. Infodrips are fine in the first act of a story, and can be used sparingly in the second act. If you’re still delivering vital world-building information in the third act, your readers will (rightly) feel like you’ve been holding out on them. Oh, it turns out that the Sword of the Deathmuncher can only be destroyed by stabbing it into the heart of the Night Glacier? A fact which we don’t find out until the Swordruiner is actually on top of said glacier? Your readers will feel cheated. Additionally, infodripping can make your readers feel like you’re holding their hand as you cross the street. Like you don’t trust them to “get” your story unless you’re constantly explaining every little detail.

The best solution, in my experience, has been to avoid exposition wherever possible. Not by leaving everything obscure, but by grounding my stories to the maximum possible degree. Secondary worlds are wonderful places to get lost in, but by tying them closely to the real world, they become richer and they resonate better with the reader. The fewer things you need to explain, the more your readers will sink into the actual story. Cut back as much exposition as you can. If your character is carrying a Kandisian force-glaive, could you achieve the same effect by saying they’re holding a plain old halberd? Does your story need a High Hierophant of the Seven Tyronian Mysteries, or can you get away with calling them the Space Pope? Maybe you can’t! Maybe there’s a real difference, one super important to your plot. More often than not, however, you can easily use a simpler term or a more relatable concept to the same effect.

Look at your story, at what you’re trying to say with it, at what effect you want to achieve. Think about how to achieve that sense of mystery or emotional truth with more grounded ideas. If you do absolutely need to put something in your story that has to be explained in depth, that’s fine. But do you really need two such things? Three? High concept notions are fun, and can make your story stand out. Putting too many of them in one story, however, leaves you scrambling to explain how they work and how they interact–robbing you of time you could be spending on character arcs and building suspense. Infodumps are evil, kids! And the trick to fighting necessary evils is to isolate them and break them down into smaller problems, whenever possible.

Three Act Structure

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to write a book. In these articles I’ve been outlining how I do it, because that’s what I know to write about, but there are no binding rules, no arbitrary guidelines. That said, there are some structural… suggestions that can benefit almost any writer. Stories can have more impact when they follow a basic architecture. Even here there are variations. I know people who stick to the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. I know writers who like five act structures, because that was good enough for Shakespeare, dammit. Personally I work with the three act structure, which is the simplest and, I think, the most effective.

You can think of three act structure as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Or the setup, the buildup, and the punchline. I like to think of it this way;

ACT I: Oh, look, I’m in a forest.

ACT II: Oh, no! I’m getting lost in this forest!

ACT III: Oh, look, there’s a way out of this forest.

Perhaps I should elaborate.

Act I of any story is the shortest. Sadly, it also has to do the most work. This is going to make up about 25% of your total word count, but it needs to do the following things: establish all the main characters of your story, as well as the setting, pace, and tone. Establish the problem of the story, as well as the stakes (what happens if the problem is, or isn’t resolved). By the end of act one your protagonist must be stuck on a path that leads to a final conflict. That can mean that the evil mustachio-twirling villain has kidnapped their boyfriend. It can also mean your hero has realized they have a drinking problem, and they’re headed for rock bottom.

Act II is the longest act, the most fun, and absolutely, without question, the most dangerous. Act two is where you develop all your clever ideas, where your protagonist tries out various solutions to the problem (none of which, of course, work). It’s where you have room and time to explore the setting and build character arcs and do all the fun parts of writing… and if you make a misstep, your story will go right off the rails. Act two is a time of steadily increasing tension, modulated with (occasional) moments of relief. All that exploring you’re doing? Imagine a maze with one exit, and all the various paths through the maze MUST lead to that exit, even if they wind a little bit. It’s way too easy for something to go wrong in act two which then sabotages the most important act…

Act III is longer than act one, but shorter than act two. It’s the most laser-focused of your story’s sections and often the easiest one to write–although, perversely enough, it can also be the thing that kills you. When act three begins the die is cast. Your protagonist knows (or thinks they know) how to solve the problem. They have good, compelling reasons why they MUST solve the problem. The stakes have never been higher. The protagonist works at nothing else past this point–they will sacrifice anything to resolve the story. The antagonist (whether you have a bald, cat-stroking villain or a natural disaster like a mudslide) is moving steadily toward an easy win and they have every reason to be confident. Then the magic happens. Somehow (you’d better know how) the protagonist gets the better of the antagonist in a surprise twist and the world is set to rights. Yay! Then you can have a denouement that’s as long or as short as you like (I prefer super-short), and you’re done.

Of course none of this happens by magic. You need to outline your story (if only in your head) before you start writing. You can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. There’s an old bit of writing advice I’ve found to be almost universally true: if there’s a problem in Act III, it’s a problem with Act I. Go back and look and you’ll see you didn’t set something up properly.

I’ll add two corollaries to this chestnut. First: If there’s a problem in Act I, it’s a problem with Act III. If you have trouble making your protagonist believable (could a four year-old really build a rocket to escape the Mars-beasts?) it’s because they’re the wrong person to face down the big antagonist at the end of the tale. If the setting feels off or boring, it’s because it’s too small to hold the ending.

And finally: if there’s a problem in Act II, it’s because you’re writing the wrong story. Act II is for exploration. Often times, you can explore so far you find yourself in a completely different story–maybe the story you really wanted to write in the first place. If this happens, don’t despair! Either go off and write that story instead… or put it aside, somewhere safe, and go back and find where your act II maze got side-tracked, and fix it!

Pacing: Good News and Bad

Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.

Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.

Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.

You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.

But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.

The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.

If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.

This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.

The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.

I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.

It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.

Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.