“A writer cannot do too much research… though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.”
Well-done fiction often requires research and worldbuilding, whether it’s IF or static fiction. Having done the work, authors often feel the desire to show their work.
And showing your work is great! …as long as it doesn’t interfere with the story.
The story has to come first.
A classic mistake: the info dump
An info dump occurs when the story stops for a long, wordy section of exposition, either written into the mouths of the characters or handed out raw on the page.
This is less common in IF, where players can often control how in-depth they want to go, but it does still occur. Either the player loses control for a long, wordy, expository cutscene, or characters become talking heads to provide context, or object examination produces multiple paragraphs of information (resulting in red herrings, particularly in parser IF.)
The author gets so excited about their amazing world that they have to tell the reader about everything in it right now.
Unfortunately, in doing so, they risk losing the reader. And losing the reader wasn’t worth it.
Be parsimonious. Justify the time you spend on backstory, just as you justify each word to refine your voice. The story is what people came to read. The surrounding world and the relating research are just the vehicle for the story.
- Q: If I avoid long expository sequences, how will my readers learn about my world?
A: You’ll show them! Showing them is important.
But don’t show them all at once. And don’t show them all of it.
If you look at two short arcs, you can tell whether those arcs could be part of the same circle. Worldbuilding works the same way. If you show enough of your world to your audience, in a way that fits well with the story, then they can fill in the gaps on their own.
Show your audience what they need to know. Let them see what they need to see. The rest can wait.
- Q: If I avoid long expository sequences, how will my readers know I did my research?
A: They’ll know because you didn’t screw anything up.
Deliberately or otherwise, storytellers have made a lot of mistakes over the years. And many storytellers after them have taken those errors for truth, and misconceptions build up into Firm Beliefs over time.
Some classic examples:
- You can instantaneously knock people out by putting chloroform over their nose and mouth. (It takes at least five minutes.)
- A defibrillator can restart a flatlined patient’s heart. (Defibrillators are for reestablishing normal rhythms from uneven rhythms, not restarting the heart.)
- The police require someone to be missing for 24 hours before they will start an investigation. (Law enforcement agencies recommend reporting unusual absences immediately.)
- Poinsettias are dangerous to have around children and cats because of their high toxicity. (Eating poinsettas can cause diarrhea or vomiting, but no fatalities are on record, and few cases require medical treatment.)
Every facet of human knowledge has its own misconceptions. People who know those are misconceptions will see that you adopted the assumptions and mistakes of other authors, rather than checking into it for yourself. Your work will lose credibility (and perhaps enjoyability) in their eyes.
Whatever your topic matter may be, if you’re not already an expert, there’s room to do your own research. And when authors do their own research, they discover horses aren’t four-legged cars, but remarkably fragile animals that require extensive care.
The virtue of doing your research is that this will never happen to you*.
- Q: But my audience likes long expository sequences.
A: I’m not going to lie. Some people do! And maybe that’s true of your intended audience.
But unless you handle the matter very gracefully, you risk losing that part of your potential audience that doesn’t like info dumps. They’ll hit the wall of information and stop.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this too, used by authors ranging from Robert L. Forward to George R. R. Martin to the Mass Effect writing team.
Make an appendix. Or a roleplaying supplement. Or a section on your website. Or (for interactive pieces) a codex, or an INFO command. Anything will do, as long as the people who want the story have easy access to the story.
- Q: Terry Pratchett wrote info dumps.
A: Sir Terry got away with a lot of stuff that the rest of us can’t.
What made his writing special (in this particular regard) was humor. His info dumps were as appealing as the rest of his writing, which dramatically prolonged the audience’s willingness to learn about his world.
Two novels that get this right
The Gentleman Bastard Sequence (The Lies of Locke Lamora, etc), by Scott Lynch
The Gentleman Bastard sequence revolves around Locke Lamora, a thief and a priest. Understanding the city-state of Camorr and the surrounding world is critical to understanding the events in the books, but Lynch integrates information on an as-needed basis.
For example: We know that Locke’s home, the city-state of Camorr, honors the Twelve Gods (plus a mostly-unacknowledged Thirteenth). And we have the names of the Twelve. But in two cases (Sendovani and Azri)**, we have their names without knowing anything about their spheres of power. (And we didn’t even get their names until book three!)
Why is there an information gap? Because Sendovani and Azri haven’t been pertinent to the stories that Lynch was telling, and so there was no reason to include them. The subject just never came up.
Why doesn’t the writing suffer for it? Lynch does provide detailed information on several of the other Gods, when and as it becomes appropriate to the narrative. We see the two arcs, and we draw the full circle in our minds. That’s all we need to enjoy the story.
The Martian, by Andy Weir
This is the story of a man trying to survive alone on Mars, and Weir has said that it started as an intellectual puzzle rather than a story. Arguably, this book is nothing but showing the author’s research, as problem follows problem and Mark Watney struggles to survive.
But every piece of information provided is pertinent to the action. Without including this information, there’s no way to understand Watney’s problems, risks, and successes – in short, there’s no way to understand the story. And Weir’s research is completely integrated into Watney’s narrative, rather than being separated into exposition.
Q: How much information should I include?
Enough to support the story.
Q: When should I provide the information?
Somewhere before it’s needed, in a way that’s integrated with the story.
Q: And that’s all there is to it?
And that’s all there is to it.
*Or it will, because you’re human. But it won’t happen as often. And if it does happen, you can write a second novel to justify and explain them. It’s a complicated way to go about things, but an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.↩
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