Tag Archives: world building

Info dumps…and how to avoid them

I don’t usually pontificate about the writing process as I don’t feel qualified to do so, but as a sci-fi writer, avoiding info dumps is a daily hazard, so I thought I’d share.

But what is an info dump?

As the name suggests, info dumps are big lumps of explanatory text that refer to either the background of the story or the past of the characters.

When info dumps refer to the background of the story, they can include copious descriptions of the political, historical, biological, philosophical or cultural underpinings of the ‘world’. In contemporary stories, much of this world building can be taken for granted. We all know what a light switch is, or a four wheel drive [car], or a computer, so we can reference these known parts of the world without having to explain them. In science fiction and fantasy, however, everything in the world is new, so there is very little common ground between what the reader already knows and what exists in the make-believe world. As such, information about the world is a necessary part of the story. The question is…how much?

Something similar applies to background information about the characters. We need them to be well-rounded, three dimensional people, but real people have pasts. They don’t just appear in the world, ready made and raring to go. They have baggage, and that baggage has made them who they are at the start of the story. Yet as with the world building, how much do readers need to know, and how should they find out? Constant flashbacks can become very boring, very quickly.

Nevertheless, there is one person who absolutely must know every single detail, no matter how small, and that person is the writer. We need to know everything because events do not happen in a vacuum and characters need reasons to do what they do. Actually, that’s wrong; the world and the characters are not separate. They create each other. They constrain each other. They exist as a whole that is constantly in flux.

Let me give you an example. If you create a world that has only half the gravity of Earth, then the people of the world are not going ‘walk’ the way humans do. In fact, they may not walk at all because they will have evolved to suit their environment. In the same way, a world ravaged by war is not going to be all pretty and bucolic. There may be pockets of beauty but the environment will reflect what humans/aliens have done to it.

So…if we agree that information is necessary, how do we avoid presenting it as an info dump? I mean, sure, there will be some people who are so into the lore that they will enjoy the info dumps and look for more. But…you do know how few of them there are…right?

One of the saddest things I discovered during my thirteen year apprenticeship as a writer was that very little of my beloved research needed to be in the final story. Sadder still, I learned that even that little had to be presented in teeny tiny portions, around the edges of the action, or snuck in as an emotional flavouring to the motivation. Not because readers could not ‘understand’, but because they would be viewing the story from the outside.

I’ve use the words ‘viewing’ and ‘outside’ deliberately because that is exactly what happens when someone starts reading a work of science fiction or fantasy. They step into the world with brand new eyes, like travellers to a foreign country where nothing is like it is back home.

These intrepid travellers want to be there, they want to experience that newness, they want to immerse themselves in the world through the experiences of the main characters, but most of them want it to be an emotional journey, not an intellectual one. And that means no info dumps!

But how do you create a brand new world, a realistic world if you’re never allowed to talk about it?

This gets down to the how, and the how will be slightly different for every writer. Some writers, such as Martha Wells, ease readers into the newness very gently. I’m thinking of the Books of the Raksura here. The first book, although obviously not of this earth, is not all that alien either, and the main character comes across as almost human. But the world and the characters become more alien as the 7 book series continues. I enjoyed the entire series, but I think I enjoyed the later books more, precisely because they were more alien.

Another familiar strategy is to present a new world through the eyes of a human who ‘translates’ the strangeness for the reader. C.J.Cherryh accomplished this to perfection with her Foreigner series. Yet as much as I loved this series, I will always believe that Cyteen was/is her greatest work, despite the fact that it’s damned hard to read. I also have a great fondness for her Chanur series. The first one I ever read was Cuckoo’s Egg.

And then there are the stories that drop you in at the deep end and expect you to keep your head above water until you learn how to swim. Ahem. In these kinds of stories, the background of both the world and the characters is doled out a little at a time. Only just enough to explain the ‘moment’, if that. The idea is that the reader gets a feel for the world via the context.

To work, this particular type of storytelling has to provide the reader with just enough of the familiar to carry them over until the alien ‘bits’ start to coalesce. If the strategy works, the reader experiences a shift in perspective and starts to see the world as the characters see it. Deep immersion. When it doesn’t work, the reader gives up in disgust.

I suspect that all science fiction writers create one throw-’em-in-the-deep-end story because we get sick of the same old, same old and want to show that we can do better. Then we realise that readers would much prefer to read about people. Ahem.

But the all or nothing technique is an extreme way of avoiding info dumps. A similar effect can be achieved by:

  1. asking whether a particular detail is something the reader needs to know or something only the author needs to keep in mind,
  2. asking what the reader needs to know at this very moment,
  3. asking which part of an explanation fits the timing and mood of the story.

Because I love my research, no. 1 is a constant bug bear and my editing usually consists of ‘killing my darlings’. 🙂 No. 2 I find fairly easy because it’s how I teach. When people are confronted with the new, unnecessary, peripheral details just get in the way of understanding.

No. 3 however is something I still struggle with. When I start a scene, I usually have some idea of what I want the scene to accomplish, but that initial idea is rarely very good. Often it’s not until I’ve written the scene that I realise what the real point should have been. This is particularly true for characters as motivation is rarely cut and dried. In the following short excerpt, I wanted to show why Kaati thought it could get away with impersonating one of the Healers’ acolytes, despite knowing very little about the Healers or their acolytes:

‘Kaati had no desire to impersonate a Healer, but it was determined to steal one of the small starrock beads worn by their acolytes. In an eyrie teeming with Healers, acolytes were almost as ubiquitous as drudges, and far less visible…

if stories of Messenger being true

The sudden doubt made Kaati’s hearts pound, but it refused to countenance failure. Even if the Messenger had exaggerated the antics of its fellow acolyte, it would have had no reason to actually lie. Besides, it made sense for acolytes to play pranks on the Healers. Younglings always got up to mischief of some sort…

The soft skin around Kaati’s eyes crinkled in amusement as it remembered dropping a live taptoh into the Second’s gruel. The big Teller had not noticed until a small, many-legged lump crawled from the bowl.

The taptoh incident had been punished, of course, but the punishment had been remarkably mild, and it was not till much later that Kaati realised why. Stealth and cunning were the tools of the Tellers’ trade, so pulling off a prank like that would have been seen as a rite of passage, at least for some. The Second was dead, and its own journey had taken a sharp turn from the familiar, but some things never changed. Younglings were always the same, whether they were apprentice Tellers or acolytes to the Healers. They played pranks and avoided chores where possible.

So long as it wore an acolyte’s bead and looked busy, none of the Healers would give it a second glance…

Apart from the references to characters who appear earlier in the story, there’s actually a lot of background in these few paragraphs. There’s what Kaati wants to accomplish, there’s an acknowledgement that it doesn’t really know what the Healers and acolytes are like, there’s a snippet from its past, a hint that things have changed for the worse, and an intimation that it’s basing a heck of a lot on guess work. Yet I think each bit of information moves the story along in some way rather than bogging it down. One hopes

Vokhtah saga falls into the category of ‘extreme’ storytelling, but it does illustrate how much background you can sneak in while the reader isn’t looking. 😀

Whilst I enjoy reading most genres [except horror], I don’t know much about the techniques used to write them so I’d love to hear how other writers handle the dread info dump.

cheers
Meeks


“Liars and Thieves” by D.Wallace Peach

I had a feeling this book would ruin my sleep…and it did. “Just one more chapter” kept me awake until 3am, but it was worth every minute. My Amazon review is going to start with a great big 5/5 stars, but you guys will get a sneak peek, followed by some information from the author herself. Let’s begin!

Liars and Thieves, by D.Wallace Peach

‘Liars and Thieves’, the first book in the Unravelling the Veil trilogy introduces us to the three main characters: a female Elf named Alue, a male Changeling named Tallin, and a half-cast Goblin-Elf known as Naj. But this is no cookie cutter ‘quest’ story. The three start as enemies and continue as enemies for most of the book because their races dislike and distrust each other.

We learn about those races, as we learn about the three main characters, and I have to tell you that the world building is deep. Each of the three races have unique magical talents, but the one thing they all have in common is their dependence on Savan crystals to power their societies. And guess who controls the mining of the crystals?

The Savan crystals can only be found in the Goblin’s territory, and comprises a large part of their trade along with mechanical devices that are powered by the crystals. In theory, this gives the Goblins a great deal of power, but these Goblins are not your stereotypical villains. Far from it.

In Liars and Thieves, the Goblins are the cool, calm rational ones who revere reason and logic above all else. They trade the crystals to the other races but keep supply to a minimum because they don’t trust the other races not to abuse the power the crystals provide.

As the story progresses, you realise that the Goblins are right. Alue the Elf is not a bad person but she is arrogant and impulsive, especially when she’s angry, which is a lot of the time. In many ways, she is a fitting representative of her people who seem to believe that they have the right to take what they want simply by virtue of being Elves.

The third race is represented by Tallin, a Changeling who can transform himself into any animal, or insect, for which he has learned the ‘pattern’. He uses his ability to spy on the Elves for the Changeling Queen. The Changelings believe that it’s okay to subtly spy on and manipulate the Elves because the Elves have proved that they want the natural resources that belong to the Changelings – and are prepared to cheat to get them.

Like three countries in our own world, the three Races in ‘Liars and Thieves’ have an accord that defines boundaries and lays down rules to help balance the needs of the three Races. But this is no dry historical treatise. We learn all of this world building through the characters and their interactions with each other. As we learn about them, we learn about their world, and the process is seamless.

That process is also utterly compelling. As I said in the beginning, I lost sleep because of it, and now I’m itching to find out what happens next. I’ve enjoyed all of D. Wallace Peach’s work, but this one has really, really hit the spot for me.

And now for some info about D. Wallace Peach [Diana to her friends], and the answer to a question I asked her about her writing process.

Author Bio

D. Wallace Peach started writing later in life after the kids were grown and a move left her with hours to fill.

Years of working in business surrendered to a full-time indulgence in the imaginative world of books, and when she started writing, she was instantly hooked.

Diana lives in a log cabin amongst the tall evergreens and emerald moss of Oregon’s rainforest with her husband, two dogs, bats, owls, and the occasional family of coyotes.

And now for that question. I asked Diana whether she created the plot to suit her characters or created the characters to drive the plot, or a bit of both. This is what she said:

Great question! Thanks for asking. I think there are three parts to the creation process for me. I start with the concept—a spark of inspiration bursts into my brain. In this case, a story about how untruths and biases start an avalanche of blaming and retaliation that spirals out of control and nearly destroys the world. The end of the world based on nothing real.

Seconds after the concept, the characters scramble in. Some are gung-ho. Some are wary. And some, like my goblin, would rather not participate. All of a sudden, their personalities are showing and taking over.

The plot is a work in progress as the concept turns into action and the characters tell me who they are. My outline of the plot lays out all three books, but it changes continually as the characters make choices and become who they are. I love that creative part of writing.

Thanks for indulging my curiosity, Diana. I think that balance between the characters and the world and the plot is part of what makes ‘Liars and Thieves’ such a joy to read. Oh, and…Diana’s writing is beautiful. At times it almost flows like music. At other times it’s as sharp as a shiny new pin.

If you want to see what else Diana’s up, you can find her on her blog: http://mythsofthemirror.com

You can also find her at:

And last, but most certainly not least, you can find ‘Liars and Thieves’ via this universal book link:
http://a-fwd.com/asin=B08FGQ2W3Q
Or click on the picture of the book. It will take you to the same web address.

I’m recommending ‘Liars and Thieves’ to anyone who loves to read, irrespective of genre. A good story is a good story is a good story! Enjoy. 🙂

Meeks


Vokhtah – a review

Some days are just so good, you have to stand up and dance. Today is one of those days:

‘Yes, this book is different and weird and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But that’s the point!If intelligent life exists on other planets, it’s going to be bizarre and foreign and at least semi-incomprehensible to human intellects. Reading this book really did feel like being transported to an alien world, and that was fantastic. I wish I’d read it sooner, because it really is a master-class in world-building. Vokhtah is a haunting, vividly-constructed depiction of a fascinating world—one I’d happily revisit.’

That quote comes from a wonderful review of Vokhtah that I stumbled across this morning. I know Vokhtah will never become a best seller, but so long as readers ‘get it’ every now and then, I’ll be happy.

You can read the entire review on Berthold Gambrel’s blog:

https://ruinedchapel.com/2020/02/21/book-review-vokhtah-the-suns-of-vokhtah-book-1-by-a-c-flory/#comment-15977

Have a wonderful weekend, my friends.

-hugs-

Meeks


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