Last night the raptor took me to see The Hunger Games, which is kind of a political commentary dressed up as a survivalist film. I really enjoyed it, and one of the things that I thought they did well was the depth of history they did not include.
That might sound a little weird so, despite this post’s title, let me explain. There was clearly a great depth of history and culture in the background. How the Games developed, the social differences between districts, etc etc – these were all shown in little glimpses but not info-dumped. That meant I spent all night filling in the details for myself, which was great fun and made me keen for a sequel.
This is a key lesson in storytelling, especially sci-fi and fantasy. You spend time and effort building these beautiful worlds – not to share all the fascinating details seems completely counter-intuitive. But it is a classic example where less means more.
You need to do that world building, because it shows in the flashes and adds a disproportionate amount of depth. You don’t then need to highlight every facet because a) info-dumps switch people off, and b) it distracts from the main plot. Drip-feed little bits, by all means, but you really don’t need to share it all.
Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantastic example. Throughout the book you hear about the weird architecture and materials left behind by the previous civilisation, but absolutely nothing about that prior history or culture. It’s fascinating. There’s clearly a back-story but he never gives it, and that just makes you want to read more.
It’s difficult, I know. The best method of avoiding info-dumps that I’ve found is to keep promising myself that I’ll put it in another book. Procrastination made to serve a useful purpose. Alternatively, save it in a notes document or a wiki.
RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) is one of the most common annotations made by editors. The plot doesn’t need it and the reader doesn’t want it, so the only person you are putting it in for is yourself. And you already know it.