When a landfill site comes to the end of its life, the developers are normally obliged to top it off as best they can with grass, trees, and flowers, turning it from ugly blot to beauty spot. Within a few years, dog-walker and picnicker alike are able to enjoy themselves there, oblivious of the fact that they are sitting on a small mountain of dirty nappies, VCRs and pulped copies of Calypso Dreaming.
What has that to do with writing? The sharp-eared amongst you will already have heard the deep rumble of an Analogy being trundled into place. For, yes, it seems to me that this landscaping is something we also do as writers .
Let me explain. It’s a truism that a book needs to grab its reader from the first page, and that one of the easiest ways to do this is with some kind of in-media-res action. This approach gives your story quite a bit of momentum, but there comes a point (usually around Chapter 4) when the reader may become tired of attempting to piece together what’s going on by way of fragmented observation and oblique allusions alone. Especially (but not only) if the story is set in a secondary world, readers may require a more connected explanation. Who are the Magmaloids? Why is it so important for our heroes to reach the Folic City before the Festival of Pyridoxine? How did Riboflavin the Usurper come to usurp in the first place? Why are so many people around here named after vitamins?
When the number of unanswered questions reaches a critical point – or indeed if there are any other odd facts that the author needs the reader to know but lacks any alternative way of shoehorning into the narrative - the likely result is an Infodump.
The simplest form of Infodump is delivered directly by the narrator. This can work quite well if done in a storytelling voice: “Now, the reason the ogre had appeared in the fashion boutique – although of course the children didn’t know this yet – was that, three months before, he had won first prize in a design competition. The way it came about was this...”
Most writers, however, try to find ways to landscape their Infodump. They try to disguise it, in other words, so that the reader hardly recognizes it as an Infodump at all. Sometimes this attempt is rather perfunctory. It may involve simply getting a character to take the author’s place in explaining what has been happening. Wizards, curators, librarians, teachers, camp-fire companions and elderly family members can all be very obliging in such matters. In default of a human being, the protagonists may make a trip to the library, or (these days) Google, for a useful titbit of information. Trying to decipher the cryptic words of a prophecy can also occasion much profitable filling-in of history along the way, as can “happening upon” a sheaf of letters, an old diary, or a map.
The ways of the Infodump are many. But I suspect that most writers feel a little ashamed at having to use Infodumps at all. It suggests a failure of planning or design. It makes the mechanics of the story protrude too far. It all feels rather obviously like a device. It doesn’t seem very ecological either. (On the other hand, most writers are very good at recycling.)
As for landscaping – well, it’s a matter of taste, perhaps. If there must be an Infodump at all, I think I prefer an honest one, that doesn’t go out of its way to pretend to be something it’s not. But then, I enjoyed the Council of Elrond.