Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When infodump works

One of the first things you learn as a writer is what infodump is and why it's bad. Infodump is especially bad to have in your first chapter, along with too much of it's slightly more respected cousin, backstory. The advice you hear is to avoid infodump by weaving the background information in slowly and in small bits, or weave it in by showing, not telling.

I think I've noticed a trend toward spare writing, these days, too. If you can say what you need in a paragraph, great; if you can distill it down to a couple sentences, even better. Spare writing, well-done, is a marvel. Here's one of my favorite examples, from The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

On the other hand, right now I'm reading Spindle's End, by Robin McKinley.

Completely opposite of spare writing, but McKinley is still a best-selling author.

Here's the first paragraph:

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages). If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once  week, because if you didn't, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (It didn't have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household - magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself - but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory. And while the pansies - put dry in a vase - would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)

This is arguably infodump. Not even backstory. Not even a single character's name, or any hint of a hook. And this is a loonnnnnggg first paragraph, with lots of showy parentheses and em-dashes. And the world-building goes on for pages, with the first character's name not even being mentioned until page 9 (and it's not even a primary character).

Yet, I LOVE it, and others do too. It's got a certain voice to it, definitely some charm, and an intriguing premise: a country so infested with magic that the resulting oddities can entertain you for pages (even without any characters, because the magic is itself a character).

Still, could something like this get published now? It was published in 2000, 11 years ago, with the author already having a very strong track-record.

Regardless, I'm happy to see a story breaking the rules all over the place and getting away with it. It's good writing. Here's an article that addresses why Spindle's End is good writing even though it breaks so many rules. (Another reason why it might be able to break so many rules is that it's a fairy-tale retelling. We already know the plot of Sleeping Beauty. The reason why we want to read it is to discover new details and twists).

Do you prefer spare writing, or wordy writing, or happy with either as long as it's good writing? 

Hey, for all you potential NaNoWriMo 2011 participants, or anyone else tossing around new ideas for their next novel, Sophia Richardson is considering doing a 30 loglines in 30 days blogfest during October, check it out for more details. You don't have to post 30 loglines - just a few - and just for fun (and to help us get our "idea muscle" in shape for November.)

1 comment:

  1. I am quite sure I prefer (and I know this is how I write best, even though unfortunately, again, you're apparently not supposed to) detailed, wordy writing like Tolkien, where you can just read slowly and get lost in the details. I like detailed descriptions in writing and in reading...

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