Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hiding Information in Plain Sight

What do you do with information that you need to "get across," but can't "explain"?

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you're certainly aware of the magnitude of this problem - the one we fondly refer to as "infodumping." A big infodump can take readers off the main drive of the story, bore them and eventually dump them out of the story completely. Not good.

So what do you do to keep them? Well, the common suggestion is to avoid infodumping, but the question is, how do you do that? This post will attempt to give you some ways - I hope, not the most common or obvious ways - to approach the problem.

First suggestion: resist the instinct to explain. Explaining means you're stopping out of the main thrust of your story to speak to the reader as an author and let them know "this is how it works." If you generally use a third person omniscient narrator, it may be easier to do this without actually having it feel strange. But if you're in a close narrator like a third person limited, or first person present tense, stopping out of the action for a paragraph, even a sentence, can be very distracting. Pure explanation will tend to stick out like a sore thumb, so only do it if you absolutely have to.

One common solution to the infodumping problem is to set things up so that one of your characters will explain the necessary information to another. It can be done successfully, but here are some things to watch for if you're planning to do it. First, stay away from "As you know Bob," dialogue. This is where one person explains something to someone else who can't help but know the information already. Like saying, "As you know, Bob, this space station orbits around planet Zobob." You've doomed yourself immediately because readers see right through this. This isn't to say that you can't put very obvious information about location into dialogue - but there has to be a good reason. One good reason might be conflict between characters. There's a great example of this in Mary Pope Osborne's book, Dinosaurs Before Dark.

"Help! A monster!" said Annie.
"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."

These are the first two lines of the book! And already she's told you that Jack and Annie live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. But she didn't explain it. Neither did she have Jack say, "As you know, Annie, we live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." She did something much more clever, which I will call hiding information in plain sight, or backgrounding.

The information sneaks in, in this example, because of Jack's sarcasm. The point of what he's saying isn't where they live - it's his message of "you've got to be kidding," which he has phrased in terms of a sarcastic attack on her claim. He could have said, "Yeah, sure, a real monster. Right." But the author chose here to dispense a critical piece of information by turning Jack's words in another direction.

Very often, you can contribute to the ongoing drive and conflict in a story using the main point of a sentence, and then use the back door of that same sentence to sneak in information. Not a lot, mind you - just a piece here, a piece there. When I studied pragmatics, we talked about backgrounding in terms of things like implicature and presupposition. In this post, though, I think I'm going to use a few concrete examples so I don't send everyone scrambling to buy a Pragmatics textbook that won't directly address what you're trying to do in a story.

From Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief:

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood."

This line tells us that the main character (Percy) is a half-blood. Yes, it's obvious, but no, it's not actually the main message of the sentence. The statement that he didn't want to be one implies that he is one - takes that message, which probably could have been stated directly without losing the reader, and backgrounds it to a statement about Percy's desires, with extra implications about his attitude. Suddenly the sentence is doing more than telling us Percy's a half-blood. It's telling us that he has strong desires and resentments, and showing us his character. Bravo.

"Like at my fifth-grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon."

I love this one. At this point Percy's told you he's a troubled kid going to boarding school, but not much about his history. Now he starts telling you some of the reasons he's been in trouble. Take a look at the phrase Riordan slips in there: "my fifth-grade school." This single phrase presupposes that such a school exists, i.e. Percy could not use the phrase if he had not had a school that lasted only for fifth grade. Therefore, though it's hidden inside a sentence that centers on "I had this accident...", suddenly we know by implication that Percy's trouble isn't recent, and that he has a history of changing schools. Not surprisingly, later in the same paragraph we find "my fourth-grade school." Riordan can later build on this concept of Percy's itinerant schooling without ever having explained it outright.

From Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker:

"Ejii fought against her surety that this time the world really was ending, that the Sahara Desert was finally finishing what it had started, swallowing up the rest of what was there."

This is a great sentence. The main point of it is that Ejii is fighting the certainty of an idea - similarly to the first Riordan example above, making a statement about the mental state or judgments of the main character. The idea itself has at least two critical worldbuilding phrases in it. The first one, "this time the world really was ending," implies that there was a last time when everyone thought the world was going to end - critical history for this book, but information which (if Okorafor explained it) would detract from the action of Ejii reacting to an earthquake. The second phrase is "the Sahara Desert," which unequivocally locates Ejii and her story in Africa.

These phrases are critical to reader orientation, but because they work indirectly, by implication, we often don't notice they are there or what they are doing. And by not explaining, they make us more curious, not less.

I don't want to leave this post without addressing the issue of explanation. Sometimes you have to do it. Sometimes you have a really complex concept that is absolutely necessary to understand your story, and it would take you lots and lots of strenuous work-arounds to get across, and maybe even then you couldn't be sure if readers would be able to put it together. In that case, you need your explanation. So here are a few suggestions. First, streamline to make it as concise as possible. Second, make it as relevant as possible. Put it in a place where your character has every reason to think of it, and not only that, but every reason to think about it in those terms.

If your character needs to know how to use a complex piece of technology, ask yourself precisely how much they need to know about it in order to use it. My daughter started being able to use the internet to click around her favorite PBS website before she was four. If she needs to be able to do this for the story to work, it doesn't mean that I need to explain the technological basis for the internet. Still, if something about what she finds is fundamental to the plot, I may have to give some detail about how she thinks about what she does. It's a matter of judgment.

This "explanation" example is from my own story, "Cold Words," because I know what I intended when I included it in the story, and why I placed it where I did - something that would be harder for me to guess at in another person's story. This story centers on trouble with status dialects in an alien language. When the story opens, Rulii and Parker are speaking the less-marked dialect, called Warm Words. Then Rulii goes out to speak to his Majesty, and this is where I need to make the distinction between the dialects clear. I could just throw readers in, but figuring out what the difference is between the two styles of talk is not the point of the story, exactly - it's about the consequences of the two styles of talk. So I take advantage of Rulii's antagonism toward Majesty and the other councilors to place his explanation of the dialects right before he has to start speaking the second one.

"Blunted now is the fierceness that incited their tundra ancestors to annex our lands. They depend on the urrgai that our Lowland Clans first bred tame, and their ancient hunt-calls have changed in sense, to Cold Words proclaiming dominator status. Only in Majesty's exalted presence must the Cold Words be used by all as they were long ago: the language of the ice-hunters."

This paragraph is still trying to do multiple things (because I can't help myself!). The first sentence is something of an insult about how these guys he's looking at aren't fierce any more, with the history of tundra ancestors and annexing lands backgrounded in the "that" clause. The second sentence is similar, calling them dependent - and the explicit statement about the hunt-calls changing into Cold Words fits into this feeling of the decline of fierceness, even as it directly tells what the Cold Words are supposed to do. The final sentence sets up the rule that Rulii will be following as he enters his next interaction, so that nobody has to guess what's going on and why he's talking a little differently. But at the same time it fits into the attitude that has come before, making the Majesty's presence special but also somewhat pretentious-sounding.

If you're writing right now, chances are you're already hiding information in plain sight. We do it all the time. The trick is just to look for these opportunities consciously, to make it easier to place hints about world and culture while we're giving our primary attention to the ongoing action of the story.

As always, I welcome any comments.


  1. This is an excellent post, Juliette. Too often we think that our readers are idiots. Not that we truly have that thought go through our heads. Of course not. But that is basically what we're saying when we feel the need to use something other than subtlety to explain a certain thing or another. As shown in all of your examples, but especially so in that final one (beautiful!), our words can effectively multi-task.

  2. I think there might be matters of taste involved here as well.

    To me, Jack's dialogue about 'Fog Creek, Pennsylvania' reads exactly like an "As you know, Bob..." to me. I've never heard phrasing like that in normal conversation. It sounds as if Jack is speaking the place because he knows there's someone overhearing the conversation who doesn't know.

    It also doesn't tell me anything about the setting, as I have no idea what kind of place Fog Creek, PA is: small town? big (fictional) city? In the mountains? Near the Pittsburgh or Philly? Coal region? Amish country? Poconos?

  3. Interesting, Anonymous. I suspect the issue is less one of taste and more one of context, since you may not be aware that the "Frog Creek, Pennsylvania" quote comes from a book for first-graders. In that context, there's absolutely no story value to including any more about the setting - unlike in a book for older readers, where we expect things to get fleshed out. The immediate read I get from that phrase is that it's a harmless place that could be around the corner from anywhere, and it's definitely not a fantasy location because it's in Pennsylvania. As far as the "As you know, Bob" aspect of it, that may be exacerbated by context as well. However, I would encourage you to listen closely to the way that people argue. It's almost always the case that people exaggerate in confrontations, and very often they attempt to tell people things they already know (but they think they're acting as if they didn't). Thanks so much for the comment.

    And thanks to you, Lydia. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. This is one of the aspects of my writing I'm struggling with, particularly regarding culture and events prior to the beginning of my YA novel. The examples are helpful in showing what you mean with working the information minus the author intrusion. First chapters in particular are such a pain.

  5. Oh, Jaleh, I definitely agree. I've written and rewritten first chapters for years. Part of it has to do with the inciting event stuff I talked about two posts ago - trying to place your inciting event so that it maximizes the relevance of the information that is necessary for people to understand and continue reading. I'm still working on it, for each story I write.

  6. Juliette, I'm coming by late to comment on this, but I finally caught up on a few blogs and this one made me stop and read it all carefully. I always enjoy the way you break down both the cultural and writing side of a potential problem. I'm in the midst of trying to layer in a rather complex and crucial portion of backstory into my wip, and this has given me a few new things to think about as I weigh how little I can do at a time without under-doing it, and how far I can push things before it's overkill. I'll take a look at the info as I'm layering it in, and see whether or not it reads as the blatant message or something more subtle.

  7. What an interesting blog!
    It definatley gives you alot to think about.

  8. Thanks so much! It's a pleasure to see you here.

  9. I definitely appreciated this post. I am working on doing better backgrounding, for sure.