A Bit About Expository Fears in Short Story (& Fiction, all sorts) Writing

Over at SFFWorld.com, there was a question about exposition and “infodumps” in short stories. (Someone in the discussion brought up the first line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.) My thoughts on this were wider than just the specific question, so here they are also*:

* I realized I forgot to give the link to that thread, where a conversation on exposition and such is still on-going. Here’s the link

Okay, Stephen King, The Gunslinger, famous first line:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Short, informative but primarily on an attention getting plane. What are the next lines, though?

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.

You will note that this paragraph contains a punctuation unwisety and at least one grammatical error, passive verbs, etc. (Because fiction writers don’t write expository essays, they write poetry.) The first pages go on with some more world/setting info in telling how the gunslinger is thirsty, then describing what the gunslinger carries, wears, his guns, then some more description of the landscape as he follows the trail, more info about the devil-grass, some about his past, religion, more landscape and details of his hunting the man in black as he walks and then around about page 11 or so, he runs into a farm and farmer, whom he describes, info in the dialogue, more description, etc. It’s all from the gunslinger’s point of view.

Now The Gunslinger is a novel made up of several serial novellas that King published in magazines and then put together for the novel (as was common in the 1960’s and 1970’s, still around today.) So for short stories, it’s of limited use perhaps, as he has space from length to stretch out a bit. But it’s not entirely absent of techniques you can use for short stories. With short stories, it is often wise to write it out long and then strip it down, especially if it’s a short story that isn’t plotted out beforehand. Here’s also the opening paragraphs of a novel, a science fiction novel called Half the Day is Night by Maureen McHugh:

The man in the reflection didn’t have any eyes.

It was a trick of the lighting. He was looking into a window, out into the dark, and anywhere there was a shadow on his face the glass reflected nothing back. Holes for eyes. David looked up, the light fell on his face and his eyes appeared, he looked back out into the darkness and they became empty again.Outside was ocean. This far below the surface it was always night. You really didn’t have to go very far underwater before all the sunlight was absorbed. He should have realized but he had been unconsciously expecting Caribbean warmth, Caribbean sun, not this huge expanse of black. He shuddered, and picked up his bag and limped on, keeping his eyes away from the window. He could still see his reflection walking with him, a stride and a quick step, bobbing along, favoring his stiff knee. He followed signs directing him to Baggage Claim, they were all in English. That was a disappointment, he had hoped that there might be more French, because of the Haitian population in Caribe. They would be in Creole anyway, and he didn’t know Creole.

This is a good one because McHugh quickly establishes place by using the character’s pov (3rd person limited,) as he is deliberately looking at his surroundings as he arrives in a new place. There’s not every bit there, but there’s enough to start and she keeps dropping in bits. The gunslinger too, in King’s novel, is deliberately looking at his surroundings to chase the man in black, taking stock of his inventory in the harsh environment, reflecting on what is relevant to what he is doing. It doesn’t really matter what viewpoint format you are using and whether it’s a character or the omniscient narrator bopping around characters and adding additional info — the point is that you use pov’s to direct focus and in the process, you provide information in small bits, medium bits and sometimes large bits. In short stories, the bits tend to be smaller and more compacted because of the length issues. But as we’ve seen in trying to do synopses and query letter descriptions, you can pack quite a bit of information into one sentence.

Here’s the opening of a short story published in Strange Horizons, “The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/…7/aria-f.shtml )

Berlin, 1780I was in my dressing room putting on my makeup when Lukas came to tell me about the body in the canals. Lukas, a tenor, is one of the few actual friends I have in the company, although I have no enemies. Also he was the one who found the body.

The opera house has beneath it a maze of canals, which serve as both fire suppressant and a source of special effects. The stage hands can use them to produce cascades and waterfalls to make the most jaded audiences ooh and ahh. Apparently some poor soul had also met his end there that afternoon.

“Do you know who it was?” I asked. I had to put down my makeup brush, for my hands were no longer steady. A dead body in the canals is by no means a common occurrence, and we are shielded from many of the violent and pitiful deaths of poorer folk, in our opera company.

Note several things here:

1) She starts with a sub-heading notation of locale and time: “Berlin, 1780.”
2) She starts the conversation in the middle. We don’t see Lukas come in and tell her “there’s a body in the canal and I found it.” Instead, she tells us I was here and this happened and then she goes to what she said back for the scene. This is a common technique and it can be quite useful in a short story, because it is easier to pack necessary information more quickly into a few lines of exposition than it is to spell out all scenes in tiny detail and scenic description. (Yet, #580,621 in the reasons why “show, don’t tell” is not something you have to worry about.)
3) She describes the setting, she gives info about characters.

Here’s another opening for a short story, “Tortoiseshell Cats are not Refundable” by Cat Rambo inClarkesworld Magazine ( http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/rambo_02_14/ )

Antony bought the kit at Fry’s in the gray three months after Mindy’s death. He swam in and out of fog those days, but he still went frequently to the electronics store and drifted through its aisles, examining hard drives, routers, televisions, microphones, video games, garden lights, refrigerators, ice cream makers, rice cookers, all with the same degree of interest. Which was to say little to none, barely a twitch on the meter. A jump of the arrow from E up to one.A way to kill time. So were the evenings, watching reality shows and working his way methodically through a few joints. If pot hadn’t been legal in Seattle, it would’ve been booze, he knew, but instead the long, hard, lonely evening hours were a haze of blue smoke until he finally found himself nodding off and hauled himself into bed for a few hours of precious oblivion.

He prized those periods of nothingness.

Are we getting ideas yet? 

Again, there is no such thing as an info-dump. The concept of info-dumps, show always, no adverbs, exposition and omniscient narration are evil, etc. were all ideas that formed a stylistic school that came of prominence in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that favored minimalist narratives that resembled screenplays as much as possible. These ideas then would get bandied about by authors (and others) as “the right way to write,” even though the authors didn’t actually use them in their texts much. Which is why it’s a good idea to not get caught up in a lot of half-baked rules that are not rules but instead stylistic suggestions, and instead look at what techniques authors actually use in their texts.

Very few SFFH writers are minimalists. SFFH stories require a fair amount of technical information that is unfamiliar (world-building,) and atmosphere. They tend more Poe than Hammett (and even Hammett wasn’t a minimalist):

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He said to Effie Perine: ‘Yes, sweetheart?”

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”

In short stories, you will sometimes see minimalist techniques such as dialogue without much descriptors or action or settings only briefly described in quick straight imagery, depending on the goals and style of the story. However, short story writers also usually rely more on exposition than novelists may do, because exposition is faster for conveying information, allowing the short story writer to focus on the key scenes or scene fragments that form the center of the story.

So, go look at a lot of short stories (you’ll be helping the SFFH online magazines out certainly by doing it,) look at the different things they are doing and then go play, so that the story is tighter focused to what you want it to do. Any technique you can think of, including those used by Msr. Dumas, you can use. There are no story police. You aren’t “getting away” with anything because there is no one to get away with it from. There is no one reader, as the readerships for different magazines varies widely. Beta readers who tell you are info-dumping, etc., are parroting. They may be having a reaction to something, but you’ll have to pry the relevant information from them, because the 1980’s labels are not going to help you out.

There aren’t any rules, only tools. Pick the tools you like. Odds are at least a section of readers will like them too. Or at the least, not notice them as an issue one way or another, since I find the most vigorous proponents of things like no info dumps love writers who use large blocks of expository information, or show, don’t tell and love the wordiest, world building authors, or no Mary Sues who love the stories with the most improbably powerful protagonists, etc.

Once you start writing your voice, instead of trying to follow a write by numbers declaration of what voice and style you should have, you are probably going to find the writing easier — and stronger. That’s been my experience with authors.


February 27, 2014 · 8:02 PM

4 responses to “A Bit About Expository Fears in Short Story (& Fiction, all sorts) Writing

  1. Interesting post. I don’t agree when you say “there is no such thing as an info-dump”, there is such a thing. I agree that none of your examples are info-dumps, though; one of the crafts of writing is getting across the information you think the reader needs in a way that is pleasing to read, and if you can do it well, then great. “Info-seeding” is as good a label for such a thing as any other, since the intent is that something grows in the reader’s imagination, and your planting of information started that.

    However, if the presentation of such information stops the reading flow the way ten tonnes of pulped paper dropped onto a street would stop traffic, well, that sort of thing needs a label too. “Info-dump” is it. That seems uncontroversial to me, and I expect that they are relatively rare in published work simply because info-dumps tend to stand out and be recognised as such before a text gets that far. In my experience (likely somewhat lesser than yours, but certainly not nothing) info-dumps can be note/draft artefacts that have found their way into later prose, but are more often evidence of inexperience on the part of a writer; in either case better ways to express the info tend to be found, be it via an editing process or by a writer gaining more experience, honing their skill-set, becoming better at their craft.

    Info-dumps do make it to published level though, and I think it’s useful to be able to call a spade a spade. The question of whether the term has to be a pejorative one is something worth discussing; I feel that, stemming from the connotations of “dump”, its usefulness is as a critical one. I would point to many, many “chapters” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2313–those containing excerpts of (future) history texts, shopping-lists of asteroid or space station designations, etc.–as an example of major info-dumping, if in this case done deliberately. Personally, I found them all superfluous (the thing was big enough without them…), and a little annoying since I felt obligated to read them in case they proved vital. And they didn’t. However, even ignoring those, KSR stuffs the meat of his novel with all sorts of data about his story world, and if that is done in an interesting, readable manner then “info-dump” is not the right term. But if it isn’t, it is.

  2. I like the info-seeding idea; however it only applies to certain techniques probably. As for info-dump, it is a pejorative — the dump indicating material badly applied and unnecessary in the opinion of those using it. The problem with “call a spade a spade” is that you’re saying that there is an objective standard all should follow and you know what it is. But fiction is subjective — it is a presentation of words, ideas, images and emotions. Readers judge the narratives and react to them, each individually determining what is interesting and readable to them and those views don’t necessarily agree. So when you look at Robinson’s 2313 chapters and deem them not vital to what he’s trying to do, not that interesting, etc., you are making a judgment, but it’s not the judgment — there is no the judgment. Neither Robinson nor other readers, including his editors, finds the material superfluous nor uninteresting. It is a debate about style, but one’s stylistic preferences and interpretations are not the world.

    It is a transition in thinking. The attitude that there is a right way to do all writing and a wrong way and that your judgment is the established authority of that, is what leads to rule-based demands, which is simply not what happens in the real world. It’s like a kid saying, I’m king of the universe and you have to do what I say or you’re a poopy-head. It’s not going to happen. Instead, there is what seems to work and what doesn’t seem to work to you, with the understanding that what “works” is a flexible and subjective spectrum. So we make our judgments about what works for us and what does not, and we offer them, and others consider our judgments. But the author decides what is vital and how it will be conveyed. The author therefore cannot info-dump because the author has chosen his or her approach. We can say that the approach chosen does not seem to work well for us, that it is boring, not the style and approach we prefer, etc., but that is not the same thing as wrong and right.

    Essentially, a lot of authors, established or new, spend way too much time trying to be the author police of other authors, insisting that their judgments of another’s work are objectively and authoritatively correct. And this often limits and messes up new authors. But a tools based approach, where you say “this is not working for me here because of this and because I don’t like this or was bored,” instead of “this is wrong and you should never do that unless I deem you a master who can break these rules I made up,” tends to be more effective for new writers to look at material, decide how they will develop or revise it, and take in multiple judgments for their consideration, rather than write according to rules that may be utterly opposite of their own writing style.

    There aren’t any rules, and pretending that there are causes way more problems, especially as many “rules” conflict. There are a lot of different techniques. Some will work for you and some won’t, but the dictates of one reader that some of those techniques are suddenly “rules” isn’t going to help the author with all the other, different dictates of other readers. So authors have to listen, decide and choose what material and approaches fits for them. Realistically, what you consider an info-dump is not an info-dump to others. Therefore, the entire concept of the info-dump is pretty much useless to authors. Different techniques you can try out for information, exposition, etc., however, are useful to authors. Judgments of others can help authors decide which techniques to try out by pointing out areas that are not working for some, but those judgments are not in charge of narrative.

    • I’m not in the right frame of mind to respond at length (mainly as I was woken up 40 minutes ago due to water coming down into our bathroom from the apartment above… now trailing off), but my point is not about rules, it’s about labels. I’m saying “info-dump” is a thing, and using it is a technique: it’s the technique of putting the story on hold to dispense data. Calling a spade a spade isn’t a diktat that we must or must not ever use one, but doing either is difficult if you don’t have the word to describe it.

      Speaking of appropriate naming, I should note that KSR’s novel is called 2312 (oops). Just in case he comes out with a slimline sequel and future generations of blog readers think I’m talking out of my hat (for that reason).

      • Ack, good luck with the incoming flood. In terms of a label, infodump hasn’t altogether been helpful. Info-seeding might be more so. But it’s not necessarily a technique of putting the story “on hold” to deliver data. Every part of a story delivers data and using exposition, including large blocks of it, doesn’t put a story on hold or divert it. The “concern” about info-dumping is that it will slow down pacing, be more boring than scenes, sound too non-fictiony etc. but a block of exposition doesn’t automatically do any of those things. Most things that get called “info-dumps” are either pov character thought or the use of an omniscient narrator.

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