Friday, September 12, 2008

How (and Why) to Turn Your Info Dump into Conversation

Infodumps bore the living crap out of me.

It's probably one reason why I don't read a lot of hard SF. Hard SF loves the infodump. The trouble with infodumps is that all they do is get you information. It doesn't expand on character. It doesn't move the plot forward. People aren't moving forward with it.

It just sits there.


There's a good example of the total word-waster that is the expository lump in Black Desert round 2, below.

This is just authorial dumping. It's me figuring out this character, this story, and just blabbing on and on about pretty much everything, even stuff that's completely not relevant.

Please fix your expository dumps. They're unseemly.

If you have to write an "As you know Bob"-like conversation, fine. This is what most folks do. Joss Whedon dumps in the form of a classroom discussion in Serenity. I use the same technique in The Dragon's War. If you're going to get information to the reader, please do it in a way that's believable.

In Black Desert round 3, the Expository Lump becomes slightly more engaging dialogue. Also shown below. It's just a first pass fix, and there's still some dumping there at the end, but you can already see what a big difference it makes.

Here's the original:

ORIGINAL (blah blah blah blah blah. Please don't do things like this!)

Alharazad had retired from the council back when Nyx was still a bel dame, and the bloody story of her leave-taking had been popular gossip in and outside bel dame circles for year. Alharazad had opposed a coup against the former Queen, Zaynab’s mother, Abayyd. Abayyd had limited the sorts of notes bel dames could collect, just one more erosion of power, the sort bel dames had been fighting for centuries. Abayyd had restricted the bel dame council to notes for war criminals, draft dodgers, and terrorists. No longer was the council to take out notes for petty officials who wanted their sister’s head in a box because she stole some locusts, or bring back an old man who’d fled a marriage contract. They could police war veterans who escaped the breeding compounds, sure, but private notes could no longer be accepted. It was another limitation on bel dame power.

The council discussions went on for days. Alharazad and two of the others on the nine-woman council argued that the bel dames had taken an oath centuries before to uphold the laws of the Queen. To disobey the Queen’s edict was to break that contract. The penalty set down in the contract for the breaking of that agreement was the dissolution of the bel dame council. The oath kept the bel dames from running rogue like the magicians before them, making and breaking their own laws. The rest of the council argued that the bel dames had been around longer than the monarchy or the caliphate before it; they had hunted down rogue magicians and petty thieves equally. Back when bel dames were the only form of law in the desert, no one had had any problem with that.

The story went that once everyone had cast their public vote – three for the upholding of the Queen’s edict, six for civil war – Alharazad had strode out into the middle of the floor, drawn her sword, and decapitated three of the six women who’d voted for war.

As the others took arms and came at her, Alharazad quoted from the old code of the bel dames, the one carved into fiery red metal flanking the entry into the council chamber.

Bel dames in violation of code must be brought to justice by their sisters.

Breaking oaths, she reminded them, was a violation of code.

“You can’t pick and choose from the old laws,” she was said to have told them. “If you vote to break an oath in favor of an older law, I have the authority to met out justice as laid down by those laws. Knowing now that a vote for oath-breaking is a vote for the penalty for oath-breaking, vote again.”

The six remaining members of the council voted to uphold the Queen’s edict. Six months later, the last of Alharazad’s daughters died, and after assisting in the nomination and election of her replacement on the council, Alharazad had retired to Faouda, the birthplace of all of her children.

Alharazad had sent all twenty of her children to the front over the years – fourteen boys and six girls – and she’d given birth to them the old-fashioned way, in groups of three or four instead of the ten or eleven the magicians manipulated now. Only three of her children had come back from the front; a crazy girl who got drunk and drown in a gutter during a flash flood a few months after finishing her six years of service, and another daughter who was so bug-crazy after a year in the trenches that she was sent home and locked up in a mental ward in Mushtallah. The only boy of hers to survive came back from the front at forty after completing his mandatory service, but he came back a radical. He had his own ideas about how to police Nasheen. He became a bounty hunter and started hanging around the magicians’ gyms in Faleen, recruiting boxers and girls fresh off the front before the bel dames signed them. He was known for his strong moral and religious arguments against the mandatory drafting of men for the front, and his heated desire to disband the bel dame council, which he saw as an unregulated army of bloodletters who answered to no Queen, no Imam, no God.

His name was Raine al Alharazad, and he’d recruited Nyx after she paid off her debt with the magicians at the morgue. He had taught her how to bring in a bloodless bounty, how to kill with her bare hands instead of munitions, and how to drive a bakkie like a bel dame on a blood note. What he taught her had given her an edge when she joined the bel dames, but he’d never forgiven her for going over to their side.

Ten years later, Nyx had put a sword through his gut and left him to die in a gully in Chenja.

So she was really looking forward to meeting Alharazad.


And, the first pass of the fix:

FIXT VERSION (first pass)

“So tell me something about this Alharazad,” Suha said, capping off the tank.

Nyx peeled off a note and gave it to Eshe to feed into the big central money depository. “She retired when I was still a bel dame, back before Queen Abayyd abdicated. There was a big shit in the bel dame council after Abayyd restricted notes to terrorists, draft dodgers, terrorists. Made the bel dames more an arm of the monarchy than an independent force, you know?”

“And she didn’t take to that?” Suha said.

“Alharazad goes by the old code. Nobody fucking liked it, but bel dames take a blood oath to the Queen. That’s new since the monarchy, sure… we didn’t swear to shit before that. But we all swear that her word’s God’s law. You break a blood oath, you know what happens?”

“Bel dames kill you,” Eshe said. He gave her her change. Nyx pocketed it, nodded.

“Yeah, bel dames kill you. Alharazad reminded the council of that, watched them vote on whether or not to split from the Queen. The ones who voted yes? She chopped their fucking heads off.”

“Must have made her real popular,” Suha said.

“To some people, sure. You can’t pick and choose from the old laws. You break your blood oath in favor of some old Caliphate law about bel dames running their own show, you still get taken out for breaking a blood oath.”

“Is that why you keep taking the Queen’s notes?” Eshe asked.

Nyx peered at him. She was wearing the hat she’d gotten at the coast, to keep the sun out of her eyes. He went uncovered, as usual, burnous flapping loosely behind him, no hood, shoulders bare.

“Cover up, would you?” she said. “You’re going to get cancer.”

He rolled his eyes, pulled the burnous back over his shoulders. “Is it? Is that why you took the note?”

“I took the note because it’s my job,” Nyx said. She shuffled back toward the bakkie.

Suha opened the door for her. “I bet Alharazad thought it was her job to kill half the council, too,” Suha said.

“No shit,” Nyx said. “My bel dame oath? The part about protecting the Queen is the only part of it I haven’t broken yet. I’d like to surprise myself in my old age by sticking with that.”

Suha shut the door.

Nyx leaned out the window. “Let’s have you drive, Eshe.”

“Why?” he said.

“Cause Alharazad won’t shoot a boy unless she’s provoked.”

She saw Eshe lose some color. “This is why I taught you how to use a pistol,” she said.

“And we’re lucky he’s a better shot than you are,” Suha said.

Nyx sat up front and watched the pitted landscape roll by.

She have any kids, Alharazad?” Suha asked.

“Why, you planning on pissing her off?”

“Just wondering if she’s on her own,” Suha said. “I don’t want to face a fucking kid army like that Anneke women’s breeding.”

Nyx grunted. “Naw, nothing like that. Heard Alharazad had twenty kids. Fourteen boys, if you can believe it. All twenty went to the front. Three came back. Crazy girl got killed in a flash flood, drowned in a ditch. Another girl went so bug-crazy after her year in the trenches she got locked up in a ward in Mushtalluh.”

“What about the other one?” Eshe said.

“Did you get any food when we were back there?” Nyx said.

“Nobody asked me to,” Eshe said.

“We didn’t get any fucking food?” Suha said. “Shit.”

Nyx let them bicker. Alharazad had one boy come back from the front, too, at the end of his mandatory service. He was forty by then. He came back a radical and took up bounty hunting, started hanging around the magician’s gyms in Faleen, recruiting boxers and girls fresh off the front before the bel dames got them. He was known for his strong moral and religious arguments against the mandatory drafting of men, his passionate desire to disband the bel dame council, and his uncanny ability to hunt down terrorists. He believed bel dames were an unregulated army of bloodletters. They answered to no Queen, no Imam, not even God.

His name was Raine al Alharazad. He’d recruited Nyx at the magicians’ gym and taught her how to bring in a bloodless bounty, kill with her bare hands, and how to drive a bakkie like a bel dame on a blood note.

Tens years after leaving his crew, she put a sword through his gut and left him to die in a gully in Chenja.

So she was really looking forward to meeting his mother.


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