Infodump

Jan. 12th, 2016 07:24 pm
lookingforoctober: (Default)
[personal profile] lookingforoctober
I am still sort of in love with the motivation - reaction pattern for writing. I've written about it before, and it's a really simple pattern for structure at the paragraph level (approximately), where you write something from outside that will motivate the character, and then you write their reaction in the order of feeling, reflex action, and then thoughtful action (you don't have to include all of them every time).

I've been using it at every level, not just the paragraph level, and it's really good at clarifying my thinking. The thing I like best about this pattern (at the moment) is how much it focuses my writing, especially the stuff about the world. Because anything about the world falls under "motivation", which means that it has to have the potential to cause a reaction, and not only a reaction, but a reaction that furthers the story. So you can't just go putting in motivation willy-nilly...

Because really, the motivation is not the story. The reaction is the story. (Okay, simplifying. But you can have a lot of motivation and if no one reacts to it, there is nothing story-like about that piece of writing.) Or possibly the dance of motivation and reaction is the story, you need both, and they need to be in balance.

Which brings me to the idea of infodump (i.e. big chunks of exposition). In the motivation - reaction model, I'm pretty sure that the way you recognize infodump is when there's a ton of motivation with no reaction in sight. It doesn't have to be a lot of reaction, but it does have to be there. The more it's just pure motivation (pure facts), the less story-like it is.

Incidentally, I've been reading Cherryh, who I tend to think of as a very worldbuildy author, and yet, the book I'm reading is actually full of this pattern. Lots of reaction, even in the sections that are mostly about presenting information.

I've also seen a pretty clever way of getting that reaction in there on a show I was watching -- the infodump was placed into the past, as a flashback, and the reaction part was placed in the present, which gave some flexibility to showing the reaction (flashbacks can be a bit more disjointed than if it were a real scene), and also gave an opportunity to show a more considered reaction, rather than an in the moment reaction, which is actually exactly what was called for. Because a really big revelation infodump can have a reaction that's nothing but shock, which is boring, so showing the later reaction showed the interesting part of the reaction.

The show also did something else interesting later on, for another scene that could have been very much infodumpy: it showed multiple characters reacting in various ways at various speeds (based on what these characters already knew, their personality, etc.). So there was one character reacting to the infodump with anger (pure feeling), one reacting with thinking and action, one reacting with the shock and keep listening/prompting behavior that kept the information flowing...

Another interesting trick is that you don't have to show the motivation until it actually motivates. So either you can make sure it is going to motivate, or you can just not really get into the details of the motivation until it becomes relevant.

It's like when you start a new job, and they give you a giant stack of documentation to read about something or other related to your new job... It is horrible, starting a new job and having to read all that (and I personally usually have a hard time retaining any of the information without any actual job experience to hang the information on). You don't want to write a story like that. Stories should be fun :)

But if you summarize the scene where the character reads the very important document (probably not knowing how important it is), you can have the character remember (and be motivated by) any relevant information at the point when it becomes relevant, which is probably the point when they're going to act on it. On at least make some kind of decision about it, to act or not to act. And because they care, because they're reacting, you end up not with infodump but with a motivation/reaction going on. Especially if you have them working through the motivation and reacting to each part of it.

(I also have a theory about summaries, which is that summaries and presenting things out of chronological order go hand in hand... it's not a fully developed theory yet.)

But it's important that the point where the reaction happens (whether it's thinking or acting) needs to be the first place where it becomes relevant. You can't have lots of places where this motivation could have been brought up, but wasn't, at least not without a reason.

Another tricky thing about this is that the point when the information becomes relevant is probably also the point when things start moving quickly, so you might not have room to put in all the information...but in a way, that's a good challenge, since it exercises the summary skills of getting down to the most important nub of information that has to be there, and leaving out all the rest.

Although it really depends. Background information doesn't necessarily belong in action scenes (and at that point, it probably doesn't matter, because if you're a character in an action scene, you're probably reacting to right now, not to background information... but background information goes pretty well into a dilemma scene, interspersing various bits of information with reactions and/or plans and/or exploration of the space of possible plans.

So if the character has time to think, the character has time to think about background information, and that's probably the point that the background information becomes really relevant. Or at least, that's one theory.

Actually, here's a thought: if you've got a lot of info to dump, make it into a dilemma, something that the character wants to explore and think about and ask questions and react to various options of dealing with and then finally decide about. If you've got a little, then you can drop the one sentence bombshell and race off into action. Dilemmas are like a thorough search for understanding, whereas action can also lead to understanding, but it's not really searching. Action is also exploring the world, but only one path through the world. So action is good for simple things and moving the plot along, and dilemmas are good for complex things.

Time is an issue too, but only in so far as pressure makes a good motivation if you want to move the story along but the character wants to have a dilemma. Pressure can turn a dilemma into action. (Of course, some stories really are dilemma stories, and exploring the dilemma is the whole point. So in that case, too much pressure can be counterproductive.)

Anyway, it's also interesting to contrast this way of thinking about infodump with usual advice that I've seen: to hide the exposition/information in the background, and make it look like it's serving some other purpose, like being more complete, fleshing out the world with details, giving a sense of being there, etc. This is actually really tricky, because either you have to break it up into teeny tiny bits and yet somehow make sure it's memorable (if it's not memorable, then the effect is exactly the same as having the character know it without giving the reader the complete version of the details, because if the reader doesn't remember the detail, it doesn't matter if you included it or not), and if you get too much of it clumping together it can still interrupt the flow of the narrative with something that seems irrelevant, and is the cause of the infodump problem in the first place, when too much of this artfully concealed stuff isn't concealed well enough.

Basically the break it up strategy is exactly the same as the infodump strategy in terms of location in the text (i.e. chronologically, and possibly long before it's needed to motivate an actual action), it's just trying to be a bit less obtrusive about it.

So the problem with the break-it-up strategy (IMO) is that plot takes a lot of room, but summary doesn't. And if you want to stick something into the narrative before it's needed, then if you want the reader to actually remember it, then it probably needs to be part of the plot, which means you need to disguise it as having a different plot purpose than the one you want it to have later. And you probably can't do this with everything (or if you do, this is a really big source of ever-expanding stories, and I should know).

If it's not plot-relevant exposition, then I think the break-it-up strategy works better. If it's worldbuilding, for example, then you don't need specific details in the same way as you do for plot points. You don't need anything in a specific order either. Worldbuilding, it might be painful not to include some detail that you really like, but it won't break anything if you leave it out, if the world still basically feels the same. If you leave out the detail that justifies the plot, this is generally not a good thing.

But this is getting into a different topic: what is story and what is support for the story. Which is something I want to think about (along with the question of whether ideas have natural lengths, or it all depends on what you want to do with an idea, or how much you like clumping ideas together), but I think I've written enough for now.
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