Ode to the Infodump

When I think of infodumping, the practice of including far too much backstory or explanation in fiction (or nonfiction!) writing, there is one man who stands above the rest: the science fiction author Neal Stephenson.

Stephenson is famous for his infodumps, including his long, long lists, which transcend the winking comedic effect most writers use them for to become something more like a middle schooler trying to consume the required word count for an English class essay. I first encountered Stephenson’s practice of heaping paragraph after paragraph of tangentially relevant, but somewhat unnecessary information, in his novel, The Diamond Age, a book that goes out of its way to educate readers about technology and architecture in a delightfully meta way. Consider, from The Diamond Age:

Therapies administered included but were not limited to: turning things off, then on again; picking them up a couple of inches and then dropping them; turning off nonessential appliances in this and other rooms; removing lids and wiggling circuit boards; extracting small contaminants, such as insects and their egg cases, with nonconducting chopsticks; cable-wiggling; incense-burning; putting folded-up pieces of paper beneath table legs; drinking tea and sulking; invoking unseen powers; sending runners to other rooms, buildings, or precincts with exquisitely calligraphed notes and waiting for them to come back carrying spare parts in dusty, yellowed cardboard boxes; and a similarly diverse suite of troubleshooting techniques in the realm of software.

Somewhere, Hemingway is weeping. Stephenson’s infodumping truly stands out in the novel Reamde, which might as well be used as a textbook explaining the economic systems of MMORPGs. I want to put an excerpt from that book here, but the level of detail he goes into about virtual currencies, game design, and global politics is so dense that in order to put a coherent passage here I’m pretty sure I would have to use several pages of text, and that would actually be breaking copyright law.

This is not an indictment of Stephenson’s style. Like dumb tech jargon, I love the pseudo-crunchiness of infodumps, and I especially love them when they are well-done. Here are the four elements I think an infodump needs to have in order to be relevant to a story:

  1. An omniscient narrator. A first-person narrator infodumping is a hard no for me, unless they are intentionally insufferable, or knowledgeable about a few, recurring subjects that are near and dear to their character.
  2. Relevance. Otherwise, it’s just a flex on how much you know about cryptocurrency, marine biology, the lore of the world you’re created, etc.
  3. Humor. Alternatively, just a sense of fun. I refer to this Randall Munroe comic. It’s so fun to share new information with people–what if they get excited about it too?
  4. An ending. When you’ve said the information that needs to be said in a fun way, it’s over. Back to the action.

To be completely honest with you, these are rules I’ve made for myself more than anyone else, and it should go without saying that a good writer can break any of these rules to great effect. In my case, there’s a fifth rule: that rules 1 through 4 don’t have to apply on first draft, but must apply during editing. Not everyone wants to hear how amazing the the ancient Mesopotamian barley standard economic exchange was.

Ooooh, barley tablet! Tell me more!