The Infodump

You may not know the term, but you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s in the very beginning of a book. Sometimes it’s in the first or second chapter as the author is detailing to you the breadth and depth of his or her amazing world. Sometimes it’s just a big turd right in the middle of the book because you need to know a few things before we continue.

But if you read fantasy, I promise you, it’s there. The infodump. Dump being the operative word. It’s paragraphs, sometimes pages, long and full of flowery, purple-y prose. The long, boring details of a war fought a thousand years ago. Pages and pages of the history of the big bad. Why do authors, especially fantasy authors, do this to us?

Well, it’s how the world works. Not our world, their world. See, when you spend days, months or years creating this totally unique and amazing world, you can’t wait to tell people about it. You just have to tell them about every tiny, little detail. Because, you know, it’s awesome!

Except that it’s jarring. It instantly pulls you out of the story you’re reading to tell you about another, semi-related story that’s not that important, but really cool. Then you spend pages reading about a history that may or may not even come up again later in the book.

Some readers really like long, flowery prose littering their stories. They want the details of every meal eaten, every blade of grass, every word of every song of every acid-dropping minstrel. They want a thousand pages filled with non-breaking paragraphs! That’s cool, it’s just not my cup of tea. Different stokes to move the world and all.

The problem is that this backstory is sometimes important. You need to know some of this stuff, but you have no way of knowing what, so you either diligently read every word, or you… skim. Did you hear that? It was as if a million voices cried out in terror and suddenly went to their keyboards to post a nasty comment.

Yes, dear reader, you skim. Oh, you don’t at first. When I read the Lord of the Rings at age 12, no one told me that I didn’t have to read every single word. So, I did. I read every damn word. Even the fifty or more pages of Sam and Frodo slogging it through Mordor with almost no dialog. No one tells you you can just skim over all that crap. Sure, you might miss an important detail, but the damn author shouldn’t have buried the lead in a big shit (shark?) sandwich!

In fact, Tolkien, the grandfather of modern Fantasy, is the KING of the infodump. Hell, he begins the whole damn trilogy with one giant dump! He calls it a prologue, which is sometimes a cheap Fantasy author’s trick for dumping on you before getting to the real story, but we all faithfully read it just in case there’s some salient point in there.

The Lord of the Rings begins with a prologue that is page after page of all things Hobbit. It reads like a manual. He gives you a free pass to skip it all, but you don’t. You don’t want to be rude. I mean, they took all this time to write it, right? It would be fine if this were the only infodump in the series, but believe me, you are in for a long, purple ride before this one gets going. The council of Elrond is one big dumpy chapter. Cool world-building stuff in there too. But dumpy.

I don’t mean to pick on Tolkien. Without him, I would have never discovered Fantasy. He was an amazing storyteller, and I was hooked the minute I read The Hobbit as a class reading assignment (thanks Ms. Dawson!). But it was definitely in spite of his writing that I started devouring any Fantasy I could find and not because of it. I’ll get an arrow in the back for that one, but some of you out there agree, and you know it.

But does Tolkien get a free pass because he basically restarted the genre? Fantasy was all but dead until he came along. You could argue that he had no blueprint on which to base his fantasy as we all do now. Most epic fantasy today is based in part or in whole on the works of Tolkien. Does he get a walk on the infodumps? Or is it because of him that we have them all?

Either way, you can almost guarantee that the next time you pick up a Fantasy book, you’re going to find it in there somewhere. After the map (there’s always a map). Maybe in the prologue. Maybe snuck into a character’s thoughts as he rides along down a long and winding road. Maybe in the monologue of a wizardly fellow giving a history lesson. But make no mistake, it’s in there.

The author’s going to take a big dump on you.

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