The value of an infodump
I haven’t posted in nearly a week since I’ve been focused on my spec novel. Last time I said I was pleased that ideas and solutions were finally coming to me, but it turned out to be trickier than I thought, since a lot of those ideas didn’t work. What I was trying to do was find a better way of conveying a key piece of exposition that I’d originally delivered via a big “textbook excerpt”-style infodump. I’d tried to make the passage somewhat entertaining — it was actually a slightly facetious paraphrase of information from an alien database — but it still felt unwieldy, and conventional wisdom is to avoid such infodumps as much as possible. So I was trying to find a way to convey the information through character dialogue and interaction instead.
But the more I tried to crack the problem, the more I realized that maybe I’d chosen the encyclopedic infodump in the first place because there were valid advantages to doing it that way. When I considered characters who could provide the information instead, I couldn’t avoid certain problems. For one, those characters would be privy to a key fact that I wanted to conceal a while longer (because I had a big dramatic reveal planned for it later on), and I couldn’t think of a good reason why they’d reveal only the part I wanted. For another, if it just came from a character, the protagonists wouldn’t be sure enough of its legitimacy. I wanted to convey a society-wide institution, not a personal opinion. As a corollary, even if they had gotten the basics from a living source, they would’ve still wanted to consult a more authoritative reference to confirm it. Finally, the idea was important enough to the story that it was worth shining a spotlight on rather than trying to slip in between bits of character interaction.
So once I accepted that there was value in keeping the encyclopedic passage, I tried to improve the presentation of it. I trimmed and streamlined it as much as I could, and I cut some bits of it that I could cover in later conversations. More importantly, I seeded in some earlier cryptic references to the concept, built it up as an important secret and got a main character motivated to hunt down the truth, so that when the infodump finally arrives, it’s been earned rather than just dumped in our laps and hopefully feels like a reward for the characters and the reader. And I did add some subsequent discussions to flesh out the concept more and reinforce the validity of the infodump.
Okay, honestly, I’m not completely convinced it works now. But at least it works better than before, and well enough for a first draft, so I can move on. Maybe I’ll think of a better solution in revisions, or get a helpful suggestion from a beta reader or editor.
In the meantime, yesterday I wrote the last big “replacement” scenes I had to do — the counterparts to a couple of scenes in the original version, serving an equivalent role in the revised plot but with some different characters and backstory and a different setting, and with some extraneous elements dropped. I was able to cannibalize and repurpose some lines from the old version, although I took a passage that had been one character’s internal debate and fleshed it out into a conversation among four people. Once I’d done that, I was able to copy in the last four scenes from the old version that could still work in this version, with a few tweaks to reflect the changes. So by last night, I had reached the end of the reusable material. I wrote one and a half more scenes in the old version before I abandoned it, but there’s nothing in them I can reuse; in fact, my discomfort with the direction those scenes were going in was part of the reason I decided the old version wasn’t working.
That means from here on in, there’s no more recycling — it’s all new the rest of the way. So now we’re really getting somewhere. And I abandoned the old version just before the climactic portion of the story started to ramp up, largely because I realized that the climax I had outlined wasn’t coming together right. I’ve realized there are a few more scenes I need to add first — one I have to insert earlier to keep certain characters in play, and a couple of preliminary scenes to build toward the climactic stuff — but I’m close to the endgame at long last.
One thing, though — one of my goals in revamping the novel was to trim its length somewhat by eliminating unnecessary threads. But I’ve added so much new, necessary material to the current version that my word count at this point is 3000 words more than the total word count of the abandoned draft. I guess that’s okay if the novel works at whatever final length it ends up being, but hopefully I’ll find material to trim in the rewrites to come.
I really hope my momentum keeps up and I can finish this draft of the novel before other responsibilities have to take precedence. It was over two years ago that I stalled out on this book, and I really want to get finished with at least a rough draft of the entire novel before any more delays arise.