Ramblings (pl. noun): talking or writing in a confused way, often for a long time
Bardlings (pl. noun): Ramblings from Bard

[tsat home] [#20] [editorials]
As You and I Both Know...
by Michael W. Bard
©2002 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved

One of the oft-bemoaned problems of writing both science fiction and fantasy is what is known as the 'infodump'. Or, in other words, telling the reader about basic things that the inhabitants of a fictional world know but the reader doesn't.

Excuse me a second. [You watch as Bard vigorously scratches the skin between his right foreleg and his body with his right rear hoof]. Ah, much better. Sorry about that.

Anyway, in some transformation fiction, one can simply say that 'Bob got aboard the airliner and took off' and can reasonably expect the reader to understand what is going on. And for transformation fiction which takes place in the modern world, that works. However, if you're going to place it anywhere else, then you've got something to explain in an unobtrusive way.

There are a number of options, the clumsiest of which often starts with the title of this essay. More typically, it might be something like this:

The Grand Admiral of the United Fleets of the Solar Alliance, turned to his second. "We've jumped into hyperspace now, and all is committed. Until we return to the real universe we are incommunicado and must hope that the rest of the plan continues on track for the four days of exterior time before the fleet returns to Einsteinian space."

Now, at first read this might seem OK as it is a conversation, but then think about who is saying it. The Grand Admiral would know how hyperspace works, how jumps work, and the limits of communication. One would hope that his second in command would also know this. Thus, the only reason for this conversation is to explain how hyperspace or FTL travel works to the reader. The Grand Admiral might as well have started his speech with 'As you and I both know...'

Excuse me again, I've been itchy all day. [You watch as Bard flicks his tail back and forth along his right side, vigorously brushing the thick hair against his furred side. After about fifteen seconds he sighs, picks up the cane leaning against the wall beside him, and scrapes that up and down along his right side. Shortly, you can see his upper body relax even beneath the t-shirt and he puts the cane back in its place.] I think I finally got it -- sorry again.

Now, clever writers can use the infodump requirement to add to character. Consider the following rewrite of the example above:

The Grand Admiral slumped into his chair in his and then waited a moment before he felt the lurch of the fleet as it jumped into hyperspace. Four days to the normal universe; four hours to the fleet. Then the fate of the Solar Alliance would be sealed. Right now, the other portions of his plan would be falling into place. It had to work, dear God but it had to work, else all was lost.

This gives the same information, and a little more, but by having the Grand Admiral brood in silence as the fleet jumps, you get a little bit of his character, and a lot more of the reason for the fleet to move, in addition to the explanation of how the reality works.

Right now I can see that some of you are smirking, knowing another way. And, it is true; there is one. From time immemorial, authors have chosen as the point-of-view character, someone who is suddenly thrust into a new world. This can be a person in cold sleep awoken in the future, a traveller through a dimensional gate discovering a new world, a lycanthrope learning what he truly is and being indoctrinated into lycanthrope society, or whatever. This does work, as the point-of-view character acts as a substitute for the reader, a substitute who knows nothing and thus needs to have everything explained. In fact, the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings could be considered as this kind of character. They know their little world which is really rural England, and are dragged around Middle Earth by wiser compatriots who have to explain everything to them, and to the reader. Thus the reader learns what he or she needs to learn, and the author can continue the willing suspension of disbelief of the reader without shattering it by starting a scene with: 'As you and I both know...'

And if you're curious to know yet another way, a writer can sprinkle descriptive passages throughout the text, and in that manner let the reader gradually piece together what is going on. Or, in the case of this essay, what the fictional construct of myself as the narrator actually looks like.

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