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Q&A

At what point does a POV character noting their surroundings go from showing/telling to an infodump?

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In a story I'm working on, at one point one of the main characters (also the POV character in this case) arrives at a new location which he has never been in before. This is the first mention of this location within this story, so the reader can also be assumed to be completely unfamiliar with the location.

Shortly after arriving, the POV character is looking around and noting, in this case, what the house he's entered is like on the inside. This results in a bit over half an A4 page of text where this character notes different aspects of the interior of the house.

Everything that the character notes is things that would be visible from where he's standing, so none of it seems unreasonable at a glance that he'd note; also, looking around to get a feel for the place you're in would be a fairly normal thing to do when you arrive in a new location. The things he notes, while not exactly Chekhov's rifle hanging on the wall, are relevant for setting the scene for much of the rest of the story. On the other hand, it does feel a bit like an infodump.

At what point does showing a character looking around and noting their surroundings go from "showing" or even "telling", to an infodump? What are good tricks to keep a legitimate "looking around" from becoming an infodump, when you can't break it up into, for example, one smaller room at a time?

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7 answers

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Focus on the character's reactions in that moment, given his intention and state of mind as he enters that environment.

Different characters would likely attend to different details, and would react differently to a given detail.

The same character, entering the same space with a different intention or state of mind, would react differently, and to different details.

Focus on what the character reacts to, and on the reaction. Focusing on the reaction helps to make the details not merely information, but also characterization and plot. It's characterization because the reaction comes partly from the character's history. It's plot because the reaction comes party from the character's intentions in the moment.

If that's still too much, let the strength of the character's reactions guide what to include and what to exclude.

If it's a character the reader hasn't seen, or a place the reader hasn't seen, it's not unusual to have 500 words or more of the character reacting to the surroundings.

Again, if you focus on reaction, you end up with way more than an inventory of what's there.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/32546. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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One of the questions to be asked first is why is the character there? Someone just arriving at a new place for a business chat with the occupant is not going to observe the place the same way an investigator is looking at a potential crime scene or a someone checking out their friend's new digs is going to.

If the character is there primarily to talk to the occupant about something where the location isn't relevant, you can slip details into the conversation about what the POV happens to notice as the conversation goes on. If someone is there and the occupant is showing them around, then it would be the occupant pointing out the stuff, and the POV perhaps noticing other things as the mini-travalogue goes on.

If the POV is there as an investigator, then there's a logical reason why they'd methodically examine the room. If someone was writing my thought processes during a fire investigation, they'd see a very systematic approach describing what was being seen.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/37873. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Info dumping is putting in too much information that bogs down the story. How much is too much depends on a lot of factors, including writing style and genre and PoV.

Example:

As was customary in the Holy Roman Empire in the late first century BC, the courtyard was surrounded by Roman cement, made from the ash of Mount Vessuvius, and plastered white. The tops were.

Info dumping, here, means giving details I, as a reader, have no reason to possibly care about. Do I care if that was customary? Or that it was customary just in that century? No, not in the least. Now, same scene, more showy about how the character's eyes take in their surroundings.

The garden was perhaps sparse, but the walls gave her the sense of privacy she often found lacking in the rest of the settlement. Honestly, father should know better than to drag his daughter out into his campaigning.

Still. Though the barracks was lacklustre compared to the grandeur of Rome, little comforts like the arches and the familiar Roman architecture helped anchor her in her Roman identity, as opposed to... wherever she now finds herself.

Barbarians, those Gauls. Though that was no concern of hers.

Through showing, the astute reader could perhaps pin an era to the scene. Why drop in years and dates, that isn't how people tend to think. Not unless they are keeping a Captain's Log (insert date in your best Kirk voice). Maybe you could have women gossiping about the latest goings-on in Rome, famous events, assassinations, stuff that those who know about the time period know about and can date for themselves. Dating it is telling, speaking of the event is showing. Which works, depends entirely on how you mean to portray the scene.

Now let's compare what a general of the Roman Legions might notice?

He didn't salute the soldiers standing at attention, nor did he care to. The saluted him, that was enough. Their armor wasn't polished, though--he'd have to speak to his future son-in-law about the ragtag fools that would soon be guarding his daughter.

Strolling through the arch, he ignored the servants going about their business. Up the three stone stairs, and through the wooden door. Into the sitting room, ignoring the seating and the lace foolishness he never cared for.

"Brutus! We must speak!" he bellowed, his words reverberating through the stone walls. No matter the fancy whitewashing or whatever fluff they used, stone was unforgiving, be it to voices that echoed off it, or someone's face being smashed into it.

What he notices is telling for his character. How he describes it even more so. If you put a historian that has wet dreams about that era in that room, he'd do what any historian would do: gush about all the details, and likely info dump the heck out of it. But a man who's more concerned with training men and wielding the Roman Battalion under his command as if a sword? He won't care much about the frills, as is evident in the scene, no?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/32578. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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One alternative is to "postpone and dilute". It is in fact likely that a very small amount of all the infodump is needed to get the scene running. Add the other elements as you go.

To think of a parallel, think of looking at a painting. Mona Lisa, for example. At the first pass one may describe it as a smiling woman holding her hands. Some action goes on, and there is a second pass: the woman is still holding her hands, but now we notice the smile, the puffy cheeks, the wit in the eyes, and the natural landscape in the back. More action goes on, and there is a third pass: the woman is still there, but not the veil that covers the hair becomes apparent, as well as the waterfall in the background, and so long.

We could have dumped a pixel-by-pixel description of the painting, but that is not natural. Give it in layers. Give time to each layer to become familiar, and move to the next layer of details. Refrain from telling everything at once, and dilute it throughout the story.

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At the point at which the things they are noticing are not germane to the situation they are in. At any given moment, we take note of those things that are relevant to what we are doing or what is happening to us. Only in moments of complete repose to we look around idly and notice things for their own sake.

If you open with your character looking around idly in complete repose, then they can notice anything you like. Of course, people will put down the book because it will be boring.

If you open with you character doing something, then they should notice those things around them that are relevant to what they are doing, and nothing else. If they notice anything that they would not normally notice in that situation it becomes painfully obvious that this is inappropriate exposition.

And really this should not be framed as a show vs tell issue. It is an issue of what exposition is necessary, when it is necessary, and how it is appropriate to deliver it. Telling it might actually be better than trying to show it in a way that is not authentic to the character and their current experience.

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I think it feels unnatural for a character to spend so much time info-dumping - unless there's a reason for it and/or is part of their character. Then, it can further the plot and/or reveal character,

Sherlock Holmes or someone on the spectrum (The Good Doctor) might do this, and showing them do it reveals their character - though I think it's usually only shown when it makes sense for the narrative, with a motivation to investigate.

But, perhaps it could be nerves, suspense, trying to distract themselves, looking for something specific etc. These character and plot points make the info-dump actually move the story forward.

I think: make it seem like the infodump is an excuse for a scene, not that the scene is an excuse have an infodump.

Anf if you make the scene about something other than the infodump, it obscures the significance of Chekhov's rifle.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/32557. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Turn the infodump into an investigation, revealing the owner of the space.

I think one technique is to be NOT just looking. +1 DPT for lengthening to personal connections, so I will talk about seeking insight into the owner of the setting. Give your MC a reason to be paying so much attention, a desire to understand a person.

Note how the fictional Sherlock Holmes always gathers an enormous amount of information and personality from the observation of a crime scene setting. This is usually told in retrospective dialogue, but in fiction, a similar attention to detail, incongruity, what is new and what is old, what is recently used and the layer of dust that implies something is seldom touched, what is grimed by cigarette smoke, what is sentimental and what is utilitarian, may or may not provide insight into the owner, but the attempt to understand can be quite plausible.

This same "investigation" can also serve as first-impressions character building for the owner of the space, a way of showing their character without them being there or taking any action at all. The reader learns something if your MC counts seven magazines folded as if half read, one of them over a year old. Is it research? The subsequent find of a half-completed model of airplane suggests it is not, they just put some things aside, for whatever reason, intending to return but never do.

Then your room-owning character can start in media res with all their quirks, e.g. in the example I gave interrupting themselves or veering off topic. The reader already knows something about them and the quirks do not feel forced or implausible.

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