Nov. 21, 2023

The Burden of Omniscience

The Burden of Omniscience

One of the biggest problems that a writer faces is omniscience. The author, by definition, knows everything about the story. Unfortunately, many of the details that the writer has in his head are simply not essential to the story that they are telling. Others have to be withheld to allow the story to progress and for mystery, drama, or conflict to appear. Unfortunately, because of the importance of this information to the author, there is a tendency to share it all with the readers.

The result is often an ‘infodump’.

An infodump is pretty much just what it sounds like. It’s what happens when the author gives the reader a massive amount of background information in a matter of pages instead of revealing details as the story unfolds.

Infodumps are generally a mark of lazy writing (not good), and more than often the details will interfere with the progress of the story or they will disinterest the reader (even worse).

The focus of a good story should be on the people and the events that occur, not on the history of the world you are building or the details of how the star drive or new technology works.

Infodumps can occur in several ways.

Often these details are delivered in the form of exposition or narration, where the reader is told what has happened or is happening elsewhere.

When the writer offers such details, about the world they’ve built, it’s because they want the reader to know what a good job they’ve done. The ‘all-knowing’ narrator thus steps in and interrupts the story with a mini-lecture or a future-history lesson of some sort.

A better alternative is to reveal essential details over the course of the story as it progresses. Or, sometimes even better, the writer might not reveal the information at all. Let the reader fill in the details with their own imagination. Sometimes those ‘important’ details aren’t essential to the story at all.

Consider the movie The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and based on the book by Cormac McCarthy. In this tale, in a post-apocalyptic world, a father and son undertake a long, seemingly endless journey that begins with an end-of-the-world scenario that is never actually explained.  It is hinted at but never really revealed.  Ultimately the nature of what happened is irrelevant to the trials and troubles that the characters then face. Leaving out the details actually made the story more mysterious and removed elements that readers might have found fault with (They do that sometimes). The story focuses on what happens to the main characters without looking back at the geo-political landscape that might have led to this starting point.

Another form of infodump occurs in the form of excessive description, often with the introduction of new characters. When this happens, new authors go overboard and introduce a character with a description that explains every detail about them, from their childhood and their aspirations to the radiant color of their eyes. Again, a lot of this can be shown instead of being told. Such extreme narratives are often a sign of impatience by the writer who doesn’t want to take the time to reveal this information naturally in the story.

My favorite example of this horrible trope is when a character looks at themselves in a mirror and sees themselves in all this incredible detail. To me, this is a blatant expression of the author’s latent ‘narcissism’ at its worst.  Rarely is it important what a character is wearing or what color their hair is. Such things should only be introduced if they are essential to the story.

A third type of infodump is one that is particularly annoying to me. It is exposition through dialogue. While deemed as less invasive than straight narration, where the writer stops the story to ‘author-splain’ what he feels is important for the readers to know, infodumps in conversations between characters can be even more disruptive. They can often result in incredibly unbelievable and painfully bad dialogue. Stuff like this.

Bob says, “Good morning, Ted. Say, did you take your meds this morning?”

Ted replies, “Oh, you mean my heart medication, that I need to take every morning or I’ll die, because of that heart attack that I had last year while climbing El Capitan? Why, yes. But I’m down to my last pill and I really need to go to the pharmacy sometime today.”

Such artificial, contrived, and unrealistic discourse physically makes me cringe.

However, the dialogue infodumps that I hate the most are the ones that start off with... “As you already know...” and then proceed to reiterate details that all the characters are already aware of, yet who passively wait and listen to information about which they don’t need to be reminded. I hate, with a passion, this type of painfully contrived dialogue. It is one of the few things that will make me physically put a book down and close it.

These are lessons that all new authors need to learn.

Overall, being omniscient is an awesome power that writers struggle with and that many often misuse. It is hard to not tell the things that you know and it is hard work to reveal such knowledge through the course of the story itself. But it is that lengthier process that writers must learn to master their craft.

Go ahead. See for yourself. Find a book that you love and examine how that author communicated such specifics to their readers. Study how information can be woven into a story without repeated interruptions, unnecessary details, or infodumps.

If you look closely, you will find that ‘showing’ is far better than ‘telling’... but that’s a topic for a different article on writing.