Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Infodump Repetition



There's an BBC radio gameshow called "Just a Minute", which makes celebrities talk for one minute on a given subject without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. (Except of the name of the topic assigned, grammatical variants on a word, or common words like "is" and "the".) It's a fiendishly difficult game, especially with people listening and ready to pounce on any mistake.

Well, I know at least two authors who would stink like dead fish on this program. David Weber and Anne Perry. God love 'em both. They're good storytellers, but they will keep saying the same thing over and over, often in the exact words they used before. Admittedly, it's said that a bestseller needs to do this for the benefit of readers who can't remember what they first read two weeks back. But if you can't remember it that far back, it must not be all that important or interesting.

David Weber usually repeats himself with explanations of a technology in his universe, or of a political situation. Now, I admit that it's nice to be told or reminded about these things at the beginning. But when he cut-and-pastes this boilerplate several times in a single book, I begin to want to call him at two in the morning and leave the same message until the memory's used up. (Yes, that would be wrong. So is what he's doing. Fortunately, I have the artistic integrity not to try to bore the nice man to death, and I wish he had the same respect for me.)

Anne Perry, on the other hand, believes in restating the same information about forty times per novel. Now, I'll agree that in a mystery novel, you probably should repeatedly recap the facts of the case, in order to underline the detective's thought process and perplexity, and to make sure the reader is walking down the desired garden path. But you don't have to repeat the facts of the case onscreen to every single person the detective interviews. Honestly, it makes me want to scream. Beyond that, we have the POV problem. Perry realllllly likes third person omniscient, which is of course a handy but underused POV. But she also likes describing every single thing a character is thinking and feeling about what he or she is saying, and about what the other person is saying. She also likes to describe every tiny muscular movement of the face and hands in excruciating detail. Needless to say, questioning a suspect takes a bloody long time. Beyond that, if one character can't instantly perceive every thought and feeling of another character, the other character is obviously suspicious. Emotion is all. It's enough to make you hate the most likeable characters.

It drives me nuts. I can't read Weber anymore, unless I take him at a breakneck pace. I never could read Perry. I listen to her audiobooks, though, because an actor does give them more life, I know they take forever (a good thing when you're listening over headphones at work), and the mystery puzzles are good if you can actually wade your way through them.

If they must summarize, I wish they'd also present new information, or give a different angle on the data each time it's presented. Better yet, I wish they'd string it through the book instead of infodumping at all.

Now maybe I'm being oversensitive. Perhaps certain people enjoyed learning the same information over and over at school. Me, I tuned out instantly and started reading a volume of science fiction or mystery under my desk until I heard something new. I used to skim the same way. Now I have less patience, and just stop reading. After all, there are a lot of other things I could be doing with my time.

Still, there's no reason a good editor couldn't save us all a lot of suffering by chopping out a sentence here and there and replacing it with "Once everything was explained, they got down to business." It would certainly be easier on trees, shelf capacity, and my sanity.

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