The Curse of the Infodump

Captains Log Stardate 69178.6. So we can get on with the action, heres the story to date. Our main character has lost her family to attack donuts in our previous adventure, and after burying her father she now has sworn revenge on confectionary everywhere

How is an author to bring a reader up to speed at the start of a book?

I think we all expect a certain amount of exposition at the start of a sequel. Even if we have come fresh off the first novel, we realise that some people will be starting the story with the second (or subsequent) ones. Or perhaps it's been awhile since even we read the first one, so it's useful to be reminded of what has happened thus far.

But I've been noting what seems to be an increasing amount of infodump even in first novels. And not only from those new to writing and/or self-publishing. Even established, professional writers seem to be front loading the first couple of chapters with long paragraphs telling us where the character has got to in their journey and how they feel about it.

All this feels, well, clumsy to me. When I was preparing my two previously professionally published novels, 'Dragons Can Only Rust' and 'Dragon Reforged' for self publication, my re-read reminded me that I had originally written the story as one novel. Due to the manuscript length, the publisher had decided to split the novel in two, and I was asked to produce extra material for the second novel. I also had to write a prologue and ensure that the first chapter of the second novel helped to bring in readers who hadn't read the first novel.

What I wrote feels a bit awkward to me now, but I wanted to reissue the books pretty much as they had been published before, so I left all this in place. However, neither book in 'The Four Kingdoms' sequence had been published before. So as I edited 'The Unicorn Throne', the book which follows 'The Dragon Throne', I felt free to work through the exposition and try to make it feel more natural rather than an infodump.

I think there are three ways to bring readers up to speed. The first, and easiest, is to provide a chunk of exposition. The genius of Star Trek was the invention of the Captains Log, which enabled a scene to be set with little fuss. Writers have often used this method, and it has been accepted.

Or, at least, accepted in the past. I think that modern readers, who spend much time also watching TV or movies, are used to much faster exposition and scenes. Compare the newer Doctor Who series to the original and you can immediately see that the older series takes much more time, not only on separate scenes, but also to tell the story.

So a newer method is to smuggle background into dialogue. This can be done very clumsily. I know that youve never forgiven that donut for smothering your father in jelly, but was it really necessary for you to throw that family of custard creams out of the airlock before we destroyed their ship? And now were on the run from the Jelly Donut Alliance and our water stores are running out.

Ive been trying out a third option. When reworking The Unicorn Throne, Ive tried to put the information into dialogue but in such a way that it reveals something about the characters at the same time. The conversation not only helps or reminds readers what happened in the first book, it also shows something about the relationship between the characters having the dialogue.

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Whether Ive done so successfully will be up to the readers to decide Here are the first couple of pages. The Unicorn Throne will be available in November. Here are the first couple of pages. Sign up for my newsletter and/or click on the Amazon logo go to my author’s page at Amazon.com to ‘Follow’ me so you will know when the book has been released! Anywhere else in the world you can ‘follow’ me on Goodreads by clicking on their logo. 

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‘And these knights, Your Majesty,’ Pealla said, moving one of the markers across the board, ‘could be placed along the border here, with messengers to advise us once King Anton begins his move.’

Fianna nodded as the Colonel released the small pewter knight, then glanced up from the map of the Four Kingdoms at the knights. When she’d been younger, she’d played at planning battles, moving her troops against the Third Kingdom. Now that war might be truly coming, she knew that the capture of a marker meant blood and death. The General and his first officer seemed unperturbed at the eventuality, and Arwan even looked cheerful. Of course, they were all at least twice her age, and she was the one who had chosen to fight rather than accept Anton’s terms for the merger of their kingdoms.

Abruptly she pushed away from the table, marching across the wooden floors to the large window. The thin glass panes held back little of the winter chill, and Fianna crossed her arms over her chest as she studied the courtyard below. The horses had had their morning exercise, and most were back in their stables, a wooden building which rested against the castle walls. In the otherwise empty exercise yard the Prancer was circling the long fence, his strides smooth and strong.

‘There was a time,’ Pealla said at her shoulder, ‘when you enjoyed discussing battle plans.’

Fianna looked up at the older woman. ‘That was before knights died in my service.’ She glanced away. ‘As you nearly did.’

‘But I did not.’ Boot heel scraped against floorboards as Pealla too looked out the window. ‘I have your Champion to thank for that.’

The Prancer had increased his pace to a gallop. Those either free of or hiding from their duties stood nearby, watching as the unicorn's muscles rippled under his light grey coat. Silver horn gleamed even in the dim day, and ivory tail flicked against a blast of wind. Sand flew from silver hooves as he neatly changed direction. Fianna smiled as several stable hands shook their heads in disbelief. The Prancer might now be larger than any stallion in the stables, but he was many times as nimble, and he made even the best bred horse appear an ordinary nag.

‘If only he would agree to breed one of our mares,’ Pealla mused beside her. The second-in-command of the royal armies was descended from a family of horse breeders.

‘Have you asked him?’

Pealla smiled. ‘That I did. And he pointed out that he had as little wish to cover an equine mare as a human would. Horses, he informed me, are a different and lesser species than the People of the Trees.’

Fianna shared a smile with the Colonel, easily imagining the unicorn's haughty tone. ‘His pride will be his undoing.’

The unicorn finally slowed to a trot, then a walk. A dark-haired man detached himself from the watchers, hurrying up to the Prancer with a blanket which he threw over the broad back. The unicorn obviously made a remark. Jeremy grinned, then laughed, reaching up to punch the grey-white shoulder. ‘My squire has an easy way with my Champion,’ Fianna said.

‘Aye,’ Pealla replied, with a mother’s quiet pride in her son. Then she nodded back at the map on the table. ‘Your Majesty, shall we continue?’

‘I still think we are ill-advised to meekly await an attack,’ Jerome growled. The General hulked at the opposite end of the table, his broad shoulders reminding Fianna of the Sacred Mountains. He could be just as immovable. ‘Anton broke guest law. He dared to raise sword against a delegation which entered his city and castle at his invitation. We should avenge this insult to our Queen and our Kingdom. Anton might have the greater number of knights, but if we can gain the dragons and the unicorns to our banner--’

‘But we would still be at the disadvantage if we took war to them.’ Fianna strode back to the table. ‘Remember what I’ve told you. Anton has devices under Primus castle which were designed by our ancestors to fight the Family and the People.’

Jerome shrugged. ‘You spoke of metal carriages and silver cages.’

‘Tanks,’ Fianna corrected. ‘And the cage once held the herd. Anton plans to ensure that all the magic goes from the Land, and that would affect dragons and unicorns. We do better to let him bring battle to us, to a place of our choosing.’

The door suddenly slammed open, oak hitting rock with a clang that made all the occupants of the room start, hands reaching for swords. None of them relaxed as Lady Sallah glared at the meeting. ‘What matter are dragons and unicorns?’ she demanded, thumping the end of her cane against the floor in emphasis. ‘Why not ally ourselves to the Third Kingdom against the beasts, even as King Anton invited?’

Fianna ignored the various gasps and grimaces at her aunt’s blasphemy. The green eyes, a shade darker than her own, narrowed slightly. Fianna felt herself slip back into memory, of other times when that same hard gaze had halted her in mid-argument. ‘We will not,’ she said slowly, fighting against the usual knot of fear in her stomach whenever she dared to go against Sallah, ‘betray those to whom we are linked by blood and by oath.’

‘Even if it means war?’ Sallah demanded, lowering herself into a chair beside Jerome.

‘Yes,’ Fianna said, fuming inwardly that more words would not come.

‘The Queen has spoken, my lady,’ Pealla said firmly. ‘We must turn our thoughts on how to convince the Family and the People to join our cause.’

‘If these unicorns have any sense of honour,’ Jerome growled, ‘they will leave their ties to the Third Kingdom and ally themselves to us.’

‘And their heir is your Champion,’ Arwan added.

Fianna unwillingly returned to the table. ‘The unicorns are still allied to the Third Kingdom.’

‘Did the Prancer not renounce that tie when King Anton betrayed guest law?’ Pealla asked.

‘Many things were said.’

‘Enough to bind the unicorns to us?’

‘The Prancer is the son of the Herd Stallion, the Dancer,’ Fianna admitted. ‘But there are matters to be resolved between them both, if and when he finally returns to the herd. He blames his sire for the death of his mother, who was twin to the Dancer.’

Pealla shrugged. ‘There is no shame to the breeding of brother and sister. It is rare, but I have known breeders to do so with horses.’

‘He’s not a horse. And his dam was most likely unwilling.’ Fianna smiled bitterly. ‘I know what it’s like, to feel betrayed by one’s own sire.’