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Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding

Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. aamcnamara #

    One thing I’ve been thinking about throughout this conversation-of-posts is conveying information about, say, economics in the same way you’d convey something else (character, plot…) that your narrator doesn’t understand but you want your reader to get. Because the people in the situation don’t necessarily recognize that “this slow process of changing how the monarchy funds its activities that started a hundred years ago” is a cause, they think it’s “well we’ve gotten sick of these dirty kings!” But you can put all the hints in that things used to be different, and this is kind of how we got from there to here…and the narrator doesn’t make the connection, but with luck, careful readers will. (Of course, unless the story is about economics or whatever, the story should stand on its own without that information; but if people catch it, it’s another layer to the plot or themes or so on.)

    July 11, 2012
    • Exactly: I really like that concept of layering. I always think about what’s the best way to concretely illustrate the background first, and only go the explicative route if I can’t find any other option (or if the explicative approach is itself a convention I want to play with). I think readers are smart people, and that they’ll pick up on the clues I drop. If they don’t, then if the clues are tied into perceptions and actions well enough, then they won’t get in the way of the reader’s experience even if they fail to do their job. If, however, a clue is so essential that the story falls apart without it and needs to be made apparent, then I find that perspective characters whose perceptions are more attuned to the clues around them work for longer pieces (but alas, don’t really work in short fiction).

      July 11, 2012
  2. Two points in reply:

    1) For my own part, at least, when I say “simplification” or whatever, I mean that as the failure mode of a particular approach, rather than “this will always be a problem” But in my attempt to wrangle a mess of thoughts into a blog post, I think that nuance fell by the wayside. (Hey look — it’s my exact point in action! Go go gadget failure mode.)

    2) Selectivity is of course a key component to *any* story, because you’re always making choices about what to include and what not to. But I’m not talking about a fairy tale about a little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch, that happens to be set during the English Civil War; I’m talking about a novel (or short story or film or whatever) that is *about* the English Civil War, in a much more direct sense. The question for me is, having decided to put something that big and complicated at the heart of your story, how do you approach the task of cramming it into the space allotted? If it isn’t at the heart of your story, then of course you have a lot more room to maneuver around the subject. Your little child doesn’t need to know the first thing about Charles and Parliament and taxation and absolute monarchy — but a member of the House of Commons does.

    Alec started on this, I think, because he wants more stories that are willing to tackle those big subjects head-on, and address them without grinding all the nuance out for the sake of ease.

    July 11, 2012
    • Hmm. Having decided to cram something that big into a story, for me it boils down to — essentially — the same techniques: either finding a way to illustrate the complexity through implication and allusion, or to just bite the bullet and explain it. If it is a question of factual background, I find that illustrating or explaining it are both pretty easy. But where it is a question of complex perception/attitudinal background, this get’s tricky. For example, when a story relies on the differences in perception between different classes (e.g. aristocracy vs laborers vs intelligentsia). Since I love the complex interactions between those kinds of groups and love playing with the fact that everyone’s a little right and a little wrong, I find that I work really hard to do three things:

      1. To separate the story into multiple perspective characters, where each character is more closely attuned to the issues central to their experience. (that’s the easy part)

      2. To make sure that there are events/people/actions that go *unnoticed and unremarked* by each perspective character from their own perspective (i.e. the aristocrat will not bother to notice how sullen a servant looks, but the exposition/dialog will be written such that an astute reader will pick up on it (consciously or unconsciously)…this is the start of the hard part, I find), and;

      3. To have certain strategic moments in the story where the opposing perspective breaks through to each perspective character: a moment when the aristocrat sees servants as people, for just an instant, or where a laborer sees the good that the factory owners provide, etc. Sometimes, they might be generalized, but more often they are individual: *this* servant is a person, *this* factory owner’s not a bad guy. These breakthrough moments are transitory: they usually don’t represent a life-changing revelation for the character. Instead, they are brief moments where for one moment the character’s perception shifts enough to highlight the different viewpoints and heighten the thematic tension. This is the really hard part to get right.

      That whole strategy has one major drawback (or rather trade-off): it leads to more perspective characters, which I’m told turns off many readers (done well, I have no problem with multiple perspective books, but apparently lots of folks don’t like them).

      July 11, 2012
      • Multiple points of view is not only expected but very nearly required in epic fantasy, and if you’re trying to pack something huge like a social movement/war/etc into your book, you’re quite possibly straying into epic territory.

        On the other hand, trying to do that in urban fantasy? That’s harder, because yeah — the expectation in that subgenre is for first person and less of a sweeping scope. (Even if sweeping *events* happen, the reader doesn’t expect to see how they ripple outward to other character nodes.)

        July 12, 2012
      • Exactly. And alternate history, which can resemble either epic or urban fantasy, in my experience tends to split the audience right down the middle. Some alternate history readers accept multiple perspectives as the price of greater depth, while others shy away from them. Which is a shame, since alternate history in particular lends itself to the tricks multiple perspectives make possible.

        July 12, 2012

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