When Characters Explain Things: Yay or Nay?

Mecha Senku from ‘Dr. Stone’

Two anime that I’ve watched had an interesting story device.  One of them was ‘Dr. Stone’ where the hero is using science to solve problems and revive a world turned entirely to stone.  The other is ‘Food Wars’ where everyone is a chef and they compete in cooking competitions.  Both are complicated in some ways and can get confusing, except they break a rule:

They kind of infodump.

Dr. Stone–  Whenever Senku is creating something new, he goes into scientific detail with some visual aides.  He explains what’s needed for gunpowder or the process to make all of the ingredients for an antibiotic.  When I first heard of this, I thought it would be dry, but it kept me interested.  More importantly, it kept my son interested and his attention span is fickle.  Still, it did have the blast of info similar to an infodump.

Food Wars–  This one was similar in that the method of cooking and effect of the ingredients were explained.  The tastes would be described in extreme detail to the point where it really did become ‘food porn’.  Most of the episodes seemed to be at least 50% explaining food.  Yet, it didn’t become boring to the point where I wanted to switch to another show.

So, why did these infodumps work?

First, I think it is clear that TV shows and movies can get away with it more than a book. There is a visual element that helps move things along and prevent the person from getting boring.  You pick up on the characters’ tones and body language, so it takes on the appearance of listening to some else explaining things.  It’s the difference between having a boring lecturer (book) and an excited one (show/movie).  Of course, this is the nature of the beast, but it does point the book in a poor light.  I mean, why would anyone go near one if there’s a risk of mind-numbing infodumps?

That’s when I noticed something else that ‘Dr. Stone’ and ‘Food Wars’ did to help with these scenes.  INTERACTION!  Yes, there was usually one primary character talking and there were visual pieces that you would need to describe in the book.  A big difference that can help a novel is that other characters were interacting during the infodump.  It wasn’t just a vomit of information, but a conversation.  You can get all of this across if you have characters ask questions, take guesses, or argue over points.  This livens up the lesson and the reader won’t get bored.  You can even have someone take over the explanation if the first person makes a mistake or the second one gets overly excited.

A great way to think of these scenes is as an open debate instead of a lecture.  We make a mistake by focusing on the transferring of information.  This causes us to forget that it has to be interesting because we simply want to get our points across.  The interactions can do to novels what the visual pieces do for a show.  You give the scene more life and reveal things about the characters alongside the information.  Somebody might be smarter than the readers expected or another might simply refuse to believe or understand certain facts.  Biases appear this way, which creates depth and allows the infodump to be fully absorbed.

One trick I use is to have an ‘ignorant, but curious’ character in the mix.  This is someone who doesn’t know what is being explained, but wants to know.  They ask questions, try to put pieces together, and reveal their interest in the topic.  Readers will see the explanations as natural now because they’re directed at the character instead of being dropped for the sake of exposition.  They learn without being the intended target, which helps maintain emersion as well.  For example, Legends of Windemere had Luke Callindor in the dark a lot because I needed somebody to ask questions.  Fizzle would do this as well, so it wasn’t always the same character.  Still, it allowed me to reveal parts of the world in a natural way.

Maybe we can call this the stealth infodump.  What do you think about the concept?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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11 Responses to When Characters Explain Things: Yay or Nay?

  1. L. Marie says:

    Since I have watched a number of anime series and read some manga series, I expect that aspect. Some explanation is needed. But sometimes I think of what Syndrome said in the first Incredibles, “You sly dog! You caught me monologuing.” That was an extremely clever way of addressing the issue and getting around it.

    Great tip on having interaction. In those teachable moments in a story, having another character mentor another through a pertinent explanation is a great way to convey information.

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  2. I like stealth info dump. A great way to get needed information in front of the reader without boring them to death (or to choose another book)

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  3. Victoria Zigler says:

    Personally, if it’s handled in the way you describe I like it, and don’t see anything wrong with it. When characters shouldn’t be explaining things is when we’re going down the, “As you know…” route, where they’re clearly telling people something they already know so the audience can be filled in, or when it’s info dumping. Make sure it’s to a character who doesn’t know, and comes across as an actual conversation rather than an info dump, and it’s an excellent way of getting information across to the viewer/reader.

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  4. I like the idea, but think it should be used sparingly. I also think it works better in a visual medium. I watched Army of Thieves this weekend, and the first plan was monologued over the action as it unfolded. It was a wonderful way to do it.

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