Genre authors have one enemy in common and it is boredom.
Our number one goal, our Prime Directive, our First Commandment, our first principle is:
Never be boring.
Our readers come to us for a cure for boredom. I am a voracious reader and always have been. I have never curled up with a book thinking, I hope this bores me to sleep. Books that do that—and of course I’ve read my share—are books I don’t finish, and it’s rare that I’ll give that author a second try.
I will not engage with the snobby anti-genre literati, I will not fight the same pointless war from the genre side. I read and write “literary” fiction, too. I won’t be forced into an either/or existence… well, pretty much across the board. I don’t think literary authors gain any traction by writing boring books, either. Nor do authors of historical fiction, which tend to be either romances or mysteries set in the past. Romance needs to be sexy or sweet or some measure of both. Fantasy has to have some kind of magical or unreal quality to it, with interesting characters doing interesting things in an interesting world. Science fiction can’t just describe some technological gizmo, it has to put that gizmo in the context of characters in conflict, trying to get the gizmo, or turn it off, or… whatever. Horror needs to be scary. Full stop.
You know what I mean.
In the Aeon article “Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom,” Neel Burton asked:
What, exactly, is boredom? It is a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal: we are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed.
In the case of curling up with a novel, we are “aroused” by the desire for a good story. If the story isn’t good, that arousal isn’t met. Sounds like science to me.
And you know exactly what I mean.
This is, honestly, the one true test of any piece of fiction. Is it, at the very least, not boring? And all the things we’ve talked about here, that I’ve written in books like The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters, and that I’ve tried my best to do in my own fiction from the age of, maybe, six onward, is to encourage writing that, in the first place, isn’t boring.
All I do, it sometimes seems, is rail against the info dump, which I define as long passages (and more than a sentence equals “long” in most cases) of dry recitation of facts. If you, the author, write yourself into the story, however tangentially or inadvertently, and start telling us about characters: how tall they are, where they were born, what political party the belong to… or worse, start telling us about places: how hot it gets, how many people live there… you’re info dumping. Your story is now on pause, or, since these often come at the beginning of a novel or short story, hasn’t yet begun while you—not your point of view character, but you as the unwanted voice of the best-unseen and un-heard from author—somehow brings us up to speed, “sets the scene,” or “wows” us with your detailed research, that’s boring. It needs to go.
This is at the heart of why some people get on the otherwise absurd anti-prologue bandwagon. If they’ve read more than one info dump “prologue” that tells us about the history of the fantasy world, or whatever other piece of would-be journalism, I get it. Yes, that’s boring.
I love science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, and I always have. And I, like, I’m sure, most fellow fans, love it for the experience of temporarily inhabiting some strange new person in some strange new place, not for the Monster Manual entry that breaks down the alien creature or the Player’s Handbook spell description, or the article on the kingdom of whatever from the Campaign Setting Guide… I want to live in that place, in that adventure, not with but as the POV character—or just as often, as those POV characters.
If you inject your own voice into the narrative I’m now reading the description of a story, not a story, and there is a huge difference.
The difference is that the former is boring, and the latter is not.
So remember, no matter what:
DON’T BE BORING!
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I might be one of those writers who can be boring. I think I’m good at avoiding info-dumping, but there’s so much more to think about. Reading “How to” and guide books like “The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction” is helpful. So is getting feedback from beta readers and content editors. Learning not to be boring is a journey that takes dedication and, sometimes, thick skin.
I found this post while searching for an explanation of why fantasy novels are so boring. I love fantasy comics, movies, video games and art, but I’m struggling to find fantasy novels that don’t bore me to sleep.
I absolutely agree that a genre author’s first priority should be to entertain.
Here’s my thoughts on your advice regarding infodumps.
One of my favorite SFF authors is Jack Vance. If you’ve read him, you know that he infodumps constantly, either through the narrator or a character monologuing or even in-setting encyclopedia entries. I have never felt bored during one of these infodumps. Maybe that’s because the places he’s describing are actually interesting? In one typical Vancian story, the heroes land on a planet whose main export is flayed human skin. The ship captain explains this unusual economy to the hero, with some historical background of how it came to be. He gives the hero some advice on how to keep his own hide firmly attached, and lastly tells the hero his mission. The hero steps planetside and the story begins. This is a promising start for a story, it’s all delivered in the form of an info-dump!
What actually bores me to sleep in fantasy novels is a bit different. It’s when the author wrongly interprets your advice against “telling” infodumps and decides to “show” the same information instead. An unremarkable setting that could be quickly described as hot, arid and sparsely populated is stretched out to “show” the characters sweating or making lame jokes about how hot it is. Instead of a quick narration explaining the political situation, there is a long scene of characters *dialoging about* the political situation.
“If you, the author, write yourself into the story, however tangentially or inadvertently, and start telling us about characters: how tall they are, where they were born, what political party the belong to… or worse, start telling us about places: how hot it gets, how many people live there… you’re info dumping. ”
Frank Herbert gives us all of this information in the first two pages of Dune:
“There had been so many things to learn. Arrakis would be a place so different from Caladan that Paul’s mind whirled with the new knowledge. Arrakis-Dune-Desert Planet.
Thufir Hawat, his father’s Master of Assassins, had explained it: their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, had been on Arrakis eighty years, holding the planet in a quasi-fief under a CHOAM Company contract to mine the geriatric spice, melange. Now the Harkonnens were leaving to replaced by the House of Atreides in fief-complete- an apparent victory for the Duke Leto. Yet, Hawat had said, this appearance contained the deadliest peril, for the Duke Leto was popular among the Great Houses of the Landsraad.”
There it is, the setting and plot delivered fast, hot and ready to eat. All of this takes less than ten seconds to read. A lesser author would have shown us Paul’s actual conversation with Thufir Hawat, probably taking up several pages to do so, instead of Paul’s remembered executive summary. Being able to give info dumps quickly is one of the strengths of the medium! Every film adaptation of Dune has struggled because the complex politics can’t be “shown” this effectively on a screen. Lynch managed to create the shortest, tightest “Dune” adaptation only by the use of a narrator and audible internal dialogs, which are unusual devices for films.
Authors must understand that their chosen medium is different from the screen and stage. When a modern television writer wants to explain a complicated political situation, he’ll have the characters doing something else at the same time to keep the audience from getting bored. That “something” is often having sex, skinning an animal or torturing a prisoner. This works for the screen because the audience can process visual and spoken information separately. Adding the sex/torture scene doesn’t make the scene any longer. But in books, each word is time. The fastest way to convey information is to infodump it. Trying to hide your infodump with a sex/torture scene like a TV show would will just make your infodump take more than twice as long.