When writing a novel, one common admonishment is to keep in mind the goal of entertaining the reader. Fiction’s purpose is to entertain; non-fiction’s purpose is to inform. But the lines between the two can often blur, as when non-fiction uses narrative techniques.
This week, I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s book, For the Win and he uses info dumps like crazy, putting in lots of technical discussions, potentially boring information. He does it–and it works? What is he doing right?
Story comes first. For the Win is first and foremost a wide-ranging global story of online gaming and how the workers across the world join together to fight for better working conditions. There’s a strong plot, strong goal and an interesting series of developments.
Interesting characters. Doctorow also pulls together a fascinating cast of characters, drawn from the four corners of the globe. There’s the uneducated, but smart Indian girl from the slums, a disillusioned teen from California, Worker activist from Singapore, determined striker from China, and equally fascinating radio personality from the Pearl Delta of China. They are all fleshed out with real-world needs, wants, goals, and their individual circumstances come alive.
Setting. For each character, their setting is particularized with specific sensory details. You get spicy chai and well-water in an Indian slum juxtaposed with the luxury of a wealthy California home.
In short, Doctorow tells a stirring, interesting tale.
But he goes a step farther. As long as he has your attention, he wants you to know something about the online gaming world. If you look at the top ten world economies, many of them are virtual worlds and economies of an online game. Sometimes, he stops and gives an info dump on economics, gaming rules, worker unions and so on. And sometimes, he has one character ask another to explain something.
For example, the Indian girl who is such a great gamer they call her General is uncertain about economics. She asks the college-graduate economist to explain something, then because the General dosen’t understand the complicated economics, the Economist explains further, in simpler terms.
It works. Really, it shouldn’t work, it’s an info dump and at that point of the novel, Doctorow is just trying to teach me–the reader–something about economics. (I am denser than the General sometimes!) And I don’t mind a bit. I keep reading. Because in the context of the exciting story, I don’t mind a bit of explanation, in fact, it adds to the enjoyment of the story, because I understand motivations and the worker’s dilemmas better. Doctorow makes me root for the worker’s revolution because I understand it better.
If I was just reading about economics, my eyes would glaze over. Reading this novel, though, I am fascinated and I try harder to understand. It matters because he’s made me like the General and hope that her life gets better.
Go ahead: break the rules and give us an info dump in your novel. But please–tell a story first.