Information Density, or, cramming a fifty-pound sausage into a five-pound sack

alecaustin recently had a thought-provoking post on his LJ, riffing off some recent discussions about the people and issues that are “invisible” in fiction to talk about information density and how you can’t fit everything into a story. In particular, there are certain kinds of topics that fit very badly indeed. He has a few examples of his own, but since I want to dig into this issue more deeply, I’m going to use one I know fairly well, which is the English Civil War.

One of the books I read when doing research for In Ashes Lie was called Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642. As the title suggests, its argument is that the wars of the mid-seventeenth century had their roots in the sixteenth — which is exactly the kind of thing that’s hard to convey in fiction, when the cause in question isn’t a simple case of “this person was assassinated five generations ago, and we still bear a grudge for that.” In particular, I’m going to tease out one economic strand for the purposes of our discussion here. If you’re not interested in reading about that sort of thing (if you aren’t, I can’t blame you), then scroll on down; I’ll get back to my point in a moment.

(Fair Warning: my point is long. And digresses along the way.)


For the record, this is very very simplified. And it’s been years since I needed this information, so I may be misremembering some of the details. If I am, feel free to correct me in comments.

But here’s the gist of it. Originally, the English Crown was supposed to run the country’s government out of its own pocket. Mostly this meant revenues from Crown lands, but there were also a few tax-type sources (like tonnage and poundage, traditionally voted to the monarch for life by their first Parliament). If the king needed more money than usual — if, for example, he was waging a war — then he had to convene Parliament and get them to vote him a special tax for a limited time. This was seen as a terrible imposition, a failure of government to pay its own way.

Over time, this broke down. The business of government got more complicated, and therefore more expensive. At the same time, revenues from Crown lands were declining — partly in their own right, and partly because kings kept selling bits of them off when they needed ready cash. Henry VIII propped himself and his descendents up for a while when he abolished the monasteries and confiscated their lands, but too many of those lands ended up being hocked, too; the problem was only postponed. In the reign of James I, the Duke of Buckingham sold baronetcies to the highest bidder, and raised a fair bit of coin that way . . . but none of it could fix the fundamental problem.

By the time Charles I took the throne, it was all falling apart. His first Parliament, who didn’t like him very much, broke with tradition and voted him tonnage and poundage for only one year, rather than for life. Charles, strapped for cash, resorted to every legal method (and some illegal ones) to get the money he needed: he collected tonnage and poundage anyway, levied ship money, revived distraint of knighthood, etc. This did not go over very well with Parliament, and that whole pit of economic trouble was one of the causes of the English Civil War.


Were you bored, reading that? I very nearly bored myself typing it. (And don’t get me started on what it was like to read the damn book. I hate economics. (So why is everybody in the Onyx Court books always worrying about money? Because apparently I also hate myself.)) But I’m glad I did read it, because it showed me a side to the conflict that isn’t the one everybody knows, i.e. the clash between absolute monarchy and nascent democracy.

Or — because it’s easier to make a point with two examples to illustrate — take the U.S. Civil War. Above all, that war was about slavery, about the subjugation of one race by another and the desire by some people to end it. But it wasn’t only about slavery. There were other conflicts and causes tangled up in that particular Gordion knot: economic imbalances between the North and the South, cultural differences, states’ rights, and so on, even before you get to the military conflict itself. It wasn’t a simple matter.

If you’re writing a book that deals with the U.S. Civil War, how much of that do you include? Your answer can’t be “all of it,” unless you’re Shelby Foote 2.0, writing a three-volume, 2968-page, 1.2-million-word monstrosity. (In which case it will take you the better part of twenty years to finish.) Generally speaking, that doesn’t work. Even in fantasy, where many of us are used to reading giant bricks, we just aren’t going to sit still for it. You need a story in there somewhere, a narrative through-line and characters to carry it, and those things take words, too. They also take focus, which is probably the more valuable commodity: readers can only pay attention to so many things at a time.


So what do you do? Well, most of us (unlike Foote) aren’t trying to detail the entire bloody war, taking place in many locations at many times. But even if you aren’t — even if you’re only following one person through the war — there’s too much to address in a single story. One way or another, you have to simplify.

Unfortunately, simplification often leads to distortion. Most of your readers live in modern democracies, and furthermore are used to fictional conflicts that divide neatly into Good Guys and Bad Guys. Because of that, if you boil the English Civil War down to monarchy vs. democracy, then Charles becomes the Bad Guy and Parliament becomes the Good Guy. On a general philosophical level I agree — I like living in a democracy — but the truth is that the more I read about the actual people involved, the more I hated all of them, and the horses they rode in on, too. (Pride’s Purge. ‘Nuff said.) If you decide to take the road less traveled, and write about it from the economic angle instead, then you lose the personalities — Charles being an autocratic asshole, Pym screaming about the privileges of Parliament — and make it all look very impersonal, the result of century-long social changes that I don’t think anybody on the ground at the time actually saw in that sort of analytical light. (I could be wrong. But none of the histories I read mentioned anybody having a nice sane conversation about how maybe they needed to rethink the fundamental basis of Crown finances.) Neither picture is accurate.

Even if you don’t outright warp things by simplifying, you close off some of your narrative options. If the only cause of the U.S. Civil War that you bring up in your novel is slavery, then the guys in the North are all fighting to abolish it, and the guys in the South are all fighting to preserve it. That makes it hard for you to address the issue of racism among Union troops, or all the debates about having black soldiers. (If you do address those issues, then pretty soon you’re having to talk about all the other things that were going on besides slavery.) Do you have to have such issues in your book? No. You can write about uncomplicated Northern abolitionists and the free blacks fighting alongside them. But that’s less interesting, and in general — here I’m not speaking about Civil War books in either country, but historical fiction of any stripe — we probably already have stories about the simple, Good vs. Evil versions of things. Me, I want more books that will dig into the complexity that usually gets overlooked.


Of course, I’m a fantasy novelist. One of the great things about fantasy is that you get to make stuff up. In reality, the deep causes of the English Civil War go back at least a century; in fiction, I can write a civil war whose causes are only ten years old.

. . . except that isn’t a solution. Nations rarely tear themselves in half over some Johnny-come-lately bit of conflict. It takes a good run-up to get enough momentum for that kind of bloodshed. If you give me a massive, country-wide war without those deep roots, odds are I’m not going to find it very persuasive. And okay, sure, some of your readers will suspend their disbelief for it — but as with the simplified version of real history, you’re missing out on the chance to do something more interesting.

So you worldbuild. I’m writing a secondary-world series now, and I don’t have to worry about what led Parliament to whack the head off King Charles I; but I do have to worry about the confluence of economic and political factors that led Scirland and other Anthiopean nations to stick their oar into the conflicts between various Erigan powers. Every time I say “because X,” I find myself asking, “okay, so why X?” And once I’ve figured out “because W,” then I move on to “because V” and so on, until I’m inventing the entire bloody alphabet of history that has created the situation seen in this novel.

Which, again, doesn’t all fit into the book.


Some things fit better than others.

Personal stuff fits just fine. We’re accustomed to reading fiction through the lens of character; even if it isn’t your protagonist whose life history is driving a particular situation, it’s easy for us to accept that the war happened because Bad King Balthasar had daddy issues. Wars fit pretty well, too, maybe because we’re all so used to the model of history that’s pretty much just a chronology of strife.

What doesn’t fit very well: impersonal things, and long-term ones. Fiction is bad at handling society-wide matters playing out over a period of decades or more. People dying in the Black Death? Sure. The Black Death flipping the balance of power in Europe such that, where previously land had been scarce and labor plentiful, now land was plentiful and the labor to work it scarce, thus setting into motion a process of social and economic change that led to the rise of the middle class? Not so much. Unless you have a blind prophet intoning, “I foresee this will lead to greater urbanization and increased literacy, creating a body of popular culture that will be used to undermine the institution of monarchy,” you can’t really display the full scope.

Or, in the other direction, you have characters who can look back over the previous few centuries and say, “Aha — the reason we have this peasant riot on our hands is because changes in agricultural methods two hundred years ago increased yield by nearly fifty percent, but a countervailing religious movement concentrated power in the hands of the aristocratic elite, thus decreasing the quality of life for the very farmers who are producing the country’s prosperity.” (Such characters bear an odd resemblance to modern academic historians. Gee, I wonder why.) You can show farmers subsisting in crappy conditions while the nobles live it up . . . it’s the why that’s hard to get across.


There are nine and sixty ways of addressing these problems, of course. More than that, really; there’s at least one way for each story, and what works in one case may not work in another. You can tell a tightly-focused tale positioned at the exactly confluence of character and plot that will allow you to cover one issue in depth. You can tell a sprawling epic that throws everything and the kitchen sink into the book. You can invent reasons for the impersonal to become personal. You can back off to an omniscient narrator who will explain things to the reader more efficiently than a character ever could. You can be one of those amazing writers who manages to convey in a single sentence what most people would take a paragraph or more to do.

The right answer is the one you can make work for the story at hand.

Which is totally unhelpful to say. But it’s nigh-impossible to get specific without specifics to apply it to. I know what I did for my books, and why, and what I would do differently now. I can dissect other authors’ books and talk about what I would have done if they were mine. I just can’t offer a generalized prescription that will apply to That Book Over There, The One I Haven’t Read.

But I can toss my thoughts up on the Internet for others to read, and invite comments. I know alecaustin isn’t the only one who has been chewing on this; I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts.

0 Responses to “Information Density, or, cramming a fifty-pound sausage into a five-pound sack”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    Fascinating. Thank you.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    The economy underpins everything: that’s one of the things classical Marxism got right. And, for me, the absence of economic motives and, y’know, *sense* undermines fantasy. To be believable, a country has to have viable infrastructure, and all those cookie-cutter fake mediaeval kingdoms with horses and mud and kings and fields don’t make sense. Who supports the kings? They rarely seem to raise taxes, unless they’re evil (and that tells me things about the author that I don’t find attractive). There’s always food (except when the Evil Overlord has caused famine) and usually quite sophisticated food. Everyone seems to be able to keep horses and have decent clothes (which they don’t often seem to wash or mend) and good quality equipment, including swords and armour, but they rarely appear to take care of this, nor are we told where the metal for this comes from (there are smiths, because smiths are Romantic, but rarely miners). I love that your books take this kind of thing into account. They read authentic, and that matters.
    But generally one of the reasons fantasy gets slammed with the lazy label ‘conservative’ is that it gives us gloss without substance, lords without serfs. That sells us short as a genre.

    • Marie Brennan

      They rarely seem to raise taxes, unless they’re evil

      Well, to be fair, that seems to have been the attitude in England for quite a long time. We think of taxation as an utterly normal part of the economy, but given how Parliament responded every time the monarch wanted to tax something — even if it was only for a year or three years or whatever — I don’t think they agreed. (Though I will admit that I really, really don’t know English economic history well enough to say whether there were standing taxes along the lines of tonnage and poundage that I don’t know about, or things we would call taxes but they didn’t.)

      For me, the stuff you list — food and miners and so on — is more a logistical matter than specifically an economic one. But that may very well be me diligently splitting hairs so I don’t trip my “god I hate economics” trigger. 🙂

      • la_marquise_de_

        Oh, taxes were resented. But every lord and king raised them and people at all levels expected to be taxed. What irritates me in fantasy is that only the ‘bad’ characters are ever shown to raise any tax at all; the ‘good’ ones have mysterious abilities to live in comfort, fight wars etc all apparently by magic or the ‘well-filled treasury’, (which will have got that way via taxation of some kind or another, but not done by our hero). And that’s dishonest of the writer, I think.
        And yes, logistics, economics… much the same thing. (I’m not a huge fan of economic history either, but I’ve had to deal with it professionally, and I have worked with several leading economic historians, which has helped hugely.)

  3. mrissa

    I wasn’t bored. And that may or may not be a problem. It means that I may have to rely on first-readers to tell me whether that sort of thing is boring to other people, or it may mean that I end up with a smaller or weirder audience for stuff I write (I MISS YOU MIKE FORD) than if I had a better sense for when tonnage and poundage were words that were supposed to cue me to snore, because they don’t.

    On the other hand, I have the opposite information density problem when reading someone else’s book, which is that if Fusty Professor So-and-So turns up with a line or two of this sort, she will distract me. I will consider her important, and I will weigh what she is saying for the sense-making. “But that’s not actually what usury means,” I will say, or, “leprosy is not transmitted that way,” or I will wait eagerly for the reappearance of FPS-&-S to retest her theories and be proven wrong, since clearly this is important.

    • papersky

      I wasn’t bored…. but I was waiting for it to get to something that wasn’t screamingly obvious, and when it didn’t I had the reaction of “Oh. Maybe this isn’t screamingly obvious. Maybe there are people who don’t know this. Ah.” Which is a different problem. Trying to assess what your potential reader knows and where they are starting from isn’t easy either.

      • Marie Brennan

        See below about my reasons for boredom.

        And yes, obviousness is another facet to worry about. I had that reaction reading ‘s Servant of the Underworld; I know more about Mesoamerica than your average bear, so occasionally got impatient with her for explaining things I already knew. I had to remind myself that for other readers, those explanations were necessary.

    • mindstalk

      I wasn’t bored either. I can also like reading economics, history, appendices, and infodumps. I wonder if the problem solves itself: the people who’d care about the non-personal background information are also the ones who’d be willing to read appendices or between-chapter notes (as in Cyteen) or non-story chapters (as in Moby Dick, America’s great SF novel) that the other people can ignore.

      • Marie Brennan

        See below about my reasons for boredom.

        I’d like to see more authors do “DVD extras” for their books — if not in the book (because that’s more pages, ergo possibly more production cost, ergo possibly not something your publisher would be on board with) then on your website or wherever.

        • mindstalk

          DVD extras! Nice way of putting it.

          Oh, _Finder_ has another way, endnotes referring to pages in the main comic. A vital part of this anthropological SF exerience, IMO.

          • alecaustin

            I must confess that I love Finder, but I almost never read the endnotes, much like I never really read the appendices in The Lord of the Rings.

            I guess I prefer to see things incorporated into the text by implication if they’re important, rather than shunted off to the side, and if they can actually be shunted off, then they’re optional and I don’t care as much.

          • Marie Brennan

            I can be interested in side stuff in the same way I can be interested in a short story that gives background for a character in a novel — but not everything supports a short story. Maybe just an appendix.

            But that does presuppose a novel I like enough that I do care about stuff outside its bounds. Which is certainly not all novels.

          • rachelmanija

            Finder puzzled me because while some endnotes are non-essential worldbuilding or flourishes, others explained crucial matters of plot or character (like motivations) that are completely opaque if you only read the main text. I like the series but I often was baffled by how McNeil decided what should go in the main story and what should go in the endnotes.

          • Marie Brennan

            Heh. Reminds me of watching the deleted scenes for a movie — sometimes, the movie would have been so much better if they’d been left in . . . .

            (Queen of the Damned, I am LOOKING AT YOU.)

          • alecaustin

            I remember that being more of an issue in the earlier volumes of the series? You could mostly fill in the gaps for stuff that came after King of the Cats, IIRC.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was being mostly tongue-in-cheek about the “bored” bit — but not entirely, because really, any time somebody starts talking about taxation and revenue and things like that my eyes glaze over. I blame the fact that I had an abominable experience trying to study economics in high school (long story, and it involves a correspondence course), with a side order of the Marxist academic work I’ve read generally being annoyingly reductionist about everything.

      But I do think you have to check for “is this boring to other people,” because taxation is not something everybody is going to find narratively exciting. You don’t want to be my high school pre-calculus professor: he loved math, and thought it was fascinating, and comprehensively failed to transmit any of that fascination or love to his students. (A better teacher might have been able to succeed, just as a good enough writer might.)

  4. wldhrsjen3

    I love this. I am increasingly frustrated with the simplification of historical events and their implications, but I’ve started noodling at a project that will require me to tease out the underlying motivations for a historical conflict that looks very much like a personal vendetta – only, of course, it wasn’t about one man’s retribution but actually a clash of two cultures poised against a backdrop of climate change. And trying to figure out how much background to include, how much explanation and exploration I can work in amongst the layers without creating something too dense and incomprehensible for reading, is starting to make me crazy. I simply *have* to filter it. The question for me is which filter is actually best for the story and which filter is simply a knee-jerk default based on my own societal conditioning.

    • Marie Brennan

      Climate change: another excellent example of a subject that doesn’t easily fit into a novel, because (barring something Obviously Magical like Narnia’s hundred-year-winter) it happens too slowly to be very noticeable.

      Good luck! 🙂

      • alecaustin

        I think one thing that we might want to talk about a bit more here in terms of fitting in complexity is what you can do over the course of a series (long or short) versus what you can do in the course of a self-contained novel or piece of short fiction. The books of Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy – whatever else may be said of them or their author – do show how a changing climate (based on a planet’s distance from its heat-producing primary star) influences the course of history.

        Another, possibly better example of this sort of thing is C.J. Cherryh’s Atevi series, which at this point (we’re 13 books in) is dealing with the cultural and political-economic ramifications of the migrations and tribal displacements that followed the Atevi-human war some centuries years before. There’s a lot of immediate action, but it’s generally well-grounded in characterization and historical conflicts that make sense (at least to me).

        • Marie Brennan

          True, and as I said in the comments on your post, it’s one of the things the structure of the Onyx Court series allowed me to do. Especially since some of my characters were immortal: my readers might not know where the Tyburn gallows was, but I could have Irrith being shocked to find in 1757 that the city had spread enough to swallow it, which let me highlight the accelerating pace of growth in London. (Which became very visible to non-immortal characters in the following century, when the pace got totally out of control.)

          This strikes me as another reason why fantasy and SF incline to fat books and/or series. Not just because we have to communicate many more of the contemporary facts of the world to the reader — we can’t assume shared knowledge on that front — but because that length allows us to show depth of time and change. You can deal with the migrations and displacements that followed the U.S. Civil War without writing the war first, but not as much in spec fic.

      • nordhus

        Under the right circumstances changes in climate can be noticeable. For instance, in Norway there is a glacier called Nigardsbreen. During the first half of the 18th. century it advanced several kilometers covering the farm Nigard, and that’s how it got it’s name.

        • Marie Brennan

          True, and you can also have the thing where people talk about how in their granddaddy’s time, the rains came more often (or whatever). But it takes a long perspective to truly be able to distinguish “we’ve been in a long drought” from “the climate has changed for good.”

  5. pentane

    The problem I have is understanding the balance between the weight of events and the amount individuals can move stuff.

    On the one hand you have Clausewitz predicing that Europe will have a war at the start of the 20th century and if they screw up the peace there will be another war.

    On the other hand, Hitler.

    I think David Drake did it best in the first Hammer’s Slammers novel. He put together a half dozen short stories and then did worldbuilding in short interludes between each story.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oddly, that reminds me of one of the ways I like to see prophecy handled: it predicts that something will happen, but is not tied to any one person. Somebody will cause the downfall of the Dark Lord — but it’s an open contest to be that Somebody, rather than a single individual being fated to do the job.

      Going off what you said (since I am not well-enough versed in twentieth-century history to opine on the subject myself), Hitler couldn’t have happened if Clausewitz wasn’t right. On the other hand, Clausewitz wasn’t predicting Hitler; he was predicting conditions, and it needed a Hitler to make it happen.

      • rachelmanija

        It’s possible that if Hitler hadn’t existed, someone else would have stepped into that role. (I think! I’m not an expert either.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, that’s what I mean. It doesn’t absolve him of responsibility, of course — he’s still the one who decided to step up and be that evil — but conditions were ripe, and somebody else might have done the same thing with lesser (or greater!) success.

        • alecaustin

          The German General Staff and military establishment definitely wanted to rebuild the military and reclaim German’s rightful place on the world stage before Hitler showed up as Chancellor, so yeah, the rearmament and drive towards annexation wasn’t entirely driven by Hitler. That said, the particular form it took was very clearly laid out in Mein Kampf, and it’s not at all clear that different German nationalist politicians would have pursued expansionist foreign policies as aggressively as Hitler did.

      • pentane

        I’m not sure the war needed a Hitler to make it happen, but the Holocaust wouldn’t’ve happened without Hitler.

        That was the unpredictable part I was referring to. Even though anti-Semitism and eugenics were mainstream ideas at the time, no one else put them together like Hitler did.

        A war without Hitler leading Germany would happened, but it have been very different, both in things outside of the war as well as the waging of the war.

        • Marie Brennan

          True. There could have been a war without the Holocaust, and there’s no guarantee that somebody else would have assembled that particular jigsaw puzzle if he hadn’t.

  6. sartorias

    One of the conflicts that I see from my corner is that there are few people who find this stuff interesting . . . and often those who do don’t want to read fiction about it.

    • green_knight

      Maybe I’m hanging out with weird people, but I think that *a lot* of folks will find history interesting… if it’s presented in an interesting manner. And not that I like the book at all – I think it’s very poorly written – but the DaVinci code proves, I think, that history, and theories about history aren’t necessarily a turnoff for readers. Lindsey Alexander springs to mind, Sharon Penman, Elizabeth what’shername and The Historian, and Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrel, which was not, by any means, an easy book to pick up and get into – so I don’t know whether writers aren’t sometimes a little bit too cautious.

      (And, cough, you do plenty of court intrigue and double-crossing in your books, and readers seem to be more than happy to follow along).

      But yes, there are people who Do Not Read Fiction -but they’re not the target audience, and you won’t get them with the best fiction in the world, so… why worry about them? It’s the people who might pick up a book if it hits their buttons that are interesting.

      • timprov

        And for complex history and economics, I think we’d all be pretty happy to have the audience the Baroque Cycle had.

        • alecaustin

          Or the audience of James Michener, for that matter.

          I mean, I think that Stephenson benefited tremendously from having built an audience with Snow Crash and The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon there, whereas Michener benefitted from an attitude that fiction needed to be defended as being Educational! But there clearly are some readers who are interested in gigantic doorstops full of exposition.

          • Marie Brennan

            Some of it really is just a matter of finding your audience. Tom Clancy, I’m told, has what we would consider to be egregious infodumps on military tech — but infodumps on military tech are half the reason his readers showed up for the book. In the hands of the right people (on both sides of the page), things like that are a feature, not a bug.

          • alecaustin

            Oh boy howdy does he ever have infodumps. Larry Bond and the various other Clancy imitators have the same tic.

            The question in many cases is, is there an audience to find? Given that History Channel seems to have turned into the Hitler Channel (all WW II, all the time), and that Discovery has two half-hour shows about guns back to back, it’s clear that the more militarized version of history and military hardware pr0n have at least something of a mass audience… but this is not at all guaranteed for books about banking.

          • Marie Brennan

            I can name off a bunch of factors that probably affect this particular instance:

            1) Clancy et al are writing about contemporary topics, for values of “contemporary” that map to “within the lifetime of some of your readers.” Try to be Tom Clancy with the Napoleonic Wars, and you might not do so well. (On the other hand, apparently you can be Tom Clancy in Space and do just fine.)

            2) The stakes in military fiction are automatically high. Lives are rarely lost in banking, though livelihoods may be.

            3) Warfare is escapist for a large percentage of American readers, because a large percentage of them have never gone to war. Banking, on the other hand, may be a very sore topic for those same readers right now.

            4) Clancy et al are perfectly willing to write thrilling potboilers, which helps the lumps of exposition go down. The more “serious” you try to get, the less success you’ll probably see.

        • vcmw

          And I loved Stephenson as a teenager, but have never made it through any of the books after Diamond Age, because if I’m going to read big infodumps about history and economics, I’d kind of rather just read history and economics. I love economic history, just hand me over the 600 page source book and I’m good, thanks.

          Of course, umm, I also find both case law and actual legal contracts intrinsically interesting. In the case of contract language, interesting to the point of maniacal laughter, even.

      • mindstalk

        “which was not, by any means, an easy book to pick up and get into”

        It wasn’t? :p

        • Marie Brennan

          I continued to be boggled by how successful that book was. Not because I don’t like it — I do — but because I didn’t think so many other people would like it.

      • al_zorra

        You are more right than those who don’t think readers of some kinds of fiction don’t find this interesting.

        The key to ‘interesting’ is always characters.

        Love, C.

      • Marie Brennan

        Well, it helps for us to stick to specifics. said “this stuff;” you say “history.” I was saying particular aspects of history. There are any number of people who like the aspects of history that are a cross between a celebrity gossip magazine and a disaster movie* — but Marxist-type economic history, not so much.

        The DaVinci Code’s historical content hooked readers (I presume — haven’t read it myself) because it was a conspiracy theory, and those automatically gain a certain number of sexiness points. Court intrigue and double-crossing are the personal strand that I said fits very well into books. It’s stuff on a societal level that poses more of a challenge. If The DaVinci Code had tried to bring in lots of non-conspiratorial content about the role of women in the early Christian Church and how they were, over a period of multiple generations, edged out of positions of leadership and influence, there are readers who would have been interested . . . but I don’t think it would have been the blockbuster it was. (Not without a far better author at the helm, anyway.)

        *I wish I could remember who I got that description from, so I could credit them properly.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think there’s a middle ground there, of people who don’t want to read a lecture on X topic — i.e. nonfiction or didactic fiction — but are perfectly happy to read fiction that has been, shall we say, marinated in that sauce. (Can you tell I’m eating right now?)

      • sartorias

        Heh! to simplify vastly, I think the key is to make it takes a very strong narrative voice to make that lecture on economics interesting, but present the same information through eyes of characters trying to deal with said economics, and it becomes story.

        • alecaustin

          This is true, but also active works against the question of compression, yes? The digested lecture on economics might be a single page, while the decompressed narrative version of that lecture could end up being chapters.

          I mean, you’d presumably have a lot of other interesting stuff going on while you presented the information, but that itself is a risk, in that if you layer on too much excitement on top of the economics, many readers might go, “Yay chases and fights! Um, and I guess there was some poverty in there too. Something about trade imbalances…?”

          • sartorias

            oh, yes. I think this is why we end up with 800 page epics.

          • Marie Brennan

            Yeah, pretty much What Alec Said. People talk about why fantasy and SF are so much longer now than they used to be, but we often overlook the fact that we’re much less willing to accept infodumps than genre readers fifty years ago. When stuff has to be inclued, it takes many more words to get the job done.

            But to go back to your original point: yes, the key usually is to filter it through characters. A lecture on the management of household servants in Victorian London: probably not interesting. Eliza O’Malley infiltrating a household as a maid in order to chase plot: (hopefully) more interesting.

          • alecaustin

            When stuff has to be inclued, it takes many more words to get the job done.

            I suspect this is what you meant, but I would argue that when stuff A) has to be inclued, and B) shouldn’t be ambiguous, then it takes many more words to make certain you’ve communicated it. It’s easy to drop a couple of hints here and there, as long as you don’t mind most readers not ‘getting it’.

          • Marie Brennan

            Well, even then, sometimes saying it outright is faster than hinting. Dumbledore’s orientation was inclued and allowed to remain ambiguous — Rowling only dropped a couple of hints here and there — but it still would have been more word-efficient to say “he’s gay.” 🙂

            (Okay, arguably not in that instance, since I’m not sure Rowling would have changed any of how she wrote that part of the story even if she had come out and said it directly. But you know what I mean.)

          • alecaustin

            Sure, point taken. “X was well-respected; white-haired; gay.” is more immediate and efficient than mucking about with hints.

            That said, if instead we’re trying to convey part of the cultural meaning of what it means to be a holder of the Order of Merlin (especially in light of that Salazar Slytherin guy, who was awarded it in 1139, before the awful thing he did in 1147, for which it was stripped from him…), well, we’re back to the original challenge again.

  7. green_knight

    Between the purge and the King’s trial and execution only about 70 attended the Commons and attendance in the Lords rarely reached a dozen.

    That’s a story-laden situation right there, and the stories of the people who attend – and one of them at least *must* have had a change of mind given how well the good intentions played out – will make A Story. A much better story than the black-and-white, evil-king-good-parliament (or vice versa).

    If my to-write queue wasn’t several miles long, I’d be tempted to play with this. And this, in a nutshell, is why knowledge of history is _important_: it opens possibilities.

    • Marie Brennan

      If my to-write queue wasn’t several miles long, I’d be tempted to play with this.

      I can’t say I recommend it; writing about Parliamentary politics in the mid-seventeenth century gave me a headache that lasted all summer. 🙂 But that’s because, as I said, I pretty much hated everybody on all sides and thought all of them should go soak their heads. What a mess that entire period was . . . .

  8. al_zorra

    Excellent! No more in fiction of any kind can writers afford to be lazy and cheap about economics than we can in our actual lives. Unless, perhaps we’re personally very wealthy and have a 100% trusted minion who handles all that living real life stuff for us ….

    Love, C.

  9. cofax7

    An odd case of synchronicity, since this is exactly what I’m struggling with in the sequel to Carpetbaggers: looking for ways to complexify the situation, bring in real-world-type economics/history/politics, and yet still keep it character-based enough to drive the plot forward.

    It’s all rather harder than it looks, and it’s one thing to figure out the background/history etc and another to make it live. Argh.

    • Marie Brennan

      Especially in the case of something like Narnia, where you don’t want to totally throw the (non-economic, non-historical, non-political) style of the setting out the window. This is what annoyed me about Wicked (the book more than the musical): it didn’t feel the slightest bit like Oz.

      I mean, I do recognize that totally changing the style can be a valid artistic choice. But I think that works best when done for humorous effect — trying to figure out the economics of a D&D world, for example — and less well as the backing for a serious discussion of something.

  10. Anonymous

    This is as much about reference frames as anything else… except, perhaps, weregeld.

    Most modern Americans are familiar with the concept of the scientific method as a radical change in worldview; in particular, the change from alchemy as the dominant lens through which to view “substances” to the system generally called “chemistry” (but it’s a lot more complicated and spills over into other aspects of science, too). What they neglect is that theories for the way other parts of reality work change over time, too. Consider, for example, the revolution in economic thought in the late Enlightenment, marked in common mythos by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. After Smith’s work, the language to discuss mercantilism v. comparative advantage, and arbitrage, and depreciation of capital assets, and so on, was available beyond the smoke-filled academic rooms filled by the occasional moral philosopher and political economist. Nonetheless, nobody was talking about “class warfare” yet outside of those rooms; it took later theorists, including but not limited to Marx and Engels, to make that material coherent enough for public debate by nonspecialists.*

    But even this is too narrow a conception of the problem. One of the other trends over time — from about 870AD or so in Northern Europe to about 1580 or so — was the increasing use of weregeld and related substitution of money damages for equitable (direct, in-kind) relief for a wrong, combined with the decreasing acceptability of personal violence as an appropriate remedy for a wrong.** This accelerated during the early seventeenth century as most European nations — even the Vatican! — deemphasized their courts of equity (in English usage, “chancery”) in favor of courts of law. The courts of equity were empowered to order equitable remedies like specific performance (“you promised to do it, so do it!”), replevin (“you and your family of robber barons stole it, so give it back!”), and so on; the courts of law, originally, were only empowered to order exchange of things of value, and in particular money damages.

    At the same time, the concept of waiver of sovereign immunity was gaining currency, so that governments also became liable when they screwed up. Governments, being made up of humans, are going to screw up. This put the governments before the courts not just as plaintiffs seeking back taxes and transfer fees, but as defendants when seizing property (real or otherwise) from private persons.

    Now it gets really complicated. But I won’t hijack Our Gracious Hostess’s blog further; I just suggest reading the first two parts of Cribbet and Johnson’s Principles of the Law of Property*** to get a flavor of how all of this ties together. The bottom line is that law is the last refuge to resolve conflicts before violence… and since fiction is mostly about conflicts (whether or not resolved violently), the shape of the law in a given culture greatly imfluences what that culture sees as legitimate conflicts and legitimate solutions. And that you can’t separate remedy from policy, which is the mistake so many theoretical economists make; that’s why Marx, Engels, et al. are so egregiously wrong in their prescriptive measures, regardless of the insights offered in their diagnostic descriptions.

    * Nonspecialists not relying upon footnotes, that is.

    ** We’ll leave aside, at least for the moment, what was a “wrong.” Or, for that matter, who committed a wrong.

    *** 3d ed. (1989). C’mon, it’s only about 130 pages, and it’s better written than a lot of doorstop-length fantasy novels, and it tells better stories than a lot of doorstop-length fantasy novels, and Professor Cribbet was a closet SF fan who kept LOTR in his office in the 1990s.

    • Marie Brennan

      We have to bear in mind also that what was considered appropriate restitution for a wrong in a given culture, and what the reader will find emotionally satisfying, may not match up at all. (Of course, given that we tend to be fond of violent answers, I guess we match up pretty well with the whole “eye for an eye/tooth for a tooth” model of justice. It’s just more developed systems we have a problem with.)

      • Anonymous

        Lawyers and humans: One species separated by a common language.

        When I saw “restitution” in their my brain began to spin… because restitution is one of the equitable remedies administered by courts of equity. In fact, up until the 1620s one literally could not get restitution in a common-law court of law, while at the same time one could not get compensation in an English/Scottish/Welsh court of chancery!

    • ide_cyan

      I find this very interesting, thank you. (As a Sarah Caudwell fan, I perk up at explanations of the concept of chancery.)

  11. desperance

    Your link describing Shelby Foote’s work doesn’t lead to anything about Shelby Foote, but to your previous discussion about English Civil War texts; I’m not sure, but I don’t think this was deliberate…?

  12. livejournal

    Interesting links

    User referenced to your post from Interesting links saying: […] responds on Information Density […]

  13. livejournal

    Links on Worldbuilding and patchworks

    User referenced to your post from Links on Worldbuilding and patchworks saying: […] to educate the reader away from what they know while keeping a narrative going at full clip: here […]

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