Information Density Pt. 2, or, let’s try an example

I said before that it’s hard to talk about certain issues in writing without specific examples. Since I just finished reading a book that I think illustrates the challenge of information density and scale very well, I’m back for a follow-up round.

Before I get into the example, though, an anecdote. One of the archaeological sites I worked on has reconstructions of period houses as part of a public display. Several are very well-constructed, and one is a mess. But I’ll never forget what one of the archaeologists said about that one: “We’ve learned more from our mistakes here than we have from the ones we did right.”

The book I want to discuss is one I think failed to manage the kinds of issues that don’t fit easily into fiction. It tried, but it didn’t succeed. I think well of the author for trying, and am not here to mock or belittle her effort; in fact, as the author in question is Tamora Pierce, she’s someone I think fairly well of overall. But I think you can often learn more from an ambitious failure than a success.

Oh, and just in case anybody didn’t see this coming: there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you haven’t yet read Mastiff, the third and last of the Beka Cooper books, I will be discussing the main conflict (though I will try to stay away from spoiling some of the other important things that happen along the way).

For those who haven’t read any of the series . . . it’s about the Provost’s Guard, aka the Provost’s Dogs, who are the police force for the medievalish kingdom of Tortall. (Aside: yes, it’s odd for a setting like that to have an organized police force. But whatever; it’s the buy-in for the story.) The protagonist, Beka Cooper, starts off as a “Puppy” or new Guardswoman, and becomes more experienced as the series goes on. Each book deals with a different type of crime: in the first one, it’s smuggling; in the second, it’s counterfeiting; in the third, it’s slavery.

. . . sort of. Slavery is actually legal in Tortall; the actual crime in this book is treason. But slavery is more central to the plot in many ways, and if you follow me behind the cut to spoiler territory, I’ll start to unpack that.

I think one of the problems with Mastiff, which complicates both the “information density” question and the success of the story in other respects, is that there are three components to the central conflict, and they don’t hang together well.

The moral and emotional center is slavery. It may be legal, but it isn’t nice, and a lot of the narrative focus is on the various aspects of the institution: the slave-trading caravans, the jobs done by slaves, the way they’re treated by their owners, etc. This is a topic that has been present in the series from the start, but it doesn’t become the focus until the third book.

The actual threat, however, is treason: a coalition of noblemen and mages have banded together to murder the king, queen, and young prince, and place someone more to their liking on the throne. This is connected to slavery in that a lot of the nobles involved earn money from that trade, and furthermore a slave caravan is used as cover for the kidnapped prince . . . but their treason isn’t Because Slavery.

In fact, it’s actually Because Mages. The motivation for the plot is kind of muddled, but appears to largely be driven by the fact that the king has decided to tax mages, oversee their accreditation, require a certain amount of service from them, etc. This offends some of them, and so they decide to join up with some nobles who are likewise offended that King Roger (who used to be a feckless womanizer) has decided to shape up and run the country like he should.

There are some clear structural problems with this, starting with the fact that the mages are the ones with the strongest — albeit still weak — motivation, but they aren’t the ones spearheading the plot; that’s in the hands of a nobleman. But I don’t think you can separate out the basic structural issues from the kinds of difficulties we were talking about in my previous post.

We generally expect the third book of a trilogy not to be wholly self-contained, but to draw on things established in the first two volumes. But Mastiff doesn’t really do that. Not only is the leader of the rebellion not a prominent character from the rest of the the series, he doesn’t even show up until maybe the last third of this book. (I felt this was also a weakness in a more personal strand of the plot: new character, not enough investment.) And on a thematic front, a similar thing happens: slavery is present as a nasty thing in Terrier and Bloodhound, but it isn’t a crime within the setting, which means it isn’t presaged as a conflict that must ultimately be addressed. (Again, I felt a similar thing happened on a more personal front, too.) And the whole business of taxing mages . . . if that got mentioned anywhere in the preceding books, I missed it entirely.

Whether it did or not, the problem is the same. Beka isn’t a mage. Nobody very close to her is a mage, either; there’s one minor secondary character who recurs, but she’s not important to the plot. In fact, Beka doesn’t even like magic: she avoids it whenever she can. So the Big Issue that’s supposed to be sufficient cause for regicide and high treason comes out of her blind spot. One of the ways to handle complex issues is to position a character where the impersonal will become personal for them, but that doesn’t happen here.

I’ve said before, and sort of meant it, that I want to give this series to people who think the be-all and end-all of “grittiness” and “realism” in fantasy is people dying horribly and women being raped. It was Bloodhound that made me say it, because that book delves into how counterfeit coin can destroy a nation’s economy — not exactly an issue that often gets addressed in our genre. In general, I like the fact that Pierce is using the cop’s-eye view to tackle fresh topics.

But I think a different character could have helped more. Beka’s weakness as a protagonist, from the standpoint of being able to wrangle the bigger picture, is that she doesn’t want to engage with things outside her immediate job. She likes arresting criminals and helping people: that’s great, we like that in a heroine. But she doesn’t like dealing with mages, as I detailed above, and — most crucially — she doesn’t like dealing with nobles. Put her around people who outrank her, and she just wants to go back to the streets. Ask her to speak in public, and she begins stuttering. So she avoids the higher-level aspects of being a Provost’s Dog like the plague . . . and that means we lose a window we might have otherwise had into the larger issues.

Some of this may be Pierce’s weird positioning with respect to the YA genre. I don’t know how old Beka is at the conclusion of Mastiff, but I think four years pass between the start of the series and the end; she’s not younger than nineteen, and I suspect she’s at least twenty. She has a job and lives on her own. She’s been engaged. She isn’t a girl; she’s a grown woman, and if Pierce weren’t established as a YA/children’s author, I don’t know that the Cooper books would be in that category. As they are right now, they can skate by — but if you did some of the things I think might help strengthen the story, they very well might not.

See, if Beka were politically engaged, you could tell the story of how she became Lady Provost. She’d be a naive Puppy in the first book, get involved in the bigger picture in the second, and have the information she needs to really address the top-level issues in the third book, culminating in the emotional payoff of her being put in charge of the Guard. That version of her would know the nobles involved in the treason, and would understand the kingdom-wide stakes in the changes Roger is making. Unfortunately, that version of her would also be much less of a YA-type protagonist.

I also think it would help if slavery were made, not the cover for the rebellion, but its cause. As it stands, the emotional payoff is the abolition of slavery: at the end of Mastiff, because of the way his son was mistreated as a slave, and because of the way slavery financed and aided treason, Roger announces a plan for phasing it out, and Beka, as a reward for her service, gets to sign the Act as a witness. Emotionally, it works — but structurally, I think the tension around slavery should have been building through the first two books, and then have the third one start with abolition. It would make it more obvious who the rebels are — since they’d be the ones who stand to lose a lot from that change — but that isn’t a bad thing; then they’d be present in the story as characters from a much earlier point. And the driving force of the conflict would be much more apparent and believable.

Instead, most of the book is locked into the four-person manhunt pursuing the kidnapped prince, with very little understanding of what’s causing it all. There’s literally a point near the end where Beka and her companions have retrieved the prince, and see as they’re fleeing the bad guy’s castle that the army has shown up to squash the rebellion . . . but they ignore that and keep on riding, because their orders are to return the prince to his family, and by then everything is so muddled they don’t know if they can trust whoever’s leading the army to help them. It’s like Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book: the first-person viewpoint is too restricted, to the detriment of the narrative’s ability to show the plot in full.

(So I guess that’s a useful tip to bear in mind: if you want to deal with society-scale problems, third person is your friend.)

If you want to deal with big issues — slavery and its abolition; the regulation of mages in a fantasy society — you have to make sure your canvas is big enough for the painting, and that the reader can stand somewhere that allows them to see it properly. In other words, it behooves you to lay the groundwork for your third book in your first, and position your viewpoint character(s) such that the key components aren’t left off-screen. Both of those were lacking here, and so there wasn’t nearly as much force behind those punches as there could have been.

I’ll refrain from speculation as to why exactly Mastiff ended up shaped like this — I can think of circumstances that might have produced these results, but I know it gets up my nose when other people publicly opine about why I wrote things the way I did, so I try not to do the same — but I think it’s instructive to imagine changes that could have made it more successful in handling its attempted scale. Sometimes it’s easier to see why something didn’t work, and how it could have, than to see why it did.

0 Responses to “Information Density Pt. 2, or, let’s try an example”

  1. mrissa

    Is the problem really information density here, though? I feel like you’ve pointed at a lot of problems, and I agree with them, but I don’t agree that they’re information density problems. We could have this character and have her feeding us all sorts of dense and chewy information about the wrong sorts of things for the book to go where it could have gone to be a better book. Do you see what I mean here?

    • Marie Brennan

      It is and it isn’t; possibly I should have gone with a different title. (Information density was one of the core things in Alec’s post, so I picked that phrase up for my reply, and then this is a continuation — but I’m wandering further from that topic as I go along.)

      Mastiff is 580 pages long (albeit with YA typesetting, which is not as close-packed). There is plenty of room in here for chewy information — and in some respects, we get that. There is a lot of detail on the investigative work the Dogs do, and particularly on the management of a scent hound for tracking people. But at the same time, it’s not all that dense. Some of that info is stuff we got in Bloodhound, and a lot of it is stuff I would have willingly skipped over if it meant we spent more time on the things that were more integral to the conflict. But there isn’t room, even with 580 pages, to go into all that detail about tracking and show the scale of the conflict in full. I was going to say that the latter doesn’t compress very far — but you could argue that what went wrong here was that Pierce did compress it, to the detriment of its force. She nodded at those issues, but her attention was on the little things. I would have preferred her to nod at the logistics of getting across a swamp after the bridge has been burned, while keeping her eye on the bigger picture.

      So it’s both a density thing and a focus thing, I guess: a) what you’re packing in there and b) how well certain narrative aspects fare when squished down as small as they can go.

    • Marie Brennan

      Or, to try and shuffle my point into better order: I think the choices Pierce made, structurally speaking (where the conflict comes from, how Beka is positioned relative to it, etc) made it impossible for her to handle the necessary information efficiently. She could have set it up differently and had a nice, densely-packed story; or she could have run with this setup and gotten the point across with a lot more words; what she could not do — as far as I can tell — is accomplish her goal in the words allotted, with the starting conditions she chose.

      • alecaustin

        That seems like an entirely credible conclusion, given the evidence on hand. (I, unlike , have not read the book in question.)

        I was wondering aloud to Mris earlier whether there are books or short stories that would allow for the useful discussion of information density and how it’s handled. I guess I feel like there might be on an instructional/critical level, in terms of going, “Okay, here is how this idea was articulated in this short story…”? But I kind of feel like information density per se is one of those things that’s hard to talk about in isolation, which is part of why my post ended up sprawling out in so many directions.

        I feel like there’s something to be said about the perceived lack of tolerance for infodumps, too, and where that’s coming from. This is pure anecdote, but I found it interesting that of the professional-level critiques I got of the opening of Choice of Damnations at Viable Paradise, Patrick Nielsen Hayden was the only critiquer who didn’t cavil at the two-page historical infodump I had in the second chapter.

        I wonder how much of that is genre- and placement-based? It seems like people are far more willing to hear an explanation after they’ve been trying to piece things together for a hundred pages than right up front…

        • Marie Brennan

          But I kind of feel like information density per se is one of those things that’s hard to talk about in isolation

          Especially because we haven’t exactly stopped to define what each of us means by that phrase, and check whether we all mean the same thing . . . .

          I wonder how much of that is genre- and placement-based?

          And also writer-based. I don’t even mean in the sense of the writer’s skill: people will put up with that kind of thing more readily from an author they like (or have been told they should admire) than they will from J. Random Scrivener.

        • carbonel

          When I read this note, the combination of san-serif font and a too-quick glance turned the title of your work being critiqued into Choice of Dalmatians. Which might be an interesting thing, but not what you had in mind.

      • timprov

        Unlike Alec, I don’t think this is a credible conclusion at all. You haven’t done any experimentation; you haven’t explored any alternate explanations for why it doesn’t work. You’ve jumped straight from “this doesn’t work” to “this is impossible.”

        I don’t think you’ve even established that her goal is what you think it is. You certainly haven’t established that Tamora Pierce is maximally capable of accomplishing her goals within novel-sized space. (I would be amazed if anyone is.) Without those I don’t see how you can even approach a claim of impossibility.

  2. carbonel

    Thanks for taking the time to do this. It helps solidify why I was so dissatisfied with Mastiff after enjoying the other two immensely. I agree with , though, that I’m not sure the issue is one of information density.

    I also agree with a lot of your complaints. I kept going “What? What?” while reading it, and I’ve read the previous two (and in fact all of Pierce’s work) several times. It just felt as if facts kept being tossed out of left field in a way that they weren’t in the previous two books.

    I also had issues with Tunstall’s betrayal — not that he did it, but his motivation for doing so. If he had that kind of massive inferiority complex, I don’t think he and Sir Whatsername could have lasted as long as they already had. I would see it making sense more if he were able to view the whole thing as a fait accompli, and he was giving his loyalty to the real king. Or at least fool himself into thinking that was what he was doing. Not turning coat for a reward to make him equal to his partner, because he’d been threatened.

    Additionally, I found the framing story dissatisfying. Cooper’s mother gave him this history to try to change his path — which we already know has happened, so it can’t — and at the end, he decides that nothing is going to change. What’s the point of that?

    • Marie Brennan

      See above for my response to Mris on the information density thing.

      Tunstall: yes, that’s what I meant when I alluded to a more personal conflict that wasn’t sufficiently presaged. My money was on Sabine simply because she’d been less of a recurring character in the series, and therefore it would be easier to sell me on the notion that she’d turned. His motivation didn’t make sense, and the whole “there’s a traitor!” bit came in too late, and . . . if you want that to work, you have to start planting the seeds into the cracks of your story sooner, so that when they sprout it looks natural. (Man, my brain is apparently stuck in Metaphor Gear today.)

      And yes, the frame didn’t work for me at all. Especially because I think it only shows up at the beginning of Terrier and the end of Mastiff, right? It wouldn’t have fit the kind of story Pierce likes to tell at all, but I would have loved to see the frame totally rebuilt so that our perspective is actually that of George Cooper, trying to piece together Beka’s life story from a variety of different sources. Then we could have had her journals and Gershom’s records and letters people sent to one another and so on, and again that would have allowed us to see more of the big picture — especially since George, living so much later, would be able to give his perspective on how things played out. Again, if you’re trying to wedge something big into a relatively small space, that kind of distance helps.

      . . . huh. I think I have managed to arrive back at the “POV fixes everything” panel from Fourth Street. <lol>

    • alessandriana

      re Tunstall’s betrayal: Dear God, that was about as close as I’ve ever come to throwing a book at the wall. It came out of NOWHERE.

      • mrissa

        It came out of ideology, I thought. She’d backed herself into a corner where the other real choice was having Sabine do it…and Sabine was the woman knight. Which, in the context of the ideology of what she’s been doing there, just seemed like it was not going to be what she was doing.

        But I hate it when that’s how a plot point happens.

        • Marie Brennan

          I would find that plausible. Especially in light of the fact that this is the series where you see (the start of) how lady knights went away. Pairing that with one who is a traitor . . . is problematic, especially for any reader who isn’t already familiar with the Alanna and Keladry books.

          The thing is, I don’t think a traitor was necessary. Sure, more tension, personal confrontation, etc (solving the problem that Farmer, not Beka, took care of Elyot, and Lord Rebellion Leader Not Appearing in This Book jumped off a wall during the siege) — but I think that element could have been excised without much detriment to the book.

          • mrissa

            Oh oh. Here is the other thing.

            This is complete guesswork.

            But I think one of the reasons the series might have gone this way is the expectation we have in this genre that there will be building stakes.

            In mystery they don’t have this. In mystery you’re allowed to have a series where each volume has the same or similar stakes. Will they solve the murder, will they get killed, etc. But I think there’s a certain amount that we get told to raise the stakes, raise the stakes, raise the stakes. So even if Tamora Pierce wanted to just write fantasy cop stories, I’m not sure the genre assumptions are set up for her to do that–internally or externally–and I’m not sure how that would play in the process of the writing of this book.

            We’re into the territory of guessing what another writer was thinking here. But it feels to me like maybe part of why a traitor plot might have felt more necessary, upping the drama.

          • Marie Brennan

            I think the expectation of rising stakes likely explains why there’s a giant conspiracy and rebellion and war. And maybe the traitor plot, too — but the other things I have to say on that front move firmly enough into the territory of speculating about Pierce’s thinking that I’ll send them to you in e-mail.

        • alessandriana

          Well, sure, once she decided there was a traitor, it had to be Tunstall. She’d never have the lady knight do it. But I guess I meant that it came out of nowhere, character-wise; Tunstall had never once in the other two books been portrayed as someone who would betray his friends and country, and so it felt like massive character derailment rather than something that had been planned out.

          Not to mention the entire traitor plot was unnecessary in the first place. :

      • estara

        That was my reaction. It has soured me on rereading this series.

  3. green_knight

    This (and the previous post) and my current WIP make me wonder how one *does* go about creating a small window onto a very large canvas. And at the same time, how to avoid always telling stories about kings and nobles as they are the people most likely to be where the big action is. (Terry Pratchett does this quite well, actually.)

    Plotwise, Beka sounds like she’d be perfect as a mole planted in some noble’s household. She doesn’t need to be in a position of power – she could be a lowly [whatever] observing and listening and seeing who comes and who goes and who gets dined and wined.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I think there’s room to do a lot more from the perspective of the people around the kings and nobles. Servants — though they’re constrained by the amount of time they have to spend on work that is hard to make plot-relevant — or the clerks/secretaries/other kinds of assistant. There’s a lot of people in the vicinity of power who are not necessarily the ones with it.

  4. livejournal

    Links on Worldbuilding and patchworks

    User referenced to your post from Links on Worldbuilding and patchworks saying: […] and here […]

  5. Marie Brennan

    Re: Megan Whalen Turner seems to manage it well

    I’ve heard excellent things about them, though I haven’t had the time yet to read them.

    • Anonymous

      Re: Megan Whalen Turner seems to manage it well

      One warning, they are about at the DUnnett limit of pushing the envelope re Unreliable Narrators with a solid narrative underpinning it all!!

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