Information Density

[Originally posted on my blog.]


Alec Austin 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.