You know that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack Sparrow is piloting the ship through a storm? Will Sparrow says something along the lines of, “How is he supposed to find the Isla de Muerta with a compass that doesn’t point north?” And Gibbs replies, “Aye, but he’s not trying to find north is he?”
Well here’s an interesting little tidbit about that scene. Originally in the script it was explicitly stated that the compass only pointed to the Isla de Muerta. Luckily for the sequels that line was cut.
But even without the fact that the sequels needed to make a plot token out of the compass, I would argue that the story is simply better without that exposition.
Why? Because we don’t need it. All we need to know is that the compass is going to help them get to the Isla de Muerta somehow. We don’t need to know what it does. We don’t need to know how it does it. We don’t need to know the back story of the dude who built the compass. We only need what is relevant to the story.
This is something that I noticed a lot, during the time me and Ellie were drafting our as-yet-unnamed story. Before we started writing we did a lot of preplanning. We talked out a lot of history for our world. We discussed the mechanics of how things worked. We gave our characters deep and complex back stories.
And almost none of it made it into the story. Why? Because it didn’t matter. By and large, information rarely does. Give your readers enough to let them know what’s going on and leave it at that.
In a way, it’s a lot like description. You can go absolutely crazy with description thinking you’re making your world feel more real, drawing your readers deeper into the story. But at the end of the day, a story is about stuff happening. (A story is about stuff happening at the beginning of the day too. And at pretty much any other time. Just, you know, covering my bases here.)
That isn’t to say that you can’t write a good story with a lot of information in it. David Webber’s excellent Honor Harrington series is filled to the brim with technical specifications for the various spaceships featured, and detailed descriptions of how everything works. But while those massive clumps of information are interesting enough in their way, the overall story could easily survive without them.
And as always, the theme here is balance. Not everyone needs to be as minimalist as I am with description and information. But if you find yourself given to long infodumps, telling something about how your world works, really consider cutting back at least some of that information.
Remember, you’re not writing a history book for your fantasy world, or composing an operators manual for your hero’s spaceship.
You’re telling a story.
Everything else is just filler.