Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

Information Density: Part 2 - Terms & Motivation

Posting this in the absence of a completed third post because I wanted to write a response to some points people made in comments and then realized I couldn't because of my head cold. I'll try to update this with relevant addenda as time and attention permit.

Obligatory Feedback Request: If you find this interesting, if you (still?) think I'm crazy or wrong, if you have an alternative explanation for something I'm talking about, or if you want to talk about a specific examples or just make a joke? Please post a comment. Seriously.

Prior Posts:
Part I - Premise

Part II - Terms & Motivation

Before we go further, let me describe my terms.

Textual Information Density is how dense with explicit and implicit information a particular section of prose is on per-word basis. (See timprov's comment here for some relevant discussion.) High density isn’t always a virtue, and low density isn’t always a flaw; you generally need to alternate between both types of prose to make a story or a novel work.

Also, information density often competes with or exists in opposition to other textual qualities, such as simplicity, accessibility, euphony, and even humor. Compare the following passages from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried:
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated Joss sticks and statues of the smiling Buddha... ("The Things They Carried")
In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways... Then he took a peculiar half-step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. ("How to Tell a True War Story")
The first passage is almost certainly more information dense in absolute terms (it's hard to get more information dense than a list that implies its own context, like this one does) - it's also deliberately rhythmic, verging on tedious in its litany. I feel the second passage is significantly more telling; its details arranged to form a sequence of images, its words deployed to sound like a person speaking, rather than an omniscient quartermaster listing off an inventory. Both are effective in context, but they are doing entirely different things, in different ways, and what's good about the latter is almost entirely tangential to how much information it contains.

Anyway! Let's continue with our description of terms, shall we?

Textual Bandwidth is basically the pipe the author is pushing information through. If you only have 2,000 words to tell a story, either you make every word count or your story is going to be pretty damn thin. If you have 90,000 words to write your novel, well, you don’t have to load every single word and sentence quite as heavily as if you’re writing something more abbreviated. In fact, if you try, you’re going to overwhelm yourself and the reader, because you won’t have accounted for...

...Reader Bandwidth, which is the choke point at the other end of the pipe. I’ll tell you a game design secret - the vast majority of people are rubbish at remembering things or paying attention to multiple things at once. I’ve heard the number of things that a person can track simultaneously as between 4 and 6, and honestly, the real number is probably 2 (as in, the 2 lobes of your brain), with anything more than that being the result of caching data to short term memory so you can alternate paying attention to 2-3 things per lobe. (People are also bad at that kind of multitasking - see productivity studies that indicate that, on average, people need 15 minutes of uninterrupted concentration to “ramp up” to their full efficacy at a task.)

As a result, the more complex your game is? The fewer people who are going to be willing to play it, or the fewer people who will be able to play it “right”. (There are people who play Civilization without ever going into the city screen, who make all their construction and research choices based on recommendations. I don’t understand it either, but if they’re actually having fun...)

Books face a parallel problem. Not only are you going to lose some readers by excessive parallelism and multi-threading of your narrative, but there’s only so much that most readers can absorb at once. If you exceed their reception threshold by too much, or don’t ever give them a chance for their brain to relax and absorb what you’ve told them (preferably at least 3 times, if you want to make sure that they get the point), people will just get overwhelmed and/or bored and just tune out. So you can’t just dump a bunch of complex information on the reader and then keep on dumping-- not unless you want to lose all but your most thoroughly genre-inculcated readers, anyway. (This is assuming a neutral valence on everything else that’s going on, which isn’t at all reasonable, but y’know. Theory.)

So. There’s a balancing act that must be maintained between immediately situating your reader in your world/scenario/etc. and not overwhelming them with so much information that they tune out/get overwhelmed. This balancing act is especially problematic because of a lot of the most effective techniques at conveying a lot of information quickly depend on prior reader knowledge of genre conventions or reading protocols, which means that once you have a community established, it’s really easy for said community to-- sorry, I appear to have failed to find a polite way of saying this this that feels sufficiently emphatic-- crawl up its own ass and become largely closed to newcomers.

(This problem is very much present in gaming in the context of real-time strategy games and people who cling to older games, like classic war games and previous editions of major RPGs. I don’t think it’s true of Science Fiction & Fantasy in general, but there are very definitely subgenres that are as inbred and exclusionary as, say, the more obscure branches of mimetic fiction.)

Like I said before, managing information and how it’s presented to the reader may well be the key technique of the SF genres. And if we’re actually concerned about how accessible SF is, I think it behooves us to look at what we’re doing that can have an exclusionary effects and either deliberately choose to keep using those techniques, or find alternate means of achieving the same ends.

Next Time: Accessibility, Density, and Depth
Tags: information density, theory, writing
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