TMI is a slang term for “Too Much Information” (and one that hopefully is still relevant when your read this). It’s basically a remind you’ve said too much, usually in an embarrassing way about an equally embarrassing subjects. Writers and worldbuilders face their own risks with TMI when we communicate our worlds.
We can overdo telling people about them.
You know what I’m talking about. The infodump that goes on for pages, the loving detail in a character’s mind most normal human (and human-alikes) would never think like, the historical quotes that seem like their own stories. It’s when you tell too damn much, so much people are taken out of the story or game, out of the world, and into your notes.
Maybe we can’t resist doing it because we have so much to share. Maybe we want to make sure people understand. Maybe we want to make sure they’re not totally lost. Maybe we follow the style of an author or writer we loved and overdo it.
It seems that when we do it, we do it big-time.
People don’t need TMI. TMI distracts because there’s suddenly a Wall Of Exposition. TMI confuses as the context may make sense only in your head. TMI disappoints as it can spoil stories. TMI breaks the sense of realism as infodumps feel like they came from outside the world. TMI can even change your story, as a rollicking adventure becomes a three-page discussion of dragon biology.
We as worldbuilders have to learn to communicate the right amount of information. That’s hard.
How Do We Avoid TMI?
TMI is actually hard to deliberately avoid because so much of it is emotional, or easy to misinterpret, or private. We don’t want to go the other direction and not reveal enough. In the end I’ve come to a simple conclusion.
Communications in your text, characters, story, exposition should:
- Come naturally to the story so it doesn’t break the sense of involvement.
- Contain enough information appropriate for the characters. Remember you can learn a lot from “overhearing.”
- Contain enough information for the audience (this may mean that when you make some choices in the story it needs to be in ways that are informative).
- Be phrased appropriately – a good sign of an infodump into TMI territory is when the language shifts from appropriate-to-tale to “have some stuff.”
This is an organic process, and empathy is a big part of it – you have to have a sense of both your characters and your audience. It’s art, not science, and I think awareness of it gets you halfway there – the other half is experience in doing it (or not doing it). Keep world building, keep writing – and keep taking feedback from your editors and your readers and your own reading.
However I can provide you guidance to know when you’ve gone into TMI territory. Setting the outer boundaries may help keep you out of TMI territory, or learn when you cross over.
Here’s where you may mess up:
“LOOK, I BUILT A WORLD!”
Sometimes our writing and world building results in us shoving the fact we have a world in people’s faces. There’s a huge world out there and we feel we have to remind them of it. Suddenly there’s unneeded maps and infodumps and unneeded references. This takes people right out of the story or game where they experience your world, and puts them into knowing the world was constructed.
Worlds are experienced, not told about. Remember that. Help with the experience.
Oh, and doing can also seem like bragging. Don’t make the readers dislike you, it’s not conductive to their enjoyment.
Be it realistic or weird, sometimes we go into TMI mode because we want to show them everything we did. We’ve got to cram it in descriptions and dialogue, and . . . well at that point suddenly we’re giving too much information. There’s so much there, but it’s hard to help ourselves.
In real life I don’t launch into extensive discussions of public transport history without prompting. Your characters shouldn’t do the same.
In real life you don’t look at a bookstore and recall your entire past history of going there in florid detail. Neither should your characters unless that *is* the story.
Don’t go showing off extensive detail. Show what is appropriate for the stories, character, and setting. Your audience can fill in the gaps.
Besides, then you have enough for your eventual world guide book or tip guide for your game or whatever.
How many times do you need to know a character went to the bathroom? Or the sit through a five minute FMV discussing why this elf is a psychotic killer? Or . . . you get the idea. Realism can be overdone when people brag about it.
When your attempts to communicate to the audience are “look see how realistic I am, man I thought this out” then you have a problem. Your audience is probably going to give you the benefit of a doubt, you know? Working too hard to show realism becomes a source of TMI.
People are not going to be impressed by the realism of your world when its shoved in their face – and some things can be assumed (such as characters actually going to the bathroom or eating). People can give your characters and world credit for being realistic or at least having its own realism. They don’t need it described to them in painful detail.
Another form of TMI is “look at this weird thing I did, wow isn’t it awesome” where your story or game or play shows off, in painful detail, the crazy thing you did. You want them to know how innovative you are, how odd this is, as opposed to letting them feel the impact.
it’s almost a flipside of Aggressive Realism; instead of trying to convince people of the realism of your story more than you need, you try to bring them into the strange-yet-real part.
It’s really showing of how weird you can be but still pull the world off.
In reality, if it’s not weird for your characters, it shouldn’t seem weird to the audience. In fact, keep in mind the impact of weirdness is amplified when it seems normal.
Learn What To Say
TMI can affect many a worldbuilder and storytelling. In a few cases we probably need some writers to lean towards it a bit more as they get lost in tropes and assumptions.
In the end however serious TM ruins the experience of a work, it takes people out of the world and into you lecturing them or showing off.
Worldbuilding is about detail. When it comes to your stories or gmes or whatever, instead learn to communicate what’s important to people. The details you know let you tell the story – the details they find out let them understand it.
You just don’t need to know where all the trap doors and scenery is to enjoy the play.