While reading, you come upon a brick of text that describes religion, history, a magic system, or cultural practices in the book’s fictional world. This is the lore dump. When done poorly, it drags you out of the story, leaves you wondering about its relationship to the plot and characters. Done well, the lore dump reinforces theme, changes opinions, and immerses us in the texture of a living, breathing world.
N.K. Jemisin, the only author to win 3 successive Hugos, knows how to dump lore.
To better understand how Jemisin makes the lore dump work for her, I want to dissect one example from The Obelisk Gate, the second work in her Broken Earth Trilogy. Spoilers ahead.
Consider the following passage from page 2.
Here is what I know for certain: that apprenticeship I mentioned? Nassun was in training to become a lorist.
The Stillness has an odd relationship with its self-appointed keepers of stonelore. There are records of lorists existing as far back as the long-rumoured Eggshell Season. That’s the one in which some sort of gaseous emission caused all children born in the Arctics for several years to have delicate bones that broke with a touch and bent as they grew — if they grew. (Yumenescene archeomests have argued for centuries over whether it should be counted as a Season at all given that it only affected a few hundred thousand weak, pallid little barbarians on the northern tundra. But that is when the peoples of the Arctics gained a reputation for weakness.) About twenty-five thousand years ago, according to the lorists themselves, which most people think is a blatant lie. In truth, lorists are an even older part of life in the Stillness. Twenty-five thousand years ago is simply when their role became distorted into near-uselessness.
This passage works for the following reasons.
1. It’s thematically relevant. The lore describes children who went through immeasurable suffering, just like Nassun’s brother. Maintaining the theme makes it fit. Some authors go so far as to present lore as an extended metaphor, allegory, or a form of foreshadowing.
2. It transitions from a moment of tension, before the tension is resolved. Prior this passage, Nassun discovered her brother had been killed. This history of stonelore has some bearing on this situation. We keep reading because we want to know what that bearing is, but also how the tension will resolve.
3. From a psychological perspective, it makes sense that a narrator would take note of suffering similar to their own. When you’re happy, you see happy people everywhere. When you’re plagued by demons, you see those demons everywhere. When your child or younger sibling is dead, you think about dead children.
4. Its relevant. This description of stonelore precludes the introduction of a stonelorist. We get a description of a culture which doubles as a description of a character.
5. Voice. This one almost goes without saying, but Jemisin’s second person, present tense, terse style carries us along with a sense of immediacy, even when it comes to describing a bygone era.