The past few days I've continued work on my alternate strategey, the one that is helping me avoid the info dump in Chapter 5. It's a simple strategy, one that is very common in the Fantasy genre, but I was trying to avoid it, probably since it is so common in the Fantasy genre.
I created a poem to appear at the beginning of the book, prior to the first chapter, an excerpt from an ancient text that tells something about the world of the story. This allows me to tackle that information head-on, set the tone for the story, and do it in only one page, rather than 5 pages of bloated dialogue and intervening gesticluations (aka "info dump"). I saw no way not to provide this information -- the reader needs to understand the history of the world, the context that the characters are living in -- and it's involved enough that it needs to be handled outright.
I've been able to avoid other info dumps by breaking the info down to what was absolutely necessary and embedding it as a phrase here, a sentence there, in various places, sometimes scattered over several chapters, so it's not really noticebable to the reader yet the reader is given the background info that is helpful and necessary to understanding the story.
This initial poem is not "too much". The reader needs only pause a moment to enjoy it. It is interesting in its own right, and it lets the reader get the key information in the most concise and interesting way possible then get right into the story. Also, it raises the primary story question very neatly and at the very outset.
While writing, rewriting and tweaking this poem, I have also hit paydirt, so to speak, one of those "AHA!" moments that makes you shudder as a writer and think "Golly, maybe this story really is worthwhile after all!". I was finally able to get substantial clarity on the dynamic that drives this world, and how the main character stands in relation to it. To the writer, stories are constructed layer upon layer, and there is a sense at times there is a murky or foggy expanse in front of you and you know what's in it, what's on the other side, but still you can't quite see it for yourself as clearly as you'd like to. I've been struggling for months and months to get this clarity on this fundamental relationship between the main character and the world he inhabits, and now I have it! Down to a tiny little point, barely a pin-prick in size! 120,000 words of information in this story (give or take), and it comes down to something as focused as that. That's clarity! It feels great to finally "get" my own story, in a sense.
Writing the poem also helped me simplify the mythology, something I had been trying to find a way to do for some time. I'm happy that issue is finally cleared up.
Writing the poem has also led me to a structural technique that not only reinforces the story idea, but also raises suspense chapter by chapter, and much more as the story progresses: I'm putting a very short quote from another ancient text before each chapter. This stuff isn't heavy, unfathomable, and hard to relate to the story. Quite the opposite. Each quote connects very directly with the emerging context of the story, and is focused very clearly on the chapter ahead. It doesn't give anything away that wouldn't be guessable already, and heightens suspense.
Seeing how well this new layer of information worked when woven into the story, I decided to take advantage of a structural break at the mid-point of the story, where I put another longer excerpt from yet another ancient text, preparing the reader for the second half. It greatly raises interest by introducing new information at that point, since the stakes have just been raised considerably, and the reader really won't know what's going to happen next, yet some background is in order. Again, not giving anything away, just "versing" the reader in the world of the story so when things do happen, they will make more sense.
I think the excerpts and quotes are not overwhelming, are balanced very nicely, and contribute a lot. I'm still not sure how exactly things will run with the quotes in the second half of the story. I haven't written them yet. I'll work that out as I go, but I have a pattern established now that carries me through the first half of the novel. I have the first six quotes, even though I haven't edited Chapter 6 yet. Nonetheless, it's clear to me what I want out of this pattern as the story progresses through the second half.