How to Fix Info Dumping

What Is Info Dumping?

Info dumping, dumping a chunk of information (often exposition) in a reader’s lap, is a common problem.

You may find yourself doing this when you feel a reader needs to know certain information but you aren’t exactly sure how to reveal it.

Often this occurs when you reveal information about your novel’s world/society, characters’ backstories, or historical background.

Example of Info Dumping:

Cathy looked down at her dress. It was the best one she could find. Her husband’s business had tanked, and she had sold her fancy dresses in order to pay the bills. Since her friends didn’t know, they had invited her to the annual social fundraiser. She was determined to go.  But her husband, Greg, didn’t think it was a good idea. She had met Greg when his business was booming. As he had come from a long line of wealth, she assumed she would never find herself in this position. But here she was. She wasn’t going to let Greg’s mistakes cloud her social life.

In this example the author dumps information without any action, and on top of that, it is information that the character wouldn’t naturally think about in that moment. The information about his business tanking and that is why she was wearing a dress she already own was the narrator butting in to give the reader information, not information the character would naturally think about in that moment. She wouldn’t think about how his business was booming when she met him and she assumed she would never find herself here because it is clear that she has been in this position before as his business didn’t just tank right then. Again, it is information that the narrator thinks the reader needs to know, not information that benefits the character or the scene.

 

Info dumping in dialogue

 

In an effort to avoid info dumping, authors often put the information in dialogue, but this is still info dumping.

Yes, it is coming from the characters rather than the narrator, but it isn’t any better than narrative info dumping.

If the only point of the dialogue is to tell the reader information, then it isn’t natural dialogue.

In the editorial world, we refer to this as “As you know, Bob” explanations. This is when the characters tell each other information they would already know.

Example of Info Dumping in Dialogue:

Cathy looked down at her dress. It was the best one she could find. Turning to her husband, she said, “I had to sell all my good dresses to pay for the bills since you made that bad business decision. I never thought I would see this day. When we met, your business was booming, and since you came from a long line of wealth, I thought we would never struggle this way.”

 

Greg already knows this information, so it is unnatural for Cathy to tell him it.

This often occurs when authors are world-building.

If your characters live in a society where it is illegal to stand out from the crowd, to be better than anyone else (Yes, this idea comes from the short story “Harrison Bergeron”), it would be odd for a character to say to another, “Well, you know it is important to ensure you don’t stand out from the crowd, or you will be arrested.” They live in the society, so they know that information.

Many published novels have contained “As you know, Bob” explanations. So watch out for them in your manuscript.

 


Shown Info Dumping

Show info dumping is not a problem and it blends in seamlessly with the scene. Very few people will even recognize it as an info dump at all because it is well integrated into the scene, such as when it shows the character using that information to make a decision in that moment rather than the narrator just telling information for the reader’s benefit. But most often info dumps are told.

Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Show Don’t Tell and Really Getting It has a great example of told info dumping versus shown info dumping.

Told Info Dumping

Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart. Maurice used to own it, but he was killed during the first wave of zombie attacks. His daughter Lucille had tried to keep it open to serve the survivors who were fighting back, but with everyone evacuating the cities she finally had to let it go. Which was a shame, because the shelves were as empty as the streets.

The information about Maurice and Lucille is irrelevant to the scene and there’s no reason for Bob to be thinking about it. It’s just explaining the history of the current setting (infodump telling). But what if it was important for readers to know a little about this history? Then turn it into shown info dumping.

Shown Info Dumping
Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart and sighed. It just wasn’t the same without the guy who used to own it—Maurice? Morris? Who could remember anymore. But his laugh, that you remembered. Big ol’ Murry behind the counter whooping it up like Santa Claus. Bob smiled as he picked his way through the broken glass. He’d heard through the traders’ net that the daughter had taken over for a while, but it looked like she was gone, too. The shelves were as empty as the streets.

Now it sounds like Bob reminiscing about something he misses in the current zombie apocalypse. You also learn another detail about the world with the traders’ net comment, so you can sneak in some world building at the same time without readers even noticing.

 


Why It Is a Problem

For one, told info dumping is telling instead of showing. Yes, you can’t have a story without some telling, but told info dumping is never a “good” kind of telling.

Telling isn’t always bad, but info dumping isn’t an engaging form of telling.

Since the information often comes from the narrator rather than a character’s perspective, it takes readers out of the experience.

If a character gives the information from their perspective through dialogue, then it is unnatural, which also takes the reader out of the experience.

And it is boring to read since nothing is actually happening in that moment.

It is just a large chunk of telling. When you go see a movie or a play, the writer doesn’t come out and say, “Now, let me explain some things to you.” No, the story just unfolds naturally.

The audience learns about the characters and the world/society through the action of the movie and/or play.

 


How to Fix Info Dumping

Go through your manuscript and find areas where you tell chunks of information and nothing is happening in the moment. If it is a sentence or two, it is probably fine. You do need to tell some information.

If it is a longer chunk, then decide whether the reader really needs to know that information.

If they do, ask whether readers need to know it now in that moment. When it comes to characters’ back stories or world-building, you only need to reveal the information that is important for the reader to know in that moment.

Once you have determined whether it is necessary in the moment, try the following:

  • Delete anything that is not necessary for the reader to understand and know in that very moment. If it is necessary at some point, save it for later.
  • With the remaining information, figure out a way to build a scene around it. A scene will be much more interesting than an info dump. Or if it is now short, you can keep it.
  • Alternatively, you could build the information into an existing scene.

Example of Steps to Fix Info Dumping:

Let’s say the reader needs to know that Cathy used to be picked on a lot as a child. Originally, the author told this information in a four-paragraph info dump, describing why she was bullied, how she was bullied, and how it affected her.

  • Looking closely, the author determines the reader doesn’t need to know how she was bullied and the affect it has on her can be show throughout the story. So the author deletes that information from the info dump section.

 

  • The fact that she was bullied remains.

 

  • If the author already has a scene with another character being picked on, they can have Cathy react, coming quickly to the character’s aid and acting very defensive about it, and then she can make a comment to indicate she understands what it feels like.

 

  • Alternatively, the author can build in a scene. Perhaps a character makes a slightly rude comment to Cathy, and she reacts and makes a comment about how she hates bullies because they ruined her life.

 

The idea here is to remove what isn’t necessary to know in the moment and try to turn what is necessary to know into a scene.

If you can’t turn it into a scene, reduce the info dumping to just a few short sentences.

 

A word of caution: using flashbacks to fix info dumping

 

Some authors try to fix their info dumping with flashbacks, but flashbacks can be a form of info dumping. If you stop the forward momentum of the story to have a long flashback in order to reveal information, it can annoy readers and take them out of the experience.

Even though the flashback is written like a scene rather than telling, if it is a long scene, it distracts from the forward momentum.

Generally, readers want to know what will happen next, not what happened in the past.

Flashbacks can work if they are firmly woven into the present story and do not take up much room. When done well, they can create dramatic tension and add texture to a story.

To do this well, keep the flashback brief—a few sentences—and launch right into the forward momentum of the story.

Example of Brief Flashback Done Well:

The brief flashback is in italics, and then you can see the scene moves on with the forward motion.

“Cathy, I’m looking forward to your presentation this afternoon,” her boss said. Returning what she hoped looked like a confident smile, Cathy pressed her hand to her stomach to keep the nerves at bay. She walked into her office and rubbed her temples. Remembering the last time she gave a presentation in high school, she began to shake. It was in biology, and in front of everyone, she had talked to the dead frog, begging for it to end, and it did . . . when she passed out. She reminded herself she isn’t that girl anymore. But the taunts of all the school kids still haunted her.

She couldn’t go down that route. Using the breathing exercise her therapist had taught her, Cathy stilled her heart and looked up to see Mark walk by her office. She ran out to flag him down. “Mark, do you think I could run my presentation by your one more time?”


Bottom Line

  • Fix told info dumps that are longer than a few sentences.
  • If you can, change the told info dumps to shown info dumps
  • Only reveal information the reader needs to know in the moment they need to know it and try to do so through a scene rather than a told info dump
  • Don’t use dialogue to reveal information as it results in “As you know, Bob” explanations
  • Flashbacks do not necessarily fix info dumps unless done well

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