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 the character wouldn’t naturally think about in that moment. The information being given here—her husband’s business had tanked and that is the reason she is wearing a simple dress rather than a fancy one; business was booming previously and she thought she would never have to struggle financially—is the narrator butting in to give the reader information, not information the character would naturally think about in this moment. Cathy wouldn’t think about how her husband’s business had been booming when she met him and how she had assumed she would never find herself here because clearly 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. So now this is the only thing I have to wear. I never thought I would see this day. When we had 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

Shown info dumping is not a problem, as 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, 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). 

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.

Shown info dumping isn’t a problem. If the reader needs to know certain information, just blend it it into the scene. It is TOLD info dumping that is a problem. Of course, you can tell some things. That’s what narrative summary is for.  Just don’t TELL an info dump.


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 (remember, the “as you know, Bob” dialogue shown earlier), 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 (depending on whether it is the good kind of telling). 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’ backstories 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 at all. The reader does need to know why, but they don’t need to know it in this scene. And while the reader does need to know the affect it has had on her, that can be show throughout the story, not just told upfront. So the author deletes that information from the info dump section.

 

  • The fact that she was bullied as a child remains.

 

  • Let’s say after the info dump, the scene showed 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. (This will SHOW the reader she had been bullied in the past. The why will come out later, and the how it affected her will be shown throughout the story.)

 

  • Alternatively, let’s say that after the info dump, she goes to work and has a few scenes that follow but nothing that will show this information. So the author can build in a scene to show it. Perhaps a coworker makes a 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 (that scene, that chapter, that plot point) 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 if the flashback is written like a scene rather than a told info dump, it still 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 too 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. After returning what she hoped looked like a confident smile, Cathy pressed her hand to her stomach. She walked into her office and rubbed her temples. She hadn’t given a presentation since high school.  In biology, in front of everyone, she had talked to the dead frog. Had full-on talked to a damn dead frog, begging for it to end, and it had . . . when she passed out. She wasn’t that girl anymore. But the taunts of the kids increased the pounding in her head. They had—

No, she couldn’t go down that route. Using the breathing exercise her therapist had taught her, Cathy stilled her heart as Mark walked by her office. She ran out to flag him down. “Mark, do you think I could run my presentation by you 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, even when they are written as a scene,  unless they are brief and tightly woven into the current moment.

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