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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors, content writer and editor for business professionals, online teacher, and professional speaker.
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