Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

Four Tips for Fixing the Infamous “Info Dump”

by Jami Gold on December 27, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Old VW Bug in a dump with text: 4 Tips to Avoid Dumping Information

While I’m on holiday vacation this week, I’ll share a post from my early days of blogging. We’ve all heard of those eye-rolling, telling “information dumps,” yet at some point, we all have to get chunks of information across to the reader.

My usual technique with world-building is to show, show, show, but sometimes that’s hard to do. Other times, simply plopping our readers into the middle of a world leaves them confused. So circumstances might require us to do some amount of “telling.”

In that case, we want to make the telling as interesting to the reader as possible so they aren’t pulled out of the story. Here are four tips I shared a couple of years ago about how to make information dumps interesting.

How to Fix the Infamous Info Dump

Info dump?  Infamous?  You better believe it.  The most egregious offender even has a name: the “As you know, Bob.”  Imagine dialogue along the lines of, “As you know, Bob, Jane is our sister.” *cringe*

Does anyone actually speak like that?  Would you ever tell someone something they already know?  Nope.  (Unless you’re reminding your spouse that the garbage still needs to be taken out, that is.)  The sole reason for that dialogue is to share information with the reader.  In other words, an info dump.  And just because plenty of info dumps are less obvious, it doesn’t mean they’re less problematic.

In a continuation from my other posts on driving scenes and description scenes, I’m adding info dumps to my list of things to avoid when you’re trying to “skip to the good parts.”  If a passage isn’t moving the plot along, developing a character, adding tension, or engaging the reader—it shouldn’t be there.

Yes, even if it gives the reader vital information.

But—But… Then fix it.

How to Fix an Info Dump Passage

The same things I mentioned above for what would make a passage “work” are the same things to add when you can’t delete or tighten an info dump any more.

  • Move the Plot Along: Make the info dump relevant to the current scene and the characters in the scene—that way it’s not there only for the reader’s benefit.
    • Show two characters arguing about a point of information, a character realizing how some issue will affect them, etc.
  • Character Development: Make the info dump relevant to a character’s current emotional arc.
    • Show a character reacting and changing based on the information.
  • Add Tension:  Make the info dump something that causes problems for the characters.
    • Show a character realizing the danger they’re in, or show their dread as the info dump story is shared.
  • Engage the Reader:  In short, all these techniques come down to making the info dump relevant.
    • Make it matter to the characters and it will matter to the reader.

There are many times when a reader must be informed of details.  In science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal stories, this is known as world-building.  The reader won’t know the rules of the world (do they have transporters?, does magic exist?, what abilities do these vampires have?) without being shown or told.  Obviously, it’s better to show if you can.  But it’s not always possible to do that in a smooth, natural way.

In the fish-out-of-water type plots, the main character is just as lost as the reader.  Frequently, a mentor of some kind will show them (and the reader) the ropes.  In one of my manuscripts, I have an entire chapter that’s essentially this type of info dump.  I struggled with how to make this chapter work until I used my own advice.  Now I use all of those techniques at some point in the chapter to keep the plot moving and the tension high.  I might not have it completely fixed yet, but there’s no question it’s much improved.

Are you usually able to “show” readers the information they need to know? Do you ever have to “tell” readers information? How do you make that telling as interesting as possible? When do you struggle with info dumps?  What have you done to fix them?

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37 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Serena December 27, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Cool, I’m the first to comment.

I did these in my Nanowrimo story a lot:

Show two characters arguing about a point of information, a character realizing how some issue will affect them, etc.

Show a character realizing the danger they’re in, or show their dread as the info dump story is shared.

However, most of my “info dumps” (mostly on sci fi technology) just come naturally out of the situation. So if the character is using machine X, I could, “while I’m at it”, tell you about machine Y and Z as well, because they are related to/ relevant to/ similar to machine X. Or characters A and B (a couple) are making a certain fancy sci dish, then I’ll take this chance to talk about their backstory on how, as children, they both loved to experiment with and create new kinds of delicacies.

So I try to make it work by giving “by the way” info, stuff that’s related to what the character’s currently doing/ thinking about/ feeling at the moment. Of course, sometimes it gets a bit long, and so it gets tedious. And sometimes even when it’s just a short paragraph, it’s still tedious XD, at least according to me when I get really impatient to get on with the story.

But basically, I’m just hoping that giving info “when it’s related to the thing/ occasion / action at hand”, makes it feel less like a “dump”, and more like a “knitting out of the story then quickly knitting back in”–imagine wool being woven in and out as you knit a scarf or something. I.e. from a certain relevant point in the story, you draw back from the story for one moment to give us some info; but then you quickly (but smoothly) return to the story so the reader won’t get bored.

Erm, what do you think of this approach?

Reply

Jami Gold December 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, I can see that method working too. I think the main thing when using that technique is making sure that the reader really needs to know the information (and it’s not just cool stuff we figured out about the world and are trying to share even though it doesn’t have anything to do with anything 🙂 ), and that the information should be shared now, rather than later when it’s really needed.

However, that’s all “normal” advice. In real stories, I’ve seen plenty of times when the author will share information that doesn’t seem to have a purpose and/or doesn’t seem to be important right then. Often, that piece of information will be a clue to something that happens much later in the story, and we suddenly see why it was important.

So in reality, as Carradee’s comment alludes to, we can get away with more if we have a strong author/story voice and make the reader feel that they’re being led on a story and they should just sit back and enjoy the ride. 🙂 I hope that makes sense. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena December 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm

About the strong voice, that reminds me of how Catcher in the Rye’s narrative voice is so hilarious that even the setting descriptions weren’t boring, lol.

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Jami Gold December 30, 2012 at 10:36 am

Hi Serena,

It takes real talent to make setting descriptions not boring. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee December 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Pulling from my experience as an editor as well as my experience as a writer in commenting on this one.

It is true that infodumps are a problem, but…

The definition of “infodump” is also relative to writing style and genre, and you can get away with a lot as long as you have a strong “voice”. Even “As you know, Bob” dialogue can be done successfully—but it has to be an inherent part of the setting and characters. For example, someone who’s nervous might start rambling about bad things that might be about to happen, things that other parties in the scene might already know—or someone who’s angry might start repeating things the other person knows, because they think the other person isn’t reacting properly.

Take Sunshine (or pretty much anything else) by Robin McKinley—lots of description, information-imparting paragraphs, but they’re interesting enough to carry the story (for those readers who are in the target audience).

When authors just try to impart information when it’s relevant, they sometimes…
1. …forget that implication can work perfectly well for conveying information and go overboard.
2. …wait to give the information until it’s absolutely needed to comprehend what’s going on, late enough that it comes across as convenient or an afterthought.

I tend to have introverted narrators, so I’m a bit prone to infodumps, but I trim them and make sure they’re strongly in the narrator’s voice. Sometimes, the introverted rabbit trails also are what enable the narrator to figure something out, like one story wherein the vampire narrator thinking about a friend’s depression —> thinking about the friend’s legally estranged husband —> thinking about the family of the aforementioned husband —> realizing who a particular familiar-smelling kidnap victim is.

So in that case, the infodump is necessary to the plot. 🙂

Ambrogino pauses. When he decides to smile, I brace myself for his charm. I have no idea what century he learned it in, and I frankly hope I never find out. It’s easier to chat with someone if you aren’t aware of the fact that he had tea with Columbus. Or might have.

It gets particularly freaky when you find out that the woman flirting with your father happened to be one of Charlemagne’s concubines. Not that I’d know that from experience or anything.

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Jami Gold December 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Hi Carradee,

Fantastic examples! As I mentioned in my reply to Serena, I completely agree with your point about the importance of a strong voice. If we’re enthralled by a strong-enough storyteller, we’d listen to them describe how they make breakfast. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Edith December 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm

All very useful suggestions when I start revising my NaNoWriMo pocket novel…next week!

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Jami Gold December 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Hi Edith,

I hope they help! Good luck with your revisions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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E.B.Pike December 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Awesome advice, Jami! This is such a challenge for me, and perhaps it is for all fantasy and sci-fi writers. The info-dump is something you always have to struggle around when you’re writing about fictional places, worlds, creatures, etc.

Thanks for the refreshers!

Reply

Jami Gold December 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Hi E.B.,

Yes, it’s a constant struggle for me too. I’ve gotten much better at it, but I’ll still have a sentence that feels too “tell-y” in descriptions or backstory sections. It’s hard to get rid of it all. I hope this helps both of us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins December 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm

You’re playing my song all right, Jami.

It is hard to show (and refrain from telling) the farther you get from real life, so far as settings and nonhuman characters are concerned, but the reason I love writing fantasy so much is because I’m not bound to specific geopgrahic realities of an actual place. I prefer to use our world as a base and branch off from there.

That said, I love historical novels who really capture the essence of a real place, yet not let whatever firsthand or secondary research turn the book into a glorified lecture, not easy to do, and one of the reasons I don’t gravitate to writing historical fiction.

Often the research says “X” but heart says “Z” and unless you bill it as alternate historical fiction, getting the facts right matters as much as the story, and I struggle enough with the story being right, never mind making sure everyone’s behaving as they would in a certain place and time.

While I seriously don’t want to dawdle on needlessly, I’m more paranoid of the reader feeling lost more than how much telling I’m doing. I won’t lie, I love lucious depictions of setting, and a narrative that gives significance to a setting, but the trick is to do it sparingly and in the POV of the viewpoint character.

I agree that voice can make a big difference in how well a story reads. Still, it’s hard for me to embrace the “Voice conquers All” idealogy.

Even if lay readers cut writers some slack, the agent and/or editor we hope to have likely won’t, and for those of us who can’t afford to go the self-publish route, this is a big deal.

This is part of why when people “insist” I learn from the classics of my genre, I get a bit testy, if not all out enraged. because the fact is a lot of books pre-1990 simply had a slower pace that many readers today don’t have patience for.

Think how different books by James and Tolstoy would’ve been if they were writing now instead of centries back. Even if certain story types are timeless, how they’re written will be different simply due to the changing needs and tastes of readers.

I struggle with knowing where the balance is between voice and the technical needs of a story.

Since I write children’s books primarlily, I feel these concerns are inevitably multipled, even though readers of any age need certain basic elements of storytelling done well.

I think the hardest details to work in are those that may not be SOLEY about the plot, but are key to characterization and personality of the viewpoint character, they may not immedately effect the plot, but if the reader doesn’t know about them , as Jami said, it can read “tacked on.”

While no one wants to be overrun with superfolus backstory or long passages of a particular event, if you’re too focused on the main plot, readers can feel like you’re shortchanging them from an opprotunity to learn about the world their reading about, and the further it is from this world (Or the time you and I are living in now) some bits of info are nessecary. I speak from experience there.

It’s something I will be working on more intensely in 2013.

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Jami Gold December 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Hi Taurean,

“[It’s hard for me to embrace the “Voice conquers All” idealogy. Even if lay readers cut writers some slack, the agent and/or editor we hope to have likely won’t, and for those of us who can’t afford to go the self-publish route, this is a big deal.”

Great point! Yes, if agents or editors are on the lookout for too much telling, they’ll call us on it, whether the writing is “voice-y” or not. It’s a real struggle to get across information that’s needed for later understanding and have it fit, not sound tacked on, or scream “this is a clue” to readers.

The only solution I’ve found for balancing the needs of “not telling too much” and “not leaving the reader confused” is using beta readers. As the author, I can’t know when the details are too much or not enough in those circumstances. All I can do is try to get it close so any changes are just minor tweaks and not major revisions. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Serena January 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm

You might be wondering why I’m commenting now–again. I just suddenly wanted more tips for fixing info dumps (because I’m reading a book right now that has WAY too many tedious dumps–it’s actually a very famous book that has been made into a movie—I won’t mention which one :P), so I came back here to see if there were any more comments and tips.

Yeah I can see how modern publishers and agents want to look for stories with as little telling as possible. I just want to say that that is a shame, because I personally really like it when an author “tells” a lot, lol. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to reading the classics. For instance, I really love it when Jane Austen tells you everything there is to know about a character’s personality in the first paragraph you meet that character. It’s also very nice when during a scene, the author will suddenly note to you that character X has personality trait Y. Little “telling” things like that actually enrich the reading experience for me–rather than turning me off. 😀

Also, I’m excessively fond of the books where they have longish paragraphs that go through the complex processes of the millions of thoughts running through a character’s mind–I call these “complex psychology paragraphs.” Think “Crime and Punishment”. 😀 In fact, I love these complex psych paragraphs so much that I deliberately try to use this technique for my own stories, and this is a shame because agents and publishers would not like this at all, lol.

Oh there’s also that “periphrasis” technique that many literary novels use where they use an elaborate or complex phrase to say something that can be expressed in just one word, e.g. in Cleland’s “Fanny Hill”. And again, I keep trying to emulate this technique because I like it so much, haha.

So my tendency to embrace and use techniques from the classics that are not suitable for the times now, is one of the greatest reasons why I have no choice but to go for self publishing. ^^

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Jami Gold January 14, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Hi Serena,

You make a good point that some styles of point of view naturally use more telling. For example, with omniscient, the reader is often told how all the characters feel or why they’re reacting a certain way or what their goals are. But just as you pointed out the declining acceptance of “telling,” omniscient POV is also less common/accepted.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that. 🙂 If we write omniscient well, we might be able to get away with more telling than we can if we write the more typical and modern deep point of view. Interesting… Thanks for the comment!

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Serena January 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Silly me for forgetting all about this post. Hmm, I didn’t think of the omniscient point of view, but you’re right; this is where a lot of the “mass telling” comes from. It’s also true that I don’t remember reading any (or just a few) 21st century omniscient novels.

Do you know why omniscient has become less popular? And why telling is so scorned upon now?

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Jami Gold January 21, 2013 at 8:48 am

Hi Serena,

Great question! And one that I started writing a monster reply to. LOL! Instead, I think I’ll turn it into a blog post. Look for it soon. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena January 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Yay! I’ll definitely check it out when you’ve posted it. 😀

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Jami Gold January 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Hi Serena,

You can find the post about omniscient POV here. 🙂

HL Gibson January 29, 2015 at 12:03 pm

I’m coming into this conversation late, but your blog post and the following comments have been helpful even though I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy. I write general fiction so no need to info dump on world building, people, abilities, etc. Still, I am concerned about two passages in my novel that a beta reader thought might come across as info dumps. In both instances, a secret has been revealed that required explanation for my main character to understand what took place. I believe I touched on all four points you mentioned in how to fix an info dump, and I broke up the speaking parts with questions, comments, and physical reactions from my main character. How will I know if it’s enough?

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Jami Gold January 29, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Hi HL,

You bring up a good point that info dumps can happen in any genre. No matter our genre, we still could info dump with settings, characters, premise, explanations for questions, etc.

As far as how to know if it’s enough, it’s usually impossible for us to tell (unfortunately!). I heavily rely on beta readers for feedback. Even if someone could read just that one scene, you could ask questions about the flow, pacing, interest, etc. to see if it worked for them. Good luck and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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