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December 27, 2012

Four Tips for Fixing the Infamous “Info Dump”

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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38 Comments on "Four Tips for Fixing the Infamous “Info Dump”"

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Serena
Serena
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… Read more »
Carradee
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,… Read more »
Edith

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

E.B.Pike

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!

Taurean Watkins
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”… Read more »
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[…] Four Tips For Fixing the Infamous Info Dump by Jami Gold […]

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[…] some tips from Melissa Tydell on how to captivate your readers, while Jami Gold helps you clean up the info dumps polluting your […]

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[…] Writing Stuff My recent post about avoiding “information dumps” prompted a conversation in the comments about omniscient point-of-view (POV) and its use of […]

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[…] “Add Tension:  Make the info dump something that causes problems for the characters.” – From Jami Gold’s Blog […]

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[…] want to share everything they know about their characters and their story. We see this issue in information dumps of backstory or story research. And we also see this issue in the desire to share everything that every character is thinking and […]

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[…] I’ve tackled the dreaded info dump before, but let’s take a look at the other three problematic areas. […]

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[…] conspicuous exposition (backstory and info dumping) […]

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[…] else is essentially an information dump, no better than static descriptions or pointless backstory. Even with character descriptions, we […]

HL Gibson

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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[…] Creating prime real estate for info dumping. […]

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[…] come from writers who want to justify keeping a scene that might be borderline, such as filled with a backstory information dump. […]

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[…] like Jami Gold’s post on info dumps and how to eliminate […]

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[…] rest of the story. A story opening with a bullying boss will fall flat if it’s followed by an info dump or a scene of ho-hum grocery shopping on the way home from […]

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[…] spoken before about making sure the information we’re sharing with the reader is relevant. Just because we discovered a cool thing during our research doesn’t mean it should be […]

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[…] pacing, lack of tension, too much “telling,” information dumps, backstory, etc. that make readers […]

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[…] want to share everything they know about their characters and their story. We see this issue in information dumps of backstory or story research. And we also see this issue in the desire to share everything that every character is thinking and […]

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[…] (Harry Potter anyone?) can get a second or third chance because dialogue, grammar, descriptions, info dumps, and go-nowhere scenes can all be reworked and […]

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[…] much showing and not enough telling is the opposite side of the coin from the information-dump problem. Info dumps overdo telling, but not enough telling can be just as much of a problem, as it can […]

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