As much as we all know to never ever use info dumps, it doesn’t always make sense to convey something through dialogue or a flashback, and sometimes you need the reader to know the information right away – you don’t have time to trickle it through several chapters.
So for those times when you truly need to do some telling instead of showing, here are some tricks to slip it in unnoticed.
Establish a Scene
Before moving into an info dump, always establish a scene. This means that the very first information conveyed needs to establish the basics: who, what, when, and where. Let the reader know what your character is up to and they will have something to visualize. Visualizing something (anything!), helps the reader stay engrossed in the scene.
The Scene has to Matter
The scene you establish must be in some way integral to telling the story. The scene’s purpose cannot be simply to dump information on the reader. Something interesting must happen in the moment of the scene, not only in the info dump. For more about this, check out: How to Spot a Bad Scene or Chapter.
Stick to the Facts
Does the reader really need to know that Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, the Halloween party, and Christmas Eve? Or do they just need to know that Hank is always late? If it’s the fact that the reader needs (Hank is always late), and not the story (Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, etc.), then stick to the one sentence fact, don’t tell a two paragraph story.
Keep it Short
Think critically about what the reader really needs to know to understand the story. Every time you want to tell something, ask yourself: If I didn’t tell this, would it reduce the reader’s comprehension of the story? If the answer is no, leave it out. Don’t slip into the trap of believing that more information always enhances the story. If the characters, plot, and world make sense without the information, the readers don’t need it.
Couch it in Action
Couching an info dump in action allows the scene to maintain momentum rather than grinding to a screeching halt. A lack of momentum is what makes info dumps so glaringly annoying in the first place. So instead of Jane sitting at the window contemplating how Hank is always late, she can think about it while pacing around her apartment. The key word is “while.” She needs to think about it while pacing, not before or after.
Let’s look at a scene that does not follow these rules:
Hank was never there when Jane needed him. She would sit and wait for hours and he’d never show up. He was late to her wedding even though she sent a cab to his door at the right time to pick him up. He was late to the Halloween party when they were dressing up together as M&Ms. They worked for hours on those costumes and almost missed the party. And then there was Christmas Eve. Hank was Jane’s secret Santa and he was so late that she had to open her gift after the party had already ended. And he never even cared. He just shrugged it off like it was no big deal. But Jane cared. She cared a lot.
Jane laid down and went to bed. Maybe someday Hank would change and be the man that she needed.
Why it Doesn’t Work
Let’s break down why the above scene doesn’t work by examining each of the rules.
Establish a Scene: Where is Jane? What is she doing? Why is she thinking about Hank always being late? We don’t know any of that until after the huge paragraph of info dump.
The Scene has to Matter: Is this scene really necessary to the book? Nothing happens except Jane pouting about Hank’s lateness and then she goes to bed. With no conflict or relevance to the rest of the novel, this scene is clearly not needed.
Stick to the Facts: Do we really need to know that they were going to dress up as M&Ms? Or that she sent a cab to his house on her wedding day? My guess is no. What we really need to know is that Hank is always late.
Keep it Short: Is everything in this paragraph necessary to grasp the concept that Hank is often late? Clearly not. And remember, we don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that all details “enhance” the story. They very often do not.
Couch it in Action: There’s no action in this scene until the last sentence, so obviously no couching is happening here.
So how can we rewrite this scene?
Jane paced back and forth in front of her apartment door. Hank was late. She wrung the end of her shirt in her hands. He was always late. She took a deep breath and paced harder. Maybe he didn’t want their relationship to work out as much as she did.
There was a knock at the door. She yanked it open and Hank stood there, a bright smile on his face. Two hours late. She sighed.
Why is this better?
Let’s break it down:
Establish a Scene: This is done right away. We know where Jane is and what she’s doing.
The Scene has to Matter: Hank is on his way over so presumably something is going to develop with the plot.
Stick to the Facts: Rather than long stories, there were brief sentences about Hank’s lateness.
Keep it Simple: The facts weren’t embellished with a bunch of extras. It was simple and quick.
Couch it in Action: Jane is active, before, during, and after the information is conveyed, so the reader is never yanked from the scene.
And here’s the kicker: Writing a scene like this is usually easier, faster, and actually conveys more emotional information than an ordinary info dump. If you use these techniques, your writing will improve, guaranteed!
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14 thoughts on “How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping”
Yes! Awesome advice.
Thanks! Good luck with your writing!
Hey there, just wanted to let you know I nominated you for the LIEBSTER AWARD on my blog, check it out at http://mikecoville.wordpress.com/2013/10/03/liebster-luck/
Awesome! Thank you! I will try to find time to participate. (:
I’m deep in the weeds of editing my middle grade fantasy, and this was insanely helpful!
I’m so glad, Emily. Best of luck with editing!
Thanks for the great article. What made it REALLY great was the example. Thanks for showing and not just telling. 😉
No problem! Glad it helped!
This is literally perfect
Very helpful. I plan to go through and highlight all my info dumps. My concern with showing not telling is wordiness. I need to cut word count. I am writing a chick-lit novel which happens in the UK, afraid not enough telling will dumb it down.
Wonderful – I was really stressing before this. Had I been dumping? Was my entire novel just one big info dump? You clarified it perfectly here Ellen. Thank you 🙂
I love reading fiction with massive information dumps. Consequently, I will not be talked into refraining from writing them shamelessly and incessantly by any of your criticism.
You have helped me more than many workshops on writing I’ve attended.