Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #3: How to Avoid Info Dumping

Landscape

Info dumping is a problem for many writers. Sometimes it’s lazy writing. Sometimes the writer can’t come up with an alternative way to convey the information. And sometimes the writer doesn’t know what an info dump is at all.

For those who don’t know what an info dump is, it’s an extended form of telling (rather than showing). An info dump is a big chunk of information that is “dumped” in the reader’s lap all at once. These info dumps are usually done through narration but can be found in dialogue as well.

Sample Info Dump:

Jessica was her best friend. They met in high school and spent every day together. On the day they met, they were at dance class, which they both thought was kind of dumb, but had attended on a whim. Jessica stood right next to her and they laughed together about how goofy the boys looked dancing. After that they started doing everything together and became two peas in a pod.

Sample Info Dump Through Dialogue:

“Jessica is my best friend. We met in high school and spent every day together. On the day we met, we were at a dance class, which we both thought was kind of dumb, but….”

As far as info dumps go, these are relatively short. Info dumps can often stretch for paragraphs, pages, or even full chapters.

Identifying Info Dumps

So how do you know if you’ve got an info dump on your hands?

Info dumps can be fairly easily identified because nothing within the info dump is happening in the moment of the scene. Often they are reflections on the past (back story) or convey facts about the characters or world.

If you look at the sample info dump above, you can see right away that nothing being described is happening right now.

The most common things to info dump about are:

  • How abilities work (magical or otherwise).
  • Character back story.
  • Rules or laws of a city/country/world (very common in dystopian settings).
  • Personality traits.
  • Scifi technology.
  • Fantasy creatures/races.

Why are Info Dumps Bad?

Mainly because they’re boring! Readers want to be immersed in the moment of the story. They want to feel like they are standing beside your main character as exciting things happen around them.

Info dumps also fail to create an emotional reaction in the reader. Consider the following gem:

Jake had brown hair and blue eyes and liked to dance and play with dogs and do jumping jacks and one time his mother left him with the neighbor for a week and so he has deep emotional scars.

Makes you want to shed a tear, doesn’t it? Not! Most info dumps are cold/flat/bland. And when a reader’s emotions aren’t engaged, the reader’s not engaged.

The last reason I’m going to explore today is that info dumps feel like writing. The reader knows they’re reading a story, but they don’t want to feel like it’s a story. Info dumps call attention to themselves because they’re unnatural asides from the author. It’s like the director of a film stopping the movie to say, “Hey, wait a second, let me explain to you some vital information…”

Are Info Dumps Ever Okay?

Generally no, but a little bit of telling here and there is acceptable and encouraged. If you try to write a story with no telling at all, the reader may have difficulty fully understanding motivations.

The keys to effective telling are:

  • Integrate it into the scene as much as possible. Make it relevant to something that is happening in the moment.
  • Keep it brief. A sentence or two is about the max you get before reader’s eyes start to glaze over. In other words, no dumping!
  • Write it in such a way that it conveys something about a character’s personality. A flippant mention of a death keys the reader in that maybe the character didn’t like that person too well!
  • Break it up! Don’t stick all your telling in one spot. Sprinkle information throughout a scene or throughout the entire novel. Only tell the reader the minimum of what they need to know at any given moment.

Note that there are narrative styles that can get away with some info dumping:

  • Humor. If the info dump is funny and is in the context of a humorous novel, readers usually won’t notice or mind.
  • Omniscient POV. An omniscient narrator with a great voice and interesting perspective can make info dumps a seamless part of the narration.
  • First Person POV. But only when the info dumps convey voice or interesting character traits. Though I would not rest on this fact to justify keeping unimportant info dumps.
  • Middle grade novels. Opening with a nice info dump is common in early middle grade because it helps orient young readers who aren’t yet skilled at ascertaining implied character traits and back story.
  • Any time an info dump is actually genuinely truly entertaining, you’re probably okay. (But be honest with yourself!)

How to Avoid Info Dumps in the Setup

Info dumps can be a problem no matter where they fall in your manuscript, but I decided to put this lecture in the week focused on novel beginnings because the setup is notorious for lengthy info dumps. Plus, the closer to the beginning you info dump, the more likely it is to annoy the reader. Why? Because the reader is not yet invested enough in your story to be willing to wade through the information you want to tell them.

Homework: Cut Info Dumps from Your Setup

Go through your manuscript (as far as you are able given your time commitment to Novel Boot Camp) and highlight every piece of telling and every little info dump. Remember to look for anything that isn’t happening in the moment.

Chances are, you will end up with a stack (or digital file) of florescent-streaked pages. Go through each highlighted section and follow these steps:

Step One: Does it Matter?

“Of course it matters! It’s my beautiful novel! It’s a part of my character’s history! It’s a super interesting idea that is too awesome to remove!” – said every writer who has ever had to remove an info dump.

Losing a cool idea or an interesting piece of back story can hurt, but every writer includes things in the first draft that just don’t matter.

Ask yourself this: If I removed this info dump, would the reader still be able to understand the story? If yes, cut that baby out of there! If no, move on to step two.

Step Two: How Much of it Matters?

Sometimes only a tiny portion of an info dump is truly needed for clarity and the rest is extraneous.

Ask yourself: What is the bare minimum I could save of this info dump while preserving the reader’s ability to understand the story?

Sometimes this means ditching back story (Steph got busy last year and forgot to buy a gift for her mom because when she finally got out of work, all the stores were closed, then she had to go home to let the dog out, and….) and sticking to the simple facts (Steph forgot to buy a gift for her mom last year).

Step Three: Can it be Shown in an Existing Scene?

Now that you’ve deleted all the unnecessary info dumping, focus on the information you have left. Look at one piece of highlighting at a time.

Is there any way this information could be shown in a scene that already exists?

For example, if you need to convey to the reader that Kimmy is a smarty pants, perhaps you could show this in an existing scene where her big sisters are talking and she constantly butts into the conversation with her own ideas.

If you need to convey how a magical ability works, perhaps you could show it in an existing scene where the character needs to solve a conflict. Using the magic in the conflict is a quick and easy way to show how it works.

If you absolutely can’t incorporate the info dump into an existing scene, move on to step four.

Step Four: Create a Scene Around the Info

I am not saying to create a scene around the info dump. I am saying that you can create a scene that allows you to show the information contained in the info dump to the reader.

The important thing to remember is that the scene must push the plot forward. Creating an unneeded scene around an info dump is no better than keeping the info dump.

Step Five: Don’t be Lazy!

If you need to rewrite a major chunk of your book to avoid info dumping, do it! Don’t bury your head in the sand because it’s easier to leave in an info dump than it is to correct it.

Last Resort: Get Creative!

If you truly can’t find any way to convey information without using an info dump, make the info dump creative!

Use a newspaper article, a radio announcement, a TV broadcast, a conversation with an eccentric psychic, etc.

But remember that these creative techniques can be risky! The goal is to hide the fact that you’re info dumping, which means that you must execute it in a way that is clever and couched within the context of an interesting and engaging scene.

If Back Story Takes Over Your Novel

If you find that you have so much back story that there is no way to convey it without info dump after info dump, that could be a sign that you’re starting the story too late.

It could also be a sign that your plot is sagging and not enough is happening in the moment to balance the things that happened in the past.

Additional Resources

Is telling vs. showing giving you a headache? Check out some of my other articles on the subject:

How to Show Instead of Tell in Your Writing

How Much is Too Much Back Story

How to Dump Info without Info Dumping

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.41.51 AM 93-facebookgroup

I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

26 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #3: How to Avoid Info Dumping

  1. Eliza says:

    This is great. A question for you. If a person wanders through their old house, is it cliched and info dumping to reflect on the past? I think it is natural, but am I wrong? It’s reflection taking place during “now” action, but it’s still reflecting on back story.

  2. haydee says:

    Great post! I see this info dumping business all the time and it irritates the crap out of me, especially when is done at the beginning of a piece. A lot of newbies and untalented wannabes info dump simply because they don’t get it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s