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!

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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.

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

  1. Justyna says:

    I have that uneasy feeling that my whole novel is an info dump 😦 there is conflict in every scene in every chapter but even to me it looks like I dump info on a reader. I tried to spread them and make it interesting but info dump is still an info dump. I fell overwhelmed wright now with no ideas how to fix it. I know you can’t help me without reading a bit of my story (and we all know that you have life 😉 ). Thank you for another great post.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      A whole novel of info dumps is not entirely uncommon. I’ve edited three or four such novels in the last six months.

      The good news is that you have all the info at your fingertips to get started on a rewrite.

      Learn as much as you can about showing. Work on an outline that shows the information you want to convey in a series of interesting scenes that push towards the novel’s climax.

      I know it can be overwhelming, but if you don’t give up, you will get there!

  2. Julie Griffith says:

    This seems to be a common mistake for new writers. A year or two ago, I would have read this and said, “Oh, crap.” Some good writer friends pointed out my error and I believe I’ve avoided the dreaded info-dump in my current WIP. Saying that, I still have to watch myself because sometimes I slip and have to go back and revise. I think I will read my 1st chapters and highlight any telling I find, as you suggested. There are no big “dumps”, but there may be some areas where I can exchange telling for showing. Thanks for the tips!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Yes, it is very common in first novels to rely on info dumps – sometimes to tell the entire story.

      Luckily once you “get it” it’s not too hard to change your ways and focus on showing.

      I’m glad you liked the article!

    • Justyna says:

      Hopefully I learn how to show instead of telling and reduce my info dumping as you did 🙂 I think that finding a critique partner, there’s no better way to learn and improve 🙂

  3. Justyna says:

    You’re right, you gave us all the information we need to improve. You’re help is priceless. Thank you for that. Just want to let you know that you’re hard work is appreciated.

  4. Jim says:

    I am SO enjoying the boot camp! I stumbled on to your site last week, and on reading about the opportunity you offered us, I thought ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ I’m really hooked on the good info you’re sharing daily.

    Thank you!
    jim

  5. Linda Vernon says:

    Again, this is all so very helpful. When I go through my favorite books, I can barely see the back story. But when I try to do it, I keep explaining way too much about the past (snore). What I really locked onto especially was:

    “Only tell the reader a minimum of what they need to know at any given moment.”

    Keeping that in mind as I go along is going to help me tremendously!

  6. Hannah Murphy says:

    So I’m writing a fantasy novel, and one of my biggest critiques is that I don’t have enough description for the reader to visualize my story, but I’m worried if I do add in more description, it’ll just end up as a huge info dump. Help?

  7. JTMoore says:

    Thanks so much Ellen. This Boot Camp is Awesome!
    I was very careful about info dumping having watched your YouTube videos and read your Blog. My concern is I may have left info out because I have some areas that are a lot of dialog.

  8. Rhodes says:

    A beta reader once told me that Jasper is full of infodumps. Much of my rewriting is meant to address that by showing more, but I have a lot of work to do still. Thanks for this lecture!

  9. Sharon Smith says:

    I read my submission and don’t think I have info dump but I’m not sure. In some respects, I think I might have too much action. I thought about dumping the prologue after reading Lecture 1 and starting with Chapter 1 but after the positive results of the genre guessing game, I decided not to enter Chapter 1 to the genre guessing game. The action I describe in the prologue happens about midway into our travels. The first chapter has us entering Mexico. What are your thoughts?

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      It sounds like it’s a book about travel and that you are setting that up clearly in the prologue, so I don’t see any problem with the prologue unless the action drops off steeply afterwards or this event is not significant to the novel.

  10. Ashley Harman says:

    Hi Ellen,

    I recently found you on YouTube in the last week or so. I really like your tips. I’ve been doing Novel Boot Camp since the first day. Each of your lectures has had me thinking. I recently ask you about my beginning with my prologue. I recently put my chapter 1 on the genre guessing game. Like I said before I’m not good with tone and when I checked, they had two different tones: dark for my prologue and mysterious and romantic for ch. 1. Both are present in my book but I don’t know which is more dominant.

    With my main character, I don’t know if I introduce her worst and good traits well in my first chapter Also, I noticed that some of her descriptions are scattered throughout three chapters. Is that bad??? Plus I alter between several POV’s. The main focus is on the character in the first chapter. Then, the male lead has some chapters. Also, two other characters have a chapter each.

    And finally, I’m writing a fantasy. I know in fantasy you can get away with explaining more. I don’t know if I’m bad at info dumping since I’m a very new writer. Though I do have 2 chapters that probably info dump chapters. In the first info dump chapter I’m telling the antagonist’s past and motives and an otherworldly people’s history though I have a shorten version of this later in the story during an action. Finally, I have another info dump on a just introduced character who will become more important in later books (if I write more, hopefully)

    Sorry for the lengthenth of this. Your help is very appreciated especially by newcomers like me. Thanks!!!

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