WHAT IS INFO DUMPING?
As an editor, info dumping is something that I see frequently. As a writer, learning what info dumping was and how to avoid it was necessary. I’ve found that writers, especially new ones, often don’t really know what it is, why they should avoid it, or what they should do instead. I know I didn’t, and if that’s you, then you’re in the right place.
Info dumping is defined in Dictionary.com as “a large quantity of backstory, or background information, supplied at once, often as a narrative at the beginning of a story, film, etc.”
In its most basic form, info dumping is simply bad, lazy, and/or uninformed storytelling. It shows a lack of knowing or not caring when or how info should be delivered—in a slow trickle, (bob and weave,) or even at all.
THE FOUR TYPES OF INFO DUMPING
There are typically 4 types of info dumping that rear their ugly heads in fiction and sometimes even in biographies and autobiographies. They are:
- Descriptions or world-building
- Technical (how things work)
- Character motivation
Info-dumping is a break in the story. It’s not even really part of the story. Now, I’m not saying it can’t or doesn’t affect the story, but if it’s something that happened in the past (backstory), the lay out of a property or history of a place (world-building), an explanation of how something works (technical), or a character explaining themselves (character motivation), then it’s not the current story you’re telling, and will pull people out of your story.
WHY YOU SHOULD AVOID INFO DUMPING
Info dumping, in a way, is like going on a tangent. I heard someone once describe it as pushing pause on a movie right before the action, which is a pretty accurate description.
It’s like if we were to meet for the first time, and I went off about my life, my family, my friends, my job, my insomnia, everything. That’s socially awkward, right? (TMI!)
Well, the same should be said for our characters.
We’ve just met them. We don’t want to know ALL THE THINGS about them right away. We want to slowly learn as our friendship builds over time. Societal norms apply in fiction, too. I know that sound funny but for real, though.
What keeps people turning pages better than almost anything else? Unanswered questions.
People are always more intrigued by the guy in the room who keeps his secrets to himself than they are interested in the guy who’s spewing verbal diarrhea about how his aunt used to pinch his cheeks as a kid and now has issues with touching.
WHY PEOPLE COME BACK FOR MORE
Here’s a cold, hard fact: It’s not long exposition that people return to after they’ve read a book. It’s the conversation, the action, the forward motion. Which is why starting your story with an info-dump is a terrible idea. Especially when the point of the beginning of the book is to hook a reader, keep them engaged, and turning pages.
It all comes down to finding the right place and way to start your story.
New writers, especially, tend to get it in their heads that they have to give the reader ALL THE INFO, but that’s just not true.
At the beginning of a novel, do readers:
- Know enough about your character to want to be told their entire backstory?
- Care enough about your character to want their entire backstory?
- Care enough to want to hear their motivations for doing whatever it is they’re doing?
- Does the reader want to be given a history lesson at the beginning of your story instead of jumping right into the main plot?
- Do they want to be given a lesson on how a thing works?
The answer to all of these questions is no. The fact is if you start with info dumping, people are likely to put your book down.
- It’s sign that you’re still learning—though most readers won’t know that, and will just think you’re a bad writer.
- It’s telling not showing, which is no where near as interesting or likely to hook a reader and keep them turning pages.
- The reader is not invested enough in a character or world at the beginning of a book to care about whatever info dump the writer thinks they need. Because of this, that “so important information” will often be forgotten when delivered at the beginning of a book, and therefore defeats the purpose of putting it there at all.
- Info-dumps are easy and therefore a sign that we can tighten our narrative and be more precise in our storytelling.
Now that you know what info dumping is, how do you avoid it?
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
The screw through cinder’s ankle had rusted, the engraved cross marks worn to a mangled circle. Her knuckles ached from forcing the screwdriver into the joint as she struggled to loosen the screw one gritting twist after another. By the time it was extracted far enough for her to wrench free with her prosthetic steel hand, the hairline threads had been stripped clean.
Tossing the screwdriver onto the table, Cinder gripped her heel and yanked the foot from its socket. A spark singed her fingertips and she jerked away, leaving the foot to dangle from a tangle of red and yellow wires.
She slumped back with a relieved groan. A sense of release hovered at the end of those wires–freedom. Having loathed the too-small foot for four years, she swore to never put the piece of junk back on again. She just hoped Iko would be back soon with its replacement.
Imagine if we got her backstory right now, if this narrative was paused to tell us about how she ended up with a cyborg foot in the first place. What if she decided to tell us why she still had a foot that was too small for her because of her family and her wicked stepmother.
Not only does that take away from the forward motion of the story, it also robs us of all these interesting story questions that might have kept us turning the pages.
(Side note: If you saw my post on How to Write Killer First Sentences, re-read Cinder’s first sentence. It’s top notch.)
Daemarkin: Demon Vow by R.W. Hert
Branches cracked. Brush rustled. One by one, the wolf-like maviel squeezed through the dense oaks, their backs scraping tree limbs eight feet off the ground. One of these days Zade wouldn’t be able to hold them back. What would happen to the villagers then?
Pretty compelling opening, right? But what if Hert paused her book here to explain what a “maviel” was? To tell us more about the landscape, and the villagers?
What would that do to the story? It would slow down the action. Take us out of the scene. Those details aren’t important right now because we’ve been given all we need.
Here’s what we know: he’s in a forest because she mentioned oaks. We know the maviel are wolf-like, and big because their backs are scrapping limbs 8 feet off the ground. And we know that they’re a danger to villagers. That’s enough. It’s interesting and informative enough to keep us reading without needing all the details right now.
Davinci Code by Dan Brown
Renowned curator Jack Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the 76-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
Now, let’s say Brown decided to stop there to give us an explanation of how the gate works. How the paintings are wired to a security system so that they will close should a painting ever be taken down. That just wouldn’t play nearly as well as what Brown actually followers with:
Much better, right? Just because your character knows something cool, or more likely, just because you know something cool, doesn’t mean we, the reader, need to know it or even want to know it.
Keep this in mind throughout your story and not just at the beginning. If it’s something we need to know to understand the story, that’s one thing. If it’s just something interesting, that’s an entirely different thing.
EXPLANATION OF MOTIVATION
At the beginning of Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Scarlett receives a letter from Caraval Master Legend inviting her to come. In her excitement, she runs to tell her sister, Donatella, but is side-tracked when she finds Tella in a romantic embrace with a sailor new to their town.
We know she must be ecstatic about the letter, as she’s been sending one a year to Legend for years, but she forgets this to pull Tella aside and warn her about what will happen if their father catches Tella.
Garber doesn’t then stop to explain why Scarlett is so concerned. She doesn’t tell us what her motivation is for this sudden loss of interest in her letter.
And I’m so glad Garber didn’t because we then get the scene where their dad comes:
Sounds like the normal sister fight, right?
“No, she did it!” I can almost picture them pointing fingers.
It kind of makes us raise a questioning eyebrow at Tella. How rude of her to lie like that. The two sisters continue to argue back and forth until it’s finally decided that Tella is telling the truth and not Scarlett, even though, we know it’s the other way around. How unjust!
Then we get this:
“Father, please, it was only a very brief kiss.” Scarlett tried to step in front of Tella, but a guard pulled Scarlett back toward the barrels, grabbing her roughly by the elbows and yanking them behind her, as she fought to protect her sister. For it wasn’t Scarlett who would be punished for this crime. Every time Scarlett or her sister disobeyed, Governor Dragna did something awful to the other as punishment.
On his right hand, the governor wore two large rings, a square amethyst and a sharply pointed purple diamond. He twisted both of these around his fingers, then he pulled his hand back and struck Tella across the face.
See how much more compelling showing this scene is then stopping to tell us Scarlett’s motivations earlier on? Can you imagine if we’d gotten a long story about how their father was abusive and how the sisters really only had each other and maybe a little narrative from their childhood, and I’m how their worlds centered around each other? Ugh. Not so fun.
But this? This was brilliant. We got all the information we needed from this scene. She showed us instead of telling us.
Before you do an info dump ask yourself these questions:
1.) Is there a more interesting way I can present, (show), the same information without doing an info dump?
2.) Would holding this information back create interesting story questions that I can slow feed to my audience throughout the story?
3.) Would the stuff in the info dump make better subtext?
4.) Does it really need to be told at all? Or do you just want to tell it?
5.) Would info dumping at this point in the story make the reader put the book down?
6.) Is the info you want to give pertinent right this very moment, or could it be told later?
7.) Do your readers care enough about your MC at this point to sit through an info dump?
If you answered yes to any of the first 5 questions, no and then yes to the sixth, or no to the last, you shouldn’t be info dumping.
If the audience doesn’t need that info right away, (maybe it supplies suspense, an intriguing story question, or great subtext,) the better choice then is to trickle the info in, a little at a time, as the story unfolds. To provide little nuggets of backstory, world-building, or character motivation as you go.
You can do this in narrative or in dialogue and it tends to be much more interesting than telling us everything at once.
If I’ve got you thinking “Well now how do I start?” here’s a suggestion that I’ve recently started employing in my own writing with great success.
Start your story with a characteristic moment.
This is a moment where your MC is put in a situation that would define them and their world view. Like Caraval with the two sisters trying to protect one another.
Another example of a characteristic moment is in the first episode of Veronica Mars.
Veronica arrives at school to find the new kid duct taped naked to the flagpole. While everyone around points, stares, laughs, cowers away, and takes pictures, Veronica sets to work cutting him down.
Not only did this scene lend to some very interesting conversation between Veronica and the new kid, Wallace, it was also a characteristic moment for Veronica. She does what she thinks is right despite what others are doing or thinking, despite that it could get her in trouble with the bullies who did this to Wallace later, and without fear of repercussions. It shows us who she is as a person right off the bat.
So, think. What’s your MC’s main personality trait? What defines them? Is it curiosity that gets them into trouble often, or a burning desire to protect loved ones? Is your MC a scoundrel, an adventurer, deathly shy, or a lover? What scene could you create to demonstrate this without telling us this. How can you show us this?
And if you find you absolutely need that backstory than you might consider that is where the story should start.
Take Dark Memories by Jeffery S. Savage for example.
The entire premise of Dark Memories is based around six five-year-old kids who get lost in a mine with only five of them being found; the plot is the repercussions of this event in the lives of those five survivors 30 years later when one by one, someone starts murdering them.
Instead of starting the book with a character explaining to us what happened all those years ago, Savage simply gave us the scene where the kids went missing in chapter one and then went to present day in chapter two. And, it was gripping.
Don’t be afraid to actually give us a scene that takes place in the past and then jump forward to the future. If you can’t skip the backstory for whatever reason, it’s better to show it to us then tell it to us in narrative in the middle of the current story–especially if that’s at the beginning of a book.
1.) Take a look at your first chapter and see if you can get rid of any info dumping. After you’ve done that, take notes of where the information can be weaved into the story.
2.) Read through your manuscript and see if there are any other info-dumps. Is there a more compelling way you can present that information?
3.) Let me know in the comments what your biggest takeaway was from this post. It’ll help it stick in your mind.
4.) Share this post to help other authors with info dumping!
Don’t forget to grab your copy of What Editors Want and What They Don’t: Get the Best Finished Manuscript Possible With Help From Over 30 Professional Editors.
And thank you for reading What is Info Dumping and How to Avoid It! I hope you found it helpful. Let me know if you have any further questions.