Info dumping is a common problem for novice and seasoned writers alike and involves dropping a heap of information in the reader’s lap, resulting in a paragraph, scene, or even chapter of prose that halts the story.
It’s an understandable literary sin, given that there are instances where you need to convey to the reader valuable, necessary information, but it’s one that will be immediately recognised by the reader.
An onslaught of information will be an interruption to the flow of your story, pulling the reader from the current of your narrative, halting the tension and emotion it was invoking before the avalanche of information.
An example of info dumping:
“Anna ran down the porch steps, racing to see the damage to her truck. It was an old beast of a thing, but she felt tied to it. It had been a gift from her grandfather, with whom she’d been close. The rusted heap sat in its usual spot, the original green paint visible behind the new-ish red coat her grandfather had chosen for her.
She smiled as she remembered that hadn’t been her favourite colour since she was a child; he must have forgotten. He’d passed about six months ago, and she was finding it hard to cope with his loss; he’d been the only source of stability in her life. She thought about him, his sharp wit and lack of filter made him sort of unpopular but refreshingly honest.
Four dents in total were visible, the most costly to repair damage to the fender. A couple scratches here and there and a spiderweb of cracks in the windscreen. She totted up the damage and large bill she’d be facing, then doubled her estimates.
Every mechanic in her little town was a grifter, and it’s not like she could drive somewhere else with the truck so totalled. This reminded her that damage can go far beyond aesthetics and she remembered the feeble engine and winced. Anna lifted the hood and surveyed the engine, knowing full well that the only way she could recognise an engine issue is if it was on fire.
Still, she heaved it up, smearing oil on her hands, careful to avoid clumps of rust that waited to snatch at her skin. A five-second perfunctory look later and she decided to test the hunk of oiled metal. Careful not to do any further damage, Anna gingerly opened the door, wincing as the metal screeched in protest.
Oil. Oil will help, she thought. She hopped up onto the torn leather and inserted the key, thrilled and a little smug when it roared to life. Her truck was a monster, she should have had more faith.”
This passage won’t be winning me a Pulitzer any time soon, but it does convey a lot of information. We now know that: Anna loved her grandfather and relied on him, that the truck had been a gift from him, the extent of truck’s damage, the trustworthiness of her local mechanics, that she was worried about the cost of repairs, that she knew little about engine repair, etc.
But say you didn’t need to convey that much, that you wanted primarily to show the reader how much she loved her grandfather and her beaten-up old truck because it had been a gift from him.
“Anna took the porch steps two at a time in her race to see her truck’s injuries. It was an old beast of a thing, but the thought that the last gift her grandfather had given her could be lost to her brought pangs of too many emotions to name.
She pushed thoughts of him aside; she would deal with the truck, then she would address the gaping hole his loss had left. One thing at a time. Dents and scratches peppered her beloved truck, and she winced as she surveyed the damage, such that pointed to a possibility she couldn’t face.
She eased the door open, ignoring the metallic whine, and turned the key over, gripping the enormous wheel with shaking hands. A groan, a pause, and an ear-splitting roar told her the truck would live to fight another day. She’d been a fool to doubt it; her behemoth would outlive everyone.”
Though I offer more detail in the original passage, I think it’s more emotionally effective to suggest that even the thought of him was too much to bear at the moment, rather than a sudden and somewhat in-depth reflection on their relationship.
Here, there is no mention of the mechanic grifters in the amended passage because it wasn’t necessary, at least at this point in the story. It’s clear from the edited portion that Anna loved her grandfather, but it indicates that more will be revealed at an appropriate time, something for the reader to look forward to.
With the original, too much was revealed, and the reader’s curiosity likely hadn’t been piqued; they have no questions they want answered, nothing to drive them through the coming paragraphs (apart from, ‘what the hell happened to her truck?’)
There was still some ‘telling’ instead of showing which isn’t as taboo as some writers would have you believe. You can’t have a story without telling, but it has to be used sparingly; generally, info dumps aren’t exactly light.
If you think you might be guilty of info-dumping, review your manuscript for instances of over-sharing and address them by learning first the specific types of info dump to better recognise them in your writing.
1. Info dumps as backstory
This type is common and found more often in the introduction of a story; you as the author want your readers to know the characters, their traits, their history, etc.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of including a laundry list of events and ordeals your characters have been through, but you have to decide if those details really belong and have earned a place in that paragraph, scene, or chapter.
You might have spent time phrasing a description or memory and find it painful to cut, but including it would be the literary equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
Instead, select the most interesting and emotionally immersive details, then reflect on the best areas in which to insert that information to have the most effect in aiding character development, advancing the plot, and influencing the reader.
Then, if you decide to include it, you have to ask yourself how you’re going to do that: will it be via pure narrative or dialogue? Or through flashbacks?
2. Info dumps as worldbuilding
Creating a new world is a monumental task that requires a great deal of work, dedication, and detail. It’s understandable that you as a writer would be tempted to illustrate your literary prowess by explaining in detail the complexities of the world, magic system, alternate universe, etc.
But the reader didn’t pick up your book to be lectured at, they want to be entertained.
You need to balance this awareness with the knowledge that certain details do need to be included, that a simple fact can be portrayed without a full explanation into the history of a particular spell, laser-gun, potion, etc.
Though this type of info dump is most common with sci-fi and speculative fiction, it’s also found in a range of other genres — a story must have a setting, and every setting offers the opportunity to build a world.
The task at hand isn’t as difficult if your protagonist is new to a particular world because the reader is being exposed to it through their eyes. They’re unfamiliar, so it makes sense that secondary characters would explain things to them, and you learn right along with the protagonist.
If they are familiar, you’re facing a little more work — it would be ridiculous for a resident in this world to sit back and allow another character regale them with facts about the world in which they both live; they’d cut them off mid-sentence.
Example — Harry Potter (show, don’t tell):
Harry is brand new to the wizarding world, and we learn all about it right along with him. Hagrid doesn’t sit him down on the island he rescues him from and explain all about Diagon Alley, going into detail about the magical brick wall and the land that lays behind it. He brings Harry there and we see it as action.
This is a perfect example of ‘show, don’t tell’. How flat and dull the would have been coming from Hagrid instead of organically; it would have robbed the reader of what is a thrilling introduction to the world that’s become Harry’s new home.
Example — Harry Potter (tell, don’t show):
An example of ‘tell, don’t show’ is Hagrid telling Harry he’s a wizard. We’re reminded in the same passage the times Harry made things happen he couldn’t explain.
Rowling could have shown us this via a flashback if each instance of unintentional magic, or by having Harry pull off some magical feat like levitating Dudley, Hagrid in the background and his presence rendered semi-useless. But she didn’t.
That sharp line is the first confirmation the reader has of Harry’s unique gift, the foreshadowing of his new life.
This is an example of how info dumping isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The term info dump suggests an onslaught of information, but when used correctly as Rowling has done in this example, I prefer to think of it as info sprinkling.
We needed that confirmation of Harry’s magical abilities, what we didn’t need was an overwritten explanation, where the reader is exposed to too much ‘show, don’t tell’.
In the form of narrative, dialogue, or flashback, sandwich moments of ‘telling’ in between portions of ‘showing’ important information, and it should work.
If during your many re-reads and edits you find portions of info dumping, be aware that this often means the conflict has become so diluted that feelings of tension are non-existent, or that you’ve paused the conflict to interject some information.
You may have the best of intentions, but you can’t pick up and drop conflict when you feel it’s appropriate and expect the reader to adjust themselves to those rises and falls of the tension.
3. Info dumps as detail
I once edited a novel in which the author went into a three-page explanation of the workings of a car’s engine. I knew so much about internal combustion engines I could have donned some overalls and opened up shop.
Aside from the fact that this is too much detail for a book that isn’t even centred around cars, it was doing nothing to advance the plot.
Writing a novel requires a tonne of research, and specificity in the details you include lends your story legitimacy, illustrating your dedication to your profession. But as with all elements in writing, a balance must be found.
E.G. Your protagonist might be a seasoned surgeon, on the precipice of a major breakthrough that will cure cancer, and you feel you have to explain the intricacies of the clinical trials that brought this cure to light.
E.G. Or perhaps they are a musical savant, proficient in many instruments, their home filled with manuscripts overflowing with handwritten compositions. You don’t want to wait, you need the reader to know now that your character’s life revolves around music, and what better way to do that than with a four-page enlightenment that will inevitably halt your story.
It can be hard to determine exactly what a reader does and doesn’t need to know, but I always ask myself: does this information work to advance the plot?
In the case of our surgeon, the success of the trials can be woven into the plot, or the barest details offered in dialogue — perhaps the good doctor is at a conference and converses with colleagues about the breakthroughs, albeit briefly, with the scene serving a purpose outside of simply relaying that information.
Maybe our musician is giving a soon-to-be protégé a lesson, eager to share their knowledge, but intent on holding back to avoid overwhelming the beginner. You have an excuse as to why you’re not oversharing, and you’ve opened up an opportunity to illustrate that information through a compelling relationship, instead of a double-page spread on the history of classical music.
The restraint both characters show proves that the information they choose to share later share wasn’t important to the plot at that moment, or at least not in such detail.
Determine what is necessary for the time in your novel, and whittle it down to exactly what is warranted for that moment and no further.
Information can be shared through dialogue deftly as long as you don’t fall into the trap of stilted, ‘As you know, Bob…’ dialogue.
This type of dialogue is purely to convey information to the reader. It involves one character telling another character something they both already know.
“Linda, are you taking dad to the doctor?” Marie asked. “He has an appointment with the orthopaedic surgeon. She needs to look at his leg and see if there are improvements since his last appointment, after the time you ran over his foot backing down the driveway.
“It was a nasty break; his leg was in a cast for three months. The doctors think the damage is permanent.”
Linda rolled her eyes.
“You always make me feel guilty about that. I was driving your car and the brakes stopped working. It was a freak accident,” Linda replied.
Marie wouldn’t delve so deeply into the topic of their father’s injury because Linda, of course, is up to date on the topic, especially given she was behind the injury.
And while Linda’s reply is a little more believable because it’s said in frustration, it’s still ‘as you know, Bob…’ dialogue.
It’s stilted, unnatural, and unlike normal conversation between people, and it will be glaringly obvious to any reader. Sure, new information is being revealed about their father, his injury, and Linda’s guilt, but it's done in an unrealistic way, adds no conflict, and enhances no tension.
If this information is important, it would be best to find somewhere else to slot it in, where it really matters, and cut back the dialogue to include information that advances the plot, creates tension, illustrates character background and development, etc.
“Which one of us is taking dad to the doctor? He’s ready now, but he thinks he's going to be late,” Marie asked.
Linda glared at her sister sharply.
“I don’t think he wants to be in any kind of vehicle with me. You’d better take him.”
“You’re being paranoid. Anyway, I always have to drop him off. Bit unfair, considering…” She trailed off, chancing a not-so-innocent look in Linda's direction.
“You’re a monster. Fine, I’ll bring him.” Linda grabbed her keys, forcing her hand tightly around them to hide the slight tremble.
“Wish us luck,” she shouted as she left, the mock humour in her voice barely clouding her apprehension.
Again, my prose won’t be winning any awards, but at least the scene has a point now. What’s wrong with their father? Why does he need a doctor? It obviously has something to do with Linda and a car – did she run her dad over!?
Questions are being asked here, whereas none come to mind with the original, ‘Bob’ example above.
The moment a writer uses dialogue in this way to convey information to the reader is the moment it becomes “As you know, Bob…” dialogue, filtering the story through the reader’s eyes rather than the protagonist’s.
If you spot what you suspect could be an info dump in your manuscript, or you need to convey some information without unleashing an avalanche of detail on the reader, you can follow these guidelines –
• Anchor the Reader in Your Story —
Instead of rattling off a list of facts one after another, create a scene around this list and warrant the inclusion of the information. Anchor a scene by helping the reader visualise what your protagonist is doing, when they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it.
Offer a setting to enable the reader to better view the scene as a scene rather than a laundry list of facts, descriptions, events, etc. but always ensure the scene has earned its place in the story; that it drives the plot forward.
If it’s been manufactured purely to convey the information and could be pulled from your manuscript without affecting the plot or story flow, it hasn’t earned its place and doesn’t belong.
• Be Specific —
Info dumping means presenting a lot of unnecessary information, so look out for scenes that are excessively long, bogged down in extraneous detail that does nothing for the reader but drag them out of your story.
Be specific and particular with the detail you choose to share. Specificity is describing the clock on the wall as 'old, masquerading as an antique, its cheap paint chipped around the edges.'
Over description would be a detailed retelling of the type of clock, the history of that particular type, the mechanics of clockwork, the effect of viewing it had on the reader, etc.
• Give the Scene Purpose —
You want to let the reader know that Alice has been betrayed by friends and family so much that she rarely lets anyone get close to her.
Instead of a list of times Alice felt the sting of betrayal, each as painful as the next, create a scene around it. Anchor the scene, show the reader where Alice is and what she’s doing there.
Give the scene a purpose; maybe Alice is packing up after work, getting ready to head home and a colleague approaches to ask if she’d like to join them for weekend drinks.
Alice, in her vulnerable state, is immediately distrustful and snaps at the colleague, tired of being put on the spot, assuming an agenda is at play;
- this way, Alice’s reaction is shown through dialogue rather than a boring list, making the reader question the reason for Alice’s outburst.
Perhaps Alice, upon reflection, decides to let herself be a little more open and trustworthy, later apologises to the colleague and takes her up on the offer for drinks, advancing her character arc. This would give the scene purpose, proving it wasn’t just thrown in out of convenience.
As I said, keep the detail to a minimum; hint at the reason for Alice’s reaction, that betrayal is nothing new to her, mentioning one time in particular, but allow yourself the opportunity to delve further into her past at a more appropriate time, weaving her history into the narrative as you move through the story.
The information you want to give, that is necessary at this point, is shown to the reader through narrative, dialogue, and action. Less of an info dump, and more of an info sprinkling, as I’ve said.
If you find yourself at a loss when reviewing your novel for info dumps, simply ask yourself why you placed that information there, in that paragraph, scene, and chapter.
Ask why you thought it earned its place there, why you thought the reader needed that information at that specific point in your novel.
If you can’t find a solid answer - a reason to justify its presence - review each instance of suspected info dumping, working to weave the pertinent bits into the story and cutting what doesn’t belong.