Info dumps. They plague the writing community, and nobody is immune. Amateurs and professionals alike can find themselves with a bit too much information to give, and when that happens the test of a talented writer is whether or not they can get that info across without leaving it in a messy pile at the reader’s feet. And that’s why I’m here! To teach you the best practices for avoiding the info dump, or for polishing up your info dump when you find there’s no way to avoid it altogether.
But before we get into today’s topic, here’s an obligatory reminder that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.
In my earliest writing years, info dumps were my bread and butter. Why aim for subtlety when you can just get the world building and characterization out of the way right at the beginning and spend the rest of the novel writing the fun stuff? And I know of a lot of writers, be they aspiring or published, who think the same way. They stuff all of this really important information in the front of their novel, many times as a prologue, and never look back. They may even think that their world building and characterization is so unique and interesting that a reader will want to kick off their reading experience by learning all there is to know about this world the author has built or the characters they’ve created. The thing is, this isn’t usually the case. Kick off a novel with an info dump, and the reader will either completely skip it altogether (therefore missing out on some pretty important information that they’ll need to know if they hope to understand what the heck is going on in the novel) or they’ll just decide to read a different book.
The way I realized this lesson was after starting about seven or eight different novels and never making it past the info dump. It suddenly dawned on me that if I was getting bored writing these info dumps, the reader would inevitably get bored of reading them. After that, I found ways to incorporate the information I was dumping in the beginning of my novel into the actual meat of the story, and that made all the difference. So, my first tip to avoid writing info dumps is to refrain from telling the reader everything they may need to know in one large clump at the beginning. Evenly distribute the info throughout the novel, introducing it only when it becomes pertinent to the story.
This isn’t the only type of info dump out there, though. By this, I mean they don’t always come at the beginning. And in these cases, sometimes they’re avoidable, and other times they aren’t. This can be frustrating, because either way, correcting it is never as simple as if the info dump occurred at the beginning of the novel. In these cases, you really have to assess if the information needs to be in the place you’ve put it or not. Like I said, information should only be introduced when it’s actually pertinent to the story. So if your character is learning about a fantasy world you’ve created but they don’t need to understand the magic system just yet, don’t teach them about it until they absolutely have to have that information. Or, if your character is one who already knows everything about the world, avoid having them explain it all to the reader at once. Again, have them only explain something once it becomes pertinent. The reader will survive if they don’t know everything about the world or characters right away, and will probably really enjoy learning more about these things little by little instead of having them shoved in their face.
But what do you do when you have a lot of info to give, and there’s no way you can put it off any longer? This was something I ran into a couple of times in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy. I did my best to sprinkle the world building throughout the book, but sometimes there were moments where I just had to spit out a bunch of it all at once. Dread filled me when I realized there was no way around it, and I thought that my novel was doomed to be boring and hated by all who read it. Then, I stood up straight, rolled my shoulders back, and decided that, no, I was going to make these info dumps interesting, damnit! So that was what I did, and though they by far weren’t the most exciting moments in the story, my beta readers assured me that they worked and didn’t slow the story down too much. And, really, that’s all you can hope for in those instances.
So how did I do it? Well, I used a couple of tactics: Dialogue and Textbooks. I’ll preface this by saying that these methods work best with information that the main character doesn’t know. If your main character does have inside knowledge that the reader doesn’t, then you probably won’t want to use these methods, because they can sound cheesy. “As you know” dialogue is one of the biggest no-nos when it comes to info dumping. It makes the reader wonder why these characters are even discussing this information if all of them already know what’s going on. The only instance this would really work is if another character doesn’t have this inside knowledge, and you have your main character explain it all to them (and, in turn, the audience). But, if this isn’t an option, then you’d be better off having your main character and/or narrator explain the information to your reader directly through inner monologue. If you decide to do this, though, try to give your main character and/or narrator a unique and interesting voice that could make reading all of this information fun for the reader.
If your main character doesn’t know any of the information, through, then dialogue and textbooks (or newspaper articles, news shows, etc.) might be right for you. If you decide to use dialogue, don’t just make one character yammer on and on endlessly at your main character. Have the two–or more–characters interact with each other. Have your main character ask questions. Have some back and forth, some teasing or misunderstanding. Add some humor. Do something, anything, to make the information just a little bit easier for your reader to swallow. If they see giant blocks of text with no end in sight, they’ll dread what’s coming next instead of eagerly pushing on to learn more. This goes for textbooks and the other forms of info dumping I mentioned, too. I mean, readers will put up with a lot from authors, but at some point they’re bound to break, and horribly boring info dumps could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Also, combining the textbook and dialogue methods was the best thing I could have done for my novel. I would get a lot of information down in a couple of short paragraphs in textbook form, and then I would have my main character, Cas, ask his friends or teacher about what he’d read, gathering more information and getting their differently-biased views on the topic. This way, the readers got the information they needed, and an element of intrigue was added by giving my characters opinions on the different topics. If there were moments where I could only use dialogue, I also made sure to give the characters obvious opinions on whatever they were teaching Cas about, and sometimes I even made it where the characters didn’t know they were teaching Cas. Again, it’s all about adding those extra elements in order to give your reader a reason to care about what they’re learning, other than the fact that it’s important world building or characterization.
Info dumps are, frankly, a pain in the ass. They can give you major anxiety when you have to get rid of them or, even worse, can’t get rid of them. But don’t fret. As long as you take the time to clean them up, they won’t ruin your novel. In fact, your readers may not even recognize them as info dumps, if you’re skilled enough at hiding them. So keep your chin up, and best of luck!