One thing I seem to enjoy harping on in my blog posts is info-dumps. I tend to assume that the reader knows what they are, so I can get to the point I’m actually trying to make.
I realize, however, that while most writers have HEARD of info-dumps, many have vague ideas of what they are. We can all agree we need to avoid them, but what are they? It’s hard to avoid something when you don’t really know what it is.
What are info-dumps?
How do we avoid them?
The infamous info-dump
In short, an info-dump is giving information that isn’t needed precisely in that moment.
To elaborate, any information you give your reader needs to be relevant. It needs to be important within the next five pages. When you describe something, when you give a bit of backstory, when you describe a plan or reveal a plot twist, it has to be relevant in that moment.
Contrary to popular belief, info-dumps don’t have to be long. An info-dump can be two pages long, but it can also be half a sentence. The second you start giving information that the reader doesn’t want or need, you’re info-dumping.
Now, you may be wondering how this applies to foreshadowing. After all, foreshadowing often involves describing something or someone or revealing a hint of a plot twist pages and pages before it begins. Sometimes, foreshadowing in the very first page doesn’t come to fruition until the last page.
Foreshadowing is not info-dumping because it’s never more than a sentence. Well done foreshadowing is so subtle that it can be missed if you’re not paying attention. Info-dumps are blatant. Foreshadowing drops a feather, an info-dump drops a bomb.
Generally speaking, there are four types of info-dumps. I’m going to outline them, and then provide potential solutions and tips for avoiding them.
Character dumps are most common in stories that are fueled by events in character’s backstories. These info-dumps are lengthy revelations regarding some aspect of one character or another. Whether it’s showing the motivation of the villain or the tragic past of the Love Interest, it’s more than a sentence of backstory revealed at any given time.
Why are these bad? Because they’re supposed to make us feel empathy, but they don’t. The thing about info-dumps… they’re telling. They don’t show us. When it’s a character dump, it’s not even in real time. You’re telling us about something that already happen or has already been decided. That’s not interesting, and it’s certainly not shown.
But… but… we need to hear about that backstory! If we don’t know about it, the story doesn’t work!
Well then, there’s a simple solution: don’t tell us about it until the very last second, and don’t tell all of it. Readers are smart. If you tell me one thing (AKA one sentence) and show me current actions, I will infer more than you could ever tell me in two pages. You should me current emotions, current actions, and give me one hint at the motivation or past, then you create a far better picture than any info-dump ever could.
Description Dumps are the next most common backstory, in my opinion, and harder to pick out. These do, however, create small pockets of purple prose. You go into description of a person or object for more than a few sentences, and use the more repetitive set of adjectives you can. For an example of this, see the entire chapter in The Scarlet Letter dedicated to describing one character. Literally nothing happens in the chapter except for repeated descriptions of this little girl in various and sundry settings.
This one is mostly found in stories written by storytellers, by the “plotters”, the people who outline and develop and worldbuild as much as they write the actual story. I’m guilty of this. Storytellers become so focused on the place and people they’ve developed for months that they forget that the reader… doesn’t care that much. We care enough to want to have a few details to work around, but we also want to do some of the work ourselves.
The solution for this one is rather simple: give us three important details. Three. Engage three of our senses with three important details. There are a few times where you may have to give five details, because what you’re describing is complex or too large to be summed up in three, but it’s a good general rule. If you give us three different sensory descriptions, it will cement the idea of the thing in our head. In addition, you leave enough space for the reader to insert their own ideas and imagination. You provide the dots, we’ll connect them. Deal? Deal.
Plot dumps are pauses in the story. They’re usually found in the middle chapters, where there’s a lull in the conflict and the main character is resting or meeting someone new. It’s a time when the author looks back at what they’ve written and, for some reason, thinks that now is a good time to bring the readers and characters up to speed. These info-dumps are explanations of what’s already happened or is about to. You’ll find these in dialogue, mostly, but also in narrative thoughts. Usually, it’s the author using a new character as an excuse to sum up what’s happened so far. Sure, your novel may be complex, but let’s be honest… it’s not that complex. Your readers are smart. Let me repeat that: your readers are SMART. We can piece your plot together, regardless of how complex you think it is.
I can say this as strongly as I am because I’ve been guilty of this many times. I’ve had beta readers from my older manuscripts tell me that I don’t need to explain something as much as I do, because they’d already figured it out.
Learn from my mistakes: don’t explain what’s already happened, even to new characters.
Another plot dump is found in the cliché of the prophecy. It seems that the character the prophecy is about never knows about it until the book’s already underway, and so the author has to fit it in somewhere.
Solutions to plot dumps vary, but I’m going to give you a general tip: don’t tell it to us. If your reader doesn’t piece it together at that moment, then it will come across as a form of suspense, until we do piece it together.
I keep this one for last because I’m most guilty of it and I find it in my writing all the time. This one is the world dump. You’ll find these most often in fantasy novels, but also in science fiction and some historical fiction. Basically, a world dump is when the author shows off their worldbuilding skills. It’s found in those paragraphs of details about the world that… aren’t really necessary. They do have a natural link to some other description or detail that matters, but they’re tangents. Bunny trails. Unnecessary. I’m so guilty of this it’s not even funny.
See, worldbuilding is fantastic. It’s engaging to do, and it can create the most vibrant tales you’ll ever see. But it can also distract you. If you’re writing a scene, you may find yourself spawning a pair of paragraphs off a detail that reminded you of a piece of worldbuilding.
Solution? Fix it in the second draft. These little nuggets can be useful to you, to help place your story in time and place. They’re still bad, from a story and prose aspect, but you can still use them for yourself. In short, you can write these, so long as they don’t stick around. Collect these info-dumps and store them elsewhere, in case you ever wonder about that element of worldbuilding.
Just remember: your reader doesn’t care about it unless it’s relevant. Good worldbuilding snippets are only a sentence or two long and are never explicit. Grow your world in the way people interact with each other and their environment, not be switching to textbook mode.