Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50: Info Dumps
On its most fundamental level, a novel is nothing more or less than the dissemination of information. As such, the writer who understands exactly how and where to share information is a writer who understands the most fundamental skill of storytelling.
That’s why info dumps are such a big, bad deal. They’re peanut butter in the delicate gears of your story’s machinery. They’re clunky, awkward, and they gum up the works—sometimes fatally.
We sometimes consider info dumps a noob mistake, and yet the dance of avoiding them is actually one of the most complicated challenges faced by any writer on every single page of a story.
Today, we’re going to explore four possible types of info dumps that might have wormed into your story. More than that, we’re going to look at, not just how to avoid this common writing mistake, but how to use it as an opportunity to make your writing that much stronger.
What Are Info Dumps?
First off, the basics. An info dump is exactly what it sounds like.
Imagine you, the Storyteller, are, in fact, a construction crew chief, in charge of building a complex and beautiful mansion.
Now visualize everything you know about your story—plot, characters, backstory, research, everything—as the necessary resources to build that mansion. We’re talking the planks, the bricks, the nails, the cement, all that stuff.
Now, imagine you arrive at the construction site one morning, put on your hard hat, sip your coffee, and look at a pile of bricks. Those bricks belong in the house. They’re important to the finished construction. But… you don’t know quite where they belong. So you order your guys to put all those bricks in the back of the nearest dump truck and (you guessed it) dump them unceremoniously right smack in the middle of that beautiful house you’re building.
Not so beautiful anymore, right?
That’s how info dumps work within your story. The author has this information he believes is important to the story. But instead of gracefully and skillfully sowing it into the story, he dumps this huge chunk of info into his unsuspecting reader’s lap.
4 Types of Info Dumps
Info dumping is bad storytelling. More than that, it’s lazy storytelling. And it’s more common than you might think.
Let’s take a look!
1. Backstory Info Dumps
This is arguably the most common type of info dump, simply because its main ingredient—character backstory—is present in every single genre.
Sometimes, it can be tricky figuring out what to do with backstory. Do you include it? Do you leave it out? If you do include, where do you include it? And how do you share it? Flashbacks? Dialogue? Narrative?
Too often, overwhelmed and exasperated writers just end up dumping in backstory at the earliest possible moment, even (horrors!) the opening paragraphs.
DON’T DO THIS: BACKSTORY DUMP
Andy grew up in a small town. His parents were both dead before he graduated high school. He had the opportunity to leave and make it big in the city, but he loved the country, so he stayed. He married his next-door neighbor, got a job right off, working for Sheriff Poindexter, and when Old Man Poindexter retired, he naturally took over. But then tragedy struck, his wife died, and, heart-broken, he was left to raise their son by himself.
DO THIS: BACKSTORY “WEAVE AND WAIT”
Backstory rarely belongs in your story’s beginning (readers will not care about your character’s backstory until you’ve given them a reason to do so). In fact, backstory dumps like this are rarely necessary, much less skillful, at any point in the story.
Whenever you feel tempted to tell readers all about your character’s backstory, try the “weave and wait” method instead. Weave only the most interesting and pertinent parts of your character’s backstory into the narrative, but wait until those aspects actually become necessary to advancing the plot or understanding the character.
Even when the backstory becomes necessary, don’t dump it. Use subtext, seemingly off-hand comments, and plot developments to reveal what’s going.
How to Do Backstory Right
That backstory dump above? You might have recognized it as, essentially, the backstory of Sheriff Andy Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show. In the show itself, that stuff is never dumped. We learn about his dead wife, his son, and his job through the natural progression of the story. His decision to stay in a small town and the particulars of how he became sheriff are all revealed only when they become necessary to the story.
2. Worldbuilding Info Dumps
This one is most commonly found in speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, etc. These types of stories necessarily bear a greater burden when it comes to making certain readers understand the unique “rules” of the made-up world.
If there’s no gravity on your planet, or the Prime Minister has two heads, or the protagonist is telepathic—that’s all important information that not only needs to be established, but which very likely needs to be explained.
Spec authors are usually enthusiastic about explaining the hows and whys of their world—to the point that their stories can sometimes end up more info dump than story. I remember one unfortunately memorable example in which the entire novel basically read like the student protagonist’s Magic 101 textbook.
DON’T DO THIS: WORLDBUILDING DUMP
“Sit down, Luke.”
“Aww, Ben, I wanted to play dejarik with everybody else!”
“I’m sorry, Luke, but I need you to become part of a larger world. Since we have all this spare time while we’re travelling to Alderaan, let me tell you how the Force works. Also, since you’re a backwards farm boy, I think I better bring you up to speed on galactic politics. Oh, and look at this, I just happened to have brought my holographic map of the galaxy as well. See, here’s Coruscant, and here’s Dagobah— Luke, you must concentrate!”
DO THIS: TAKE WORLDBUILDING FOR GRANTED
Whether the story you’re writing is speculative or not, the key to building your strange world is actually counter-intuitive. What you have to do is pretend to “take it for granted” that everyone—characters and readers—have a basic understanding of your world.
I say “pretend” because, of course, you can’t take it for granted at all. You simultaneously have to assume your readers know zilch. This is where the delicate dance begins. Two things to keep in mind here:
1. Your readers need to immediately identify with your protagonist and see the story through his eyes. And, of course, your protagonist—in almost all cases—will have at least a modicum of familiarity with his story world.
2. You have to assume your readers are smart enough to dive into the story and put the pieces together for themselves—as long as they’re provided the pieces.
Just as with the backstory information, you need to waituntil the moment the information becomes necessary, then weave it in. And never assume readers are interested in the magical rules, political system, or geography of your story just because. Spec readers love complex world-building, but only because it matters within the story.
How to Do Worldbuilding Right
Think about how Luke Skywalker learns about the Force: slowly, sometimes painfully, and always necessarily.
Think about how viewers learn about galactic politics: Leia’s forceful, “The Imperial Senate will never sit still for this!”
Think about how viewers learn about the story’s geography: Luke’s mournful, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, then you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”
That “spare time” line I gave Obi-Wan? Sadly, that’s from a published story–which used its “spare time” to go on and on about its magic system for entire chapters. If you’re ever tempted to follow suit, first question why your characters have spare time. More often than not, they shouldn’t, and when they do, it should be mercifully brief as it is in the “Luke against remotes” scene en route to Alderaan.
Second, remember lengthy info dumps are usually a sign the conflict has wilted away to nothing (cue Han’s entrance, stage right). And you know what they say about no conflict, no story…
3. Technical Info Dumps
Sometimes stories deal with very technical subjects, which their responsible authors have diligently researched in some depth. Maybe your Delta Force protag has to dismantle a bomb, and readers need to understand his thought process as he chooses between the red wire and the blue wire. Maybe your heroine is a star swordswoman, and the complicated forms and tactics involved in her prowess need to be explained. Or perhaps one of your settings is a famous historical site, the history of which is fascinating.
Or maybe you’re just really, really proud of yourself for your incredible discipline in becoming an overnight expert in quantum physics, and you want to prove to readers you really do know what you’re talking about.
So you info dump the technical specs.
DON’T DO THIS: TECHNICAL INFO DUMP
Mattie approached the corral to observe the horse she was considering buying. He was small, perhaps only thirteen hands. As everyone familiar with horses knew, a hand was four inches. A horse’s height was measured, not from his head, as with humans, but from his withers, which was the highest part of his back, at the base of his neck. This meant the horse was just over four feet tall, not including his head. He was black, but all four feet were white to the fetlocks (or ankles)–a marking known as “socks” (though, if the white had risen higher, to his knees, they would be “stockings”). Most people considered white feet weaker, the hooves more prone to cracking. Mattie was not most people.
DO THIS: SKIP THE TECHNICAL STUFF
Now, you may just have learned a thing or two you didn’t know about horses. But did you learn anything that advanced the plot? I think we can safely say, no. As always, that’s the litmus test for whether or not technical details should be included in your story: are they actually necessary?
More often than not, readers will not need to know how a bomb works, how to perform intricate fighting maneuvers, or the detailed history of every setting your character visits. When in doubt, leave it out.
However, there will certainly be moments in which technical information is necessary to your story. If any of your characters are in ignorance, you can take advantage of that opportunity to sow the info into the plot and conflict. Be wary, however, of including an ignorant character just for the sake of his ignorance. If he doesn’t know what’s going on, there should be a plot-sound reason for this.
When you find yourself in a situation, in which all the present characters are in the know, often the simplest way to bring the reader up to speed is to quickly sketch the necessary info within the narrative. But keep it unobtrusive and streamlined.
How to Do Technical Information Right
In Charles Portis’s True Grit, he skips all that info about a horse’s height. He doesn’t explain what technical terms such as “fetlock” mean; he leaves them to be deduced from the context. And he doesn’t bore readers with that explanation about weak white feet. He advances the scene simply and quickly by having Mattie quote and reject the old proverb,
“One white foot buy him, two white feet try him, three white feet be on the sly, four white feet pass him by.” But I do not hold with that.
4. Emotional Info Dumps
Here’s one you don’t always see in info dump discussions: emotional information. Rather than the outside-in types of information we’ve discussed above, this is what you might think of as inside-out info. This kind of dump is designed to share a character’s state of mind, his motivations, his current emotions, or his process of thinking.
The fundamental problem with this approach is that it lacks finesse. It’s on the nose. By its very nature, it destroys subtext. Worse, it’s unrealistic. How often do people in real life go around dumping their most intimate personal thoughts on others? This only happens in “extreme” moments, and those extreme moments belong only in extreme scenes. These are going to be the “big” scenes in your story, and, as such, they must be earned.
If your characters are continually explaining themselves, you lose not only realism, but also the opportunity to develop complexity, subtext, and even mystery.
DON’T DO THIS: EMOTIONAL INFO DUMP
“What’s the matter, Jane? Why were you so grumpy during my house party? How come you just want to up and leave me to go visit your horrible dying aunt?”
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry, but you’re behaving abominably, and I can’t stand it. You want to talk about horrible? Let’s talk about that piece of fluff Blanche Ingram. You’re going to marry her, I just know you are, and all because she’s beautiful and rich and I’m poor and plain. And I can’t bear it. So… I’m going.”
DO THIS: AVOID ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE
Avoiding on-the-nose dialogue is so important, I did a whole post on it. If Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre had that exchange midway through Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the dialogue would have been entirely honest–and it would have ended the story. More than that, it would have destroyed the dynamic inner conflict and interpersonal tension that makes this such a complex and powerful classic (which, of course, I explored from writer’s point of view in Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic.)
Good stories are as much about what the characters do not say as what they do. Most characters are on a journey of self-discovery in their character arcs, which means they are caught between a fundamental Lie and Truth. In short: they’re confused. For most of the story, they won’t be able to completely interpret their own feelings, much less be able (or willing) to share them with other characters.
How to Do Emotional Info Right
Emotional dumps like this are usually a sign of the authortrying to discover what’s going on inside his character. Don’t be afraid to write these dumps. But also don’t be afraid to delete them and replace them with the bob-and-weave, hide-and-seek of more realistic and less on-the-nose exchanges, such as the one Brontë actually wrote for Jane and Rochester:
“You have as good as informed me, sir, that you are going shortly to be married?”
“Yes; what then?”
“In that case, sir, Adele ought to go to school: I am sure you will perceive the necessity of it.”
“To get her out of my bride’s way, who might otherwise walk over her rather too emphatically? There’s sense in the suggestion; not a doubt of it. Adele, as you say, must go to school; and you, of course, must march straight to—the devil?”
“I hope not, sir; but I must seek another situation somewhere.”
“In course!” he exclaimed, with a twang of voice and a distortion of features equally fantastic and ludicrous. He looked at me some minutes.
By avoiding the emotional dump early on, Brontë left room for the moment, later on, when Jane’s feelings finally do explode in her famous speech: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”
Here’s the thing about info dumps: they’re easy. Writing our way around them in the most logical and seamless way often requires careful thought and execution. But doing so will not only prevent your story from floundering under the weight of a clumsy info dump, it will also force you to strengthen your narrative that much more.
Take a scroll through your manuscript. Can you find any of these four types of info dumps in your story? Mark them, and then use them as opportunities to strengthen your writing all the way around.