The Info Dump

A common mistake made by many is the info dump. Sometimes it is caused by lazy writing, sometimes by writer’s block (perhaps the writer is struggling to come up with an alternative way to convey the information?). Sometimes the writer doesn’t know what an info dump is at all.

What is an ‘info dump’?

The Info Dump is a way of telling the reader some information rather than showing it. An info dump is a chunk of information that is 'dumped' into the reader’s lap. They can be found in both narration and dialogue. The tendency can be to give overly long descriptions and explanations of backstory without intertwining it with plot to keep the story moving forward.

Why don’t we like info dumps?

Let’s make a pros and cons list.

PROS

- In one chunk of text (or speech), the reader is told all the history that it is necessary for them to know to understand the coming plot and the current situation in the story. Bish bash bosh.

CONS

- This chunk of text doesn’t develop any characters or plot.

- Info dumps can stretch for paragraphs, pages, or even full chapters.

- During the info dump nothing is happening in the scene.

- Characters tend to tell each other things they already know so that the reader can also know them: ‘“As you know, Bob, *tells life story*”’.

- They are really boring. The information may be fascinating, but they will always be really boring.

Example:

Taken from Jeffery Deaver’s book, The Twelfth Card (a detective novel): Here, Deaver is discussing forensics...in the middle of his narrative.

‘The initial - and usually easiest - job is to identify a substance (find that a brown stain, for instance, is blood and whether it's human or animal, or that a piece of blood is a bullet fragment). The second task is to classify that sample, that is, put it in a subcategory like determining that the blood is O positive... etc.'

 

... and so it goes on. Deaver spends a few more paragraphs lecturing the reader on forensics.

A famous info dumper is JRR Tolkien. The first half of The Fellowship of the Ring gives lengthy history lessons about the world it is in and the characters we’re looking at.

Does this make Tolkien a terrible writer? No. He is still considered one of the best authors out there, but it does give his book a bad name. When I read Lord of the Rings, it took me longer to read the first half of Fellowship than it took to read the other two books, simply because of the excess dumping of info.

Many readers out there have given up on Lord of the Rings because of that famous info dump.

An example I’ve used before (this is one of my own creation):

 

A) Jared was found dead and every bit of evidence pointed towards Vicky.

 

B) “What happened to Jared? Where is he?”

“I killed him,” Vicky said with a deadpan face then smiled, a look of malice in her eyes.

 

Ask yourself:

Which sentence is the info dump?

Which sentence is more interesting?

Now, the problem isn't that authors give too much or too little information to their readers. Rather, the problem is, that too many authors dump their information poorly.

If you really need to fill your reader in on some history -

 

How do we give information without it being an info dump?

 

  1. Integrate the information into your narrative as much as possible. Not all information needs to be given to the reader at one time.

  2. Start with the basics and then introduce new information along the way.

  3. Make your information tell a story.

  4. Tell it through dialogue while also developing character personalities and relationships.

  5. Retell the information through the character’s voice.

Let’s go back to Jared:

 

A) Jared grew up in a small village in the South of England with his Aunt.

 

B) “Tell me something about yourself, Jared,” Vicky said, fluttering her eyelashes.

“What do you want to know?” he replied.

“I don’t know...brother and sisters? Where you grew up…”

Okay…” he paused to think. “I grew up a lonely child in the South...in the middle of nowhere, with my crazy aunt,” he laughed, despite himself.

 

In one fell swoop, we’ve developed the relationships and characteristics of these characters, while also providing information.

A lot of writers will now tell you to go and read your favourite novels and work out how they avoided the info dump.

 

That’s isn’t my advice.

 

Instead, go and read a lot of poorly executed info dumps; it will train your brain to recognise your own and will help you see how the telling of information could have been done more smoothly.

A small selection of info dumps to read:

 

Jeffery Deaver, The Twelfth Card

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Terry Brooks, The Shannara Chronicles, Book 1, (the first few chapters will do)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (page 1-5)

About a Boy, by Nick Hornby (page 3)