“What you need to know in order to write a story is not what I need to know in order to read it.” — Ralph Hale
Info Dump: “an act or practice of presenting an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information all at once.” —Dictionary.com
I often see manuscripts with a lot of info-dumping: information about a character, the world, the situation, the details, the history or anything else. Info dumps are a version of telling, not showing.
The problem with info dumps
From the reader’s perspective, an info dump is essentially the writer saying, “Hey wait! Hold on a second! You need to know ALL these deets before we can move on!” It breaks the spell of storytelling. Instead of being swept away to another world, the reader is pulled back into the real world where the writer wants them to know something. It feels like school, where we should be taking notes because there might be a test.
Here’s an example:
Pretend you’re sitting in history class, watching a war movie and you’re all caught up in the drama. When the battle scene is happening, the last thing you want is for the professor to pause the movie to deliver a lecture on the history of the planes in the scene. You also don’t want them explaining how one of the women came to be a pilot because she was told by the boys in primary school that it’s improper for girls to fly planes and decided that she would prove them wrong one day.
If you’re like me, you’re probably not interested in any of those details. You just wanna see what happens with the battle.
That’s the problem with info dumps. All forward momentum stops and there’s no narrative drive. Nothing is happening in the present moment in the present story – there is no meaning being made. Readers want to experience immersion in the story world and feel powerful emotions based on the actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters.
How to fix info dumps
First, you need to know where to look for info dumps. While they can show up anywhere within the narrative, the most common is often right at the start of your novel. So begin by checking out your first chapter.
It’s essential that your novel doesn’t start with an info dump. In those first pages, you need to grab your reader’s attention and get them emotionally invested in your protagonist and their unfolding story. If your reader gets bored, they will struggle to continue to chapter two.
Another common place to look for info dumps is within dialogue. A notable offender even comes with a tagline: “As you know, Bob…”
If you find an info dump, ask yourself the following questions:
Is this information essential for the reader to know right now? If I removed this info dump, would the reader still be able to understand the story?
How much of it is essential? What’s the bare minimum I could save of this info dump while preserving the reader’s ability to understand the story? (Note: Sometimes only a tiny portion of an info dump is truly needed for clarity and the rest is not essential.)
Is there any way this info can be shown in a scene that already exists? If not, can I create a new scene that shows the info to the reader? (Note: The important thing to remember here is that the scene must push the plot forward. Creating an unnecessary scene around an info dump is no better than keeping it.)
In general, it’s better to avoid dumping piles of information on the reader so that they stay engaged with the storytelling. Does this mean you should never “tell” the reader anything? In my opinion, no. A little bit of telling is sometimes necessary. There will be times when a reader must be informed of details, particularly for sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian stories — this is referred to as worldbuilding. The reader isn’t going to know the rules of the world without being shown or told. Of course, it’s better to “show” if you are able to. But there’s not always a straightforward way to do it.