The Perils of Info Dumps and How to Avoid Them
Have you ever read a book and thought, Wow, that's a lot of information in one spot! Well, you may have been the victim of what we in the book industry like to call an info dump.
Information dumps can be as obvious as an entire paragraph describing someone's look or backstory; they can also be as subtle as a single line in dialogue. At its core, an information dump is when a writer puts it all out there, so to speak. All the information that's in their head has to go onto the paper somehow—or so they think.
But sometimes it's not that simple. Would you rather, as a reader, have every detail dictated to you, or is it more interesting to create a mental snapshot along the way as specifics are revealed? Sometimes it’s tedious to be spoon-fed.
How’s this for an info dump example?
Drew walks into a room. We've never met Drew before, and he is important to the person who is already in the room. An info dump would read something like this:
Drew walked into the room. Six foot two and lanky in build, he was wearing khaki pants and a blue dress shirt. His Italian loafers had a high gloss to them that could only be obtained by starting with Italian loafers in the first place. His hair, a deep chocolate brown, curled in tiny waves over his ears. His deep blue eyes peered over the tops of his silver-rimmed glasses, which were perched at the end of his nose as per his usual style.
Anna looked at him and remembered the first time they had met, on a day almost exactly opposite of today. It had been raining, she was trying to find her way to class, and another student had bumped into her, knocking her books out of her hand and onto the wet ground. Drew was there and they had bumped heads when they both bent down at the same time to pick up the books. Through the auburn strands of her own hair that were sticking to her heart-shaped face, she had noticed his full lips and his kind eyes instantly, along with the fact that he was carrying many of the same books she was. Or had been, anyway, before they had been dropped so unceremoniously to the ground. Their friendship was born that day out of clumsiness and laughter.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call an info dump.
How to Determine the Information Your Readers Really Need
What's happening in this scene?
I almost can’t remember because we’ve diverted from it for so many words. As the reader, I’ll have to look back a paragraph or so just to remember where we were in the story.
Ah, yes, there it is. Drew walked in the door. That’s it. That’s all that happened so far.
Did we need to know in this scene how they met? Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. What we need to know is that Drew walked in and Anna was glad to see him for whatever reason. If the way they met is important, it can come into play naturally in a different part of the story. She can be reminiscing because of something else that triggered the memory, or a friend can ask how they met, or any number of things. But the moment Drew walks into the room is not the time to reveal the entire backstory.
It is also not the time to describe Drew from head to toe. There is nothing that disrupts the flow of a story more effectively than describing a character for no purpose other than that you want the reader to know what they look like. Do we really need to know that Drew is exactly six foot two? Probably not, unless it has something to do with the plot where his height is a factor in clearing him of criminal charges because the bank robber clocked in at five foot seven.
Do we need to know what he's wearing? Again, probably not, unless he is dressed inappropriately for the weather and that has something to do with the immediate scene, or if he only has one set of clothing. Again, it has to be part of the plot, and he's always recognizable by his khakis and blue dress shirt. If Anna is observing him and notes how attractive he happens to look in a dress shirt as opposed to his typical scruffy T-shirt, then maybe that's a good reason to include his clothing in a description. My sons always wear black—we’re a family of musicians, so black is actually the clothing color of choice for most of us—and our younger son joked once about how he was someday going to wear a pastel-colored shirt and tuck his long hair under a baseball cap to see if anyone would recognize him.
Another Common Method of Info Dumping
One of the most common types of info dump is when a character starts off by saying to another character, “Well, as you know . . .” If the character knows, then there is no purpose in telling the character that particular tidbit, solely for the reader’s benefit.
This is something worth examining. When the information benefits a character, such as “Timmy fell down the well!” then that is certainly not an info dump. But when two characters are talking at the kitchen table, for example, and Character A says, “Well, as you know, Timmy fell in the well and you took three days to find him because you couldn't understand what your dog was barking about,” then you're looking at an info dump.
Character B already knows that it took him three days to rescue poor Timmy because he had never learned to understand dog language. You can use this for effect without it being an info dump, like this:
“I can’t believe it took you three full days to get Timmy out of the well!” She glared at him over her coffee cup.
He rolled his eyes. “Sorry if I never took Barking As a Second Language lessons. And it’s not like Timmy is a real person. That dumb chew toy could have stayed lost in the well, and I would never have missed it.”
She knew he was right, but she felt that someone should stick up for the poor dog. “But Spot could tell you weren’t looking very hard. And it was his favorite. No wonder he wouldn’t stop barking at you.”
Here’s a helpful guideline for determining whether you’ve written an info dump or not:
If the information is for the benefit of a character, it's probably solid. If the information is there for the benefit of the reader only, it's probably an info dump.
We can look at specifics that follow this “Is It an Info Dump?” guideline:
If we’ve been told a character’s backstory, did we need to learn it so a previous scene makes sense, or as a “big reveal”—or does its removal have no impact on what is currently happening?
When a character has been introduced, is there anything still left to learn about their physcial description and personality as the story progresses?
Are we repeatedly being told what each character is wearing when the scene changes, and if so, is it relevant to that scene?
If you imagine you’re Character B, would you be rolling your eyes and saying, “I know! Why are you telling me what we both already know?” (Unless, of course, you’re in a detective novel, in which case reviewing What We Know is perfectly fine and even required.)
Could you build a diorama of any room in a character’s house, and is that house’s layout essential to the plot?
I think the most difficult part about avoiding the info dump is that as writers, you have a lot going on inside your head. But the reader doesn't need to know everything you know. I read something recently that advised writing up your character sketches, figuring out every detail about them, their likes and dislikes, whether they have a cute little mole on one butt cheek or a lisp that they've always been self-conscious about. Learn them inside and out, top to bottom.
And then don't tell your readers much more than 1% of that. They simply don't need to know.
What If I Just HAVE to Tell Someone?
If you’re a writer who is also a blogger, you can flush out those details by giving your readers a sneak peek into someone's quirks or physical attributes without having to write all of that into the story. Look at all the “extras” J.K. Rowling doled out, bit by bit, long after the Harry Potter series was completed.
Creating a character or even an entire world is a great accomplishment. And you are allowed to love the rich descriptions of your characters, or the house they live in, or their car, or whatever you're describing in all its minor detail, down to the grain of wood on their dining room table. However, if all those things don't have anything to do with furthering your story, then you can love them all you want; nobody is stopping you.
But your reader doesn't need to know those things to enjoy the story as written, so keep the rest of it to yourself. Let us fill in the blanks. It’s why we love to read, after all.