Dialog is one of my favorite parts of writing, and it's great when two characters are having that zippy conversation. It's fast-paced, grabs attention, and usually keeps the reader reading. But those conversations can also contain the dreaded infodump-as-dialog.
Infodumping (throwing in a lot of "need-to-know" information at one time) doesn't just happen to prose. Characters can have conversations they'd never have, talking about things they'd never talk about.
If the information is for the reader's benefit, chances are you're dumping.
If the information is for the character's benefit (or detriment), chances are it's fine.
Reader benefit: "I'll rig up a small explosive device to blow open the door. That's the way we did it when I was deployed in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL."
Character benefit: "Um, Kevin, where'd you learn to make bombs?"
The reader benefit example tells the reader a lot of details this guy probably wouldn't reveal let alone speak that way in that situation. The character benefit example conveys what's important. He learned to make bombs because he's ex-military.
One advantage to not explaining everything to the reader is that they don't know exactly what's going on or what's going to happen. If you tell them you're rigging a bomb to blow open the door, then they know and watching the characters do it becomes less interesting. If they don't know, then they watch in anticipation of what will happen next. Don't explain the magic trick before you perform it.
The "As you know, Bob" Conversations
Infodump-as-dialog's biggest offender is a character explaining in detail what both characters already know.
"As you, Bob, since that day back in January '02, when those aliens came from their hidden star cluster in Omega 4 and dropped those pulse bombs on us and destroyed all the power in the cities, we've been living here underground."But "As you know, Bob" infodumps aren't always this obvious.
"What if we use the same trick you did for Ms. Klein's math final freshman year? Remember? Where you wrote the answers on a sheet of paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe and held it up for everyone in the room to see?"At first glance this seems like a perfectly normal bit of dialog. But look closer. Would the speaker really need to remind the other person what they did in such specific detail? A more natural conversation would probably go like this:
"What if we try that trick we used on Ms. Klein?"Both sides know the history and understand the reference. However, the reader doesn't, so while this doesn't dump any info, it also doesn't convey enough to carry the scene either.
To find the balance, look for ways to convey the information naturally, while at the same time, giving the reader the important details.
"What if we try the trick we used on Ms. Klein?"It doesn't get in every single detail, but odds are the important aspect of that infodump was what they did, not the specifics surrounding it. In the past, they used this tactic. The fact that it was freshman year to cheat on a math test probably doesn't matter to the current scene. What probably matters, is sticking one thing to another to hide it or pass along information.
She scoffed. "Right, like sticking answers to the bottom of my shoe is going work twice."
Catch Up Dialog
Characters catching each other up on what happened is another common spot for infodump-as-dialog, and one that can't always be avoided. One character finds out critical information the other characters need to know, but not having them tell the others would feel odd, and readers might wonder how the other person learned about it.
You might try adding more information or give the reader something new so it doesn't feel so repetitive. Or use slightly different language so you're not repeating what you just showed in another scene. Maybe the speaker remembers something new, or they gloss over aspects for a personal reason. Or my favorite trick--the summary.
"You're not going to believe this." I told them what I'd discovered. "We have to get him out of there, fast."Or, if you want to remind the reader of the key elements or reiterate the stakes...
"Miguel really is in trouble." She told them what she'd seen: Miguel tied up, blood soaking his shirt. The men with automatic weapons. The drooling, snarling dogs the size of ponies. "We have to get him out of there, fast."Like so many things in writing, if you have to dump information into your dialog, your best bet is to keep it in the character's voice and relay it how they'd relay it. Use the terms and details they'd think were relevant at that moment.
How do you feel about infodump-as-dialog? How do you treat it? Ignore it on a first draft or fix it as you find it?