Wednesday, November 11, 2020

An Easy Tip to Avoid Infodumps in Your Dialogue

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Just because a character says it, doesn’t mean it isn’t an infodump.

Dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing. It's fast-paced, grabs attention, and usually keeps the reader reading. When two characters are having a zippy conversation, readers feel like they’re hanging out with them and part of the story.

But those conversations can also contain the dreaded infodump-as-dialogue.

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.

Infodumps remind readers they’re reading, and can knock them right out of the story.

Dialogue belongs to the character, and when the author sneaks in and takes over their words, it makes them feel like puppets on a stage, not real people. When they start spouting information instead of conversation, it slows the pace and flattens the characters.

You’re not fooling anybody, Bob.

You’ve probably heard someone mention "As you know, Bob" conversations. They’re infodump-as-dialogue's biggest offender—a character explaining in detail what both characters already know. For example:
"As you know, 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 that destroyed all the power in the cities, we've been living in these underground bunkers."
Real people don’t talk like this, and neither should our characters. But "As you know, Bob" infodumps aren't always this obvious. For example:
"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 dialogue. 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 characters 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?"

She scoffed. "Right, like sticking answers to the bottom of my shoe is going to work twice."
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 doesn't matter to the current scene. What matters, is sticking one thing to another to hide it or pass along information.

(Here's more on The Power of Explanation Compels You: Avoiding the Dreaded Infodump) 

Here’s the one simple question to ask to avoid infodumps through dialogue:

Is it for the reader’s benefit, or the character’s benefit?

If the information is for the reader's benefit, chances are you're infodumping.

If the information is for the character's benefit (or detriment), chances are it's fine.

Let’s look at an example:

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."

This explains how the character knows how to make a bomb, and where he learned it. But who talks like this? Authors forcing words into their character’s mouths, that’s who.

Character benefit: "Um, Kevin, where'd you learn to make bombs?"

"The Navy."

This feels more natural, and lets readers know Kevin was in the Navy, and that he made bombs, which are the relevant details for the scene. If more details need sharing, the character can always ask for them. 

Don't explain the magic trick before you perform it. 

One advantage to not explaining everything to readers is that they don't know exactly what's going on or what's going to happen. If they don't know, then they watch in anticipation of what will happen next. 

If your characters explain that they’re rigging a bomb to blow open the door, then readers know and watching the characters do it becomes less interesting. 

(Here's more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

Like so many things in writing, if you have to dump information into your dialogue, your best bet is to keep it in the character's voice and use the terms and details they'd think were relevant at that moment.

It’s not always easy to convey information to readers.

Avoid infodumps through dialogue as best you can, but if you have to dump it, try to tease readers first with the information. If you make them want to know it, they won’t mind a little dumping.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Look at any scenes where information is revealed through dialogue. Does it sound like natural dialogue for the character’s benefit, or are you dumping it for the reader’s benefit?

How do you feel about infodump-as-dialogue? How do you treat it? Ignore it on a first draft or fix it as you find it?

*Originally published December 2009. Last updated November 2020.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory. 

This book will help you: 
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. More great advice! I'm polishing a wip right now and can definitely use this. Thanks!

  2. I agree - I love it when a character's version of events, or the way they tell a story, is markedly different from the previous narrative version of how the events unfolded.

  3. I agree. I surprise myself when I find things (or my crit group does) that can be cut between drafts.

  4. Great advice! I'm finding a lot of pointless dialogue in the WIP I'm revising right now, and these tips will help me.

  5. Thanks so much for this post, Janice. I'm terrible for writing pointless dialogue. Partly because my WIP is set in the same country I live in, so I am tempted to keep writing dialogue just so everyone can be devastatingly impressed by my ninja-like grasp of the vernacular.

    Pathetic, really, but I take acclaim where I can get it, until the edit :)

  6. Thanks :) (and a big chuckle to Ellen B. "Ninja-like grasp of the vernacular." Great line)

  7. Awesome, as usual, Janice! It made me think of "Heist Society" and "Uncommon Criminals" by Ally Carter. Art and jewelry theft by teens as the next generation of an "Ocean's 11" type family. The book is peppered with great conversations that hint at previous heists, but without details, making the reader (at least me) aching to know what happened.

    "No time. The tunneling alone would take days..."
    "Fallen Angel?"
    "Maybe, but...that inner courtyard is awfully small to risk someone seeing you or your parachute. And no one builds guard towers if they aren't going to fill them with guards."
    "With guns," Gabrielle added.


    "The DiMarcos might be in town."
    "Actually, they're in jail."
    "All seven of them?"
    "It was an interesting October."

    LOVED those books.
    And P.S> I loved your post title. Totally snorted with laughter. :)

  8. This is a great article. I love the "do" and "don't" examples. Infodumping is one of my pet peeves - it can ruin an otherwise wonderful book or story, in my opinion. It's good to be reminded of ways to keep from doing it myself.

  9. Sometimes, I'll do the infodumping on purpose, in order to help myself understand and remember what's going on. Then I go back and cut it later. However, I usually don't put infodumps in dialogue.

    I'm writing an interesting scene right now where a character who's been through a traumatic experience tells someone else what happened, remembering as she goes along. She doesn't tell everything she remembers, but her internal dialogue runs through the memories when she's not talking. It's like flashbacking, but in real time...I don't know how it'll work out, but I have to try it first and see, I guess.

  10. Great examples, in the post and the comments! Sometimes I can see the infodump but not how to fix it, so I feel like this gives me more tools.

  11. @Amelia - those are great examples! I love hints like that.

    Excellent tips as always!

  12. I'm dealing with some infodump situations with my WiP so this post is going to come in very handy to help me steer from the dialog dumps. Thank you so much!!

  13. I'm actually dealing with this in my manuscript right now. I'm trying to take a chapter that was reading slow (infodumping), and make it so that the character is finding things out through what she wants to know, not what I want the readers to know.

  14. Love the simplicity of your how-to-tell test. Is it for the reader's benefit or the character's? Really helpful!

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  16. I get what Amy's saying above, I've been there, and frankly I'm still there with what I'm working on now, but what happens when nearly all the beta-readers are feeling like you're not being specific enough?

    You're not showing enough, or they just don't get why something matters, yet there's no obvious way to show it in a non-tacky way, any tips, Janice?


    How can you deal with the "reader feelings gypped/unfairly lost" issue without going the opposite extreme this post talks about.

    Sometimes the path toward balance is NOT easy for the writer to see, anymore than the readers we workshop with, or is that just me?

  17. Amelia, I just finishing Uncommon Criminals this week. That's one of the things I love about heist stories too. You get a sense of so much more, yet they never actually explain anything.

    Trudging, thanks!

    Laura, oo I like scenes like that. It'll probably turn out nice. You get all kinds of info in there, and it feels real.

    Angelica, I hope it does!

    Angela, most welcome. :) Good luck on your dumps.

    SBibb, I hope this makes fix that scene easier. Let me know how it goes.

    Amy, thanks!

    Taurean, sometimes you just have to keep revising and being more specific until they get it. Other times it's not THAT scene that has the problem. It's in the groundwork leading up to it. If you look back you might a place where your hunts weren't clear enough. Fixing that fixes the other scene.

    If they still have issues, (and it's more than just one person who doesn't get it) you might have to do a little dumping and state things pretty clearly. There are times when you do need to dump. I'd suggest keeping it in the character's voice as best you can. It also helps to put that dump during a scene where the tension is high, so they balance out.

  18. Loved this! I tend to infodump a lot in my first draft, more than anything so that I don't forget those details, and then cut it down to the necessities in editing.

  19. In my revision, I keep asking myself if this is my character's voice. Would she really say it this way? Does it fit for the time period?

    I have a scene where my MC is carefully searching for information from another character. She needs to know the information, so it is character need.

    I also ask myself if the other character would actually answer the questions. If the answer is no - then it needs cut.

  20. I've been trying to fix an info dump in my manuscript for a week ... this is very helpful. Thanks, you've given me a lot to think about.

  21. Gemma, sounds good. Anything goes in a first draft :)

    Glacier, good questions to ask. They're Post-It Note on the monitor worthy :)

    Emily, hope it helps you you!

  22. Thanks for this tip about info dumps in dialogue. I've been told by a friend more less I need to stop bringing up trauma/ backstory the main character faced/ his actions, etc in the dialogue. Some of it is important (the characters with direct conflict to the main) but I'll see what I can snip away or cut.

    1. You might try thinking how someone with that trauma would act, then showing the outward signs of it. After you get readers curious, you can talk about it and they'll want to know that history.

  23. These are great tips. I just got through writing a scene where one character reveals a lot of info that the other character doesn't know but after writing it, it really felt like an info dump to me. I now have some ideas how how to revise that. So glad I read this post!

    1. Oh good! Hope it revised nicely for you :)

  24. Really been out of the loop for a while here on the writing scene, trying to hone my skill again. But what is a WIP?

  25. I just finished a series that tended to have a lot of info dump to try to catch up on what had happened in previous books. It was irritating as one who was already in the know. I can see where I'm going to have to really examine my dialogs in my rewrite to be sure I haven't fallen into this.

    1. With a series, it's even trickier, because we do need to leave enough reminders for those who haven't read the previous book in a awhile, but not be too dumpy for those who are able to read the books one right after the other.

      It's helpful to have beta readers who have never read the previous books read the latest and have them point out where they felt lost.

  26. Very true, one key is to break the information down to trim out what the reader doesn't need, and arrange the rest the way the characters would say it.

    One golden rule for spicing up exposition is to let characters *argue* over it. So instead of one stream of information, it comes from two competing parts -- plus we get to see their views clash and maybe some character demonstration about who believes what.

    1. Great tip, and very useful. Just be wary of making the argument itself be infodumps.

  27. She scoffed. "Right, like sticking answers to the bottom of my shoe is going to work twice."

    Um, this novice feels like the solution is still info-dump.

    1. The difference is that this sounds like something the character might actually say in a conversation, while the other example was not. It's still conveying information, just in a more natural way that doesn't stop the story to explain something.

  28. Thanks, Janice, live your site!