Monday, July 26, 2021

The Danger of Infodumps (And How to Avoid Them)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Infodumps aren’t the end of the world for a novel—as long as you keep these things in mind.

One of my critique groups has two cozy mystery writers in it. While I don’t write cozies, I am writing a private detective series, which is why I’m in this group. One surprising thing I’ve learned, is that cozy readers love infodumps.

They like learning about something new. They want their amateur sleuth to give them mini-lectures on the dangers of radon gas or how a proper English breakfast is made.

This makes it a little hard to critique those pages, since all my instincts are screaming “Danger! Danger! Infodumps ahead!” In most genres, all that extra information is bad.

However, it is a great reminder that not all infodumps are created equal. They do have their uses, and when done well, a little infodumping actually makes the story clearer (and sometimes more interesting).
Shocked? Don't be.

Like all writing tools, it's not the tool itself that causes trouble, but how you use it.

If you’re dumping info as if you just cut and pasted a chunk of text from Wikipedia, the information isn’t the problem, but how you’re using it. It’s shy. It’s not happy about being thrust into the spotlight by itself. It wants to hide in the background and be appreciated and understood without drawing attention.

But if you’re slipping in bits and pieces of information, making it part of the character’s natural thoughts or speech, and ensuring it’s information readers want to know at that moment (not ought to know—that’s almost never the case), then an infodump becomes part of the story.

Why Infodumps Are “Bad”

Sharing information in the story isn’t inherently bad, but a problematic infodumps can kill the tension and hurt the overall novel. Here’s why:

They stop the story cold: The narrative is moving along nicely when suddenly—bam! Readers get a lecture they never asked for, interrupting whatever was going on.

They encourage readers to skim: There’s no action in an infodump. Unless readers want to know that information, there’s a good chance they’ll skim until something interesting happens—they often jump to the next line of dialogue.

They telegraph important details: The worst infodumps explain details that make it obvious what’s going to happen. If the author felt it necessary to stop the story to say this, it must mean something, right?

They kill the tension and steal the mystery: Quite often, not knowing the full details of a character, world, or situation is a hook that’s keeping readers interested and reading. When you spell it all out for them, they have no reason to finish the book.

(Here’s more with 4 Reasons Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

What to Do About an Infodump

Essentially, an infodump in a first draft is your subconscious saying “this is important, but I’m not sure what to do with it.” On draft two, it’s up to you to make that dump invisible to readers (or at least interesting).

Deleting it might seem like the answer, but odds are that info is there for a reason. It’s either something readers needed to read, or more often, something you needed to write. Maybe you’re still working out how something in the story or world works. Maybe you aren’t sure where the best spot is to share those critical details and are testing it in different spots.

Infodumps can take on many forms, which is why they’re sometimes hard spot. There's the obvious dump that suddenly launches into a lecture and reads like author notes. There’s the history lesson that pauses the story to tell readers why that town is the way it is, or how that law came to be. There are the subtle dumps that slip in as dialogue or internalization, but don’t quite flow naturally with the conversation, and the not-so-subtle dumps of "As you know, Bob" dialogue.

The trick to infodumps is to blend them into the narrative as if they belong there.

(Here’s more with 6 Places Infodumps Like to Hide in Your Novel)

Here are 4 things to remember when using an infodump:

1. Keep it in the point-of-view-character’s voice.

You can get away with pretty much anything if the point-of-view-character says it in their voice. Have the character give their opinion about it as it relates to the scene. Judgmental characters are incredibly useful for sharing necessary information to readers.

2. Trigger it naturally by what's going on in the scene.

Infodumps feel dumped when they drop in out of the blue. A random lecture on slugs will stop the story and make readers wonder why such information is there. But if the protagonist is unexpectedly facing a giant radioactive slug, that’s a great time to share information about slugs and what to do about them as the character deals with this problem. Less dramatic, but more common, is a character thinking about a past trauma when that trauma directly affects a choice they need to make. A little infodumping there feels natural.

3. Keep it short.

Long infodumps are a double whammy of danger. They drag the pace and cause readers to skim. Don’t overwhelm readers with information. Drop in small bits when necessary, and keep the story moving.

4. Do more than just dump information.

Any time you can craft text that does more than one thing, it’s a win. It layers the story and adds depth. Share some history as it directly affects what a character is facing, and let them mull over a conflict as they decide what to do about it. Shock readers by revealing a secret they never saw coming—while mixing in a few facts.

(Here’s more with Tips on Writing "The Boring Stuff" Readers Tend to Skip)

Example time!

Let's look at a paragraph (and infodump) from my novel, The Shifter. It’s a full paragraph of information that's important for readers to understand the story and the world, but it's not something that could easily come out in casual conversation. It’s a classic infodump, but it works because it's not me dumping info on readers—it's the protagonist sharing information in context of the story.
Both paled when I mentioned the Luminary. We got a new one every year, like some rite of passage the Duke’s Healers had to go through to prove their worth. The new Luminary was Baseeri of course, and like all Baseeri who held positions that should have been held by Gevegians, no one liked him. He’d only been here a few months, but already everyone feared him. He ran the League without compassion, and if you crossed him, you didn’t stand a chance at getting healed if you needed it. You or your family.
All of this information follows the four elements above. It’s in Nya's voice, it’s triggered by the scene, it’s fairly short, and it does some world building, as well as foreshadows the conflict.

Let’s dig in and analyze what I did and why:
Both paled when I mentioned the Luminary.
This is the first time the Luminary is mentioned in the novel, and it's important to know he's a bad guy. The reaction "both paled" shows that the Luminary is a scary dude, and I wanted readers to see that right away. It also helps to hook them and make them curious who this guy is, so they're willing to listen to a little infodumping in the rest of the paragraph. Why is he scary?
We got a new one every year, like some rite of passage the Duke’s Healers had to go through to prove their worth.
The Luminary is new, and Nya doesn't think too highly of the constant turn over. "Like some rite of passage..." hopefully comes across as Nya disapproving of both the Duke and the Luminary.
The new Luminary was Baseeri of course, and like all Baseeri who held positions that should have been held by Gevegians, no one liked him.
Nya again has strong options on what jobs are held by whom, showing that other people are in control of her city and she's not happy about it. Nor is anyone else. It also helps show that the people of this city are not the ones in control of it.
He’d only been here a few months, but already everyone feared him.
Another reinforcement that he's a bad guy, which should pique curiosity, because people who heal aren't usually feared. This guy is supposed to help, not hurt.
He ran the League without compassion, and if you crossed him, you didn’t stand a chance at getting healed if you needed it. You or your family.
This shows the risk people face, and gives a hint that the Luminary is a selfish person best to be avoided. It also reinforces the idea that healers are not what you might expect. And it foreshadows that Nya or her family might be in this situation.

There's a lot of information here, but hopefully it doesn't feel like a huge infodump, but a natural extension of the narrative. It's triggered by Nya running into boys from the Healers' League, which is the organization the Luminary runs. This is her reaction to that interaction, and I wanted it to sound like Nya getting on her soapbox and ranting about something she feels is unfair in her world and doesn't like one bit.

Had she thought all this out of the blue, it would have felt out of place. There'd be no reason for her to go on a rant about the Luminary. But if she sees something that logically makes her think about it, it flows naturally with the action in the scene.

For fun, let’s dump all over this paragraph and see the difference:
Both paled when I mentioned the Luminary, the leader of the Healers’ League in Geveg. The Duke assigned a new one every year, and this one had arrived a few months ago. They were always Baseeri, since the Duke never gave any positions of power to the people he’d conquered. Nobody liked the new Luminary, but everyone feared him. He ran the League without compassion, and if you crossed him, he refused healing to you and your family when you need it.
Reads very differently, doesn’t it? There’s no sense of Nya here, and it’s just…bland.

Infodumps aren’t inherently bad. They’re just frequently misused.

An infodump is a type of exposition, and exposition is part of a strong narrative—but only when it reads as integral to the story, not like an extended footnote in the middle of the page. Think about why you’re suddenly dumping info, and what your goal is for the information. If it’s the literary equivalent of pulling the reader aside to “let them know something important,” odds are you’re dumping in the bad way. Take a moment and revise so it flows with the scene, with the character, and fits the situation.

Sometimes we do need to dump a little info on our readers. If we do it well, they don't even notice.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine a scene for infodumps. Is there any information that would read stronger if you followed the four key points above?

How much do you infodump? Do you dump more in a first draft?

*Originally published July 2010. Last updated July 2021.

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. Posting for someone whose work network wouldn't let him comment (he emailed me)

    This reminds me of a scene of Asimov's in "Forward the Foundation". Dors and Hari are talking about the nessecity for minimalism, and she is making sure that she can articulate the reasons for minimalism in psychohistory. It could have been a straight infodump, but it works so well because it's interspersed with the natural interruptions and impatience with the lack of precision in Dors' explanation to Hari - of things that he understands the specifics as it relates to psychohistory better than she does.

  2. Really good post! Love the example and the way you've shown your thought process in making the voice come through the information.

    Thanks for sharing this, and I hope you don't mind if we include it in our Friday round-up of best articles for writers.


  3. On a filmic tangent, I've never minded narrator voice-overs in film, though I've read that they're horribly unfashionable. But last weekend I saw the most tedious and hamfisted bit of movie infodump I've ever seen: the first minutes of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The parts with the kid aren't bad, though they're really infodump too, because at least there's a character to care about. But all the bits about the middle ages and the intervening years are straight exposition with no story to move forward.

    It's possible I've become more sensitive to this sort of thing due to all the time I spend working on my writing, but I just think it's a surprisingly clumsy bit of exposition in a major feature.

  4. Great post. And like increadibly timely for me. I'm working on the first chapters in my second book and getting conflicting opinions on if I'm doing too much or too little info dumping. Your example is super helpful. Thank you so much.

  5. Info-dumping isn't something I've had a HUGE problem with, but it has reared its head more than a few times.
    Thanks for the tips on making it work!

  6. ...I feel better about the "infodumps" in my own work, now. I'd noticed they tended to be specific paragraphs when the narrator's reminded of something, and I often felt like they actually fit.

    That would also explain why, after I removed several of them, a beta said the story and world didn't always make sense.


  7. That's funny, Joe, I saw Apprentice last night and thought the very same thing about the opening.

    The TV show Burn Notice does voice overs really well. But then, they're done in the main character's voice and he's telling you stuff that only he would know, so it totally fits.

  8. thanks for the post! just reading this made me realize why my opening scene isn't working. it's a total infodump. I'm going to try and rework it into something that fits the story rather than just dumping background info on the reader.

  9. I used to be horrendous with info-dumps. One of my stories is still prone to it in spots, but I've gotten better at working stuff in or simply creating scenes to show something to the reader so it doesn't need explained at all.

    Your recommendations for how to work in the info-dumps reinforce what I've figured out through the help from my crit group.

  10. Oh so true. Particular favorites in this are:

    Lean toward the short. It's hard to go very wrong with something small, and "dump" itself reminds us the classic problem is Just Too Much at a time. --Or broken down into short pieces, of course.

    Timing, timing, timing. The more the reader can see that characters *need* to know this now, and the reader does too, the more it's the obvious next thing to say. Bonus points for a case like your example, where the information is about a *problem* ahead -- readers rarely object to learning "And here's how much trouble is coming..."

    1. I love the "obvious next thing to say." Perfect way to describe that. When it's the right spot for the info, it does indeed feel that obvious.

      Trouble is always fun :) Bwahahaha