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Wednesday, February 15

The Power of Explanation Compels You: Avoiding the Dreaded Infodump

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Infodumps are no fun for reader or writer. As a writer, you worry whether or not you're telling or showing, if the information fits where you put it, and how to get critical information to the reader without dumping it over their heads. As a reader, you skim the boring parts where nothing happens, and if there are too many of those, you stop reading that book.

But infodumps have their place just like everything else. They can be extremely helpful in a first draft when you're still figuring out your story and how things work. Embracing the infodump in an early draft can help you avoid it in the final draft. It's also a handy way to convey information you can't slip in naturally. (as long as it's not overdone)

What is an Infodump? 

Infodumps are chunks of information "dumped" into the story to explain something. They're kind of like author footnotes (but in the text) because they stop the story and offer information the author feels the reader needs to know. Often it doesn't fit, doesn't sound like the character, and feels like information jammed in where it doesn't belong. If you've ever been reading along and suddenly thought "why are you telling me this now?" it's probably an infodump.

(Here's more on To the Dump, To the Dump, to the Dump, Dump, Dump...The Danger of Infodumps)

Brainstorming on Paper 

If you're not the type of writer who has everything planned out exactly before you start writing, odds are things are going to develop as you write. If you're a pantser, it's all going to happen that way. You'll probably find several instances where you need to explain how something happened/worked/occurred/is relevant. You'll have two options:
  • Explain it and move on
  • Stop writing to figure it all out
Either works, but you don't always want to lose momentum when you're writing, especially if you're in the groove. In these cases, letting the infodump happen and getting it down on paper is more valuable than stopping. Make a note and come back later to fix it.

Dumping the Dumps 

If you already have infodumps in your text, getting rid of them can be trickier. Unlike adverbs, there's no easy thing to search for. But infodumps do have some favorite places they like to hang out.

1. Introduction of characters 

It's not uncommon for a character to be introduced, and then hear a paragraph or two all about that character. Information that provides context for the scene is fine, but if it starts going into history or behaviors that aren't relevant, you might have yourself an infodump. (and a backstory infodump at that--doubly bad)

2. Beginnings of scenes 

You'll also find them acting like tour guides, explaining more about what the reader is about to read than needed. Summing up what happened between this scene and the previous one is also a common infodump. Unless what happened off screen is critical to know, skip it.

(Here's more on Infodumps Through Dialogue: Your Words Are Dead to Me)

3. Walking into a new place 

You'll often hear a lot of information about a new place the first time a character goes somewhere. Sometimes it's just description (different from an infodump), but sometimes it's conveying information the protagonist either doesn't know, doesn't care about, or would never think about at this moment in time.

4. History lessons 

This is probably the most common infodump. Be it history about a person, a place, an item in the story, whatever it is, the author stops to tell the reader all about it and why it's important.

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

Fixing the Infodumps 

The easiest way to fix it is to cut it, but that's not always feasible. But it's a good first step, so try cutting it and reading the page or scene. If it reads fine without the infodump, leave it out. Be ruthless. Unless it's very obvious that missing information makes the scene confusing or impossible to understand, don't put it back in. Authors often think readers need more than they really do to get what's going on.

If cutting the infodump makes what's happening unclear, then look for the critical details that have to be there. What specifically matters to understand that scene?

Now add that back in, but in a way that the POV character would notice/think/say/feel/convey. Infodumps work when they're kept in the voice of the POV character and sound like something they'd actually say or think. They should flow naturally with the rest of the scene and feel like they belong there, triggered by something someone said or did.

You can usually find a way to show the information you're trying to dump. It might be something someone says, or an example of that information in action.

How do you feel about infodumps? How often do they sneak into your work? How have you managed to avoid them?

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. Yes, the info dumps are hard, especially in fantasy where you sometimes have to give some info so the reader knows what's going on. Those are the hardest for me to get right.

  2. Info dumps, the bane of my first drafts. Sometimes I feel like I'm writing it for myself, to remember what I wanted to show. Good point on showing it from the characters POV, that has been working for me.

  3. Ah, the dreaded info dump, and in some cases it's a landfill.
    In my critique group I can spot the ids in the works of other writers, but I often miss them in my own. Thank goodness my critique group is also adept at helping me spot mine.

  4. My biggest weakness, at least when drafting, is forgetting to leave out what happens in between important scenes. Like you said, "unless what happened off screen is critical to know, skip it."

  5. Augh! I just read an email from a friend who critiqued my first two chapters and her overall feel was "Info-dump"!

    And this is after a rewrite prompted by a (more professional) editor friend who told me "I'm lost! Give me a little more info so I can figure out what's going on.

    It is so hard to find the middle ground!!!

  6. Thanks for the heads up about where they lurk! Brilliant :)

  7. Sabrina Alexander2/15/2012 12:12 PM

    Its hard to know what is info dump and what is critical, especially when your critique group only reads a few chapters at a time. How to make the call without full context?

    Beta readers might be better for judging within context. Otherwise, if it isn't giving critical context, character building or necessary setting enhancement, I say kill it.

  8. Sabrina Alexander2/15/2012 12:19 PM

    And using "context" three times within two paragraphs is a good example of what critique groups are best at spotting, lol!

  9. Great post. I think The Hunger Games does this especially well. Katniss tells us stuff about how the world works all the time, but it never feels like an infodump because it's critical to the plot at the moment, and we also get her emotions/opinions about it, so the infodump's multitasking. They're also brief and woven in.

    I usually end up on the "not enough info" side of things, so this is something I've been analyzing when I read.

  10. Infodumps can be pretty sneaky. Thanks for this post. Definitely going back to my WiP to do some "dump hunting".

  11. I've been SO guilty of doing this! Thanks for the tips :D

  12. Great post, and always good to be reminded!

  13. Natalie, fantasy has got to be the worst genre for this. There's just so much to get across.

    DavidNevin, sometimes you do write it for yourself, and that's okay for an early draft. A lot of times I'm not sure how something works until I figure it out on paper.

    Irishoma, crit groups are so handy to have :) I don't think anyone can spot everything in their own work. I know I can't!

    Matthew, one thing that helps me with that, is to look for those great hook lines at the end of a scene. They often make great breaks, and you then look for the next good line to start with and pick up the scene from there. And now you've given me an idea for a post about scene breaks, so thanks!

    Amelia, ooo rough, sorry to hear that. It really is hard to find that balance. Did your friend give you any specifics on what felt info-dumpy? That could help you figure out where to trim back and what needs to stay. You might also try looking at every spot where you did more than one or two lines of information.

    Angela, thanks!

    Sabrina, that's one of the problems with a "sectional" crit group. Though I think anything that slows the pacing down will likely show up regardless of how many pages you read at a time. If it belongs there it'll feel like it fits. (even if it's the word context! hehe)

    MK, good example. I also think first person is easier to slip info in since you're so close to the POV.

    Angela, hehe, dump hunting. I like that! Good luck :)

    Julie, anytime ;)

    Nancy, most welcome. This blog is a great reminder for myself, too. I pay so much more attention to what I do now than I did before I started blogging.

  14. I try to work in bits and pieces of info dump into a scene, if I feel it's necessary (like the back story of former lovers who meet at a later date). For example, when two exes meet after many years, the POV character might contrast what he/she looks like now compared to when they first met, or recall that first meeting, what was said, done, etc., then maybe recall the breakup scene and how he/she felt about that.

    All this would be sprinkled through the scene in one- or two- sentence thoughts or comments.

    But sometimes the best way to get necessary info into the story is to put it all into one paragraph and try to slide it into the most logical, unobtrusive place in the story. I don't mind info dumps if they are interesting, add to a character's development, and play some essential part in the why/what/how of the plot and the characters' reactions to the plot twists.

  15. Embracing the InfoDump in a draft is great advice. Writing whatever seems relevant at the moment during a draft is key, but more important is putting the draft away for a good long time before revising so you can see exactly what is and isn't relevant when revising.

  16. Oh no, I am so guilty of all of these...groan!!!

  17. Chris, "I don't mind infodumps if they are interesting" is totally the key to them. You nailed it. Sounds like you handle them well.

    L.B., that's so true. Time away really does allow you to gain perspective.

    Laura, lol no worries, we all do it :) That's what revisions are for.

  18. Argh, Janice! I just typed a comment and lost it during the sign-on phase. Don't let people comment if they are going to lose what they type when they are stopped to sign on. So frustrating. Just lost everything I typed. *Sigh*

    1. Oh no, I'm so sorry. You should be able to just comment without signing on. Not sure what happened there. I try to make it as easy as possible for folks to comment.

  19. Thank you so much for all of these articles. I am working on my first novel ever and this is wonderful!

    1. Glad they're helping :) Good luck on your novel!

  20. I found myself guilty as charged, especially on the backstory stuff. I am finding it helpful if I keep bringing it up, perhaps I need to write the backstory as its own story or write out the info dump in its own file as an expanded note (just for myself to review) and get it out of my system.

    1. There's nothing wrong with having it in a first draft. It's just your brain working it all out on the page :) If you need to toss it in to figure it out and figure out the best place for that info to appear, that's totally okay. Just revise in a later draft :)

      I keep my backstory notes in a separate file (I use One Note), but I have a friend who often writes short stories about her characrer's backstories. Whatever works for you!

  21. This is useful information, Janice. I write historical fiction and info dumps are difficult to avoid, but I am getting better at them.