Wednesday, March 03, 2021

6 Places Infodumps Like to Hide in Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Not everything you know about your story belongs in your novel.

A quick heads up...I'm over at Writers in the Storm today asking, Does Your Novel Have a Problem? 

People tend to think infodumps are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writers, but they happen to everyone. Mystery writers dump how and why characters wound up in places they shouldn’t be in, romance writers share the tragic backstories of the love interests, historical writers elaborate on the history (though their readers probably enjoy their infodumps), and mainstream writers share way too much information about the people and places in their story.

We all do it, and I actually don’t mind infodumps on a first draft. It’s a useful way to get the history and backgrounds straight in my head as I write, but they’ve got to go during draft two.

Infodumps pull readers out of the story to explain something in the story.

There’s no action or tension in an infodump; nothing to dramatize, no problem to solve, it’s just information inserted into the novel. The sad part it, most of the time you can convey that information by backgrounding it into the scene, so not only are you boring readers with an infodump, you’re missing an opportunity to enrich that scene. That information might be something readers want to know, they just don’t want it dumped into their laps in a big old blob.

Unfortunately, unlike adverbs, there's no easy way to search for infodumps in your manuscript. But they do have some favorite places they like to hang out.

Here are six ways infodumps sneak into your novel:

1. Infodumps try to pretend they’re part of the in-crowd.

When introducing characters, it feels natural to just go on to tell readers all about them. You describe what they look like, what they’re wearing, and before you know it, you’ve written a paragraph or two about their history, why they’re there, and maybe even a few random details that don’t belong in the story at all.

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—which is doubly bad.

(Here’s more with Who's There? Introducing Characters in a Scene)

2. Infodumps love to cut to the front of the line.

There’s an odd “clearing the throat” habit writers get into where we start a scene by explaining what readers are about to read. Maybe you sum up what happened between this scene and the previous one, or you set the scene by describing where the characters are and how they got there, or you really dump by explaining what the plan is and what the character is about to do and why, before they get a chance to do it.

While setting up the scene has value, be wary about giving too much away. And unless what happened off screen is critical to know, skip it. Same with heavy descriptions that tell readers what the scene is going to show them.

(Here's more with Writing Transitions: How to Move Smoothly Through Your Novel)

3. Infodumps try to own every room they’re in.

A new setting or location is like a new character—time to tell readers everything we know about it! (Just kidding, don’t do this) Sometimes it's only 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. The more history involved in the setting, the more likely it is you’ll slip into infodump and stop the story to share a lecture about your world building.

Choose setting details wisely. Looks for details that do more than just describe the room or world, but also show something about the character or society they live in.

(Here’s more with The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

4. Infodumps want to make sure you get them.

If you’re worried you’re being too subtle about a character’s motives, you might have dropped an infodump that explains why the character is behaving as they are. Often, all the subtext and external clues are in the scene, but you wonder if readers will get it or not. To be sure, you explain the why and ruin what was probably really nicely done section.

Trust yourself and your readers. Give them the opportunity to pick up on clues and figure things out for themselves. In a lot of genres, this is why they picked up the novel in the first place.

(Here’s more with Why Ask Why? Because Your Readers Will)

5. Infodumps want to get the last word in.

A common way to avoid infodumps is to just have the characters talk about the information. The problem here comes when the characters talking have zero reason to discuss whatever it is you’re trying to explain. The characters already know their history, they know why someone is the way they are, and they know how their world works.

Character conversations should focus on relevant and revealing information. They’re not excuses to dump.

(Here’s more with An Easy Tip to Avoid Infodumps in Your Dialogue)

6. Infodumps make it all about them.

This is probably the most common infodump—just dumping a lot of information about “Things That Have Come Before.” Maybe it’s the history about a person, a place, or an item in the story, but whatever it is, the author stops to tell readers all about it and why it's important to what’s going on right now. Maybe. A lot of times, these history dumps aren’t relevant to what’s going on in the scene.

If it isn’t important to what’s going on in that scene in that moment, odds are you don’t need to share it. Save the history lesson for another day. Or better yet, find a way to show the results of that history and how it’s affecting the here and now.

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

How to make your infodumps behave themselves.

Infodumps are annoying, but at least they’re easy to fix. Simply cut it. If the scene reads fine without the infodump, leave it out. If cutting the infodump makes it hard to understand the scene, then determine the critical details needed for the scene. What specifically matters to understand what’s going on?

Next, add only those details back in, but in a way that the point of view character would notice/think/say/feel/convey. Readers don’t notice infodumps that stay in the point of view character’s voice, especially if the information flows naturally with the rest of the scene. Then it feels like it belongs there, triggered by something a character said or did.

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

Infodumps are often your brain’s way of reminding you about important information lurking under a scene—it needed to write the scene, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the scene.

There are plenty of reasons why you might feel readers need a piece of information, but often, it’s you who needs to remember it. Maybe the information directly affects how a character will act or respond. Maybe a bit of history influences how the world works. Write the scene with the knowledge of that information, but keep the infodump out of there.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and think about the most likely places infodumps might be hiding in your current novel. Then set aside a longer session to go in and flush them out.

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

*Originally published February 2012. Last updated March 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. 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.

    1. Thanks! With historical fiction, infodumps are more acceptable, because the history is a big part of why readers buy those books. You have a little more leeway there :) But the same "how to sneak it in" tricks apply.

  22. Thank you for this excellent help!! :)


    This is why (with a few exceptions) I don't like 'literary' novels. Too much description, too much navel contemplation, too much 'the main character thinks this way and so should you reader'. :)
    Excellent post as usual. I'm knowingly guilty of this in the first draft because I need to know. Then hopefully all the OTT gets chopped out and character details get added to their bio file, place descriptions get sliced and diced to appear as a 'garnish' not an indigestible lump, :)

    1. Same here. It's allowed in first drafts :) Even second drafts. I do the same thing.

  24. Two little words that scream amateur: "He wore..."

    1. Unless it's 'He wore their resolve down' etc. :-)

    2. Well, not necessarily. "She wore the red cocktail dress like a suit of armor" says a lot. But typically, yes, dumps of what they wore details can be problematic. But there are also genres (such as cozies) where that's normal and expected from readers.

      It's a red flag in most cases though.