Tim, one of our Author Accelerator writers, asked a great question in the Ask Me Anything this week about info dumps – how to identify them, how to avoid them, and how to convey critical information in a way that is balanced and engaging. It’s a great question so I thought I would take a little time to explain it in more detail. (On the AMAs, I’m winging my answers! Giving them on the fly! Not sure I am making any sense! And being a writer, I always feel better when I am writing. As E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”)
What’s an info dump?
Here’s what Dictionary.com says: “an act or practice of presenting an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information all at once.”
We see info dumps in every genre – whenever a writer dumps info on the reader about a character, the world, the situation, the details, the history, or anything else. They’re often the result of a writer who is eager to get everything out all at once so they can get to the good stuff or the real story; in other words, they are often a symptom of a structural problem – a writer starting in the wrong place, or moving through their material in a way that doesn’t serve their intention.
What’s so bad about them?
Regardless of the genre, when a reader encounters an info dump, several things happen:
- All forward momentum stops; there is no narrative drive.
- Nothing is happening in the present moment – no meaning being made in fiction and memoir; no arguments being made in non-fiction.
- Time stands still.
- The writer AS THE WRITER intrudes on the piece – as if she is saying, “Oh wait! Hold on a second! You need to know this before we can move on!” It’s like seeing the puppet-master peeking out from the curtain. It breaks the spell.
- The reader gets yanked out of the story or the argument. Instead of being swept away to another world or into the world of possibility in our mind, we are pulled out into the real world where an author wants us to know something. It feels like school, where we should be taking notes because there might be a test. It feels like being lectured at by your mom about something you could care less about. It’s not good.
Common places we see info dumps and how to stop them before they start
1. I often see info dumps at the very start of a manuscript. I am talking here about the first few pages, or the first chapter. It’s the writing ramping up or gearing up to tell the story rather than telling the story itself. It’s the writer thinking, “Here is everything you need to know to understand what I am about to tell you.”
In memoir, it’s a rule that gets violated all the time when a writer chooses to start telling us about their childhood or “where it all began” when we have no idea what "it" even is IS yet, or why we should care. I often refer to this as the “I was born in a cabin in the woods,” opening. The fact is that where you were born likely has nothing to do with the story you are trying to tell us, so there’s no need to give us that information, especially not in the high-priced real estate of a book’s opening pages.
If, however, where you were born really does have something to do with the specific story you are telling, then by all means, let us in on it. To wit, in the opening pages of J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (newly on my to-read list because WOW everyone I know is reading it and I feel left out!), we get this line:
I haven't started a billion-dollar company or a world-changing nonprofit. I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs. So I didn't write this book because I've accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I've achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn't happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.
You want to start with your story – with what the protagonist (who is you) wants and what is standing in her way. Vance, in this case, wanted an ordinary life and what was standing in his way was an entire way of life. Wow indeed! You want to invite your reader IN, not box them out with a bunch of irrelevant information.
In fiction, an info dump at the start would look something like this (this is an example I am making up on the spot, so forgive me the bad parts.):
It had been thirteen years since rain had fallen in the little mountain town. In that time, the crops had dried up, the drinking water had dried up, the tourists had dried up, and the only thing left was fear -- fear about what happen if it rain didn’t soon fall.
Citizens of Castle Rock brought their five-gallon jugs to the water rationing station each morning for their portion of water. They didn’t gossip or chatter or even say hello because they were scared they wouldn’t get their jug filled by the men who brought the water from down in the valley in tanker trucks each week. They were distrustful of their neighbors. They lived in fear that the water would run out before they got their share.
The only person the fear didn’t impact was Frank Star. He taught geology at the local university, and was an expert in geomorphology, which is the study of the way water flows through soil. As he always liked to say at the start of his freshman seminar entitled “The History of the Earth in Rocks” (which everyone called Rocks for Jocks, because all the athletes thought it was an easy A), “Rocks don’t lie.” So as the drought entered its thirteenth year, Frank was secretly pleased that the rocks were winning.
One thing to notice here is that info dumps almost always violate the “show don’t tell” rule, as well. If you are telling and telling and telling, as I was doing here when I was writing about the jugs and the trucks and Frank’s class, it adds up to an info dump.
The way to fix this kind of problem is to back up and decide what you want your opening scene to convey. I mean, so what about Frank and his beliefs and this town and this drought. Why should we care? A bunch of information does not add up to a story.
To save this opening, I would need to know what Frank wanted. Perhaps all he wants is for someone in power to say, “You were right, Frank! We should have listened to you!” That would redeem his entire life’s work. Instead of dumping all that info about the town and the water and Frank and his philosophy, I could, instead, bake all that information into what Frank is doing and what he is wanting.
I could write a scene where Frank is standing in line with his jug. The water has just run out. The neighbors behind him are starting to fight and riot, and he just stands there, parched, remembering his first day teaching at the university when he came into a lecture hall from a torrential downpour. He remembers the smell of his wet wool coat. “It might be hard to believe on a day like today,” he recalls saying, as he shook out his umbrella, “But drought is coming. A drought that will threaten the very fabric of society. I know this, because rocks don’t lie.” He remembers how everyone in the lecture hall laughed at him, and how his colleagues started calling him Rocky, but he thinks to himself, they won’t be laughing anymore.
Okay maybe that’s a truly horrible idea (I was thinking about geomorphology because my niece is writing a PhD dissertation on it -- fascinating stuff!), but the point is that you need a point! Information needs a point! It needs to be conveyed as part of the story.
2. I also see info dumps in all kinds of fiction where we might not be familiar with the world – fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, anything magical or historical. The writer stops mid-story and tells you everything you need to know about the way something unfamiliar works. Working off my example, above, let’s say that the story about Frank is, in fact, fantasy, and that that Frank turns out to be a sorcerer who can turn seawater into fresh water – he just was not aware of his powers, or of the way the alchemy happened.
An info dump would occur if the writer decided to stop mid scene to tell us how it all worked like an infomercial, or if the writer actually used dialogue to convey information to the reader that the characters would clearly already know. For example:
Frank looked up at Matilda, who had just bestowed upon him the magic paddle.
“We have come here to perform the ancient ritual,” he cried leaping into the canoe.
“We alone have both been blessed by such marvelous powers,” she said, “We have the power to make water and save our people! Do you remember what I have taught you about the alchemical process?”
“You raise the paddle to the sky in supplication,” Frank said, “Because our ancestors were sky worshippers who knew the true source of water.”
“We must move quickly, Frank! The water goblins will be here any moment!”
No one would ever actually speak like that. It does the opposite of what dialogue should do, which is to draw the reader in and reveal new truths about how the characters are making meaning from the things that are happening to them.
A better way to convey this information to the reader (how the magical powers of water alchemy works) is to let us watch Frank learning about his power, let us see the scene where that unfolds, let us understand what the water goblins want and what they can do before they are about to show up. We want to see the wolf at the door -- or in this case the water golbins -- long before they are an immediate threat.
3. In non-fiction, an info dump can come when an expert starts talking in jargon, or piling on esoteric details that are not pertinent to the point at hand. I was recently working with a writer on a speech about the benefits of group therapy, and she wanted to give the audience a brief history of group therapy – an excellent goal in theory – but a goal that might also bring her close to info-dump territory if she wasn’t aware of exactly why she is telling this to her audience.
Without the why, or a guiding principle, she might have written something that sounded like a bad term paper (this is 100% my bad writing, with details cribbed from Wikipedia, not hers…):
Rigorous scientific exploration of the effects of grouping began as early as 1895, according to J. Scott Rutan, PhD and Walter N. Stone, MD, when Gustav LeBon, a French social psychologist, referred to the phenomenon of ‘ the group mind.’ Research into the curative effects of imitative behavior and corrective recapitulation of the primary family group led to revelations about catharsis as a positive outcome of group work.
That’s pretty tough going for a lay reader. You are immediately thinking, And so? -- and once you do that, we've lost authority.
What my client did instead was to remember her audience and her point. She was speaking to people who were just entering into group work for the first time. They were comfortable with individual work, and her primary purpose was to make them feel comfortable with group work, too -- to show them why it mattered. She used the history to begin making her point, and telling her story:
In its inception, group therapy was not focused on psychological issues; it started as an instruction class for people with health issues. The first person to coin the phrase “group therapy” and to convene a group, was the physician J.H. Pratt in 1905. Dr. Pratt began holding general-care instruction classes for recently discharged tuberculosis patients, and immediately noticed the impact of the group experience on his patients’ emotional states. He found that members of his groups improved emotionally and mentally due to supporting each other in these groups. Pratt saw that something happens in groups that simply cannot happen in individual work.
We could make that much tighter and snappier in a revision, but it’s at least got a point and a purpose, and no info dumping.
How to recognize if you are dumping info on your reader.
It’s easy to see the info dumps in other people’s work; it’s much harder to see it in our own work. That's true of so many things! Here are a few tricks to help you:
- Print out your pages and look at the physical layout of the material. Are there giant blocks of text? That might indicate an info dump.
- Print out your pages and use highlighters to mark any places where the story is not moving forward, your point is not being made, and the narrative is not driving forward. Look for other ways to convey that information -- which usually means slowing down and letting us SEE something unfold.
- Read your work aloud. Are there natural places to take a breath? If not, you might have an info dump.
- Read your work aloud again (and yes, your family might start thinking you are crazy....) Does the dialogue flow naturally? If not, it might indicate an info dump. (Some writers I know have been using the speech-recognition function in Google to read their writing back to them. I think that's somewhat genius.)
- Watch for info dumps in other people’s work. Pay attention to when you skip ahead as a reader or your eyes glaze over. Odds are good it’s straight description or info dumping.
- Remember the words of Elmore Leonard: "I try to leave out the parts readers skip."