The Dreaded Info Dump. Did you wince a little as I wrote that? I know I did. That’s because the info dump is something very easy to do, because after all, it’s a great way to explain to readers why they should care about our characters, right? Well…not so much. It’s actually something we should all avoid as much as possible, so please read on as our guest Leslie Ramey, Co-Founder of Compulsion Reads, dishes the real deal on INFO DUMPS.
Pssst! Afterward, please swing by Angela’s World Of Writing (yes, another Angela! We are taking over the world, bwahahahaaa!) where she’s sharing my post on Dealing With Rejection.
Dump the Info Dumps
One of the biggest challenges for writers is how to give readers the important backstory of their book without dropping a huge pile of information on them. As the co-founder of Compulsion Reads, a company that evaluates and endorses indie books, I’ve read my fair share of up-and-coming indie authors and have found that info dumps are a very common problem. (Being a writer, I too catch myself falling into the info dump trap)
The big issue with info dumps is that they stop the story dead in the water. The important thing to remember is that readers are smarter than we often give them credit for. They don’t need to know right now that your protagonist, let’s call her Jane, got stood up at prom in order to understand that she is having a hard time accepting that Hottie McNaughty wants to take her on a date. If you set up the scene well we should be able to see and feel her apprehension without having to read about that dreadful night at prom. By merely hinting at Jane’s painful past, you can create tension that helps keep the reader engaged.
The other problem that info dumps cause is that it’s nearly impossible to “show” an info dump. They almost always end up being “tells”, which affects a reader’s ability to fully immerse themself in your prose. When you stop to tell us why Hottie McNaughty doesn’t date drop dead beautiful women anymore we get pulled from all the emotions he feels when asking out Jane, and that’s a bummer. It would be like the power going out just as you were getting to the big scene of your favorite movie. Sure, the power will come back on and you can restart the DVD, but the moment has passed, and it’s just not the same.
So, how do authors avoid info dumps? Here are a few helpful tips so you can dump those info dumps:
1. Ask the question “Is this information critical to the scene”– Most of the time the answer will be ‘no,’ in which case you can limit how much information you are passing on. The reader doesn’t need to know right now that Jane’s mom belittled her, which is another reason she is skeptical of Hottie’s invitation. We should have already gotten the hint in the way that Jane acts, the way she dresses and through dialogue with her friends.
2. Sprinkle the information throughout the book- Instead of giving us all of the details right out of the gate, give us little bits here and there. Not only will this allow you to avoid overloading us with information, but we can slowly get to know your characters and the world you’ve created. In our example of Jane, you could have her in a dress shop with her BFF when she sees a row of prom dresses and shudders. She can then convince herself not to think about that horrible night. We readers know that we are going to find out what happened and are on pins and needles to read the big reveal later.
3. Let your characters hash it out– This tip can be very helpful and can go very badly, so keep your creative beast on a short leash when you try this technique. Have your characters discuss their backstories in believable situations. While Jane is in the store staring at the prom dress have her BFF remind her that not all men are like the loser who stood her up on prom night. Jane’s BFF could even go so far as to drop a line about how Jane’s mom was wrong, and that she really is a beautiful girl who any guy would be lucky to date. Look at that, not only did we reveal two big backstory moments in what could have been 100 words, but we also get to see Jane’s reactions to her BFF, letting us connect to Jane even more. The trick behind this tip is not to go overboard. Remember, readers are smart, and if you are using dialogue to retell a backstory we will know it and stick our tongues out at you for torturing us.
I know how hard it can be to avoid overloading your readers with information, but remember readers are smart, so don’t insult them. Instead, pull those info dumps, sprinkle your backstory throughout the book, and create a stronger, richer story that will fully immerse readers.
Compulsion Reads, created by Jessica Bennett and Leslie Ramey, seeks to shine the spotlight on quality indie books by endorsing those books that meet CR’s strict quality standards. Learn more about Compulsion Reads by visiting www.Compulsionreads.com. Enjoy our kooky video, read about our endorsement criteria and visit our growing library of endorsed indie books. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
I think this is great advice, and I agree that it can be a large problem in novels, especially in those opening chapters as we try very hard to make the reader understand who our character is and why. A big thank you to Leslie for coming by to share a lesson gleaned from reading many, MANY books!
How about you, Musers? Do you have any other techniques to deal with bringing out critical information WITHOUT resorting to the big, pace-stopping info dump? This is a big struggle for so many of us, so please share!
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.