by Jessica Dall
In a recent blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of Info Dumps, that is, a long section of text that gives a ton of back story all at once. In that post I was suggesting to look at chopping down info dumps as a way to decrease the word count of an overly long novel. Now, since then, I have gotten the question:
“Could you elaborate on how to turn info-dumping into story-telling?”
It’s a good question. After all, in any story there is going to be background information a reader needs to know. This is especially true in stories set in other worlds (be them fantasy, sci fi, alternate universes…) where the reader can’t know everything already (who’s in charge? how do they live? what is the weather like?) but it also happens in modern-day stories. Perhaps the majority of your readers will understand it being cold in winter, but who is your character? Who are their parents? How did they end up doing what they do? Depending on the story, all of that could be important. So how do you get all of that in without falling into an info dump?
1. Figure out if the information is actually important. As I pointed out in my earlier article, we authors tend to know the entire history of a character/world (or at least we should since it helps in writing a story). Perhaps you even know what the character’s favorite color is and what time they get up for work in the morning (depending how in depth your planning is and if you’ve filled out character questionnaires). All of that is important to you as a writer, as who your character is shapes a story. All of that might not be important to the reader, however.
Did your character have a pet they really loved as a child? All right. Does that pet come up in the story? Is it still alive and mentioned? Does the character not want another pet because of its death? Did it’s death strongly influence how the character is acting now? If so, you can bring it up. Does the pet never show up? Did its death not really affect the character at this point? If so, it might be an interesting bit of information to you, but it probably doesn’t need to be in the story.
2. Figure out if the important information needs to be known now. Perhaps the aforementioned pet is going to be important later in the story (it turns out that the mild-mannered pet your character’s had for 14 years can actually talk and will lead them into Never-Never Land) do you have to get all of the information about the pet innow? Of course you always want to mention important things before you actually need them in a story (otherwise you risk sounding something like, “Oh no, what’s that sound? I can’t go outside for whatever reason, so I’m going to send the dog I’ve never mentioned before but had for years! That’s totally not a cop out!”) but you don’t generally have to put in everything all at once. In one scene you can mention the pet. A couple scenes later your character can say something about how long the pet’s been around. You probably don’t need to give a long paragraph of all the information at once.
3. Figure out other ways to get the information in. The end of point 2 touched on this a little. Just like spreading information out, information doesn’t always need to be given in a chunk of narrative. Rather than starting a story:
“Jennifer was an average looking 17-year-old girl with blonde hair and brown eyes who went to school at Centerville High, the school she had been at for the past three years with her best friend Maya…”
You can work all that information in throughout the story. Even in the first chapter if you need it there.
“Jennifer pulled up to Centerville High and sighed. She’d already suffered through three years of the place, but obviously that wasn’t enough….
“Her best friend, Maya, ran up to her, ‘Happy Birthday! How’s it feel to be 17?’…
“Jennifer tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder…”
And so on and so on. All of the information makes it in, it just isn’t all one large chunk.
4. Don’t rely on narrative. Narrative is meant to tell people things, so it’s completely understandable that it’s easy to fall into an info dump when you’re using a lot of it. You’re talking about the Main Character’s job, and, Oh! How did they get the job? You should probably put that in…but if you do that, you really should talk about college…and…and…
Dialogue is a good way to stop yourself from info dumping if you’re finding it a problem, since it feels more awkward to do (people don’t generally give their entire back story in one long monologue when meeting someone–except perhaps Bond villains). But even with dialogue, you still have to be careful. Good dialogue sounds natural, trying to force information in doesn’t make for any better dialogue than it would narrative.
Try to say away from “As you know, Bob”s (“It’s been 11 years since we last talked, Bob, as you know. So why I’m saying so makes no sense, but I thought I’d say it anyway” “Indeed, I’m glad, after 11 years, we’ve been able to meet in San Jose, as you know, a town on the coast of California…”) and don’t force lead in questions (“Hey, Tony, how long have you had that dog?” *End of what can fit in a plausible answer* “Oh yeah? Well where did you get it?” “It really is special to you, isn’t it?”) It sometimes takes practice, but you definitely shouldn’t feel like a character is interviewing another to get necessary information in (Tip: Remember you can space it out. You don’t need to get everything in all at once).
5. Trust your readers not to be idiots. This could be joined with the first point, but personally, after years of editing, I think it bears repeating. You definitely don’t want to lose readers, but also trust that people reading your book tend to have a basic level of intelligence. If there’s something important put the information in, but don’t feel the need go too far in depth, especially if it’s something the reader is likely familiar with.
For example, perhaps not everyone has a bed, or has slept in a bed, but it is likely that the vast, vast majority of people reading your book will at least be aware of the basic concept. You do not, therefore, have to give a ton of information about it (“The bed has been made five years ago out of panels of wood that had been nailed together to make a frame, with slats between them and a mattress placed on top…”)
You can also tend to trust most of your readers to be able to draw some conclusions without spelling it out. “Jennifer walked to class as the first bell rang” will let people know that Jennifer is probably a student. “The teacher added a final 4 at the end of the equation before turning around” will tell people that Jennifer’s probably in math class (or at least a science class). Bits of detail that come naturally in a scene can serve just as well to get information in, you just have to trust your reader not to need things spelled out.