Did you know that Sauron in the Lord of the Rings is actually only a lieutenant of the dark god Morgoth? No? The Lord of the Rings could have started with an explanation of this and of the history of all the races of Middle Earth. It didn’t, because Tolkien constrained himself. His writing didn’t smell of info dumps, even though he had a lot of world to build and info to dump. He started with a short segment on Hobbits instead.
Let’s have a look at what ‘info dumps’ are and how to avoid them.
What is it?
A story never starts in a vacuum. There is already an established world with a history. Often, the reader will have to be told at least some of that background to understand what is going on. This is especially true for Fantasy and Science Fiction, where there is a whole world to explain. The info dump is when all that information is dumped onto the reader in a jarring way.
This last part is crucial. Information is not bad in a story, but dumping it on the reader is. And not all people are jarred equally. What one reader calls an info dump, another might call good exposition.
Stories and movies are rife with examples. Look at the start of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice for a prime example, or I, Frankenstein, which I saw on a plane last year. Even Star Wars has that very clunky scrolling text. Some movies and books handle this properly, others make a mess of it. Have you ever read the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown? In this book, when the important characters are introduced, the story cuts to a flashback scene where the background of the character is dumped onto the reader and then the stories flashes forward again and continues. I want background for the characters, of course, but not dumped on me like it is in this case. In fact, the info dump often goes hand in hand with a telling, not showing smell, as it does in the Da Vinci Code.
Movies that start with voice-overs, scrolling swaths of text, or montages are all suspect. This does not mean it can’t be done well. Lord of the Rings – the movie – starts with a voice-over by Cate Blanchett and a montage, but that became one of the iconic scenes of the Lord of the Ring movies. However, here the info dump was kept to a minimum, was filled with action, and was used to set the tone of the movie. Bad info dumps are stale, lazy writing, where the writer feels the reader needs certain information and just dumps it on them.
One bad way that writers try to disguise the info dump is by having characters tell each other things they already know. You can recognise this by one character telling another ‘as you know,…’ followed by a long section of explanation. The ‘as you know’ might be phrased differently, but it’s always a lead-in to a conversation that would not happen in reality. One nuclear reactor tech does not tell the other ‘well, as you know, we have to lower the control rods into the reactor core to slow down the neutron flow and stop the chain reaction’. They both know it already. It’s an info dump to inform the reader.
The problem with info dumps is that they push the reader out of the story. The writing focuses on information that the reader might need to know, at the expensive of pacing, characterisation, and engagement.
How to fix it
When you find an info dump in your writing, there are a couple of approaches to fixing the problem.
The first thing to do is look at the information you’re dumping. Does the reader really need it? If the plot hinges on that one fact, then yes, you do need to tell it, but if you look at info dumps, then it quickly becomes apparent that a lot of the information in it is not essential. If so, remove it.
Now take a look at the information that is left. Does the reader really need it right now? Often, you can stagger your information. Move some of it to a later chapter or scene, so it’s not all in one place.
If there is still a lot of information left, you need to take another hard look. Are you missing a scene or chapter? If there is so much information that is absolutely required, maybe you should be writing it in an active scene. In-late-out-early is an important writing guideline, but that does not mean you should skip entire essential scenes and put their content in an info dump.
Finally, when you only have the core information left that you need to have, ask yourself this: can I present the information in a better way? There are more ways to provide information besides expository text. A discussion between characters for instance. I warned of the ‘as-you-know’ cheap trick, but if one of the characters actually doesn’t know what is going on, then it works again. Well, you may have introduced ‘the Watson’ cliché, but it’s a step forward. Or you could have a ‘clipping from a newspaper’ at the start of each chapter – although, again, you’re just swapping clichés. Play around with it, change your info dump until it’s clever writing instead.
The info dump is a form of lazy writing. It jars the reader out of the story. Often the information is not needed, can be moved to a different place, or can be presented to readers in a better way. Play around with it, until the info dump is no longer a weak part of your story, but one of its strengths.