by Lisa Hall-Wilson
No one likes reading an info dump, but we writers justify their existence because we’re sure the reader needs all this background information here, right now. Info dumps kill the pace and tension in your story and readers may just put down your book and walk away forever.
What Is An Info Dump?
“An info dump is a very large amount of information, usually backstory, supplied all at once in a narrative.” Backstory is important and vital to any character and story, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all of what you know or have created. As any good introvert knows, people have to earn the trust to be told your entire life story, you don’t just verbally vomit on a stranger. It’s rude. *smile*
In an omniscient point of view, the worldbuilding Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit is acceptable. Omniscient point of view though is largely out of favor with modern readers and acquisition editors.
It’s hard to ground the reader in time and place without front-loading a work with all the ways that world is different from our own world/reality/time/place. Whether you’re writing Steampunk, Space Opera, Edwardian romance, spec fic, etc etc — the key is to avoid large deposits of information. Let the world unfold for the reader as the character sees it. If everyone in your story world is green with large antennae, construct an organic scenario that would cause your character to notice it — because we don’t often think/comment on things that seem every day or ordinary.
An Info Dump:
Cassandra kept her claws rounded and painted which showed her pride in her appearance. The green-skinned passersby didn’t give her any notice. They kept their long antennae gleaming and straight. Her people were fastidious and prided themselves on their appearances. Not being noticed was a good thing.
Cassandra examined the filed ends of her claws. Last night’s fresh polish still glistened in the sun. Her antennae twitched, energy zinging to the ends of her fingers. She spun around, hands covering her gills.
Steve backed up half a step, palms up. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” His left antennae was bent and limp. Sickly splotches of purple marred his green skin.
A young couple swerved off the sidewalk, giving Steve a hard glare and covering their gills as they passed by. He tucked his broken claws into his palms as if trying to hide them.
Rank body odour hit her, a mix of sour seaweed and spoiled tuna. Cass shifted to the right so the slight breeze was at her back, carrying Steve’s germs and his body odour away from her. “Where’ve you been? You don’t look so good.”
Backstory And Deep Point Of View
If you’re writing your entire novel in deep point of view (as opposed to just using this technique for emphasis in key scenes), you can avoid backstory and worldview info dumps whether through narrative, internal dialogue or spoken dialogue by asking yourself these questions:
- What is the character worried about/interested in/working towards RIGHT NOW?
- What information does the reader NEED to know RIGHT NOW in order for the story to make sense? How can I answer their most pressing question but leave them asking even more questions?
- Which bits of backstory are so compelling that readers will be cheering for my character?
- Why do I think the reader needs this information now? Is it just to prove I’ve thought of it? (You, as the writer, need to keep yourself out of the story.)
Remember, in deep point of view, we restrict the reader to only what the point of view character (POVC) knows, sees, hears, feels, touches, etc. But it’s also a very intimate and immediate style of writing, so something triggers them in the here and now — a smell, a sound.
Answer The Why
With any bit of backstory or worldbuilding info you include, ask yourself why you’re putting that there, in that scene, right now. Is there an organic reason for the character to think of it? Otherwise it turns into what I call I-have-a-puppy syndrome. I’ve been a teacher in a variety of formal capacities, and it never fails that in a group of young children someone feels left out and interrupts the conversation by bouncing up and down, their hand shooting up in the air, to say, “I have a puppy!”
That’s what it feels like to the reader to be jerked out of the character’s head and sent on a bunny trail that neither feels organic to the moment or the character.
So, ask why you want to include that information in that place of the story. Ask why your readers need that information. Often, the reader needs only a fraction of what we think they need, but be sure and offer context for the character and the setting. Giving the reader too little information is as bad as too much.
Finally, ask whether the character really would think or talk about that bit of backstory or worldbuilding. Because we rarely explain things to ourselves that we already know.
There’s Bob with Cindy, his third girlfriend this year.
There’s Bob. Is it Cindy? No, that was the second one. Mindy? I don’t remember.
Do you struggle to identify info dumps in your work? What’s your Achilles heel? What kind of info dumps are you most prone to committing without realizing it?
Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.