Ever read a book where all the action stops so the author can explain something? It might be how the magic in a world works or the point of view character’s back-story or even how the character met someone or why a place is important. These are info-dumps.
Why are we tempted to info-dump?
Many authors justify their decision by saying “the reader needs to know.” But do they? For example, most POV characters have an emotional wound caused by something that happened prior to the story starting (backstory). But does the reader need to know all the details of what happened? Or can they just know the POV doesn’t trust people?
Wounds can be reinforced by parallel experiences.
Often times the wound can be revealed in bits and pieces. So if the character has issues with trust, every time they are forced to face that wound is an opportunity to show why the decision is hard. Maybe it was a man who hurt her, so she finds it easy to trust a child in one scene but the very next moment she has to trust an unfamiliar man and she hesitates. You’ve shown she has issues with men, without giving her backstory.
Easy info-dumps to avoid.
The easiest info-dumps to avoid are descriptions of characters or places. I just read a book where the first page was pure setting. I had no idea who the character was or why they were there. And by the fourth line I was skimming and thinking of moving on to the next book.
The best way to avoid this is to read through your manuscript and highlight any descriptions of people or places. Then ask yourself, “Where’s the action?”
That’s it. If a character enters a familiar room they aren’t going to notice the color of the walls or the furniture. They may however flop down on the old couch that swallows them. The yellow walls meant to be cheerful may grate on their nerves because they’re having a bad day.
See how adding an action, changes it be relevant and not just informative?
Same goes for people they encounter. They are going to notice the things that make them feel something. The sneer on the guy’s face. The shifty eyes. The over-sized shapeless sweater and sunglasses the girl hides behind.
What makes the main character take notice? What is out of the norm?
Mr. Tall-Dark-And-Handsome is nice, but what really appeals to your unique protagonist that wouldn’t to another? Is it the way he moves? The quality of his clothes? His dimple? By focusing on the unique qualities you avoid the head-to-toe laundry list description.
Avoid info-dumps by strewing.
Strewing is to sprinkle or scatter over a wide area. If the information is important find ways to spread it out and fill in the details of the picture for the reader only as it becomes necessary.
Maybe we do need to know how the magic system works in your fantasy world. In Harry Potter we first learn about Harry’s innate ability to make things happen (he has the magic inside). Then we learn there is a wizarding school that teach how to wield magic. Soon after, we discover wands and spell books and potions. Only in Harry’s classes or when Hermione explains something do we really get a few short info dumps to explain magic or backstory. By strewing we fill in the reader’s imagination a bit at a time. They can encounter the information as it is needed and connect the dots a bit further.
Sometimes you can strew more succinctly in a single scene through immersion. In the movie Men in Black, Will Smith’s character passes the test to join the group that hides the fact aliens co-exist on our planet. He is allowed to see the inner workings of the building and meet aliens and along the way learns the history of how the organization came into being. It’s not an info dump because it’s part of his training and all his internal wrestling and mental adjustment comes out in each encounter.
We can’t talk info-dump without talking about technical detail. Whether it is medicine, law, magic, sports or technology, sometimes a story requires exposing the reader to something that isn’t common knowledge.
If you have a surgeon or a hacker as a POV character, they will use terms related to their field. They will do things the reader must be able to visualize. To bring these scenes to life, balance being true to character while not having to translate everything they say or do.
How? Show the emotion.
For example, a hacker is trying to get into a difficult secure government system. Make the scene tense like a video game. For every two steps forward have a setback that has to be worked around. Have the character sweat, their posture stiff. Let the reader feel their tension. They don’t have to know the play by play of how the hacker is getting in. They just have to feel what the character is feeling and get enough technical detail to form a picture to carry them through
How do you avoid info-dumps in your work?