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 lifestory, you don’t just verbally vomit on a stranger. It’s rude. *smile*
In an omniscient point of view, the kind of 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 frontloading 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 and 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.
Organic Worldbuilding: Cassandra examined the filed ends of her claws. Perfect. Her antennae twitched and she turned to find Steve behind her.
His left antennae was bent and hung limp. Sickly splotches of purple marred his green skin. Everyone gave him a wide berth, covering their gills as they passed by. Would she be contaminated by association? She took a step back. “What happened to you? Are you contagious?”
Add Backstory In Phrases
Jami Gold has a great technique (and I’m sure she doesn’t use it exclusively) of adding backstory through phrases. Not paragraphs, not even whole sentences, but in phrases. Check out this excerpt from Jami Gold’s novel Stone-Cold Heart about the first time we meet the hero, a gargoyle named Garrett. (read Jami’s post on info dumps on page 1 here.)
Warmth crept through Garrett’s chest and spread into his limbs. Tingles followed, racing along his nerves, stirring sensations in his body.
For the first time in countless years, he awoke from stone-death. The human female curled between his limbs explained why. She must have focused enough trust toward him to help him regain full consciousness.
About blasted time. Although these circumstances weren’t the situation he wanted to encounter when he awoke. Of all the things he’d seen during his stone-death, he hadn’t seen the one thing he’d expected. None of his regiment had brought a human female he could use to awaken—or had even come by to check on him.
All those years in his vulnerable form, where his prison of stone could have shattered—ending his life. Years without word, without reports from the field, without conversations with his regiment. Years left alone. Abandoned.
Jami has bolded all the phrases that give backstory bits. Readers are drawn into this story world through the eyes of a gargoyle and what he’s concerned with RIGHT NOW. We know he’s just waking up after countless years asleep, that he needs a female to wake him up, he’s been forgotten, and that things aren’t right in his world. That’s all we really need at this point to cheer for Garrett.
An info dump would have seen Garrett reflecting on his past years as a gargoyle before he was turned into stone, perhaps the history of why he’d been abandoned by his gargoyle friends, blah blah blah. These would all be things he already knows but wouldn’t think about without a reason to bring up all that history. Instead, keep the reader rooted in the right now and what would organically come to the character’s mind.
Backstory should answer one question for the reader and leave them with two more.
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), backstory and worldview info dumps whether through narrative, internal dialogue or spoken dialogue are easily avoided 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? (Look at Jami’s excerpt – Garrett’s been forgotten, a soldier left behind-vulnerable, and now someone’s woken him up. I’m already cheering for him.)
- 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, the reader is restricted 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 just as we often reflect on the past, the memories are triggered by something 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 be thinking or talking 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?
Been told you should learn Deep Point Of View? Had an editor or critique partner tell you to “go deeper” with the emotions in your fiction? Looking for a community of writers seeking to create emotional connections with readers? Check out the Free Resource Hub and then join the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group.
Jami Gold says
Thank you so much for the shout out to my post! (And for cheering for Garrett… 😉 )
Your 4 questions are perfect for getting us to think about “what’s important RIGHT NOW.” Great post!
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
I’m pretty sure I beta-read at least part of Garrett’s story. Now I have to go buy it and see how things turned out 🙂
What a brilliant way to add in backstory! I wush I could cet a hang on the body movements like are shown here too. I want to write: She shifted her feet before bending down. I know that’s too shallow, but keep getting blocked on how to do it right. Sometimes it’s a little better like: Bumping into the bookshelf knocked over the clock – But then it’s passave with the -ing? Amm this makes me want to bang my head in the coffee table at times. $#@ Now dialogue is coming easily and description is driving me nuts. I just want to get this right. :-:
This wasn’t the article I was looking for, but am happy to have found it. It’ll help with the backstory problem. 🙂
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
Know the rules and then break them. Passive voice should be avoided, but there’s a place for it. I don’t see anything wrong with “She shifted her feet before bending down” but I don’t know the larger context for the story.
Learn what effect the rule helps you create, then you can decide if the rules helps or hurts the effect you want or not. Breaking the rules should always always be the exception, but rules are meant to be broken 😀