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Aug
6
2015

Take A (Info) Dump -- by Dan Alatorre

Info dumps are when you throw a ton of background or description or whatever at a reader to establish a character. It’s boring to read, and readers can’t remember all of it – so don’t do it.

But, but, but… You have a whole new world on Planet Zena that you built, and we need to know where the bathrooms are! The butler not only did it, but he was the illegitimate child of the homeowner, who sent him off to boarding school!

I know. I get it.

You have to get the information conveyed and you don't want to just have the reader going along without knowing things. And some great movies and books have HUGE, NOTICEABLE info dumps! (Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies, has some. I still love it, and I bet you will spot them now that I mentioned it.) The trick I use is to (A) break the BIG dump up into smaller pieces and (B) have it discussed between characters at a later time. (Readers don’t need everything in chapter one.) That's my main method – conversations - cos my characters talk a lot.

You can also dribble the information in as part of a description of something else (you're discussing Venice and describing its beauty, and tie it in to the MC's hometown or something. That segue allows you some leeway). Once you discover your own comfortable way to do it, you'll be over the hump and not look back. So it's worth it to experiment up front and ask for suggestions from other informed people who read your stories, a.k.a. critique-ers, or “crits.” To make you feel better, allow me to share one of my own foibles. A writer friend and author took pity on me in this very critique group and explained what was wrong. I didn’t figure it out all by my lonesome.

I had a HUGE info dump in The Navigators. Several, in fact. One character was keeping files on most of the other characters, and he was going through them as a device to tell the reader about these people. It was info dump after info dump. Crits ate me alive. I took it all out and found that over the rest of the 30-something chapters, what was needed got in. How?

I made the big info dump into separate files, one per character, and looked at them when I needed some descriptive moments. Little dumps, people don't care about. The files were like reference documents for me. One such little dump was about a privileged college girl who had a big shot father. I took a few hundred words and told everybody all about her and her dad.
Yawn. The fix?
There were a few.

First, I simply had two guys talking about her. One mentioned that the other would have no shot with her, that her daddy was a big politician with eyes on the Florida Governor's mansion and eventually the White House, and that no guy like him was going to be good enough for that kind of girl or that kind of dad. (SPOILER: It wasn't true, and the guy ended up with the girl in the end). Little opportunities like that allow you squeeze in the back story you need. Without looking like it. This added tension (the guy was in love with her) but also explained why her dad was acting the way he was in the story.

The rest of the dump came in when a reporter interviewed the girl. She mentioned that although she could have gone to college anywhere, she stayed in Tampa to kind of watch out for and be close to her dad (her mom had died).
Awww…

Sneaky, huh? Worked like a charm, too. Try it.

 

Check out Dan Alatorre's writer-oriented blog at

www.DanAlatorre.com

and his Amazon author page here.

 

 

Posted by Dan Alatorre 6 Aug 2015 at 01:50
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Responses to this blog

Amaruska 6 Aug 2015 at 16:41  
Info dumps make me squirm. There's one at the beginning of Big Hero 6 (granted, it's a movie so they have to do things differently, but still) where the brothers are talking. Big bro tells little bro about how little bro graduated high school at 13, and little bro informs big bro that their parents died when he was three. It was one of the biggest "As you know, Bob" experiences I've seen.
Readers like to fill in the blanks, and we don't need to write the majority of what we know about our characters and settings. We just need to keep the story moving and maybe weave those details in when they're relevant.
Jenstra 6 Aug 2015 at 18:55  
My kids love Harry Potter, and I'm not going to lie, I love it too. I love the excitement in their eyes when I read to them at night, and the look on their faces as they try and figure out what's going on. JK Rowling is a master of suspense. But, by the time she gets around to actually revealing the who did what and why, their eyes glaze over. Pages and pages of dumping. Even I don't care any more.

That said, I love info dumps . . . in my own rough drafts. Hopefully by the time my book gets published, that information will have been discreetly weaved into the rest of the story (just like you and Amaruska said). I feel like info dumps are a great way to smooth things out in an author's head, behind the scenes.

Jongoff 6 Aug 2015 at 19:03  
Depending on the genre, info dumps are inevitable. How you do them, however is important. One show that did infodumps well was Star Gate SG1 - Colonel Jack O'Neil was the everyman. He didn't understand what was going on with the science, the mythology, et al. So when we needed to know something, so did he. It worked well because it was part of his character, not knowing things. One of my favorite examples is when, shortly after Samantha Carter explains how neutrinos can pass through anything, Jack casually mentions in a staff meeting that Nintendo's can pass through anything. Info dumps, which are a necessity in much of science fiction and fantasy, when handled well can actually add to the story and make characters more interesting.
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Luvrofinfo 6 Aug 2015 at 22:12  
I find it interesting that the examples are primarily from movies — not novels. I'm curious about that.
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"[the importance of the hook] not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only as an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter."

Larrue 6 Aug 2015 at 23:27  
We all love a good dump.
Which, in books, is one the reader doesn't notice, or is well-written enough to keep them interested. Like Dan said, sneak it in here and there, or work hard at making it flow and captivate.
Dan's helped me realize that there is another way to avoid the dreaded Info Dump.
Take a long, hard look at your precious Info, and get rid of some of it. We love it, we think it must be there, but really. . . does it?
Jongoff 7 Aug 2015 at 00:08  
Quote by: Luvrofinfo
I find it interesting that the examples are primarily from movies — not novels. I'm curious about that.


I can think of some in books, but it's a safe bet most people here have seen SG-1 while I don't know if everyone will have read C.S. Friedman's coldfire trilogy. She handles the infodump well. If you have not read this series, remedy it now. She's a great author.



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Bean60 7 Aug 2015 at 03:04  
I tend to write my info dumps as back story, character building, etc. but not as part of the book. When I need part of that story in the novel to explain what's going on, or explain a character's actions or dialogue, I bring it forward, a little at a time.

I think that's what most of you are saying. My original first chapter was a major info dump, and I thought it set up the remainder of the book. But here, and in my local writers' group, I was told to ditch it, and I did. Turns out the second chapter was a much better place to start.

I usually do read prologues, but I find that many authors use them to dump more info than necessary to set up a story.
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Mountain33 7 Aug 2015 at 04:15  
I think he was referring to me. You know, the conversation that starts with, "I have this friend that ... " My info dumps tend to be dropped on rabbit trail after rabbit trail. And, like other droppings on rabbit trails, best avoided. Another talented writer responding to this blog points out my rabbit trails and tells me, cut, cut, cut!

That, I suppose, is my dirty little secret. I lure individuals more capable and talented than me and get them to drag me toward mediocrity.

By the way, thanks Dan, I was two chapters from finishing that book and you went and spoiled the ending for me.
Nico 7 Aug 2015 at 04:41  
One way of avoiding info dumps is by distributing telling details across the text.

The other approach is to make your info dump interesting. If it's engaging enough to capture and hold a reader — what's the problem?

Bad info dumps give info dumps bad names. Good info dumps good stories texture and background and maybe even wow factor and good reviews if the dumped info impresses.

Keep me interested.
Luvrofinfo 7 Aug 2015 at 05:54  
Nico,

I would like to suggest that good info dumps are never called good info dumps — they're called good writing!

That's why we can never find them!
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"[the importance of the hook] not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only as an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter."

Onalimb 7 Aug 2015 at 05:54  
Insight, back story, character experience—they form our characters. They're critical tools in making our creations seem real. Unfortunately, rather than learning to use these tools effectively, many in critiquing circles tell one another to avoid this stuff. The very things that give our characters depth and complexity are too often labeled as info-dump.

Talking about how to use info-dump effectively feeds on the erroneous assumption that action and dialogue are automatically good, description and exposition are automatically bad. It misses the point. When back story and exposition are used effectively, they aren't info-dump. They're critical components to a well-rounded story.

Info-dump is information that is irrelevant or misplaced—ie, placed where it has no relevance to the reader's understanding of the situation.

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Nico 7 Aug 2015 at 06:31  
Quote by: Luvrofinfo
Nico,

I would like to suggest that good info dumps are never called good info dumps — they're called good writing!

That's why we can never find them! <br>



Well right. Opportunities to sprinkle info abound. You can if you want always be leaking info. Dumping, leaking, sprinkling, what a lovely profession....

If a chunk of knowledge simply must be transmitted to your readers, then as long as they're sold on that necessity, and as long as you can hold their attention, then why wouldn't they stick with you? If it must be told, and made front and center, then it's a legitimate part of they story, and being that, it should be possible to find ways to include it. In saying this of course I am trying to convince myself.

Is the concern that a reader will have a problem with how this info is presented, or that a critiquer will call info dump as a technicality?
Luvrofinfo 7 Aug 2015 at 12:06  
Quote by: Nico
Quote by: Luvrofinfo
Nico,

Is the concern that a reader will have a problem with how this info is presented, or that a critiquer will call info dump as a technicality?



Oh, Nico! What a fascinating question! I think it relates to the use of commas, dialogue punctuation, and showing v. telling issues as well!

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"[the importance of the hook] not only as an opening line but as an opening paragraph, not only as an opening paragraph but as an opening page, not only as an opening page but as an opening chapter."

Rellrod 7 Aug 2015 at 20:03  
Onalimb wrote—

Talking about how to use info-dump effectively feeds on the erroneous assumption that action and dialogue are automatically good, description and exposition are automatically bad. It misses the point. When back story and exposition are used effectively, they aren't info-dump. They're critical components to a well-rounded story.

Nico wrote—

If a chunk of knowledge simply must be transmitted to your readers, then as long as they're sold on that necessity, and as long as you can hold their attention, then why wouldn't they stick with you? If it must be told, and made front and center, then it's a legitimate part of they story, and being that, it should be possible to find ways to include it. In saying this of course I am trying to convince myself.

I'm inclined to agree (and I think this is more or less consistent with the original blog post). Personally, I don't at all mind being sat down by the author for a fairly extended explanation of something. But that works best when (a) I'm already engaged with the story and the characters — so that my reaction is something like, oooh, yes, tell me how the Empire got itself into this situation I've been hearing hints about that's threatening our heroes! — and/or (b) the explanation is interesting in itself — entertaining reading, hence good exposition, as Onalimb says.

It's also probably true that some people have a higher tolerance for this sort of thing than others — the ones who enjoy John C. Wright and Olaf Stapledon and the Encyclopedia Galactica entries in Asimov's Foundation. As with any type of writing, it will appeal to some subset of the universe of readers.

Rick
Nico 7 Aug 2015 at 21:28  
One way to weave in and integrate must-have info is by looking for ways the passages, even mere phrases, that you've already written, or that you've yet to write, can be made to do double duty. A similar process to foreshadowing, really. having something important to a given scene appear incidentally in another scene with its own focus.


Peachalulu 9 Aug 2015 at 14:17  
Actually I was just nailed on having my characters use discussion to inform the reader. I have a dystopian world in which the two mcs, girls about ten, are left alone to raise themselves and a baby they find and at the start of the book are telling the baby the story of how things came to be - a story he's been told before. Someone said it was too obvious a technique and that I should dribble the information out to keep reader interest. I have to admit it was a kind of sloppy technique. The critiquer's point was valid.
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Jongoff 10 Aug 2015 at 02:13  
It depends on how you do it.

The Wrong Way:

"Well, Nick, as you know the werewolf plague began when Timmy Evans, a child prodigy who graduated from college with an advanced degree in bio-engineering was contracted by the military to mutate the rabies virus into a super soldier serum. One of the lab dogs got out in the wild after it was infected and bit a human, and the next thing you know, we've got real life werewolves. Luckily we don't need silver bullets to kill them."

The Right Way:

"Damnit!" Nick looked down at his torn t-shirt, blood oozing from the gash in his chest. Steve looked over and grimaced.
"Did it bite you?"
Nick shook his head. "I don't think so." He patted himself while Steve manhandled him looking for teeth marks.
"Strip."
"What? Hell no."
"Don't worry, you're not my type. We have to be sure."
"That I'm not your type, trust me, even if I were, you're not mine."
Steve only glared, arms folded across his chest. The man was a beast with biceps as big as Nick's thighs. If Steve wanted to, he could strip Nick to his skin without breaking a sweat. He swore under his breath but began pulling his boots off, followed by socks and trousers. Steve walked around him with a detached, clinical eye. Pulling the shirt off hurt as the gash in his chest tore open. He swore again.
"Damnit!" he said through clenched teeth. "Whose idea was it to invent invent real life werewolves anyway?"
"They're not werewolves," Steve said as he grabbed Nick's shoulders and spun him around, searching his body with a too familiar eye. It was humiliating. "It's neurotropic lycanthropia, mutated rabies virus. They're people with a disease. They don't change with a full moon, and you don't need silver to kill them."
"I'm not an idiot, Steve."
"You could have fooled me," Steve said, slapping him on the chest, painfully.
"Shut up, it surprised me."
After a few tense minutes of embarrassing scrutiny from his partner, trainer, friend, whatever the hell Steve was, the man grunted and gave him the news.
"You're good. No teeth marks, flabby ass though. You should run more, or at least faster." Steve grinned.
"Smart ass." Nick said as he pulled his boots back on. He left his shirt off while Steve wrapped a bandage around his chest, talking while he worked.
"Timothy Evans, some genius bio guy."
"What?"
"The guy who invented werewolves. I was part of the security detail at the lab where he worked. Top secret stuff."
"Oh really?" Nick's tone was incredulous.
"You don't believe me? I'm telling you, that was his name."
"Oh no, I believe that. I just can't believe anyone ever trusted you enough to give you top secret clearance. You sure you weren't a test subject?"
"Yeah, pretty sure. I'm the asshole, remember. You're the one whose a son of a bitch."
Nick smiled, but felt his head start to spin. The adrenaline was wearing off and he felt the fatigue setting in. He looked at the door, "will it hold?"

So with the second, you'll notice it's longer. It has the same information as the first, but it's delivered conversationally and accomplishes several things. Primarily, it gets the information out that you need and it does it without taking the reader out of the story. It's an infodump, but it's not ONLY an infodump. The characters are fleshed out. We get a hint of some sort of relationship between the two men, we see something of their personalities, and we can insert it into the story without breaking the flow.

By the way, if anyone has an idea for a title for the story I'd appreciate it. It's obviously a twist on the whole zombie apocalypse theme, but with werewolves instead. I'm calling it World War W now, as kind of a joke, but obviously that won't work when I get ready to send it out.

That aside, hopefully this helps show how you can do an infodump conversationally.


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