If you follow our blog, you have probably read the post that advised writers to show, not tell, and to stick to one point of view. A related problem that we often find in manuscripts is the dreaded “info dump.”
What is an info dump?
The writer dumps a large chunk of information on the page—hence the name “info dump.”
Info dumps happen most often with…
- historical or technical explanations, so they’re frequent in historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy (long explanations of how faster-than-light drives or magic works)
- setting description, e.g., “She glanced out the window and remembered her hometown…,” followed by a long description of the town where she grew up.
- descriptions of a character’s looks or personality
- character backstory: backstory is everything that happened before the opening scene of your book.
What’s so bad about info dumps and backstory?
The problem with large chunks of information is that they slow the forward momentum of the story. The action stops and nothing is happening while the author explains things to the reader. It’s a form of telling, not showing, and it pulls readers from the story and makes them want to skip forward to where the action picks up again.
Backstory is especially problematic in the first chapter, where the reader isn’t yet caught up in the present action of the story.
Most info dumps also violate the point of view. The POV character is familiar with her world and her past, so she would need a very good reason to think about her home town, her childhood, or the way her magical skills work.
But don’t readers need to know my characters’ backstory to be able to understand them?
Yes, readers need to understand why our characters act the way they do. A character’s motivation is usually seeded in his or her past, so I understand why writers are tempted to reveal a character’s backstory as soon as possible.
The problem is that readers first need to start caring about a character; they need to become caught up in the character’s present before they’ll be interested in their past.
So how do I handle backstory and other information without “dumping” them on the reader?
- Weave backstory information into the story bit by bit, a sentence here and there, not in large chunks.
- Don’t put backstory in the first chapter. Leave it for later.
- Reveal your characters’ pasts gradually. That’s how we normally get to know people we meet—we don’t find out everything about them within minutes of meeting them.
- With every bit of information that you put into the story, ask yourself: Do readers need to know this to understand what’s going on in the story? Do they need to know this now? Tell readers only what they need to know to make sense of the events in the story. Trust readers to get it without being hit over the head with explanations. When in doubt, cut out the information and see if a couple of test readers become confused.
- Reveal information through dialogue. But be careful not to use “As you know, Bob” dialogue, where one character tells another what they both already know, e.g., “As you know, Bob, the past year has been very difficult for me …”
- If characters remember pieces of their backstory, give them a trigger in the present—something that the character sees triggers a memory of the past.
- Imply backstory through action, e.g., if a woman cringes at a raised hand, readers will assume that she was beaten in the past.
- Have readers discover information along with your POV character.
- Resist the temptation to tell readers every little detail about the research you did or the character sketches you made. Follow the iceberg principle: Most of the information you gathered should stay invisible to the reader; they see only the tip of the iceberg.
- Make sure you started the story in the right place. If the backstory you give readers in chapter one is really so important, then maybe you should have started the story with these events.
- Introduce a character who is uninformed and has logical reasons for asking questions. But make sure the character actually plays a part in the story and doesn’t just disappear after you put the information on the page.
- Stay firmly in the character’s POV. Don’t give the reader information that the POV character can’t have or wouldn’t think about in that particular moment.
- Incorporate your setting descriptions into the action. Instead of static descriptions, let the character move through the setting and interact with it. Example: Instead of saying The hall was large, you could write Her footsteps echoed through the hall.
- The same is true about character descriptions. Use dynamic verbs instead of static descriptions. Example: Instead of writing She was a sad woman and had blue eyes, write Her blue eyes swam with tears. And keep in mind that you don’t need to describe the character from head to toe the second we meet him or her. The POV character can notice more details after interacting for a while.
If you have followed our series of blog posts, I’m sure you’re starting to notice how interwoven the different elements of a story are. For example, a good grasp on point of view can prevent info dumping.
Make sure to check back in January, when we’ll blog about more things that make a good story.