Info Dumps Aren't Evil
Soon after a new writer dares to reveal their intentions to write a novel, they start to get advice.
"Don't do it! You can't make any money as a writer," says the serious minded business person. (As if a writer had the qualities necessary to make money elseways.)
To newly minted writers, self-appointed literary stylists will often quote such axioms as, "You must strictly avoid –ly words," and "The passive voice is never used by a professional writer."
For the speculative fiction writer, buried among all the "never do its" and "shoulds" will be this little gem: "Avoid info dumps at all costs."
Like almost all writing advice, this pithy little aphorism costs the giver almost nothing to hand out but requires the receiver to decide what to do with it. After all, that advice might be the key to unlocking the whole secret of becoming a writer, and thus it must be considered carefully. I can lose whole weeks worrying about a piece of advice I get from fellow writers.
True story: I was once told that my time frames should never be too specific in a book. In other words, I should never say, "Six hours later…" Rather, I should say something like, "Later in the day…" I spent eight or nine hours worrying about time references in my manuscript, trying to make sure they weren't too specific. In some cases, it was good advice, but in many instances, it didn't help the narrative at all and potentially got in the way. By the end, I found myself tempted to rebel and do just the opposite. "Six hours, three minutes and twenty seconds later…"
I have found that a healthy response to almost all writing advice is to answer it internally with one's own staff attorney. I keep an attorney on retainer in my pre-frontal cortex, just to handle the reams of good advice I am given each day. When given a piece of unwanted but potentially sagacious pith, I simply hand it over to my attorney, and she responds with a two-word, double-spaced, typed memo and a bill for an hour's worth of work. The memo reads exactly the same each time. "It depends."
Like all aphorisms, the command to avoid information dumps holds within it a grain of truth which can improve a speculative fiction writer's prose. However, a couple of recent experiences have caused me to question whether speculative fiction writers have become so afraid of providing their readers with plot, setting, and character information that they are falling off the other side of the cart. After all, there are two sides of the cart when it comes to information and scene setting. Without proper setting of scene, character, and world in a work of speculative fiction, it can become quite hard for a reader to follow a narrative.
Not too long ago, I read an otherwise wonderful work of fantasy. The author had created a world in which there was some form of magic and in which three different races of creatures inhabited the same city simultaneously, each with their own physical characteristics. As a top-notch narrator, he or she held closely to his or her character's point of view, and as such, provided little physical description of one of the main characters in the story. The other characters in the story took her appearance for granted, so they never discussed it clearly. Without this description, it became difficult to picture the character and caused me to struggle to "see" the story in my head.
This author is not alone. There have been other instances recently in which I have read such sparse prose that it felt like the writer was checking boxes while running from one plot point to another without giving any description or information at all to fill in the story. There are some writers who have taken the axiom about information dumps to heart to the detriment of their work.
Almost all fans of speculative fiction are familiar with the other side of the cart. We have all read dreadfully dull passages of prose which go on and on about esoterica that is neither germane to the plot nor particularly interesting. All of us as authors can become so enamored with our world building that we give overly detailed descriptions of time and place without moving the story forward in any way. In science fiction, this can also include long explanations of physics or other astronomical scientific facts.
After all, we have put huge amounts of thought and effort into both our research and our world construction before we ever put down the first word of our story. It is only natural that we want to try and display that work. However, in many cases, our readers aren't nearly as interested in our world as we are. Often, they only want enough detail to keep the sleeping dragon of their disbelief at bay. Anything more and they tend to get bored.
Information dumps can be particularly deadly when done poorly right at the beginning of a book. Here the author wants to both set the stage for the action to come and to introduce their readers to the world they have constructed. The tendency can be to give overly long descriptions and explanations without intertwining enough plot to keep the story moving forward. One of the worst offenders is JRR Tolkien—who also happens to be my favorite author. Tolkien had (literally) several millennia worth of back story upon which to draw when creating his masterwork The Lord of the Rings. Large chunks of it come rolling out in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly in the first two chapters. Tolkien's choice leaves fans like myself saying to new readers, "Stick with it until you get to Rivendell. It will get better. I promise."
The funny thing is now that I love Tolkien and the world he created, I adore the first two chapters of his book. They are rich and wonderful introductions to the characters I love and the amazing world of Middle Earth, but they were a terrible chore the first time I read them. I kept wondering when something was going to happen. I know many readers who have given up on The Lord of the Rings never to return.
So is Tolkien a bad writer because he has lots of info dumps throughout The Lord of the Rings? Uh, no. Last time I checked, it remained one of the top ten most read books in the world.
Let's get rid of this idea that information dumps in speculative fiction are evil. Like a well used adverb, they can improve your prose. In some ways, how much background information an author gives a reader is up to them. It will always be a matter of taste and personal style. Tolkien's style does not appeal to all readers, and for others a sparse "just the facts, Ma'am" approach won't work either. If adverbs and info dumps have fallen out of favor, it is because they are so often abused. The problem isn't that authors give too much or too little information to their readers. Rather, the problem is that too many authors do their information dumps poorly.
So how do you keep a paragraph on setting or culture from becoming boring? To be honest, I am not sure that I have anything definitive to say on that topic. I would love to hear some of your feedback in the comments, because I am sure that many of our readers have great ideas. For now, here are three working hypotheses of my own:
1. Integrate them into your narrative as much as possible. Not all information needs to be given to the reader at one time. One mistake authors make is trying to do too much right at the beginning of the story. It's like trying to explain what "offensive holding" is in American football to someone who doesn't even understand the concept of a "touchdown." Start with the basics and then introduce new information along the way.
2. The more your information dumps relate directly to a story element currently at play in your narrative, the easier it is to hold an audience's attention. In other words, if you want to wander off on tangents, more power to you, but make sure your tangents are interesting to other people, not just yourself.
3. Make your information tell a story. Tolkien had huge amounts of historical background which flesh out his information dumps. His world building often comes in the form of stories and histories from earlier eras in Middle Earth. This lends a rich depth and solidity to his world he couldn't achieve otherwise.
In my own novel, Aetna Rising, I spent some of the first pages talking about the setting: a small, icebound moon, barely habitable for human beings. I made the existence of life on Aetna into a story in itself, explaining the chance forces which interacted to put life where it didn't belong. That helped keep my info dump interesting. The setting has been one of the most loved parts of my book by commenters on Amazon.
What ideas have you used in your own work to convey information without losing your audiences attention? I am interested to hear what you have to say.
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I like to bring out background and info in the dialogue sometimes -- not in long, pedantic monologues, but in a normal kind of back-and-forth between characters that allows them to learn about each other and what's going on; or to reminisce about something so that the reader learns about them.
"This is great apple pie," she said.
"Yeah, just like mom used to make," he replied. (<--momma's boy)
"I wouldn't know." She tossed up her fork, caught it mid-air, and sunk its steel teeth into the baked wedge. "My mom was too busy teaching me karate."
...or something like that. It's a balance though; little here, little there -- mostly try to avoid information "dumps" and focus instead on information "placement."
Great post -- good reality check. Thanks Erik.
That is a great suggestion. Information can be conveyed in so many ways. Dialog is one of them. But what if the information isn't something a character would talk about or something they would take for granted? Sometimes I think authors get too tied to a tight POV and become afraid to just tell stuff to the audience. I think that if it is stuff they need to know they will stay interested.
Thanks, Erik. This is an insightful piece. I do, however, have to pick at one of your points:
Was it Tolkien's info dumps that rendered The Lord of the Rings one of the top ten most read books in the world? I doubt it. And, further to that point, just because a book or series is widely read doesn't necessarily make it well written... Would you also argue that the Fifty Shades series is well written? If so, I believe you'd be in the minority. My point is, you have to judge work on its own, individual merits. Writing styles and prose have evolved over time; few (if any) writers today still write like Tolkien (although, I don't read much fantasy work, so maybe I'm wrong here). Info dumps can have their place, as you say, but only when they contribute to the story. Personally, I think the old adage of "everything in moderation" applies. Too often writers tend to either extreme; too much info, or not enough.
Yeah, it's a danger to think that everything can be conveyed through dialogue, that's for sure, but it's a handy trick when it works.
I still use basic paragraphs as info-conveyor mechanisms. They're typically pretty brief and interspersed with the dialogue to keep things moving. That seems to work pretty well for me and my style. (I also sometimes use -ly words, but sshhh...don't tell anyone)
Have to say that I laughed out loud at this: "Stick with it until you get to Rivendell." -- that's golden.
I was going to mention the dialog trick as well. George R. R. Martin is exceptionally good with it. In his case, however, it is almost always a situation where the POV character is clueless about something, because so many of his characters are either children or numbskulls. So the info dump in question is usually also a great opportunity to endear you to the innocence or simpleness of a character, or to the knowledgeable demeanor of the teacher.
I used to describe characters and settings with major info dumps. Now, I mention little tid bits here and there. Some in dialogue, some in a prose. I've been trying to balance my descriptions.
I hear the "info dump" advice a lot. "Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it!" Yeah, whatever. What I have found, after reading countless blog posts, is that everyone has a set of rules for writing. A lot of the blogs and articles are helpful, like this one. However, the problem with these all of the rules on the internet is this: If you take the advice from all of these blogs and articles, you'd never write a single word. No one can agree on anything. The biggest issue I have is with people who write advice blogs and clearly suck at writing. There is a specific woman who posts examples of "good writing" that are horrid! Yet, there she is selling herself as an expert. Hopefully others see this and do not follow her example. My solution has been to take a "fuck all" approach and write whatever words come to me in the moment. You can always cut and change things later. Getting it down on paper is the most important step, because it is the hardest step.
Something I've found helps is to make the texture of the infodump different. I find the "infodump as dialogue" style kind of grating (not bad, just off-putting), and infodump as narration is terribly difficult to pull off. So I prefer in my reading and writing when a different format does some of the heavy lifting. One example would be the news infodumps in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which are brilliant because the form of the seedy, unreliable broadcasts gives us more information about Oceania than the actual news content. Other examples would be a book, or the transcript of a speech, or even a billboard. Even the untagged conversations that start out some (all?) chapters of Ender's Game make infodumping a lot smoother by merit of style alone. On one level it's just another conversation, but the texture sets it apart and makes it more palatable.
This is all just in my opinion of course. Go ahead and run it by the internal attorney. :)
I am relatively new to writing, but I have just finished my first novel. Info-dumping was something I was concerned about while I wrote and edited it (a zillion times!) I found it worked for me to include my character's reaction to any information I wanted the reader to know.
Describe a building, landscape or task from your point-of-view character's perspective. Tell us what they see, not what you, the author, sees. (Jake loved scuttling back and forth through the revolving door into the Grand Hotel lobby, but the slippery marble floor in front of the reception desk was even more fun to play on.)
If you're writing historical backstory, make sure to connect it directly with your characters every time, or even tell it from their perspective. Make sure to include their feelings about any past event, or tell how it affected them in other ways.
"Info-dumping" is a great chance to develop character as well as set a scene.
The key is to make any part of a narrative-- dialogue, imagery, and backstory-- an organic part of storytelling process. Everyone seems to be on the right track here: release information bit by bit, and when it is pertinent for the reader to know. I try not to rely too much on dialogue simply because revealing important info this way only works if there's a character unfamiliar to the world and he/she requires explanations to move forward. This method still requires finesse, however. Neil Gaiman does it beautifully in American Gods, while Michael Crichton does it rather poorly in Jurassic Park.
I'm reminded of another piece of writerly advice: show, don't tell. That's all fine and well, but sometimes you just have to tell your readers the information they need. Again, so long as it feels organic, if it comes across as natural and doesn't stand out, readers won't care.
The problem comes in not explaining why info dumps are bad. Here is why. If your writing flash fiction where your story is no more than 1,000 words, you can't afford to have aboout 1/3 of the story filled with information dumps.
The reason it works in Lord Of The Rings, is because its part of a three books series. Proportially for short fiction, this would be like explaining details within the first paragraph. There is nothing wrong with this. But when the story is half way about which is the correct bolt to put the loop, I start to lose interest.
Fiction is about having things happen, because other things happen. "Accurate reporting" should not come as a sacrifice for the pacing of the plot.
I'm utterly confused! I'm writing a novel based on my and my family's experience - forced to leave our anchestral home in East Bengal and to take shelter in refugee camps in India enduring much humiliation and life-threatening situations. All these caused after the British left the Raj and divided India into two countries, one specifically for the Muslims known as Pakistan and other part as secular India. My family being Hindus were left behind in Pakistan [for no faultsof our own making, except the British who believed in Divide and Rule policy and pre-partition Indian politicians]. My protagoinst is a 10 year old Hindu girl born/brought up in newly created Muslim-dominated Islamic state of Pakistan who was forced o flee from her birth place to escape from being married to a warlord to become his fourth wife. While living in Indian refugee camp she became interested in Indian history that caused her life up side down. She was curious to know how British went to India and occupied it with treachery and murders and ruled it for over 150 years and how they divided it into two countries when forced to leave it. So she learnt this history from her Headteacher [a historian] and her freedom fighter father. They told her the stories  how British occupied India,  why they divided it into two countries,  how the borders were drawn by the British and  how all these impacted on her and her family's life [like millions of other non-Muslims].
Without being the best info-dumping expert how can I write all these historical facts that affects the protagonist's life? Any help/advice? Arun
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I'm constantly "advised" that info-dumps are bad, don't do it, it'll ruin your publishing chances. Yet, I can cite scores of books, many by renowned authors, where the taboo info dump rears its ugly head. Therefore, the info-dump isn't so much about not doing it as it is about making sure to do it well. Let's face it, virtually all novel length fiction has back story inserted into it somewhere. Sometimes that back story comes in the guise of the taboo info dump simply because it can't be avoided. There is great commentator advice (see above) about the best and most effective ways to insert an info dump into your work. Let this be your guideline. IMO it is better to info dump directly into the story than to write an even longer, more distracting, more irrelevant and boring "prequel chapter" explaining the need for the info dump. Also, in my opinion, it is better to info dump than leave me guessing about character motivation or plot flow. I want to know why something is happening or being done rather than be left guessing- even if knowing is at the expense of an info dump.
So, if you find yourself coming face to face with the specter of an info dump in your masterpiece, ask yourself these two important questions:
Why should I avoid an info dump at the beginning of the story when there are dozens of examples of published works where info dumps appear at the beginning of the story?
Why should I avoid info dumps at all when some of the best literary works in fiction contain one or more info dumps?
Info dumps will only kill your publishing chances if they are done incorrectly and/or are irrelevant to the story.
Need some info dump inspiration to get you through those nail-biting moments of doubt in your own project? If so, think: Interview With the Vampire. Don't get me wrong it's a great book, one of my favorites. But, the entire book is nothing more than an info dump done correctly. Think about it for a moment. Interview With the Vampire is the longest info dump ever published. If Ann Rice can write an entire book that amounts to nothing more than an info dump, then the much shorter info dump in your manuscript stands more than a remote chance in hell of getting you published.
Don't sweat the petty stuff. Keep writing!
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