If you’re writing a book, there’s a lot of information that you need to convey to the reader (the entire story, in fact!). Every page and every sentence is an opportunity to convey that essential information. But what’s the best way to deliver it?
There are 3 main ways of getting important facts and details to your readers:
- Explain it in big chunks of narrative.
- Show the character interacting with it in a scene (for backstory, this would be a flashback).
- Slip the most important bits of information into the narrative and dialogue in small pieces when they’re most relevant.
Conveying Information the Right Way
Out of these three options, option two and three are perfectly acceptable and work great when done correctly. Option one, however, is what we call an “info dump,” and it’s almost always a sign of poor writing.
Info dumps will clog up your narrative, slow down the pacing, kill realistic characters, and worst of all, bore your reader into dropping your book.
In this post, we’ll explain the three most common types of info dumps, what they look like, and how to avoid them.
What Is an Info Dump?
An info dump is when you take information that’s necessary to the reader—or at least information you think is necessary—and drop it in one big chunk on the page. It’s a break or interruption from the story.
Imagine you’re an artist with a detailed sketch in front of you. You’re the author, the sketch is your story. Beside you, you have a table full of the paints you plan to add to your sketch to bring it to full color and life.
These paints symbolize all the information that will make your story three-dimensional: backstories full of motivations, relationships and how they started, all the details of your world and its inhabitants.
You know the sketch would be better with that color, but you might not know how to apply it carefully and skillfully. So instead, you just take each tube of paint and splurge the contents all over the sketch. As you can imagine, the sketch would be completely ruined.
Info dumps take a good thing—all that information you’ve come up with and discovered about your story—and ruin it by plopping it in all the wrong places with no technique.
Types of Info Dumps
With this in mind, let’s get into the three most common types of info dumps:
1. The Backstory Info Dump
Every character has a backstory filled with the information and motivations readers need to know about in order to understand who that character is and why they do what they do.
The problem is, telling their backstory in huge chunks will be extraordinarily boring for a reader to read. That reader picked up your book to read a story with current action, and only wants backstory information that enhances that present action.
Dumping lots of backstory is especially bad when it occurs in the beginning of your story. The reader hasn’t connected to your characters yet, and won’t care about anything in the character’s past until they do. So if you need more detailed backstory or flashbacks, hold off until later.
Now let’s take a look at an example of a backstory info dump.
Example of a Backstory Info Dump
Sally’s parents divorced when she was too young to remember much besides their yelling. After that, her mom moved them from the small beachside town where she grew up to the bustling city several hours inland. They’d been happier there, but something had always called Sally back to the ocean. Which was why, having graduated college and despite her mom’s disapproval, she’d hopped in her used Toyota Prius and headed back to figure out just what she’d been missing.
This sounds more like a synopsis, right? Not something you’d want on a page in your book. It’s all telling, it’s all backstory, it’s not interesting. Even worse, we don’t particularly care about Sally’s rough childhood or her dream to return to the ocean.
So what would be a better way of conveying that information?
How to Fix a Backstory Dump
When fixing an info dump, you need to focus on the core information you’re trying to convey. Take what’s most important and cut the rest, then figure out the best way to convey that core information.
For the example above, let’s make a bullet point list for the information provided:
- Sally’s parents divorced when she was young.
- Sally and her mom moved to the city.
- Sally feels compelled to return to the ocean.
- She’s graduated and is heading back.
- Her mom disapproves.
- She drives a used Toyota Prius.
When you know what info you’re providing, go back through it and decide what’s vital information to the story, what’s context information, and what’s just fluff that can be deleted.
Doing this requires you to know more about your plot and characters, so for the example above, I’ll make up some possibilities.
Say this is a surfer story and Sally’s parents getting a divorce is only being used as the reason they moved away from the ocean. In this case, it would be context info and best slipped in alongside relevant narrative.
As Sally crested the hill, she got her first glimpse of the open ocean in fifteen years. She’d forgotten how beautiful it was, how the waves lapped against the shore. Her dad had never liked going to the beach, a common topic in her parents’ near daily arguments. But while the joy of the beach as a child had been tainted by the divorce, she wouldn’t let it take her joy now.
But what if instead, this was a mermaid romance story? Say Sally was a young Mer kidnapped off the shore by who she later thinks is her “mom.” Her parents divorced because her mom wouldn’t say where Sally had come from and her dad thought her mom had cheated and had a child outside of their marriage.
This is vital information to your story, but is most likely a secret Sally will uncover later in the story. However, it could still fit very well in a flashback scene of Sally overhearing her parents arguing but not understanding. She could also attribute her lack of young childhood memories to emotional trauma from the divorce.
In your own story, categorize each point on your list as vital, contextual, or fluff to be cut. Then rewrite the first two types into the story the way you feel is best. Some points may be difficult to decide and take a while to rewrite, like the longer flashback scene of Sally’s parents, or be simple, like deciding that the car Sally drives isn’t important and cutting the information.
2. Worldbuilding Info Dump
When you hear the term “worldbuilding,” you might think it’s only for fantasy or sci-fi authors, for genres where you’re creating an entire world from scratch. But while worldbuilding is especially important in those genres, it’s still a necessary part of every author’s story.
Every story is going to have worldbuilding, whether it’s of a peaceful town in Oregon or an ancient fantasy world. Worldbuilding is simply the information about the world your character interacts with. More importantly, it’s the information your reader doesn’t know but needs to for the story.
This means that authors in every genre are at risk of worldbuilding dumps.
The best advice I’ve ever heard about worldbuilding is to take it for granted. Write like everything in your world is normal, because to your characters, it is.
Your reader is seeing the world through the character’s eyes, and the character is going to be familiar with a lot of it.
For example, it wouldn’t make sense for you or me to describe the way gravity feels or why it exists. Gravity is natural to us, and it would sound unnatural for us to think about and explain it consciously.
The catch to this is that, while the character and narrative will take the worldbuilding for granted, you still need to slip in the necessary bits for the reader to piece it together.
But remember that it should be pieces for your reader to put together, not large chunks. They’re a lot smarter than you think and will appreciate your trust in their intelligence, instead of spoon feeding them the information.
Let’s take a look at an example of a worldbuilding info dump through dialogue, one of the most obvious and lazy ways to convey information.
Example of a Worldbuilding Info Dump
“Grandpa, why can’t I buy a sword?”
“Well, grandson, that’s because we don’t have enough money since most of it goes to the king’s soldiers. They protect us from the demon creatures that live outside the kingdom walls and attack in waves every thirteenth month of the year, when the second moon is at its brightest. Only the specially trained soldier’s from the royal academy know how to defeat them, and so—”
On and on. I’m sure you get the picture. The problem with this type of info dump is that it feels blatantly unnatural, and we’re getting way too much information at once through telling, without getting to see it ourselves.
Dialogue can be a great way to casually let the reader know information about the world, but the trick is to write something they would naturally say, even if the reader didn’t need that information.
Info dumping in dialogue is at its worst when both characters already know the information, but it’s being restated just for the reader’s benefit.
In the example above, the grandson doesn’t know (or does, and is only asking to complain) the information his grandfather is explaining it to him. But it still feels unnatural.
This is because, for one, the grandson has been living in the world, and likely would have picked up some of this himself, even if he didn’t understand. And for another, it isn’t natural for the grandfather to go on a long diatribe about that information in answer to that question.
So let’s look at how to fix this.
How to Fix Worldbuilding Info Dumps
First, we can list the information again:
- The characters pay a high tax to the king for protection.
- The kingdom is surrounded by walls to protect from demons.
- The frequency of attacks and their timeline.
- This world has at least 13 months and attacks happen every 13 months.
- This world has a second moon that affects the demons in some way.
- Only those specially trained in the royal academy can defeat the demons.
While you often have to tell the reader worldbuilding information through small bits of narration, worldbuilding is most vividly conveyed through the character who interacts with it. If you have that option, choose it.
For example, the grandson could be near the walls during an attack, which would create a tense, high action scene in which a lot of this information could be slipped in.
The grandson could wonder with trepidation that it isn’t the thirteenth month yet and the demons shouldn’t be attacking. He could mention in the narrative that the second moon isn’t at its peak yet, meaning the attack will only get worse throughout the night. He could have a moment of gratitude for the soldiers, or one of guilt for always resenting the high tax price before. He could want to join in the fight but be sent away because he’s untrained.
There are many possibilities for conveying information through real-time interaction in a scene which will keep your reader’s interest high.
So, same as with the backstory remedy, you should go through each point on your list and decide if it’s vital, contextual, or fluff you can delete. Then work on rewriting it by having your characters interact with it in a scene, or tell them in small bits where it’s relevant.
3. Technical Info Dump
Technical info dumps come most often when there is some profession, technology, or just basic knowledge in your story that you think your reader doesn’t know, but should know to understand your story better.
These info dumps also tend to appear when the author has done a great deal of research to make sure the information is correct. You need to add all of that into the book to show you know what you’re talking about, don’t you?
No, you don’t. But I know it’s tempting.
If you slip into this, ask yourself, “How much of this information does the reader actually need to know to understand what’s going on? Would this scene make just as much sense if I cut the detailed info?”
You don’t always need to go into specifics about such things; most often all that’s needed is the core information that contributes to the story.
Now let’s take a look at an example of a technical info dump about pottery.
Example of a Technical Info Dump
Before Vivian could begin throwing her clay, she had to prepare it. Those new to the craft might not have known, but she knew that preparing the clay was essential to remove any bubbles that could cause a crack while firing the piece. Firing was the term for baking the finished clay piece in a kiln, which was similar to an oven. There were several methods of preparing clay, called wedging, but Vivian preferred to use the ram’s head method as it was the first and easiest one she had learned.
Do you know more about pottery than you did before? Probably. Does that help your understanding or enjoyment of the story? Unless you were interested in pottery beforehand, probably not.
How can we make this better?
How to Fix Technical Info Dumps
Back to those questions from above:
- How much of this information does the reader actually need to know to understand what’s going on?
- Will this scene make just as much sense if you cut the detailed info?
You may think the information is interesting, and it may be, but any info in big chunks is boring.
To continue with my paint analogy: The color may be beautiful, but the clump of paint is not. Your canvas will always benefit from having unnecessary paint taken away.
With technical info dumps, you can make a bullet pointed list like before, but there’s often a lot of small detailed information that would be a waste to list out. You can save time by pinpointing the most vital information, keep and rewrite it, and throw away the rest.
For the example above, the most vital information could be that she’s wedging the clay, so when a serial killer breaks in, her hands are slippery and she drops the bat she was about to use as a weapon.
Or if the story is about her being a potter, the reader might need all this information. In this case, keep it, but spread it out with the actions of the scene taking up the bulk. For example, while working she could have a flashback to an embarrassing memory from the first time she made pottery. She didn’t wedge well, and it shattered in the kiln, and ever since then she’s been extra careful.
She could also recount this story to a friend, or it could be told briefly in the narrative as you show her actually wedging the clay.
The information would then be personalized and no longer feel like the reciting of a textbook.
Cutting Info Dumps
Finding and cutting all the info dumps in your story will be a challenge, but a worthwhile one. Without them, your story will flow more smoothly and with more clarity than it ever could have before.
Each character interaction will feel more genuine and your worldbuilding will feel more real, and not like a page out of an essay.
Your canvas will be colorful in all the subtle, skilled ways that bring your art to life, not cover it up.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
- How to Write a Prologue for Your Book in 6 Steps
- In Medias Res: 5 Tips for Starting Your Story in the Middle of the Action
- How to Craft Realistic Dialogue: Six Dos (and Two Don’ts) for Making Your Dialogue Sound Genuine
- Rules for Formatting Dialogue: How to Punctuate and Capitalize Your Characters’ Speech