Reworking Info Dumps
By Lazette Gifford
© 2007, Lazette
Sometimes one of the hardest parts of
writing is getting essential information into the story without
resorting to 'As you know, Bob' references (where one character tells
another something the other character already knows) or creating info
dumps of data (text-book like explanations of something from your
story). Working essential information into a story is an art form all
its own -- and being able to tell what is, and what isn't needed, takes
Often, the problem arises when an
author becomes too involved in the background research on a subject
related to his current novel, and in the joy of learning something
interesting, forgets that the reader hasn't picked up a fiction book
about a man and woman trapped in a cabin in the Rockies with the
intention of learning the minute details of how a snow storm forms.
With very few exceptions, the author
should always remember that the first goal is to entertain the reader --
and while the author might still be able to impart some knowledge
through the book, it can't be in the form of a lecture.
The difference between a boring info
dump of material and an interesting scene which provides essential
information is the interaction of the information and the on-going
The trick is to introduce information
in ways that add layers of detail without boring the reader. Let's
start with a look at something you might find in a mystery novel. The
main character is going to talk to someone about a murder. We can start
with a set of information which needs to go into a scene.
Mr. & Mrs. Thomas
Suburban community with expensive,
but not ostentatious, housing
Cul-de-sac of nearly identical
Mrs. Thomas in the yard
Mrs. Thomas wears long-sleeved
Here is one version:
I drove across town, cursing the heat.
I found that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas lived on a cul-de-sac with identical
well-kept white houses. Mrs. Thomas worked in the yard, dressed in blue
jeans and a long-sleeved white pullover.
This is short, quick and to the
point... but it's boring. There's no connection between the data and
the world of the story. The main character is observing the world, but
he's not a part of it.
So let's try working the data into
something more interesting:
I blessed the air-conditioning in my
car as I drove across town, at least until I saw the heat gauge rising,
and had my worries reinforced by the sight of three different vehicles
pulled over with their hoods up and steam escaping the engine like
djinns let loose into the world. The drivers looked pissed and sweaty.
This wasn't a day for car trouble, so I cut the AC back and opened the
window instead. As long as I kept moving, the breeze felt good across
Arriving in the pricey little suburb of
Ocho at just after one in the afternoon, I found that I still had
trouble finding the cul-de-sac on which the Thomas's lived. I finally
pulled slowly along the little curve of the street, checking the numbers
on the nearly identical, white houses. The yards looked as though they
had been spray painted on, with every rose bush perfectly drawn, and not
a leaf or weed out of place. I wondered if the local residents ever got
confused about which home was their own.
I spotted Mrs. Thomas kneeling by a
planter in front of her door, assiduously moving the little rocks around
the plants, as though they had somehow gotten up and moved out of
position during the night. She wore tight-fitting blue jeans and a
white pull over that clung nicely to her chest, though I thought the
long sleeves looked hot in the sweltering August heat.
Some people assume info dumps are only
present in science fiction and fantasy tales, but -- as the entry above
shows -- they can be a problem with any sort of story. An info dump is
any set of information that is presented as something like a list (the
first entry) and not worked into the fabric of the story. It can come
in the form of anything from a description of the countryside to a
series of events.
There are times when a short info dump,
or skipping some information altogether, can be far better than drawing
the material out over several paragraphs. This is especially true in
scenes filled with action or suspense. You do not, for instance, want
to stop in the middle of a starship battle to carefully explain the
technical aspects of how a proton canon works. If you have made the
battle interesting enough, the reader really won't care how it works --
they'll just want to see it in action.
If a character is going through a
checklist of things that he must do, for instance before he can fire the
starship engines and lift from a world, don't go through the checklist
with him step-by-step, even if you have carefully worked out all the
intricacies of how your ship works, and know that this order of things
is essential. It doesn't matter -- it's still boring. Let him start
and finish the list as quickly as possible.
Tom looked at the two dozen buttons on
the board before him, and began to meticulously work his way through
them, from the in-ship communications systems, all the way down to
firing the engine.
Or here's another case of going through
a sequence of information:
Mark took out the several sheets of
notes he'd taken over the last few days and read them, one-by-one,
starting with the information from the police, and ending with the quick
notes he'd jotted down after talking to Jerry.
The last example is especially good if
the reader has gone through the meetings with Mark and knows everything
he has collected in those notes. If he has collected some 'clue' along
the way, now would be the time to draw that connection by having him
realize the link in the information he's gathered. If he is not going
to find a clue, is there a reason for him to go over the notes at all?
Always consider parceling out the info
dump information over a number of scenes, rather than including it all
in one lump. However, there is one time that you may want to give a lot
of information at once, and this is when you purposely want to hide
something important in with a plethora of lesser news. You might even
purposely make something look more important than it is. Why is Mrs.
Thomas wearing a long-sleeved pullover in weather like this? Or is it
more important to know that she was moving the rocks? If the reader
learns that she has an old scar on her right arm, and is self-conscious
about it, they may not even think again about the rocks again... until
the detective makes the connection and finds a treasure in diamonds
buried there in the rose bushes.
However, even in the case of hiding
something important in a larger group of facts, the information
presented has to be entertaining. Whether giving the information in a
short term or long term balance is dependent on the story. However,
even choosing to do so in a short term presentation is not an excuse for
an info dump.
If your character is at someone's home,
don't describe the person, house, and weather all at once. Stretch it
out over the scene, or over several, if possible. Your readers will
better remember if the woman's hair is red and the sofa brown if they
are not both described in the same paragraph.
Also, if your character walks into a
room, don't list out the interior as though she's taking inventory.
Jane stepped into the living room,
noting the brown sofa and chair, lace curtains, old-fashioned lamps, and
lack of television.
You can easily make a scene like this
into something which works with the character, rather than just
Maria stepped aside to let Jane into
the living room. Sunlight through the lace curtains fell in oddly
shaped spots of light and shadow on everything, making it hard to pick
out the individual pieces. Until she crossed the room, Jane couldn't
tell the sofa and chair were a matching chocolate brown, and not
splotched in odd colors as the light indicated. Two lamps with satin
shades stood on matching end tables, with doilies beneath them. The
room could have been her grandmother's living room, thirty years ago.
Except even her grandmother had had a
television, and there was none in sight here.
It's more than things that get
dropped into info dumps. Information of any sort might end up in such a
passage. History, either short term or long, often shows up as an info
dump, and it can prove to be more difficult to expand into an
interesting scene. In many cases, however, the information doesn't have
to be presented in a single, history-book lecture. Information about
past history of a person or a country can be parceled out in ways that
actually makes it more relevant to the story by tying the past events
closer to something present in the plot line. After all, if the past
has nothing to do with the present action of the story, there's no
reason to relate it all. As writers, we sometimes want to show the
readers everything about this wonderful world we created... without
considering how so much of it will sound like a rather boring, history
Many writers, especially in fantasy,
want to start their books with just such a history lesson, and tell how
the people of the Lands of Berto had fought long wars with the people of
the Island of Salina. The author will often assume that unless the
reader knows the fractious history of the two lands, they won't realize
the significance of the Salina ship sailing into the bay and people
daring to come ashore for a meeting.
So they write three pages, or more, of
history about how the Island had been settled by the people of Berto,
how they'd gone to war within a hundred years, how they plundered each
other's ships, raided villages along the coasts of both the mainland and
the island, and in general did not really get along well.
The problem is, even if it makes it
past the publisher and is in the book, a good many people will skip the
Besides, there is a far better way to
impart this information to the reader than the Prologue History Lesson.
Rohan stood on the dock and watched as
the Salina ship made port. The last time he'd seen such a ship, he'd met
it with sword in hand along with several hundred others of the King's
Best, holding them off on the coast to the south. He'd lost his
shield-mate in that battle, but the Salina had lost over half the
invasion force. They'd pulled back -- but everyone knew they would come
again. They always did.
But here they came, but this time with
no weapons in hand, no swords at their sides... and the sight made Rohan
shiver more than he ever had in battle. The world had changed.
Wouldn't that be a far more interesting
way to start a book, rather than with a dissertation of facts: Two
hundred years ago, the country of Berto founded a colony on the island
of Salina (etc.).
The rest of the history about Berto and
Salina could be parceled out in small pieces, building a background that
is more likely to be remembered by the reader because it is integrated
with the story arc rather than a separate passage. Giving the history
at the start, or in large chunks anywhere in the novel, isn't apt to
stay with the reader as well as it will if you tie it into the current
One last, common form of info dump
comes as descriptions of people, including the point of view character,
though it is especially prevalent when introducing secondary
characters. Writers often fear the reader won't remember the characters
unless they are fully grounded in what the character looks like... but
that's not true. It is far better to create a 'tag' that identifies
your secondary character than a list of attributes, and to note only
essential features. Tags might be a nervous gesture, an unusual scar, a
repeated word, or anything of the like which is different from any other
character in the book. Readers are perfectly capable of imagining a
tall, raven-haired woman, without listing out her exact height, weight,
facial shape, etc. In fact, readers are quite capable of filling in the
many gaps of a description, and do so in ways that make the person
interesting to them.
Save your information for the really
important things your readers need to know... and be certain you relate
it in an interesting enough way that they remember what they need to in
order to enjoy the story.
Imagine you are writing a novel where
the room in which you now sit is a vital part of the story. Make a list
of five to ten things from the room that you would include in the scene,
and then write a non-info dump description. (Hint: Even if you list
them, that doesn't mean they must go into the scene. Part of the
art of writing information is to leave out the nonessential parts.)
Stepping through the door into the tiny
office, his first reaction was a feeling of utter chaos. Books, teddy
bears, scattered papers and envelopes, and a computer shared the
too-small desk -- along with a long black cat who had stretched out with
one back leg dangling over the keyboard.
The rest of the room proved to be no
better, with every crevice and corner filled with books, papers and more
stuffed animals. And more cats, he realized, as one lifted his head
from the top of a book case, giving him a lazy, blue-eyed stare.
Try doing this exercise with a number
of different factors -- history, character description, or technical
information -- and work on the knack of writing information into a
scene. In this workshop, I've only written the material into short
scenes, but remember that one of the effective ways to avoid info dumps
is to spread information out over a large section of the story.