Are you guilty of this?

Info dump is the worst sin a writer can make. But what is info dump? And how do you avoid it?

Info dump comes in various guises. As backstory, it is an explanation of what has happened to the characters before the story begins. It shows up, most of the time, in the first few pages of a manuscript, and it bogs the reader down with details he doesn’t need to understand the story.

When I was writing my memoir about my experience in a program that helped 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children find refuge in this country, I came face to face with the info dump monster.

I felt compelled to start the book with the political situation in the island. How else would the reader make sense of my story? I wrote about what gave rise to Fidel’s revolution and what influenced my parents to send me and my brother to the United States after Castro came to power.

“No, no, no. Weave it into your story. Out, out,” my agent said.

It took me a while to feel comfortable taking out information I thought was not just important but necessary.

Since that time, I have learned that info dump is not relegated to backstory. It can show up in descriptions of things, places, or activities. When we fill the page, or pages, with details about a monument, building, town, or the art of piano tuning, for example, what we’re doing is showing off our research. We’re taking the reader out of the story, out of the character’s mind, and dumping him into the world of the writer. Stick to fewer details and how those places or activities impact on the characters instead.

Info dump can also show up disguised as dialogue. It is information the characters already know that sounds awkward when the reader is introduced to it.

Here’s an example:

MIKE

Jon, as you know, Mary and I have been divorced for a year.

 

Since Jon knows this, Mike wouldn’t say it like that. If the information is important to the story, the author must present it in a less clumsy manner, and not just dump it on the reader.

Better:

MIKE

Jon, I am a happy man, but I still feel weird calling myself a divorced man. The catholic thing I guess. But Mary and I got to the point…well, it’s all behind me. A whole year with a smile on my face!

You’ve told the reader that Mike and Mary have been divorced for a year and also that he’s Catholic. Even though the line is longer than the original, the information is presented in a more natural way.

So, be aware of any “as you know” line of dialogue. More often than not it’s info dump. Find a better way to convey the information.

Now that I know what info dump is (my agent will be proud), do I still fall in its trap here and there? Yes!

How about you?

Are you guilty of using info dump in your story?

How do you avoid it?

While you think about it, let me wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

13 thoughts on “Are you guilty of this?

  1. Neat description of something I was vaguely aware of but it just thought of as those bits of writing that feel like wading through mud rather than following the flow…
    Thanks
    Merry Xmas to you too
    Tony

  2. It seems to me like this kind of process could be part of editing one’s natural way of writing. That way, one gets to heal, one step at a time, too. A healing editor could be helpful this way. I really like what you did to change the first statement into the second one.

  3. I admit, I am guilty of info dumping, as you know, being a co-editor of my book, The Ginseng Conspiracy. For me the easiest place to recognize info dump is in dialogue. It took me a while to figure this out, but thanks to you, I did.

    I agree that much of the backstory should be woven into the chapters, as mentioned here, and it often is best to start the story with action. However, I think there are exceptions. In my mystery, the protagonist at the beginning is sitting in a patisserie, thinking about a murder that she witnessed. I think some backstory is in order. And I don’t think the book would have been as good, starting it out with the murder. It needed to build up to it.

    Lorenzo, another informative blog post.

  4. Lorenzo, This reminds me that sometimes more is less, especially when a reader is “taken out of the story.” Excellent post on writing with the reader in mind. Your example brings your point home nicely. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Lorenzo, thank you for sending me to this older post of yours. I love the label “info-dump” –which may help keep the issue alive in my mind as I edit. and, “content that takes the reader out of the story,” is another way to remember. Still tough when you feel you must give some background about a foreign country to the reader. Will have to examine what is truly essential.

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