Aug 13 2009

How to Avoid Info-Dumping

Published by at 1:40 am under Plotting,Writing Articles

Info-dumping is when a story gives too much information, too quickly. Nicole Denis provides a useful introduction to the problem and offers some tips about how to use different scenarios to avoid it.  I have some suggestions of my own.

1.  When characters are conversing, give them an objective of their own, NOT “informing the readers.” This will reduce “as you know, Bob” dialogue where characters speak about information they already know.  Such dialogue is fatal because it lacks urgency– nothing is at stake if both speakers already know the information being discussed.  Contrast that with a conversation where an investigator is trying to grill a hostile witness for information.   High stakes usually make for more interesting scenes.  Another problem when the characters lack in-story motivation is that it compromises the audience’s respect for the characters.  If the characters aren’t doing anything except what the author wants them to do– even when it doesn’t make sense for them to do so– it will be hard for them to suspend their disbelief.

2.  Cut down on exposition. Generally speaking, narratorial exposition is weaker than dialogue, which is weaker than action.  The best way to give the readers information is to show it, not tell it.  For example, let’s say that you’re trying to establish that the country in your story is a dictatorship.  The worst way to do that would be to have the narrator tell us that “This country is a dictatorship.  The police can kill whomever they want to.”  It’d be much more interesting if we could see that.  Show it in a scene with action and dialogue.  For example, how does the main character interact with police?  How do their cops act and speak differently from ours?  Do people duck into alleys to avoid them?  Etc.  These sorts of details are almost always more immersive than narratorial exposition, which is usually a distant overview.

3.  Don’t neglect the search for information. One of the key characteristics of an info-dump is that the story stalls as readers are bombarded with information too quickly.  Emphasizing the hunt will help you pace the information more smoothly.  As the character acquires pieces of information, the story will gradually move forward.  We’ll probably also get more of a sense of why the information matters to the story.  At the very least, it matters because characters care about it.   Ideally, the information somehow advances the character’s main goal.  For example, in the movie V for Vendetta, the cop uncovers V’s backstory because it’s important to understanding and stopping V.  That’s far more gripping than having V narrate his backstory to the audience.

4.  Keep the information brief. Don’t give us paragraphs and paragraphs of information.  If you need exposition, I’d recommend interspersing your lines into a scene with action and dialogue.  The exposition will be easier to digest if it comes in smaller chunks.

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “How to Avoid Info-Dumping”

  1. JZon 13 Aug 2009 at 8:09 am

    One way to avoid infodumping is just simply to be true to the character’s perspective and point of view. If they won’t think about the history of the Kingdom of Whatever because they already know about it, you can’t write about it. If they character that they’re talking to would already know too, then they can’t have a conversation about it.

    I believe in the power of inference. If you hint at things without going into them in detail (in a natural way that fits into the character’s perspective), the readers will often “know” something without realizing that they know it.

    Then later you can have a character say a sentence or two, and, you’ll connect the dots for the readers if that’s necessary.

  2. Nicholas Caseon 07 Mar 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Um, I’m not sure if this is an info dump or not, since Dunimas’s mentor refuses to tell him much, but Dunimas does ask a lot of questions answered by him. Please reply.

    Chapter 12: The Un-chosen One

    “So, um…old man-”

    “Call me Master Yin!” The old man shouted cutting Dunimas off.

    “Okay…Master Yin, can you explain to me what’s going on? I just ended up here after being chased by some red-haired kid with a sword. “ Dunimas said following the old man.

    “To be honest,” Yin began while stopping in his tracks, “The girl did teleport you here and pull you out of the water. I got word she could bring you here, and I paid her to do it. But that’s not important, I have to train you to defeat Haden.” Dunimas stopped in his tracks. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that that day would be the turning point of his life.

    “So…I’m the Chosen One?” Dunimas asked fighting back a grin.

    “Ha! ‘Chosen One’! You’re the very last person I wanted to train to kill Haden.” He chuckled, “Unfortunately I don’t have a choice. You’re the only one eligible to kill him. Your grandparents are too old for a battle like that, they’ll just die.”

    “But-they look like they’re in they’re early 20s!” Dunimas protested. He didn’t want to get his butt handed to him twice by the same guy.

    “Oh, and you only have two hours.” Master Yin added.

    “ ‘Two hours’?! Haden said I have a year!” Dunimas pointed out putting his hands in his head.

    “Assuming that you already knew that the portal lead to a second moon orbiting Earth.” He clarified.

    “Okay, this is too weird.” Dunimas said pacing around.

    “That was why I got you here. This planet is light years away from Earth, so two months here is equal to two hours on Earth.” He revealed.

    “And what if I say no?” Dunimas threatened.

    “Earth blows up, the end.” Master Yin said bluntly.

  3. Snowon 18 Aug 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Personally, I think that there’s way too much dialogue.

    How would Dunimas physically react to getting laughed at? (Ha! “Chosen One!”) Wouldn’t he deflate some? When he thought he was the Chosen One, wouldn’t he puff up with pride? Stuff like that. In a conversation, people tend to react to what’s being said, both verbally and with a whole slew of non-verbals.

    I read somewhere that you guys don’t review fanfic, right? Because that’s all I’m having trouble with right now.

  4. B. Macon 18 Aug 2011 at 8:42 pm

    “I read somewhere that you guys don’t review fanfic, right?” Yeah.

  5. Snowon 18 Aug 2011 at 8:49 pm

    ^^ Other than that, it seems fine to me. You don’t give away too much information; it just feels like too much because of the scant space between one half of the conversation and the other.

  6. Damzoon 19 Aug 2011 at 3:05 pm

    @Snow, you could always put in the same energy used in fanfic into creating your own story, with barriers being the ones you set up yourself. Your characters, your ideas, and a chance at actually being published (because i doubt any publisher would use you because of your fanfic).

  7. Snowon 19 Aug 2011 at 9:49 pm

    @Damzo:

    Yeah, I know. *sheepish* I started writing fanfic because I wanted to get as much practice as possible with banging out words and to get used to the idea of people reading what I wrote. Developing something of a voice, if you will.

    The only reason I’m still sticking with it is that I want to actually finish a project before I get started on another one. Well, that, and I have a couple of readers, and I think they deserve an ending to a story.

    Trust me, I wouldn’t expect anyone to publish me because of fanfiction. (Although my dad still thinks I should send it in. Yeah, riiiiiight.)

    Most of what I’ve been using this site for is the fiction I’m starting to put on the drawing board, so to speak. It just happened that the only info-dump problems I was running into were for the fanfiction.

    Wow. That was an unnecessarily long response…

  8. Snowon 20 Aug 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Hey, B. Mac?

    Can I have a review forum for my fiction? Or is there somewhere else I need to go to ask for that?

  9. B. Mac (Brian McKenzie)on 20 Aug 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I’ve set it up for you here. Please let me know if you’d like to change the introductory text from “Please see the comments below.” (Some authors like to do a synopsis there).

  10. Snowon 21 Aug 2011 at 6:14 am

    Will do. Thanks! 🙂

  11. Echoon 14 Oct 2011 at 10:41 am

    What’s your guys take on relaying background information through a dream? Is it effective, or cheesy and overused? I want to introduce some backstory, but my character isn’t exactly the talkative type and I’m trying to avoid info-dumping.

  12. Crystalon 16 Oct 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Hmm…I guess it would kinda depend. For example, telling the backstory straight out in dreams seems a bit cheesy, but leaving some bits open for us to guess would be okay, I think.
    Also, another thing that I’ve noticed is that dreams are always warped and twisted, so I guess if you kept the audience guessing what was real and what wasn’t, that would be amazing.

    But, yeah. Might be a good idea if your character isn’t too talkative.

  13. Crystalon 16 Oct 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Ugh. I fail at tags.

  14. B. McKenzieon 16 Oct 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I think it could be effective or cheesy–it depends on the execution. (I don’t see it as being overused). To avoid info-dumping, I would recommend keeping the dream as brief as possible and, as much as possible, giving yourself a reason for the dream BESIDES just giving the readers the information. For example, you could use it to develop a character’s push for one of his goals, maybe show something about his personality we didn’t know before, etc.

  15. Echoon 17 Oct 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Okay, I think I’ll go with it for now, see how it looks in the revision. I’ll definitely take what you guys said into account. Thanks for your input!

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