Aug 13 2009
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.