The Trouble with Infodumps
By Michelle Barker
If you’ve ever read a novel and realized you’ve been going over the same paragraph (or page) five or six times and can’t seem to get beyond it, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled upon an infodump. Likely, the paragraph or page in question is packed full of information the author believes it is imperative for you to have (and remember) in order to understand the story.
In case you’re not sure what I mean, here is an example from a fantasy novel I actually quite liked (apart from this paragraph), called Graceling, by Kristin Cashore:
The kings of Wester, Nander, and Estill—they were the source of most of the trouble. They were cast from the same hotheaded mold, all ambitious, all envious. All thoughtless and heartless and inconstant. King Birn of Wester and King Drowden of Nander might form an alliance and pummel Estill's army on the northern borders, but Wester and Nander could never work together for long. Suddenly one would offend the other, and Wester and Nander would become enemies again, and Estill would join Nander to pound Wester.
Yes, this provides (possibly) necessary information. Yes, it tells us about the world of the story. But it doesn’t do anything to develop character, doesn’t advance the plot, and doesn’t really help the reader because there’s so much information crammed into this paragraph that we’ll have no hope of remembering it all. And it’s not presented in scene. It’s presented as information. Readers don’t pay attention very well to that kind of material because we can’t visualize it. We pay attention to what gets dramatized or shown.
Contrast that paragraph to the moment in A Game of Thrones when the characters first encounter a direwolf:
Half-buried in bloodstained snow, a huge dark shape slumped in death. Ice had formed in its shaggy grey fur, and the faint smell of corruption clung to it like a woman’s perfume. Bran glimpsed blind eyes crawling with maggots, a wide mouth full of yellowed teeth. But it was the size of it that made him gasp. It was bigger than his pony, twice the size of the largest hound in his father’s kennel.
“It’s no freak,” Jon said calmly. “That’s a direwolf. They grow larger than the other kind.”
Theon Greyjoy said, “There’s not been a direwolf sighted south of the Wall in two hundred years.”
“I see one now,” Jon replied.
What’s the difference? Well, reader engagement, for one. I bet your mind didn’t wander away from this passage. Martin doesn’t give us a history of direwolves. He doesn’t explain their biology or any of the other things another writer might be tempted to do. He brings us directly into the moment and SHOWS us what this creature is like.
Fantasy and historical fiction writers beware
While every genre is susceptible to the problem of info-dumping, it is most commonly an issue in speculative and historical fiction where world-building is of prime importance. The infodump problem is also related to the amount of time an author has spent researching a situation/place/occupation. The more work you’ve done, the more you’ll be tempted to include it in the novel. Forensic science, the biology of the cool creature you’ve created, the history of the game your characters are playing—either you want your time to pay off and everyone to admire what you’ve done, or you’re worried that readers won’t “get” it without all the extra information.
Introducing readers to a whole new world, with significant differences from our own, is a difficult thing to do. The infodump makes it easy. You simply take a couple of pages and explain it, which is why infodumps so often show up either in prologues or first chapters.
What’s wrong with a little explanation?
Infodumps are boring! Readers want to be immersed in the moment of the story. They want to feel like they’re standing beside your main character while all these exciting things happen to them.
Infodumps also fail to create an emotional reaction in the reader. Most are written in a way that is cold and flat—the difference between Cashore’s paragraph and Martin’s scene. When you fail to engage a reader’s emotions, you fail to engage the reader.
An infodump is telling. It is the delivery of information as information which stops the story dead. It feels like writing. The reader knows they’re reading a story, but they don’t want to feel like it’s a story. Infodumps call attention to themselves because they’re unnatural asides from the author. It’s like the director of a film stopping the movie to say, “Hey, wait a second, let me tell you what’s going on…”
Readers are smart. They don't need to know everything right from the beginning. The most important job you have in your opening chapters is to hook the reader into the adventure. Start where the story starts. The only information you deliver should be relevant to the present moment. Proceed with information on a need-to-know basis only. Ask yourself, what does the reader need to know RIGHT NOW?
How do you know if you’ve got an infodump on your hands?
In an infodump, nothing happens in the moment of the scene. Often, infodumps are passages in which a character is thinking about the past (backstory) or they’re delivering facts about the characters or the world. If you think of it in terms of a movie, ask yourself what the camera is doing. If the action has stopped so that your main character can explain what’s going on, this is an infodump.
The most common things to infodump about are:
- magical systems
- character backstory
- rules or laws of a city/country/world
- procedures or any kind of research information
- personality traits
- fantasy creatures/races
How much is too much? Some people will say that a paragraph of straight-up explanatory information is too much, but I’m even stricter. More than two sentences and my eyes glaze over.
How do you avoid info-dumps?
Here are a few strategies:
- Look for anything that isn’t happening in the moment.
- Figure out what needs to be explained only at that moment of the story.
- Trust your reader to catch on.
If you’re really not sure, test your material on a cold reader and see if they get it. We tend to become too familiar with our fictional world and lose perspective on how much of it actually needs to be explained.
Infodumps in dialogue
Trying to sneak your information into dialogue might work if your character is speaking to someone who legitimately doesn’t know things. But more often than not what gets created is an “As you know, Bob.”
“As you know, Bob, we’ve been living in this city for ten years.”
“As you know, Bob, Jane is my wife.”
The trouble is, we don’t generally tell people things they already know. The only reason for this kind of dialogue is to transmit information to your reader. It’s an infodump in disguise and it doesn’t fool anyone. If you catch yourself starting any dialogue with, “Everyone knows that…” just stop. You’re doing it.
Dialogue should always contain tension. It’s not impossible to imagine a situation in which the transmission of certain information might contain tension (the code to the ringing alarm; how to dismantle the bomb), but usually, information is flat and boring and works just as poorly in dialogue as it does in exposition.
If you have information that must be conveyed by telling…
Here are a few ways to transmit information effectively:
- Integrate it into the scene as much as possible. Make it relevant to something that is happening in the moment. Then it helps to move the plot forward.
- Add tension: Make the information something that causes problems for the characters. Show their reaction. This engages the reader. If the information matters to the characters, it will matter to the reader.
- Write it in such a way that it conveys something about a character’s personality. Then it adds to character development.
- Keep it brief—a sentence or two maximum.
- Break it up. Don’t stick all your telling in one spot. Sprinkle information throughout a scene. Only tell the reader the minimum of what they need to know.
An example of telling that has been done well comes from Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand. This section is at the beginning of the book, narrated in this part by the djinni, Bartimaeus, who has just been summoned by young Nathaniel:
The kid spoke. Very squeakily.
“I charge you...to...to...” Get on with it! “T-t-tell me your n-name.”
That’s usually how they start, the young ones. Meaningless waffle. He knew, and I knew that he knew, my name already; otherwise how could he have summoned me in the first place? You need the right words, the right actions, and most of all the right name. I mean, it’s not like hailing a cab—you don’t get just anybody when you call.
The author has told us some information on how to summon a djinni but has done it in such a way that it gives us an idea of Bartimaeus’s character—and Nathaniel’s. The voice is powerful, and Stroud keeps it brief.
Read your work out loud
If you want to see why infodumps are boring, try reading one out loud. Imagine you’re reading to a crowd and think about how many of them might be dropping off to sleep. And then, do yourself and your readers a favor and cut it down to size—or just take it out.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.