What Is Infodumping? And How Can You Avoid It?

Two summers ago, I started watching Lost. Two Christmases ago, I finished season 2. I’ve already been told not to expect resolution for pretty much anything, so I have been delaying watching the rest of the series so I don’t get too emotionally attached and start having expectations of answers. As a result, I’m still working my way through season 3. I watched two more episodes earlier this month after an 8-month hiatus. Thankfully, there’s the “previously on Lost” montage to get me caught up quickly.

Wikipedia has a fun name for the aforementioned previously-on-Lost montage: infodumping.

Dump Truck

Photo by JD Hancock (Creative Commons)

Infodumping is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Imagine you’re under a bucket of water, and someone pours the whole thing on top of you. Now imagine a bucket that’s ten times larger, and imagine that you’re being drenched in exposition instead of water.

Infodumping is what happens when the author gives the reader a massive amount of background information in a matter of pages instead of letting the story unfold. It’s generally not good.

Places Where You Might Be Tempted to Infodump

Aside from getting a viewer reacquainted with what has happened so far this season on The Good Wife, infodumping can be used effectively in comedic works of parody or satire. It can take the form of an “as you know…” lecture, in which one character tells another what has been going on for the past fifty pages, in case the reader hasn’t been paying attention.

This conversation would never realistically happen. A cousin of the “as you know…” lecture is the villain monologue, which thoroughly explains the villain’s evil plot for destroying the world/kidnapping the princess/eating the last cookie. God forbid the reader be smart enough to pick up on subtle hints along the way.

Moral of the story here: infodumping is bad. Lost is good. At least through the first half of season three.

PRACTICE

Remember what we just told you not to do? Go forth and infodump like it’s your last opportunity to do so, because it very well may be. Write for fifteen minutes about the first day of spring. Post your block of exposition in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • http://fantasy-schmantasy.blogspot.com Susan Chambers

    Infodumping can be hard to avoid, particularly when you’re writing in a world you’ve built (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc). My editing efforts have been largely focused on getting rid of infodumps and still finding ways to get the information across. I’ve turned to Margaret Atwood as a source for figuring out how to inform readers without infodumping. She is wonderful at slowly letting a world build itself without trying to drop the whole thing on your head.

  • L.E. Hollis

    It is the “dump” that is bad, not the “info.” Information may be necessary, even enlightening or entertaining, but dumping it all on a reader without regard to context, dramatic relevance, timing, tension or necessity can turn good info into an infodump.

  • Kari Kilgore

    I actually love the info dump when I’m writing a draft. All the members of my reading group are finding the same. We can catch each other’s info dumps, and THAT is where the gold mine of the story often lays. All of us have had several scenes come out of those wordy passages, or even new stories. I’m convinced if we tried to stop the dumps as they happened, we’d miss the true heart of our writing.

    • http://www.finallywriting.com/ Jackie

      Kari~I agree! Drafts are so important because they allow us to spontaneously create, allow for the info to dump and for the story to emerge out of those moments. When we go back and edit drafts, that is when the dumps need to be distilled and polished so the gold can be mined from them.

  • Michael Cairns

    I’m with Kari on this. Particularly as a writer of scifi and fantasy, it’s great to info dump as you go, when the ideas are coming thick and fast. Of course, you have to go back after and throw them all away, but better to have it and cut it, than forget it!

  • http://www.darrellwolfe.com @DarrellWolfe

    Oh My! I’m SO guilty of this as a writer. Even as a Sales Person (My Day Job) my boss has specifically asked me to stop “Info Dumping”! Thanks for the reminder!

  • http://www.darrellwolfe.com @DarrellWolfe

    One thing I’ve been working on is just writing and writing. Then using those back-stories to create the real story. Most of those original back stories never make it to the final product, at least that’s my goal.

    One Recent “Just For Practice”:
    http://authorfun.blogspot.com/2014/03/dr-leona-tesla-phd-organizational.html

    *****
    They started cropping up everywhere. It was one thing to have a healing line at a Church and have people healed of unverified things, “feeling better” didn’t really account for a miracle in her mind. But this latest phenomenon was something else. She wasn’t sure what yet, but it was something else.

    Dr. Leona Tesla received her PHD in Organizational Behavior from Harvard.

    http://www.hbs.edu/doctoral/areas-of-study/organizational-behavior/Pages/default.aspx
    The Organizational Behavior program is presented jointly by the faculty of Harvard Business School and the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The program combines training in the theory and methods of psychology and sociology, the study of business administration, and empirical research on organizational phenomena. Students have the choice of focusing their research at either the micro (i.e. psychological, interpersonal) or macro (i.e. sociological, organizational) level.

    Dr. Tesla did her Doctoral Thesis on the group dynamics of healing ministries, debunking most as pure fakes and frauds, and others as well intentioned but benign entities.

    “I wouldn’t say I’m on a mission to debunk them all…” She confided to her friend, “… I am merely on a search for the truth. These people should want truth just as much as I do. After all they are putting their trust, and money, into this stuff.”

    But now, sitting in her office staring at this new growing trend, she was perplexed. These were no slick suited preachers asking for money in exchange for a laying on of hands. They weren’t even holding services. These were, from all outward appearances, every day men and women. They were Doctors, Lawyers, Mechanics, Servers, Cashiers, and Janitors. They came from all back grounds. They came from all over the country.

    The stories intrigued even her skeptic mind, if for no other reason than the sheer number of them.

    Take for instance the case study of Gwendolyn Manning. She was an 87 year old widow. She’d been brought to the store by her care worker to buy groceries. “My favorite outing of the week” she said.

    The grocery clerk that was stocking the shelves stopped to say hello, “Like he does every week” Gwen recounts.
    “But this time he’s just happier, you know darlin’, like he got a pep in his step!” Gwen smiles. “He reaches his hand out to take mine and says,
    ‘Can I pray for anything today Gwen Dear?’,
    I says to him ‘Well, you know it sure would be nice to heal up from these surgeries and walk again… but Doctor says that isn’t in the card no mo’.
    ‘Well Gwen, you know anything is possible for God.’
    Then he reaches out to touch my hand and says ‘Gwen, be healed, and walk again, in Jesus Name’, then he smiles really big and nods. He goes back to stocking his shelves. Well I didn’t think anything of it. Until a few isles later I saw something I wanted high on the third shelf up and my aide had gone to another isle, and almost like a gut reaction I just stood up to get it myself. I was putting it in my cart and walking with the cart down a few feet to get something else I just had to have when my aide screams from the end of the isle…
    “Ms Gwen! You’re Walking?!” She looks shocked and happy and scared all at the same time!
    “Well, I said, so I am. And I just kep’ walking down the isle, and I walked right out that store, and my aide had to bring the electric wheel chair herself and I aint stopped walking since. Honey, I walked three miles yesterday in the rain! Just because I could!”

    What an odd encounter. She interviewed the woman’s doctors, examined pre and post XRays. The metal that had been installed in the womans hips was completely missing, and brand new bones had replaced it. The metal had vanished. It was the oddest thing she’d ever seen.

    But once Dr Tesla put out the article in the classifieds, and put a paid Facebook add out asking for verifiable testimonies of healing, account after account had come in to her office. 85% of them she normally through out, but this week her mail box had exploded. She had to shut down her ads due to overwhelming response.

    Gwen was just one such case. In most church cases there is nothing more than a placebo effect on a mass group scale taking place. That was the conclusion of her research. But now… well now some other phenomenon was in play. She wondered to herself for a moment if she’d been watching too many episodes of Alpha’s and had lost her skeptic edge?

    This would need to be verified more. She was going to need to bring in help. Someone with an even higher degree of skepticism than hers. Maybe even someone with a vendetta to prove them wrong, that might just balance her current situation. Because she found herself being swayed, ever so slightly, by what she was seeing. A stronger skeptic around might not be a bad idea.

    It’s time to call Aaron Worcheskivitch “Skeptic At Large”.

    *****

    Any thoughts writers?

  • Pingback: Less is More | Write on Time()

  • Joanna

    Love the article! Mentioned you on my blog http://writerlamb.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/less-is-more/

  • George McNeese

    I find it hard to info dump, especially on short stories. You have limited space to tell your story, and you have to give the reader as much info as possible.

    Like most people, I’ll info do on my drafts, then go through and take out what I don’t need, which is mostly unnecessary descriptions of characters and settings. As I said, hard to do in a short story.

  • Wanda Kiernan

    Infodumping is a great way to find the golden nuggets. I enjoyed the exercise finding boundless info via Google and in Wikipedia. I was very tempted to infodump more than I actually ended up doing. Here’s my practice:

    A remarkable thing happened to Farmer Frank on March 20th, the official first day of spring, also called the spring equinox. An equinox occurs when the plane of Earth’s Equator passes the center of the Sun. At that instant, the tilt of Earth’s axis neither inclines away from nor towards the Sun. The two annual equinoxes are the only times when the subsolar point—the place on Earth’s surface where the center of the Sun is exactly overhead—is on the Equator, and, conversely, the Sun is at zenith over the Equator. The subsolar point crosses the equator, moving northward at the March equinox and southward at the September equinox.

    This remarkable thing happened during the spring equinox on Farmer Frank’s 46 acre farm in Walden, NY. The farm or his agribusiness included crop production
    (farming and contract farming), seed supply, agrichemicals, breeding, farm
    machinery, distribution, processing, marketing, and retail sales. As mentioned, it was located in Walden, NY which is the largest of three villages of the Town of Montgomery in Orange County, New York, United States. The population was 6,978 at the 2010 census. It has the ZIP Code 12586 and the 778 telephone exchange within the 845 area code.

    At exactly 4:57 p.m., the actual start time of the spring equinox, that instant when the tilt of the Earth’s axis neither inclines away from nor towards the Sun, Farmer Frank walked out to the apple orchid he planted last spring with young trees to find that the Golden Delicious apples were ripe for picking. It normally took two years and lots of
    tending before the trees produced fruits. He picked one of the large yellowish-green skinned Golden Delicious apples. He handled it gingerly as the apple was prone to bruising and shriveling, so it needed careful handling. Farmer Frank liked adding apple slices to his salads, or baking them to make apple sauce, and apple butter.

    These apples were obviously a freak of nature. He brought the apple up to his nose and smelled it. It smelled sweet, just as he anticipated. The yellowish-green skin was a perfect hue. So except for the timing, the apple looked perfect. His mouth started watering. He felt excited. His golden goose, was a golden apple tree. He forgot all about his farmer knowledge, everything that made him a successful owner of an agribusiness, everything he trusted and knew about nature, and took a big bite of the Golden Delicious apple at 4:57 pm. And that’s when it happened….

    • Jay Warner

      I found myself compelled to read on… to find out what happened at 4:57 p.m. on the Spring Equinox, in the field in Walden, NY, where Farmer Brown had just bitten into a Golden Delicious apple. Very entertaining and a pleasure to read. Would still like to know what happened.

  • Jay Warner

    Here’s an info dump example from my latest WIP. It’s been bothering me for a while, but I realized that writing it helped me galvanize the back story in my mind. Most likely none of it will survive into the finished book, but bits and pieces might pop up as “show” instead of “tell”. By the way, the genre is historical fiction. So cringing, here it is:

    He knew he ought to become more familiar with his father’s business. The days were
    slipping by fast and Sir James was a very sick man. Thomas had no idea what he was
    going to do. Or rather, he had an idea, but wasn’t sure if it was something he could do.

    The Lynch family owned several small estates in County Clare and on the east side
    of Ulster, all of them less than 100 acres, but all of them profitable. Their ancestor,
    who was also named James Lynch, had been an ardent supporter of the Protestant
    movement to subdue Ireland and abolish Roman Catholicism in Britain. In gratitude,
    King Henry VIII handed over land grants to his supporters, and thus James Lynch
    became an Irish landowner.

    King Henry VIII was recognized as the monarch of Ireland by some Protestant powers in Europe, although not by the Catholic monarchies who only recognized his daughter Mary I as Queen of Ireland as sanctioned by the pope in 1555. The Kingdom of Ireland ceased to exist at the end of 1800, as Ireland joined with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on the first day of 1801. And it was in the first month of that same year that title to a vast land holding was granted to Sir James Lynch.

    Thomas was born in 1816, the year after his grandfather died, and knew from the day he could stand and talk that the legacy of Ireland would be his. That he was born in Ulster was looked upon as both a blessing and a curse. His mother was born there and it was during a period of time when his father took a great interest in visiting his land holdings near Ulster (not the bogs of County Clare where much less grew). That he fell in love with a beautiful girl who was not descended from an aristocratic magnate, but the daughter of a manufacturer in the city. They fell in love and married in Ulster against his father’s wishes. He was supposed to be in London learning the landowner business, but instead he was mixing with the Irish and becoming a little too sympathetic.

    A tryst turned into a marriage and Thomas James Lynch was born. He was still in breeches when his mother, great with child, became gravely ill and took to her bed, losing her baby and her life. She was buried alongside the Protestant Church and in grief, Sir James could no longer ignore the legacy that was his.