Have you ever been given feedback that there was too much info dumping in your story? Did you not really understand what that meant?
Info dumping is a common piece of feedback for authors who include too much information in their stories. If you info dump, you will slow the pace—and worse, you'll likely bore readers. You never want to bore your readers.
So how do you know when to include a “chunk of info” and when it is better to strip your scenes to the bone? (Almost always, by the way.)
In this article, you can learn what info dumping is, along with some common ways writers accidentally do it. You'll also learn some editing questions that can help you condense your writing, leaving your reader with only necessary information that develops characters or advances the plot.
A Common Writing Mistake: Info Dumping
When I first started writing, I absolutely info dumped, something not uncommon for new writers (and especially for a science fiction author or fantasy author—all that world building, you know?).
Although I wasn't told that I info dumped in so many words, I remember being super excited to share part of my YA fantasy story with an agent after attending a Writer's Digest workshop. I edited the opening scene multiple times. I had other people read it for mistakes. I hit send, and—
I was told I needed to show, don't tell. Whomp, whomp.
If you've ever been given this advice, don't fret! It mainly means that you're info dumping and that the story doesn't need to include all the details you've shared.
While any revision work is hard work, I promise that when you learn how you info dump you can become more conciseness on when to not to info dump in your story. Cleaning up areas where you info dump will make your story smoother. It will make the reader's experience far more enjoyable. And you will be way prouder of it than you ever were before!
To do this, you need to figure out how to trim your scenes instead of bombarding an entire scene with uninteresting and weightless details. Let's learn how to identify info dumping, and ways to avoid it.
Definition of Info Dumping
Info dumping 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.
It's generally a mark of lazy writing (not good), and more than often will disinterest your readers (really not good), which could lead to them giving up on your book.
3 Common Types of Classic Info Dumping
Here are some common ways a writer info dumps in their story:
1. Blocks of Info in World Building
Sometimes writers think that they need to explain everything to a writer instead of trusting the reader's intelligence. In these cases, they often drop “chunks of info” in a scene because they think that if the writer doesn't get all these details, they won't be able to make sense of what's going on.
Usually this isn't the case, and the information drowns the scene instead of enlightens the reader.
World building info dumps most commonly happen in exposition. They substitute action with wordy details about everything in the setting or history of the world. More often, putting a character into action with their setting is a far better way to show a story's world rather than tell a reader what makes it special.
Think about this. Even in opening scenes with massive worldbuidling, like Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games or any of Brandon Sanderson's epics, the primary focus for the scene is on the protagonist trying to do something, not District 12's life history. We get to know District 12 because of how Katniss navigates the woods and avoids Peacekeepers and shops at the Black Market.
Sure, it's important to give a reader some information about what makes District 12 special (and deprived)—but we only really learn about District 12 when Katniss interacts with her home.
Avoid giving the entire history of your story's world. Instead, allow us to get to know the world through either shallow or steep world building.
For shallow world building, think Harry Potter, where we learn about the world and the School of Wizardry with Harry.
For steep worldbuilding, think The Ways of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson, in all his books, assumes the reader gets what he's talking about and keeps going. You need to trust the reader's intelligence and imagination with steep worldbuillding, meaning you don't explain everything and instead focus on the plot as it charges ahead.
Writer's tip: Putting a character into action doesn't mean every scene needs to be a car chase, but a character should be trying to accomplish or do something. When obstacles get in the way of this movement, there's conflict. Conflict is what forces decisions. And decisions are what make a scene by developing characters and advancing the plot.
You can learn more about basic, important scene structure in the six elements of plot. Or, read more about how to establish the setting in your story in this article.
2. Character Info Dump
Have you ever read a book with a classic character exposition info dump? The kind of introduction of a character that explains every detail about them, from their childhood to the radiant blue color of their eyes?
Character info dumping is probably one of the more popular ways writers info dump. They think they need to give a complete breakdown of every physical and emotional detail about the character.
Spoiler alert: you don't.
It's much better to introduce a character, as I mentioned above, through action rather than description. Sure, it's great to know a defining feature or quirk about a character, like Katniss's braid or Zelie's white hair (Children of Blood and Bone) or the radiant smile of Jay Gatsby:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.
—The Great Gatsby
But what's really going to hold a reader's interest isn't what they look like—other than those few defining features. It's what a character does—how they act and treat others.
To avoid character info dumping, allow the scene to unfold in a way that challenges the character from getting what they want. Focus on how a character makes decisions, not physical descriptions.
Avoid an emotional info dump, too. In these dumps, a reader might find themselves thinking, “Wow, this character is super whiny.” Which means they will start to get annoyed by the character and how much they're complaining or sharing.
I'm a big believer in internal character arcs. I argue that stories aren't masterwork-worthy unless the internal arc is as intriguing and important as the external events driving the plot.
Still, in most manuscripts I've edited, you can eliminate at least a third of those internal tangents. As a tip, if you can say something in ten words instead of five hundred words, the shorter option is almost always the better choice.
Read more about how to develop a character in this article.
3. Dump Through Dialogue
Avoid long paragraphs of dialogue at all costs. A novel is not a script—and even in a screenplay you'll notice that characters have way more conversations that break up dialogue than giant monologues.
Sure, there are opportunities in novels where you might need that big speech. Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of when lengthy dialogue is appropriate—when the reader will hang onto every word instead of skim whatever is being said.
“In the name of God, do your duty.”
—To Kill a Mockingbird
However, dialogue is, more often than not, far more interesting if it's broken up with (shocker) action (a character doing something while they talk—body language can be as emotionally effective as words themselves) or other dialogue (create a conversation instead of a wordy explanation of something).
When you're writing, flag any areas of lengthy dialogue in your books. Then, ask yourself if you need to really have the character say everything, or if it could be discussed with other characters. If it's not the time for a conversation, see if you can replace content with actions that show instead of tell, like:
- A detective examining a dead body instead of talking about it.
- A wizard walking through a magical shopping area rather than being told about it.
- A spouse proving their love by doing THIS instead of telling their partner why they love them so much (although you'll probably want some dialogue here).
Read more about how to write dialogue in this article.
Places Where You Might Be Tempted to Info Dump
Aside from getting a viewer reacquainted with what has happened so far this season on The Good Wife, info dumping 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.
Create an Enjoyable Reader Experience
Moral of the story: info dumping usually flags poor writing rather than effective storytelling. When a writer avoids info dumping, they're far more likely to engage the reader in the character's journey, because the reader can concentrate on how the plot and setting are challenging the character, rather than being told all about, well, everything.
A great reader experience is grounded in memorable characters, which is better experienced through decision making. It's also enlivened by a plot that moves forward with sound, structured, and intentional scenes that only include the details we need to know, for the present moment or for later in the plot. It cuts out everything else.
To help you identify when it's time to cut out details, consider these editing questions:
- How can I eliminate at least ten words in every paragraph?
- Am I explaining something about a character or setting, or showing how the character interacts with their surroundings? (You can have some details to explain important setting elements that are significant to the larger story, like a wand made of holly that possesses a phoenix feather core.)
- Does this detail matter? In other words, if I take “X” sentence out, will the reader or plot lose anything because of it? Will it cause confusion, or clarity and connection through condensed description?
Every writer needs to learn how to “kill their darlings” at some point in their writing process. Wouldn't it be awesome if when the time came, you'd already avoided the large passages of info dumping?
What are some ways you've info dumped before? How did you edit these sections of your story? Let us know in the comments.
Pick a character, a goal, and a conflict. Now put them in your favorite place in the world. Write about how that character tries to get something in that place.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're done, look at the three common ways writers info dump. Revise any of the places you might have elaborated too much.
When you're done, post a before and after of your writing piece in the comments below. Or, tell us about where your struggled to revise your description and details. And after you share, be sure to comment on another writer's piece. It's important to give one another feedback!
Abigail Perry is a Certified Story Grid Editor with professional teaching, literary agency, and film production experience. In addition to writing Story Grid masterwork guides, she works as a freelance editor and is the Content Editor for The Write Practice. Abigail loves stories that put women and diverse groups at the center of the story—and others that include superpowers and magic. Her favorite genres include: Smart Book Club Fiction, Women's Fiction, YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and unique memoirs. She also has a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film and loves working on screenplays that are emotionally driven and/or full of action. You can learn more about Abigail on her website.