Info Dumping: What It Is and How to Avoid It

by Abigail Perry | 12 comments

Have you ever been given feedback that there was too much info dumping in your story? Did you understand what that meant? How much information does your reader need in each scene? Let's find out. 

info dumping

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. Oother 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.

Info dumping 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 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.

PRACTICE

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 Pro Practice Workshop. 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.

12 Comments

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

  4. 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!

    Reply
  5. @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!

    Reply
  6. @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?

    Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
  8. 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….

    Reply
    • 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.

  9. 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.

    Reply

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