The information dump is a phrase used colloquially by scriptwriters, but it’s also something that can be an issue for writers of novels and short stories.
It’s a type of exposition, commonly a gambit used when the writer wants the reader to know something that the characters already know, but also used to overcome other information issues. The trouble with the info dump is that it’s boring to read, to listen to, or to view.
Steering clear of dumps can be a bit of a balancing act. Writers have to allow sufficient data for their story to be understood, but they don’t want to drown it in particulars. Often, you’ll have heard tutors say ‘readers are more intelligent than the writer supposes’. It’s all too easy to over-explain, repeat what you’re trying to say, or forget that both narrative and dialogue has already recapitulated a point. But the opposite can be as deadly— forgetting that readers and viewers are not acquainted with the information you’ve thought through in your head, but somehow forgot to make plain. The happy medium between these two problematic states of play is hard to achieve. That’s why writers end up in the info dump, and that’s why it’s hard to scramble back out.
The dumping problem can come about for several reasons…
- You’re trying to shoe-horn in too much back-story
- You need to explain complex issues
- You want to provide sufficient detail about character traits, etc
Often, we are too close to our plot and characters to determine how much is too much. First attempts at a story often begin with loads of explanation – an entire chunk of exposition on the first page or in the first chapter. This calcifies the opening and jars the narrative voice before you’ve got going.
In science fiction and speculative fiction, there is even a specialist jargon…expospeak…for intense info dumping. When you’ve created an entire world, or specific magical abilities for your characters, it is difficult to explain these without piling the material onto a dump. Sci-fi writers can find themselves climbing over dumps every few chapters…even every few pages.
In crime fiction,thrillers, and high-concept novels, the info dump can be a problem during the final denouement. You’ve carefully kept the identity of the killer a secret, which means you now need, not only to reveal who this is, but allow their explanation and motivation to become clear, too. As it all spills out, the action slows dangerously, just when the tempo must be reaching its top speed. At that stage of a thriller, the reader wants to be on the edge of their seat, and long-winded confessions put a break on action and movement.
Dialogue, in both prose and script, is not immune from becoming a dumping ground. Here, it’s often described as the ‘Well, as you already know’ syndrome. It appears as creaking, ‘stagey’ speeches…
‘How are you Mary?’ asked Sue.
‘Well,’ said Mary. ‘As you already know, Sue, since the death of John, six months ago,
I’ve been very depressed.’
If you’ve become lazy in your writing, you may be allowing info dumps to develop in your work. You might actually be so piling them so high, you can’t see over the top. If that’s a problem, you need to start cleaning up.
You might ask your tutor… ‘Am I using information dumps?’ But in fact, they are quickly identifiable, by using this guideline…inside one, nothing happens. The scene remains static while you dump.
Info dumping is an issue that is as old as the hills; in the Book I of The Iliad, Homer even manages to poke fun in its direction. Here Achilles, weeping, calls to his mother, Thetis, who sits beside him and strokes him with her hand, and says…Why then, child, do you lament? What sorrow has come to your heart now? Tell me, do not hide it in your mind, and we shall both know. To which Achilles replies (with a groan)…You know. What need for me to tell you all when you know it? (Penguin Classics edition, pg 12)
Homer’s method of overcoming the problem of the info dump might not work for everyone, so what other strategies can you take?
- If you’ve got an issue with presenting back story that needs to be told, it may be a sign that you’re starting the story too late
- Sometimes info dumps occur early in a manuscript because you are explaining stuff to yourself. You need to do this…but it’s best done in your writing notebooks.
- There may be a need to prioritise information. Read through what you’ve written, and decide what information is essential immediately, as the story starts, and what can wait. Seed information throughout later sections of the story
- Determine what you can hold back without confusion. For instance, historic data, or detailed explanations of how things work, can be held off. Instead, give the reader/viewer enough to work on for now.
- In fact, ‘Show, don’t Tell’, is an extremely important facet of clearing info dumps. For instance, show the way your fantasy world works to avoid long-winded explanations
- Allow explanations and confessions to become interrupted. This works best when characters are speaking, but if you use your writer’s imagination, you can achieve this in narrative sections, as well
- Instead of demonstrating character traits as exposition, allow them to develop through actions, body language, and dialogue
- Avoid allowing characters to fall into ‘as you already know’ speeches. Try interior monologue: ‘Hi, how are you?’ Sue knew that Mary had been depressed since John’s death, but even so, she was hoping for more than a grim sigh in answer to her question. ‘No better, to be honest with you,’ said Mary.
- Or allows the reader to draw their own conclusions :
‘How are you Mary?’
‘What is it now…six months?’
‘Yes. But I still think John’s going to walk through the door any moment.’
- Another approach is not to worry too much about imparting a mass of information in the first place. Readers like mystery, even if the story isn’t actually genre mystery. They like to be teased, so long as the mystery is solved somewhere along the line:
‘How are you Mary?’
‘What’s it now? Six months?’
Feels like six years sometimes and six hours at others.’
- In my first novel, In the Moors, I had to tackle the issue of the ‘denouement info dump’. I could see that in the first draft, I’d left far too much explanation to a confessional in the penultimate chapter, which weighed it down. Instead of my first-person protagonist being able to get on with trying to extricate herself from a life-threatening situation, she was having to listen to the killer’s diatribe explaining their psychological issues. I got around this by setting up a scene at the middle of the novel in which a character innocently discloses a lot of their past life…long before they are unveiled as the killer.
- Check out how science fiction writers like Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams manage long pages of info dump by making their reader laugh.
- Distract the reader’s mind. In the recent proclaimed novel Golden Hill, Francis Spufford introduces his protagonist, Smith, who arrives in 18th century America with a huge money order he needs cashed. But Spufford manages to keep us entertained for a large proportion of the novel without revealing any more about Smith’s intentions.
Dumping of rubbish can be almost as much of an issue in creative writing as it is in the countryside. Keep your writing broom to hand, so that, once you spot the dumps you can clean them up promptly – but not too promptly. This is an aspect of writing you shouldn’t start to address until you’ve finished your very first draft. The unformed first draft is the time to let the writing flow and overlook such flaws. But once you have a piece of writing, start your search and make sure the dumps are cleared as you redraft for assignment, assessment or any other kind of submission.
Nina Milton is an OCA tutor and assessor. Her crime series The Shaman Mysteries is out now from Midnight Ink, and available from Amazon.