Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
For a writer, beginning a new story is magical. You have all these ideas assaulting your imagination. Ideas about the storyworld and this fantastic new magic system you're designing. Ideas about your characters, their personalities, and the events that happened long ago that have shaped who they are now.
At the beginning of the process, your energy is high and the information you have to share with your reader is plentiful. These are good things, but be careful.
Readers want a story that will whisk them away to another time and place. A story that will challenge them and entertain. Characters who will inspire and enrage. Readers are trusting you to be a skilled conductor, introducing new melodies at the appropriate time and weaving in depth and history and context with restraint. Readers do not want a bunch of information dumped onto their laps.
So, let's talk about it.
An info dump is a hefty dose of information presented to the reader all at once. Info dumps can show up in both narration and dialogue and are super easy to spot. Here, I'll show you:
Maxwell isn't an ordinary boy. He's seven feet tall and instead of the standard buck teeth most children his age have, he has a pair of neon green fangs. His favorite movie is the Goonies, which would be perfectly normal if he didn't prefer to watch it in reverse order. He cuts the toes off the front of his boots so his toes have room to breathe. It's a trick he learned from his father who is just an inch or two taller than Max but has red hair and gray eyes.
"This is Maxwell," Dad said, tousling his red hair as his gray eyes sparkled. "He likes the Goonies too, but it's the darndest thing. He likes to watch the movie in reverse order. And watch out for his feet. He wouldn't thank you for stepping on those bare toes of his. He has to cut the toes off his shoes to give his little piggies room to breathe."
Now, in certain contexts this information might be entertaining. It might even work in a middle grade novel where younger readers need a bit more telling to set the scene, but as a way to share information with a reader, it falls into the category of DUMPY.
Info dumps aren't entirely bad and they can be a handy tool in your tool box if you use them sparingly. But most of the time, they signify lazy writing. In the example above, wouldn't it be much more interesting to show the reader a scene with Maxwell cutting the toes off his new shoes? Maybe bumping his head on a doorway as he goes in search of the movie Goonies? Wouldn't it accomplish more to paint a picture of Maxwell as a scene moves the story forward?
Of course it would!
Here are some tips for weaving important information into your story:
1. Less is more. If you're looking to slip a little info to your reader, stick with just a sentence or two. Any more and you're venturing close to dumpy. Any more and you risk boring your reader.
2. Voice matters. Certain voices can get away with info dumps, especially if the info dump serves more than one purpose. If it reveals traits about your character that the reader desperately wants, you might have some leeway, but so much comes down to the voice of your narrator. Consider the nasally voice of Ben Stein. It's hilarious in small doses, but if we had to listen to him explain the politics of a storyworld, we might just fall asleep. That is NOT what we want readers to be doing when they open our books.
3. Spread things out. Just because you, the author, came up with all this information at the beginning of the writing process, does not mean your reader needs all of it at the beginning of his reading experience. Info dumps are particularly dangerous early on in your story. The reader is not invested in the characters or the adventure. You risk losing them before they get to the fun stuff if you're not careful.
4. Consider relevance. Ask yourself, "Does this bit of info matter?" And then ask yourself, "Does it matter right now?" We have a tendency to dump everything about a certain topic into one big paragraph or section. Instead, give the reader only what they need in order to make sense of the action. Information should almost always be learned as a scene plays itself out.
5. Embrace your art. Your goal shouldn't be to simply inform the reader. You are creating a piece of art. So, do it well. Work at your craft. Important details should be woven into scenes, one thread at a time. Don't just chuck the ball of yarn at your readers. They won't have a clue which threads are important or how they fit together. YOU ARE THIS STORY'S CREATOR. If there are important details that the reader must know, take the time to sculpt a scene to show off those vital facets of your world or character. Do the work of a committed artist.
TIP: Oftentimes when I'm participating in word sprints or simply writing to discover what my story's about, I end up with some sizeable info dumps. When I return to these sections, if I like the concepts presented, I use these very TELLING paragraphs as writing prompts. In early drafts, certainly in your first draft of a novel, info dumps are perfectly acceptable ways to tell yourself the story. But, upon reflection, you must find a way to integrate the ideas you've developed into scenes that move the story forward. That's what a reader will expect.
Tell me, do you struggle with info dumps? What kind of information to you have a tendency to dump on the reader? Have you come up with any fixes for this problem? Share them with us!