The Simplest Trick for Avoiding Info Dumps

Sometimes authors are faced with the necessity of avoiding info dumps while feeding the reader large chunks of information via internal narrative. The problem, of course, is that, faced with pages of straight narrative in solid blocks of text, readers often grow restless. Vital as the information may be, readers want to get back to the action and dialogue.

Remember back in school when your teachers were insisting you needed to listen to their lengthy lectures on thermal dynamics because they guaranteed this information would come in handy later on? Whether you believed their guarantee or not, you were probably just wishing they’d get on with it. That’s how we risk making our readers feel if we don’t exercise a little cleverness.

Unlike high school teachers, authors can play a few tricks on readers to keep them interested in the midst of important but lengthy narrative. One of these tricks for avoiding info dumps is to intersperse action and dialogue within the narrative.

The Outstretched Shadow (affiliate link)

In their fantasy The Outstretched Shadow, Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory utilized this trick to break up half a chapter’s worth of narrative. Instead of just having their teenage hero sit at a window and mull about his backstory, these authors crafted a scene in which the character and his tutor argue about the importance of his lessons and his refusal to pay attention.

By interspersing their informative narrative throughout the scene’s frame of conflict and by using dialogue and action beats to break up the big chunks of text, Lackey and Mallory were able to keep readers’ attention from wandering.

If you find your characters sitting around “thinking” for pages upon pages, give them something to do or someone to talk to while they’re thinking. Your potentially tedious scene will instantly gain an extra dimension.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your go-to trick for avoiding info dumps? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Excellent!! (also, I’m now subscribing to your youtube channel… and I can not believe I wasn’t already! Love these videos, and love even more that you type them out so I can read along and soak in even more)

  2. Glad you’re enjoying them – and thanks for subscribing! I’m more of a text girl than a video girl myself, so I include the text for all those folks like me who would rather read than watch.

  3. I hate reading info. dumps so I avoid them in my writing like the plague. I come from the world of playwriting, so dialogue is writing and reading candy to me.

  4. Dialogues aren’t a cure-all for info dumps, but they’re definitely a handy way of disguising them.

  5. I disagree with your generalization “Unlike high school teachers…”. More accurately, it should have been “unlike MOST high school teachers…’. That’s generally what separates the really good educators from the crowd. Unfortunately, the strictures in most of our school systems discourage individual innovation and encourage the hacks.

  6. BTW, I am not, nor have I ever been, a high school teacher. I’m just a parent, a past student, and occasional tutor.

  7. It’s worse with SF because all the backstory is fictional, so the readers have no experience of the world to bring with them.

    My teacher here was Nevil Shute. His flying novels (he mostly wrote about the early days of commercial air travel) make no concessions to backstory. A character will mention some part of an aeroplane to another, and it’s up to the reader to work out what it is from context. The classic must be the nosewheel of the Rutland Reindeer airliner where the whole plot point turns on the fact that Theodore can pull the undercarriage up while the airliner is parked to stop it taking off, but how he does it is something you have to work out for yourself.

    This is where I have tried to do the same.

    Eva sat for a while, gasping like a beached goldfish, then began. ‘It was Arthur Kelso, he did phone me. He said I had to get an Arcturian ship down to the ground. I said I didn’t know how. He told me to go the embassy and tell the story I told you, and you wouldn’t be able to avoid reacting to it, and if I didn’t he’d have Fred arrested. Arthur’s done it before, he knows people in the NTSP. Then, while he was talking, I heard Duncan come into the room, excited, saying he’d timed it and it took thirty-six seconds, so they only needed another nineteen, and he could get that.’
    ‘What took thirty-six seconds?’ asked Keefe.
    ‘I don’t know. Then Arthur told Duncan to shut up, because he was on the phone, and that was it.’
    ‘All right,’ said Keefe, ‘what takes thirty-six seconds, that Duncan was timing?’
    Sinclair dropped into the chair beside Keefe, and began tapping the tabletop as he calculated in his head. ‘I think I know, sir, but we can check the logs.’
    ‘Go on.’
    ‘From the first rifle shot, Jane would’ve been in the seat in about ten seconds, and she’d have hit the master switches at the same time. Allow three seconds for the CDCU to come online, a little over twenty, call it twenty one, for the fusion plasma to warm up, and roughly two seconds for the injector pumps to get up to speed. That’s thirty-six seconds from the first shot to being off the ground.’
    ‘And the other nineteen?’
    ‘It was fifty-something seconds from the first lightning stroke to the centre of the storm being over the place where the ship had been on the ground, and I’d wager that if you check my recorders, you’ll find it’s fifty-five. I think that Duncan was planning on keeping us on the ground for fifty-five seconds so that he could hit us with his weapon. That’s what all the nonsense with the flowers was about, he reckoned on distracting Jane for the other nineteen seconds.’

    You don’t need to know what all the bits are (CDCU is command and display control unit, for example, I know that but it’s never in the story), all the reader needs to have is that from “putting the key in” to taking off is 36 seconds the way Jane does it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.