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How to Use Dialogue to Avoid Lengthy Info Dumps

use dialogue to avoid info dumpsStories are about sharing information with readers. This information can be anything from the main character’s mysterious former life as a trapeze artist to something really technical, such as how to disarm a nuclear weapon… or in the case of Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction tome Anathem, heavy-duty mathematics and philosophy.

The trick for any author is figuring out how to convey necessary information without boring readers to tears.

Anathem by Neal StephensonOne of the tricks of the trade—a trick used to admirable effect by Stephenson—is fooling readers into thinking the info dumps are really fascinating plot progressions.

How can you manage this?

Although there is more than one way to accomplish this feat, Stephenson chose to do so by burying the information—in this case, complicated theories about how aliens could have appeared above his character’s world—in give-and-take dialogue.

The key words are “give and take.”

Most authors learn early that the only thing worse than a narrative info dump is an info dump in dialogue. The last thing you want to inflict on readers is an “as you already know, Bob” conversation, in which the characters tell each other information they already understand just for the sake of the reader.

But neither do you want to let a single character pontificate at length on any given subject, no matter how important it may be to your plot.

Rather, the key is to figure out a way to interject a little conflict into your informative dialogue. Let your characters discuss it among themselves, and, even better, let them argue about it!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What information have you recently shared in your characters’ dialogue that helped you avoid info dumps? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Movies (and therefore screenwriters!) are usually marvelous examples of how to elegantly and effectively handle info dumps in dialogue. Because the majority of information in a movie is conveyed through dialogue, the screenwriter has no choice but to figure out a way to keep it interesting for viewers.

  2. Arguing is a good tool I’ve used, I hope successfully, many times to convey prior info to readers. Also, I try to drop snippets periodically.

    For instance, I want the readers of one of my WIP’s to be aware that my MC lost her fiancé in a tragic accident early on in a murder mystery, so while she’s being interviewed, I allow her momentary reflections of a sentence or a paragraph during the interrogation that are relevant and parallel.

    The arguments? They sort of take care of themselves. I love getting a rise out of my characters. 🙂

  3. Interspersing snippets of narrative info in dialogue is often vary effective, especially used in tandem with the dialogue itself.

    • arundebnath says

      arundebnathDecember 20, 2013 – 8:42pm
      I’m utterly confused! I’m writing a novel based on my and my family’s experience – forced to leave our anchestral home in East Bengal and to take shelter in refugee camps in India enduring much humiliation and life-threatening situations. All these caused after the British left the Raj and divided India into two countries, one specifically for the Muslims known as Pakistan and other part as secular India. My family being Hindus were left behind in Pakistan [for no faultsof our own making, except the British who believed in Divide and Rule policy and pre-partition Indian politicians]. My protagoinst is a 10 year old Hindu girl born/brought up in newly created Muslim-dominated Islamic state of Pakistan who was forced o flee from her birth place to escape from being married to a warlord to become his fourth wife. While living in Indian refugee camp she became interested in Indian history that caused her life up side down. She was curious to know how British went to India and occupied it with treachery and murders and ruled it for over 150 years and how they divided it into two countries when forced to leave it. So she learnt this history from her Headteacher [a historian] and her freedom fighter father. They told her the stories [1] how British occupied India, [2] why they divided it into two countries, [3] how the borders were drawn by the British and [4] how all these impacted on her and her family’s life [like millions of other non-Muslims].
      Without being the best info-dumping expert how can I write all these historical facts that affects the protagonist’s life? Any help/advice? Arun

      • K.M. Weiland says

        First thing I would be aware of is making sure you’re willing to sacrifice the info (instead of sharing it *all*) to the needs of the story, rather than sacrificing the story to the info. Then, focus on which bits of info actually move the story forward or affect your character’s growth. Hold off introducing the info until the last possible moment before it becomes necessary in order for readers to understand what’s going on. Tantalize them with the promise of the info and clues as to how the info will be important in moving the story forward.

  4. Lexsicon says

    How about infodumping something new in a dialogue coming from a mentor sharing a tragic backstory needed by the characters to know how to proceed forward?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You don’t ever want to *dump* in dialogue. But if you can share it in an interesting (preferably conflict- or tension-laden), back-and-forth way, then, yes, definitely.

      • Lexsicon says

        It’s a pretty lengthy piece of narrative, so I decided introducing pauses (action beats, observations and thoughts by the character, etc) to break the monotony. I guess it’s better that way 😀

  5. Ooooooooh! I was just trying to do this yesterday! (“Trying” being the operative word lol.)

    My new WIP is a Western fantasy novel that involves monsters who feed on nightmares. They have this whole magic system and such, which obviously takes a ton of introducing and I DON’T want to just ‘dump’ that info on people.

    So I’m starting off with a trial scene where the main monster villain is being exiled to America as punishment for his crimes; and after his trial, he has a little conversation with one of the guys who’s exiling him. During the conversation, they drop bits of information about how the overall system works and why exile in America is such a harsh penalty for a nightmare monster. Etc.

    I’m trying really hard to give it in short “bursts,” though, and to make it natural within the context of the dialogue.

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