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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. Thanks for the tip. Very useful. 🙂

    I usually have my characters reminisce about a situation or another character if they want to convey something that has already happened in the past. This works if you want to convey another character’s personality too.

    Dialogue is the best way to convey technical information though.

    Neha

  2. The idea of having the characters argue over the informative dialogue is a great tip. It utilizes conflict, which makes it more interesting, and might even help the reader think more deeply about the information.

    I will use this – thanks!

  3. @Neha: Reminiscing can be tough to pull off without feeling like an “as you already know, Bob” conversation. It’s important that we have a good, plot-related reason for the characters’ remembering and discussing this information. And, again, sticking in some conflict makes it all instantly more interesting!

    @K.C.: When in doubt, use conflict. That should be a bumper sticker on every author’s car!

  4. Yes. An argument not only creates tension, but I think also provides a way for the info to sound “familiar” to the speakers, even when it’s new to the readers. Nice post. 🙂

  5. Good additional point, Becky. There’s no question that it’s tricky to figure out a way to present information that’s new to the reader and old to the characters, but I think this is one of the better and more engaging methods.

  6. I use different methods. If I need a plain infodump, sometimes I frame it as a book or article the character is reading; this works great with scholarly protagonists. Dialog is good for information that involves conflict, or that one character knows but not everyone else knows. Most of the time, though, I just weave information into the background. I’m often amazed by how much my readers gather from between the lines, that was in my head and my research but never spelled out in the text of a story or poem.

  7. I’m careful with “articles,” etc., since, often, the only thing they have up on a regular info dump is transparency.

  8. Really great point, and sigh, yes, I’ve done that before. Info in dialogue. I have to weed it out later cuz I tend to like to do that a lot. Having a conflict between 2 characters really does work if you’re careful, however. (Like, if they’ve had this argument before, it won’t work, cuz they’d be re-hashing everything they’ve already said!)

  9. Yes, repetition in dialogue definitely doesn’t cut it. But, the truth is, if the characters have already had this conversation, there’s probably no information in the rehash that can’t be deleted. So it’s a relatively easy fix.

  10. When I have time to get back to fiction, I will use this.

  11. No time to write fiction? Are you going through withdrawals? 😉

  12. Thanks! Needed this reminder.

  13. I’m told one of my strengths as an author is my dialogue, and I do bring out information through arguments. A cryptic message in my current WIP, for instance, was bandied about with several interpretations being put forth, none of them satisfactory. Later on they figure it out, without reviewing the answers that didn’t work.

    ~ VT

  14. @Robin: Glad it came in handy!

    @Victor: An author who can offer his reader strong dialogue is one who will probably be able to convince him to overlook any number of other flaws. Dialogue is a good strength to have!

  15. This is great info. I try to use inner thoughts with key points of needed information as the dialogue takes place. Seems to work better for me that way.

  16. * Since I’ve been fretting about dialogue during revisions your post helped put things into perspective for me. Lately, in order to add pertinent info during a conversation I add a character’s brief thoughts, if that makes sense, without being too stiff. But, as I go onward I will keep your words in mind. Thanks so much.

  17. @Kathi: So long as the inner thoughts make sense as something the character would be thinking about (and not a “as I already know” thought progression!), that’s usually a very effective one-two punch.

    @Gerri: This is a method that works particularly well in 1st- and tight 3rd-person narratives.

  18. Excellent article. Could you share an example?

  19. Unfortunately, I don’t have Anathem any longer, so I can’t share any examples from it, but here’s the general gist:

    “So you don’t think the aliens are from another galaxy altogether? That makes no sense.”

    “Of course, it makes sense. Think about it: Why else would they have our symbols emblazoned on their ship?”

    “Give me a break. It’s a coincidence!”

    “You were taught better that. If we accept St. Somebody’s theory that there are no coincidences, as per this Complicated Math Theory #1, which states [insert something complicated and mathematical], then we have to realize that the aliens know our symbology!”

    Hopefully, you get the idea! :p

  20. @Weiland. I don’t have time for withdrawls. I have papers to write

  21. That’s the spirit! Get ‘er done.

  22. So conflict is the ingredient that
    turns “info-dump” dialogue into interesting dialogue. That makes a lot of sense.

    I think I stumbled onto this by accident recently. In my serial novel I had some background information that needed to be given. I passed this along through a heated conversation and made the issue very personal to one of my characters. You have confirmed that I should try to do this on purpose in future.

  23. Sounds like you’re doing instinctively what the masters do on purpose. Good job!

  24. I started a book recently with so many info dumps in the dialogue that I couldn’t keep reading. For me, this is as bad as stupid dialogue tags, especially adverbs, and typos such as it’s for its. Just wish the publishing editors would read your post!

    I use dialogue. I’ve been told it’s my strong point, which it is, which is why I want to go back and work on two screenplays I drafted several years ago. Good description, like dialogue, has to be an organic part of the story. Every writer could benefit from reading good poetry to see that every word is important (though you can be a bit “looser” in prose).

    Just some of my thoughts prompted by your excellent post.

  25. 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.

  26. 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. 🙂

  27. 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.

  28. 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 😀

  29. 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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