This Is How to Transform Info Dumps Into Exciting Plot Reveals

Clues, mysteries, plot reveals, and plot twists—these are some of a writer’s stock tricks for hooking readers page after page. But as important as these tricks are, when they’re asked to bear the load of being the main attraction for readers, they too often turn into boring info dumps.

Imagine you’re reading a story in which the author has skillfully created some kind of mystery.

This mystery might be:

  • The murder in a whodunit.
  • A straightforward strategic puzzle focused on figuring out how to defeat the bad guys.
  • Something more domestic, such as an ongoing question of a character’s parentage.
  • Something simple and amusing, such as a character obsessively (and perhaps symbolically) trying to prove that a neighbor’s dog is digging holes in his yard.
  • Less about proving a proposed solution and more about figuring out whether or not something mysterious is happening at all—e.g., is the new neighbor’s strange night activity a sign of something sinister?

The mystery could be the main focus of the story, with the protagonist’s main plot goal being the solution to the mystery (as in Chamber of Secrets). Or the mystery might just be a clever way to avoid info dumps while slowly trickling important information throughout the story (as in Half-Blood Prince).

Whatever the case, adding a mystery can greatly enhance your story’s readability. If you’re able to consistently present questions (whether implicit or explicit), you’re giving readers more reasons to keep reading. In addition to wanting to watch what happens to your characters, they now also want to know the answer to the questions you’re proposing.

But don’t miss the order of that last sentence. Readers are there first and foremost to see what happens to your characters. And this is where we encounter some of the problems you can run into if you’re relying too heavily on plot reveals to provide the entertainment factor.

Ask Yourself: Is Your Story About Clues or Consequences?

Mysteries are fun. They’re fun to create and fun to solve. But in themselves they are not stories and certainly not the best part of stories (even in the mystery genre). This is why it’s important for writers not to fall into the trap of relying on clues to carry the story.

In the myopia of early plotting, it can be easy to feel you’re writing something deeply gripping just because a new clue is being unveiled in every scene. In these instances, the plot progression may look like this: Clue>Clue>Clue>Clue. The progression grows obviously monotonous, no matter how interesting the mystery itself.

E.M. Forster famously distinguished story from plot by emphasizing the causality of events.

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.

In dramatic fiction, things don’t just happen. They happen because other things happened first. This certainly holds true for the unraveling of mystery. If the revelation of clues are just revelations, the story will stagnate. Instead, any and every clue your plot reveals should be the result of a character’s choice, with the discovery itself turning the plot by creating consequences.

You want the progression of your story to look like this: Choice>Consequence>Choice>Consequence. (Which is, of course, just a variation on how to view classic scene structure of Goal>Dilemma.)

Even just glancing at the two equations shows the difference. For me, the latter progression, of choice and consequence, immediately blips my writer radar. The reminder that my character’s choices have causal consequences always functions for me almost like a writing prompt. So many juicy possibilities.

Focusing a story’s progression on choice and consequence creates forward momentum—a line of causes and effects. Even better, it creates a much more interesting framework in which to leverage a story’s mysteries, questions, and revelations.

5 Ways to Turn Info Dumps Into Plot Turns

Maybe you can relate to this: A writer hands beta readers a story that the writer feels is jam-packed with exciting action.

But the beta readers are all bored. “Nothing happens,” they complain.

The writer is bewildered. “All sorts of things happen! The heroes learn all this stuff about the bad guys’ plans and what they have to do to defeat them!”

It may take several more drafts and much confused agony before the writer realizes the reason it feels like nothing happens in this “jam-packed” novel is… because nothing does happen.

The characters may be learning lots of exciting and revelatory stuff. But that’s all they’re doing. They’re sitting around in a boardroom while their spies bring in horrifying reports. Or they’re taking lesson after lesson in order to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to finally defeat the bad guy (lookin’ at you, YA fantasy). Or maybe the two love interests spend more time thinking about each other or small-talking than they do actually getting out there and falling in love.

With the best intentions, the writer accidentally left most of the story’s best stuff on the cutting-room floor. The problem isn’t that the story’s reveals of information are necessarily uninteresting. Rather, the problem is that the information is the story. And that’s boring.

Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mysteries and plot reveals are wonderful. They just need to be sown into the causal fabric of your characters’ deep and primal plot struggles.

To that end, here are five principles to keep in mind.

1. The Character Explicitly Wants/Needs/or Doesn’t Want This Info—or Some Combo Thereof

Identify a motive for why your character will have more than a casual relationship with this information.

We all learn bits and pieces of things every day—someone was born, someone died, somebody did something good, somebody else did something bad. Some of these bits may interest us, but most are incidental. We have no life-changing motive to seek them out and no subsequent reason to interact with them.

For us, that’s okay. But the information you introduce in your story is information that matters to your protagonist. It’s info that’s going to change his life, which means he absolutely has a reason to interact with it.

The one big exception to this principle is that your story’s mystery may begin with a bit of info the character initially didn’t know he needed—but which very quickly becomes important for some reason (even if it’s just a burning need to know what the nocturnal new neighbor is up to over there).

That aside, you will instantly gain so much more story power by looking for ways to instill your story’s revelations with meaning and stakes.

What is of particular note here is the possibility of having your character choose to learn this information. This is just one of many ways to keep your character from being a bystander in his own story. It also means that when consequences ensue, the protagonist will not be a victim, but will have to shoulder the full load of responsibility for what he has learned (see #4 below).

2. Information Is Never Free

Your character’s choice to seek out information should ultimately be more weighty than her simply deciding to tap her finger on random click-bait on her phone. It should be a choice she has to think twice about—because it, unlike the click-bait, isn’t free.

Except in instances where it would unnecessarily bloat a story, your character’s choice to seek important information should come with complications (and this is before we even get to the consequences). She might have to give up some of her hard-earned babysitting money to bribe info from the school stooge. Or she might have to risk detention by skipping class. Or she might have to face her own fears to talk to somebody dangerous.

It’s possible she may not immediately understand the full cost of what she’s paying to gain this info, but the sooner readers understand the stakes, the more currency you’ll generate for character development. Naturally, not all your characters’ dilemmas will be life-shattering, but you should try to wring a little blood whenever you can by creating situations in which characters must either choose between two equally bad options or two mutually-exclusively good options.

When a character “pays” for info, readers know the info is going to be worth their time.

3. Knowledge Is Power—And With Power Comes With Great Responsibility

Welcome to Pandora’s box. Your character really, really wanted/needed/tried to avoid knowing something. But now that he does know, he can never return to ignorance. (This is true of massively life-changing reveals, but it should also echo down to the relatively small clues leading up to the big reveals.)

It’s much better for your character to learn bad news than good news. There are, of course, exceptions (and you’ll want to vary the intensity of your character’s discoveries either way), but bad news is what builds a story’s conflict and the protagonist’s increasingly pressing need to push through to the resolution of the plot goal.

Although stories can certainly reveal objectively good information, that’s not the stuff of mystery. Mystery is all about tension. Whether rightly or not, the character suspects something bad behind the closed door. If he thought it was something good, the stakes wouldn’t feel as high—and readers wouldn’t be as interested in discovering the truth.

When your character chooses to ask a question, only to receive a disturbing answer, the stakes rise. Because he chose to seek out or interact with this information, he is now responsible for his own knowledge. Whether or not he wants to do something with that knowledge (even if, for now, it’s just seeking the next clue), he increasingly feels the weight of obligation. He’s going to have to make a move (hello, plot turn!), and that is where his choices become consequences.

4. Clues Should Be Visual Whenever Possible

One of the big problems with the progression of Clue>Clue>Clue is that it’s boring. It turns what might indeed be exciting info into a dry recital of facts.

When a private slogs up to the general, salutes wearily, and says, “Sorry, sir, we lost the whole battalion”—that’s nothing but words. But when the general drives out to visit the battlefield and readers get to visualize the carnage through his eyes, the information becomes more than just information.

In a nutshell, this is simply a decision to convey the information through showing, rather than telling. Stories should be pictures on the page. Information, whenever possible, should be visceral. It should be sensory. Smelling a fire, hearing a siren, or seeing a roof collapsing under a blaze—all of these things convey information that might just as easily be learned from a newspaper article. But the visuals not only pack more punch, they also force characters to get out in the story world and do something.

5. Even Better, Clues Should Be Dramatized

If it’s better to convey information via word-pictures, it’s often one more step up from that if you can sow the revelation into the very heart of a scene’s dramatic action.

Maybe your character is hunting for proof that a legendary monster exists. He could discover that information in a dusty old book. He could hear about it from the lips of a creaky old grandmother who swears she saw the monster as a girl. He could even see the monster through his binoculars.

Or he could just about be eaten by the thing.

When your character is given the opportunity to learn on the job by personally and physically interacting with new information, the possibilities for plot-turning consequences pop up all over the place. Maybe the character’s guide (the old granny?) is eaten. Or maybe he loses an arm. Or maybe he accidentally herds the monster into an unsuspecting village, where it wreaks havoc.

As fast as that, this is no longer a story in which “nothing happens.” It’s a story in which information becomes more than a recital of facts, but rather an actual force for your protagonist to contend with.

***

Now it’s time for you to take a look at your story and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What bits of information are crucial to your plot?

2. Can you rework that information’s delivery so it isn’t presented straight up, but rather doled artfully with a bit of mystery and flair?

3. From there, can you go yourself one better and figure out ways to create a fraught relationship between your characters’ need to learn the information and the consequences when they do?

4. And, finally, can you brainstorm ways in which to show the information in visually dramatic ways that progress the plot?

You can use all four of these techniques to create mystery and character development in any type of story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of a scene in which your protagonist has acquired new information in a visually dramatic way rather than learning about it in an info dump? 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. Alan has just been hit by an explosive projectile, which could go off at any moment, and is on the deck, unconscious, Jane is trying to find a way to save him, and is talking over a starline link to Morris, the surgeon. Morris wants to know if Alan is on any medication before Jane starts work on him:

    (Morris) ‘Anything on him? Don’t try to go through his pockets, that’ll set it off. Has he got a bag?’
    (Jane) ‘Yes.’
    ‘Tip it out, see if you can find anything.’
    Jane unzipped the bag, and went through it quickly. She gave a bitter laugh at the bottle of wine—how could she have been taken in for so long by someone so crude? Clothes, toiletries, electrostatic shaver, software chips in a case, a little blue box that popped open at a touch.
    And her world exploded in green fire.
    Oh God, what have I done?
    Two emeralds and a diamond on a thin gold band. An engagement ring. A beautiful gesture by someone who really cared about her, who wanted to declare his love. Someone she’d never taken the trouble to understand. Someone she’d used.
    She’d stood there, not letting him speak, pouring all her anger and fatigue into a stupid, shrewish tirade.
    And sent him to his death.

  2. Another insightful lesson, about a mistake I think we’ve all made sometimes.

    One of the great rules of plot twists is, “keep the truth more important than the trick.” That is, use changes and surprises only as setup for something that’s even more powerful. What’s the use in fooling the reader that the killer was the wife instead of the business partner, if you can’t follow up by making the partner more shocking and dangerous than the wife was? Shouldn’t the whole point of that mystery be setting up that partner as a worthy villain for the climax?

    You brought so much of that together with the single word, consequences. What does it *mean* when the truth’s revealed? How does it upend what the hero has to *do*, and who it’s going to affect? –And that’s triply vital for scenes that aren’t the climax: it’s too easy to make a discovery just one link in a chain or evidence (or a dead end that isn’t even that), when it could make an actual change in the direction of the search. Or more than that.

    Like that monster revealing itself by tearing through the village. Or your other tips: adding emotion, cost, sensation, and again the responsibility to *do* something different.

    These are circles any writer could find ourselves running around. (I know I have.) Thanks for making the way out so clear.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Bam. Love this phrasing: “keep the truth more important than the trick.”

      My rule of thumb for judging plot twists is: would readers be *even more* excited to keep reading if they figure out the twist ahead of time?

  3. Eric Troyer says

    I chose to read this column. The consequence is that I learned something! Thanks, Katie.

    And if I may be so bold, I’d like to tweak Forester’s commentary:

    The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot. The king died, and the queen died of guilt is a better story.

  4. Yeah, there’s a flashback to an unfortunate memory the protagonist repressed, but there’s a supernatural element to this one. He’s not just seeing it through his younger eyes, he feels it, too.

    I know what writing advice says about flashbacks, but this was quite necessary for the story and his growth when it comes up 🙂

  5. Awh man I am definitely returning later to re-read this. Because I’m dead-tired right now and can’t mentally apply it. (Also my story still needs an external plot to beef up the arc… heh…)

  6. You offer the most thorough, thought-out tips on writing that I’ve found. Thank you for the study I know you put in to understanding story, and for your teaching ability to lay it out so clearly. It is making my writing better with each post.
    Blessings,
    Cheryl Colwell

  7. I like the idea that a character NOT wanting information can help drive the plot.

  8. Ng Xin Zhao says

    The protagonist asked the antagonist for why is gravity so strange, what happened to the world? The antagonist (who’s an ex-wife of the protagonist) asked the protagonist to keep the fact that the world is bigger than a planet a secret after he learned about the truth. Looking at her strangely, he agrees, thinking that this is so obvious that there is no need to keep a secret.

    She then brings him outside of the room. He hadn’t been outside since he first woke up from ice. It was still noon. What a coincidence, it was noon then too. He looked up to see if the sun was moving. Then his blood grow cold. The shivers just would not stop coming, from the top of his head traveling down his body. He saw the ground curving upwards, all the way to seem to reach behind the sun and back down in the opposite direction to meet with the ground. There is a big strait of sea, following the curve upwards and down, forming a sea ring. The world he knew had changed, into a hollow planet and people live on the inside.

  9. Once again, you seem to know mysteriously just exactly what I need to get inspired. It’s uncanny. This may be the most exciting article I’ve consumed in a while. I was supposed to have a ho-hum day of chopping vegetables and cleaning house, but now I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist that radiant, beckoning keyboard……

  10. My YA (WIP) has a main character with total amnesia–he can’t remember his name, his history, nothing. He’s put into a group home and enrolled in the local high school. He’s from some other state. Some of the local kids adopt him into their group. He’s grateful that a book store has hired him despite his having no work history or even a Social Security number. (An escrow account has been opened to hold those funds for now.) A photo of him (“Boy with amnesia”) appears in the local papers and gets some national exposure. He’s been dealing with ugly flashes of memory, gradually beginning to recall certain things about his past (including some violence) when an ex-girlfriend from his home state shows up with two thugs. They want money. He has none. They want him to help them rob the bookstore. He refuses. They threaten to tell the cops back home about him. Why would the cops care about that? he asks, fearing their answer: “Don’t you remember? You killed you mom’s boyfriend.”

    Being able to control the flow of information from the past is great fun! That’s why amnesia stories keep being told.

  11. Fantastic information! Love the visualization. Will listen to this over and over.

  12. Thanks for another thought-provoking post! I’ll do what many others no doubt do: cut and paste your concluding questions into a Word doc and use it as a worksheet for my current WIP.

    My short story involves firemen and survivor’s guilt a decade after the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston. Reading your post clarified that my protagonist, a young man whose mother perished in the storm, doesn’t really want to know if he could qualify and become a fireman because it would mean finally accepting his mother’s death and moving on. I’m sure I’ll learn more as I work through your questions.

    Thanks again!

  13. Choice>consequence works so much better for me than goal>dilemma, so Thank You for that!
    I really love the idea of the character avoiding or not wanting the information. If the information is needed (as it is in stories), it will find a way to show and keep showing up until the character has to confront it. That leads us to learn the character’s relationship to the information, and so many possibilities open up from there. Thanks for the wonderful tips!

  14. Just what I needed. I’m rewriting chapters of my wip and the latest chapter is a huge info dump. It’s the chapter where the MC and recruit some reluctant allies. As part of the bonding process there is some exchange of information.
    I’ve reworked previous chapters to show a little more action and this chapter explains some of the previous action riddles.
    I’ll rethink it to up the payment and perhaps re-emphasise the consequences. The MC has wanted this information from the beginning.
    I think in nearly every Act there is one info-dumping chapter. 😕 Most of my beta readers aren’t bored so much as confused. They can’t seem to grasp the link between cause and effect and I hate action chapters being broken up with explanation and back-story. I’d foolishly thought slower dialogue heavy chapters might be useful, but maybe I’ll have to introduce more conflict into the dialogue.

    It doesn’t matter. The important point is that you’ve helped me again, Katie. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Confusion is sometimes the result of poor setup rather than poor payoff. If the first half of the book (or the scene, or whatever integer) properly sets up information, then the payoff will not only make sense but provide satisfaction–an answer to a question readers may not have realized they were curious about.

  15. Brenda Felber says

    Definitely need to take time and reread this with fresh eyes in the morning…already I took a few thoughts on this for WIP…thanks!!!

  16. “OR he could just be eaten by the thing.”

    Lol meeeeeeee XD

  17. Jay in Richmond says

    Your wonderful blog reminds me of a lesson from a church seminar (In a very good way).

    Where you highlight Choice>Consequence, they proposed the A-B-C continuum, or A+B=C thesis. Where A is attitude, the way we feel or think about something; B is behavior, the way we act on our feelings; C is the consequence of that behavior, which always affects A.

    Their point was underscoring how this is consistent throughout human experience. The seminar went on to draw-out biblical truths for it. I think your well reasoned application of this for fiction writing is a home-run.

    Blessings, Ms. K.M. Weiland.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I really like drawing it full circle in recognizing that consequences return to affect attitude or perspective.

  18. “Or maybe the two love interests spend more time thinking about each other or small-talking than they do actually getting out there and falling in love.”

    THIS. IS. THE. PROBLEM. WITH. MOST. TRADITIONALLY. PUBLISHED. CHRISTIAN. ROMANCE.

    *cough* At least what I see. It gets so annoying though, especially when it’s leaning a liiiittle too close to the line.

    Anyway…it looks like I’ll be doing more outlining for NaNoWriMo tonight. Not that I wasn’t gonna do it anyway, but now I have more than just the scenes to figure out!

    • Also, that scene where Connor learns new information in a visually dramatic way? How is literally coming face to face with his former foster parents (that he busted for illegal drug-dealing) and then finding out they were the ones who abducted his ex-girlfriend?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s not just Christian romance. I run into it a lot.

  19. Had troubling finishing this post, as ideas for my novel flooded me. Ha! I kept breaking to take notes. And, as always, I’ll use these reminders/insights to help my clients with their stories as well.

    Thanks so much!

  20. “Or, he could almost be eaten by the thing.” Listening to the audio version, that totally took me by surprise! 😅

    This unlocks what wasn’t working with a fantasy series I have on the backburner. Book one establishes the closeness of my protagonist to her parents and others in her community, and the open communication and care they have for each other in a somewhat hostile environment. Then, in book 2… She enters the house to find her mother and one of the leaders speaking in a language she has never heard before. That part works.

    But proceeding to begin learning the language once she is let in on the secret? It was feeling like “Hey, this language is fun, let’s include a beginner course for all the readers!” Which, although it might be fun as a separate bonus, was really bogging down the story. Motive, stakes, responsibility, consequences, and even a deadline for needing to use it are all things I need to draw out of the story!

    Thanks so much for the timely post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Fantasy novels in general used to be really bad at this. The authors were so in love with the worldbuilding that they often got lost in it. I remember one example in particular that spent the majority of the book following the character through his very detailed magic classes.

  21. Great post, thanks so much for sharing x

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