Info dumps…and how to avoid them

I don’t usually pontificate about the writing process as I don’t feel qualified to do so, but as a sci-fi writer, avoiding info dumps is a daily hazard, so I thought I’d share.

But what is an info dump?

As the name suggests, info dumps are big lumps of explanatory text that refer to either the background of the story or the past of the characters.

When info dumps refer to the background of the story, they can include copious descriptions of the political, historical, biological, philosophical or cultural underpinings of the ‘world’. In contemporary stories, much of this world building can be taken for granted. We all know what a light switch is, or a four wheel drive [car], or a computer, so we can reference these known parts of the world without having to explain them. In science fiction and fantasy, however, everything in the world is new, so there is very little common ground between what the reader already knows and what exists in the make-believe world. As such, information about the world is a necessary part of the story. The question is…how much?

Something similar applies to background information about the characters. We need them to be well-rounded, three dimensional people, but real people have pasts. They don’t just appear in the world, ready made and raring to go. They have baggage, and that baggage has made them who they are at the start of the story. Yet as with the world building, how much do readers need to know, and how should they find out? Constant flashbacks can become very boring, very quickly.

Nevertheless, there is one person who absolutely must know every single detail, no matter how small, and that person is the writer. We need to know everything because events do not happen in a vacuum and characters need reasons to do what they do. Actually, that’s wrong; the world and the characters are not separate. They create each other. They constrain each other. They exist as a whole that is constantly in flux.

Let me give you an example. If you create a world that has only half the gravity of Earth, then the people of the world are not going ‘walk’ the way humans do. In fact, they may not walk at all because they will have evolved to suit their environment. In the same way, a world ravaged by war is not going to be all pretty and bucolic. There may be pockets of beauty but the environment will reflect what humans/aliens have done to it.

So…if we agree that information is necessary, how do we avoid presenting it as an info dump? I mean, sure, there will be some people who are so into the lore that they will enjoy the info dumps and look for more. But…you do know how few of them there are…right?

One of the saddest things I discovered during my thirteen year apprenticeship as a writer was that very little of my beloved research needed to be in the final story. Sadder still, I learned that even that little had to be presented in teeny tiny portions, around the edges of the action, or snuck in as an emotional flavouring to the motivation. Not because readers could not ‘understand’, but because they would be viewing the story from the outside.

I’ve use the words ‘viewing’ and ‘outside’ deliberately because that is exactly what happens when someone starts reading a work of science fiction or fantasy. They step into the world with brand new eyes, like travellers to a foreign country where nothing is like it is back home.

These intrepid travellers want to be there, they want to experience that newness, they want to immerse themselves in the world through the experiences of the main characters, but most of them want it to be an emotional journey, not an intellectual one. And that means no info dumps!

But how do you create a brand new world, a realistic world if you’re never allowed to talk about it?

This gets down to the how, and the how will be slightly different for every writer. Some writers, such as Martha Wells, ease readers into the newness very gently. I’m thinking of the Books of the Raksura here. The first book, although obviously not of this earth, is not all that alien either, and the main character comes across as almost human. But the world and the characters become more alien as the 7 book series continues. I enjoyed the entire series, but I think I enjoyed the later books more, precisely because they were more alien.

Another familiar strategy is to present a new world through the eyes of a human who ‘translates’ the strangeness for the reader. C.J.Cherryh accomplished this to perfection with her Foreigner series. Yet as much as I loved this series, I will always believe that Cyteen was/is her greatest work, despite the fact that it’s damned hard to read. I also have a great fondness for her Chanur series. The first one I ever read was Cuckoo’s Egg.

And then there are the stories that drop you in at the deep end and expect you to keep your head above water until you learn how to swim. Ahem. In these kinds of stories, the background of both the world and the characters is doled out a little at a time. Only just enough to explain the ‘moment’, if that. The idea is that the reader gets a feel for the world via the context.

To work, this particular type of storytelling has to provide the reader with just enough of the familiar to carry them over until the alien ‘bits’ start to coalesce. If the strategy works, the reader experiences a shift in perspective and starts to see the world as the characters see it. Deep immersion. When it doesn’t work, the reader gives up in disgust.

I suspect that all science fiction writers create one throw-’em-in-the-deep-end story because we get sick of the same old, same old and want to show that we can do better. Then we realise that readers would much prefer to read about people. Ahem.

But the all or nothing technique is an extreme way of avoiding info dumps. A similar effect can be achieved by:

  1. asking whether a particular detail is something the reader needs to know or something only the author needs to keep in mind,
  2. asking what the reader needs to know at this very moment,
  3. asking which part of an explanation fits the timing and mood of the story.

Because I love my research, no. 1 is a constant bug bear and my editing usually consists of ‘killing my darlings’. 🙂 No. 2 I find fairly easy because it’s how I teach. When people are confronted with the new, unnecessary, peripheral details just get in the way of understanding.

No. 3 however is something I still struggle with. When I start a scene, I usually have some idea of what I want the scene to accomplish, but that initial idea is rarely very good. Often it’s not until I’ve written the scene that I realise what the real point should have been. This is particularly true for characters as motivation is rarely cut and dried. In the following short excerpt, I wanted to show why Kaati thought it could get away with impersonating one of the Healers’ acolytes, despite knowing very little about the Healers or their acolytes:

‘Kaati had no desire to impersonate a Healer, but it was determined to steal one of the small starrock beads worn by their acolytes. In an eyrie teeming with Healers, acolytes were almost as ubiquitous as drudges, and far less visible…

if stories of Messenger being true

The sudden doubt made Kaati’s hearts pound, but it refused to countenance failure. Even if the Messenger had exaggerated the antics of its fellow acolyte, it would have had no reason to actually lie. Besides, it made sense for acolytes to play pranks on the Healers. Younglings always got up to mischief of some sort…

The soft skin around Kaati’s eyes crinkled in amusement as it remembered dropping a live taptoh into the Second’s gruel. The big Teller had not noticed until a small, many-legged lump crawled from the bowl.

The taptoh incident had been punished, of course, but the punishment had been remarkably mild, and it was not till much later that Kaati realised why. Stealth and cunning were the tools of the Tellers’ trade, so pulling off a prank like that would have been seen as a rite of passage, at least for some. The Second was dead, and its own journey had taken a sharp turn from the familiar, but some things never changed. Younglings were always the same, whether they were apprentice Tellers or acolytes to the Healers. They played pranks and avoided chores where possible.

So long as it wore an acolyte’s bead and looked busy, none of the Healers would give it a second glance…

Apart from the references to characters who appear earlier in the story, there’s actually a lot of background in these few paragraphs. There’s what Kaati wants to accomplish, there’s an acknowledgement that it doesn’t really know what the Healers and acolytes are like, there’s a snippet from its past, a hint that things have changed for the worse, and an intimation that it’s basing a heck of a lot on guess work. Yet I think each bit of information moves the story along in some way rather than bogging it down. One hopes

Vokhtah saga falls into the category of ‘extreme’ storytelling, but it does illustrate how much background you can sneak in while the reader isn’t looking. 😀

Whilst I enjoy reading most genres [except horror], I don’t know much about the techniques used to write them so I’d love to hear how other writers handle the dread info dump.

cheers
Meeks

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

40 responses to “Info dumps…and how to avoid them

  • Oh my darlings… :( | Meeka's Mind

    […] that post about info dumps? Well, I’ve just cut two, and it’s breaking my heart. One of them was a cute little […]

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  • marianallen

    One of my many writing instructors emphasized the “telling detail”: only using a background detail that performs at least two functions in the scene and does those functions better than anything else would. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Katie Waitman’s THE MERRO TREE. SO NOT a book I would have chosen or read all the way through if my friend hadn’t given it to me. Hot alien sex is not my jam. But the book was brilliant with world-building. Every page had at least one telling detail about the universe of the book and/or the characters. As a general example: A character would use an idiom that was clear from the context, but the references were about alien relationships between two alien things; the idiom showed a lot about the universe and, because of the character’s attitude in using the idiom, the character’s attitude toward the things referenced in the idiom and the things about whom the idiom was employed. Highly recommended, hot alien sex and all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      lmao – not sure how I’d cope with hot alien sex, but that technique is one I try very hard to emulate, especially the bit about each detail having to perform multiple duties. I know from my own reading that my sense of place builds slowly, one, apparently insignificant detail at a time until suddenly I find myself anticipating a plot twist or character reveal. I guess it’s like the bread crumb trail on steroids.

      Liked by 1 person

  • D. Wallace Peach

    I agree that Vokhtah “falls into the category of ‘extreme’ storytelling.” It makes for a fascinating but challenging read, and I had to read the first quarter or so of the book twice. Lol. You took a risk, but in my case, it paid off.

    You laid out the need for exposition in sci-fi fantasy beautifully as well as the considerations as to when to add it and how much. The principle applies to backstory and the level of detail in all stories, but is a particular concern with those who actually require need to create something that doesn’t exist in the reader’s knowledge base.

    Info dumps are boring, pace-killers, but it’s hard to cut all that wonderful data and research, those “darlings.” It’s a process I undertake with groans and gritted teeth (and to be frank, I’m still learning). Great post, my friend. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      -grin- yes, Vokhtah is probably the least reader-friendly book/series I’ll ever write, but I’m not sure it was courage that made me stick to my guns. I think it was more a kind of blissfully ignorant naivete.

      I totally agree with you about info dumps being boring. I’m kind of an extreme reader yet I confess, there have been times when I’ve skimmed those long paragraphs of exposition shamelessly. Not only are they boring, they’re also not very effective. Our brains just don’t absorb bulk information in one hit. We need to absorb small bits of info often in order to build a real ‘picture’ of place. Or person. Seeing a character being nice or mean or cruel over time is far more effective than the author simply saying [once] he/she is nice/mean/cruel.

      lol! I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Diana! Your world building and characters always look effortless. Speaking of, isn’t Liars 2 due out soon? No pressure, of course…:p

      Liked by 1 person

  • DawnGillDesigns

    Footnotes. I love footnotes. (Especially Terry Pratchet ones 😉 ) If you can make it so that the reader can touch the superscript and then hyperlink to the footnote and – crucially do the same in reverse – then I say go for footnotes, or you could put in a separate chapter with the required explanations at the beginning, or flag it if yuo fear it would put people off – people can choose to skip if already familiar with the world, or not as they like. I’d read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Audrey Driscoll

    I’ve seen research compared to an iceberg–only a little bit needs to be visible in the writing, but the writer needs the whole thing. Background info is best applied around engaging characters or situations; if readers are enmeshed in the story they will welcome extra details. As for the sink or swim approach, I think Vokhtah is a good example where you made that work. Writers in critique groups should be aware that someone in the group will always say, “I’m confused,” or just demand MORE because “I love your descriptions.” The writer should think hard before slotting in explanations for the confused or extra fluff for the impressed (even though it’s flattering). As for the advice to “kill your darlings,” I wonder how many writers equate that to “if you think it’s really good, delete it,” rather than “if it’s not part of the story, delete it, even if you think it’s good.”

    Liked by 1 person

  • CarolCooks2

    Thank you, a very informative article for me as I work on my first novel ..have BM 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

  • anne54

    A fascinating article, Meeks. As you know I am not a writer, but I am a reader, and obvious information dumps (not that I knew that phrase before now!) annoy me. They are most obvious in series that are churned out; the backstory of the main character has to be explained in the first few pages before the action can begin.
    I haven’t read any sci-fi for ages, but one if the things I love about it is working out what is happening in the world. As a reader I don’t want everything spelt out for me.I admire the skill of the writer who can do that successfully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      lol – you do okay for a writer who doesn’t ‘write.;) Blogging is writing!
      You’re absolutely right about series and the need to ‘catch the reader up’. It makes the second [and third] book in a series very hard to do. With the second Vokhtah book I’ve decided to weave the important previous stuff into the story as I tell it. Nice in theory, really hard to do in practice. That said, my favourite writers make it look easy. If you feel like dipping into scifi/fantasy again give Martha Wells or C.J. Cherryh a try. The really are very, very good.

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  • cagedunn

    It’s the urge to explain — watch that word! — but also to go too deep into introspection at the cost of action (not activity). As long as something is happening physically, the character has to move through the world and that’s how it experiences enough for the reader to also experience it.
    Characters do things because they want things (objectives), but it’s more than something to accomplish, it also has to be something that moves the story closer to the end (or further). The purpose of the objective is important, what they do (action) to get what they want, and what gets in the way (the place for worldbuilding, a few words at a time).
    My biggest bug-bear is the splaining that comes with having characters wake up at the start of a scene and go to sleep at the end because the whole day is explained when most of it isn’t needed to move the story forward.
    I often wonder if we ever stop learning, but doubt it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      yes! I had to smile at this ‘..wake up at the start of a scene and go to sleep at the end…’
      I wonder if that’s a result of whole ‘show don’t tell’ rule? That’s a bug bear of mine. Who the heck wants a blow by blow of how a character brushes their teeth? Well, unless they have vampire fangs and it’s a neat way of describing what they look like…hmm. That would almost be fun to write. lol

      Liked by 1 person

      • cagedunn

        Not only the ‘show, don’t tell’ concept, but also the excuse for a reader to put it down and never pick it back up again. A reader wants to go on a journey with the character, full of excitement and drama, not coffee, cake and biscuits.
        Who was it said, story is life with the boring bits removed? I like that saying and try to leave all the boring bits in the out-takes.

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          lmao! I fear I like at least /some/ of those boring bits. And what’s wrong with cake???? Seriously though, you’re right; we want to be taken out of the every day. That’s certainly why I read scifi and fantasy. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  • Remembering Lives

    Such an interesting article. If I ever return to non-fiction, I suspect my characters would have very little, if any backstory. I generally find description tedious. Perhaps it stems back to my days of reading Thomas Hardy. That was when I first became aware that I find too much description tedious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Ka ching! I love explaining things but I hate describing them. I’ve been admonished for not describing my characters better, but I really do find it hard to do. Not because I don’t know what they look like, but because I’m usually telling the story through someone’s eyes and real people rarely think about having ‘blond hair and blue eyes with a twinkle’….. And the mirror thing has become such a hackneyed trope. I’m glad to see I’m not alone. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Very important topic, and very badly handled by some writers.

    In that category I include the ‘we have to stop the story to physically and mentally describe each new character as he/she/it joins the story’ writers. I notice them now, and prefer to only get the same kind of first impression you would get if you were dropped into an audit with Internal Revenue, and had to explain your tax choices to the person across the desk: the context is more important, but you can’t possibly help noticing that they have a comb-over, and worse, keep playing with the strands.

    Lightly, lightly, one to three details, and move on – you will add to it later because that interview will last forever.

    It is in the ‘make every word count’ bin. If someone offers someone a hand, the other person WILL notice if it’s clammy. Or that it is the left hand. Or that the nails are chewed to the bleeding quick. Hands are marvelous ways of characterizing, and I use them for intimacy.

    What I do instinctively now is the product of twenty-five years of practice, reading articles about info dumps (like yours), and paying attention to when it bothers me in others’ work. I cannot read Jonathan Kellerman any more without deliberately skipping every description of a new character he lazily dumps in a chunk. Yes, we see a lot of things at once when we are introduced, but I want the couple that stick.

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    • acflory

      “you can’t possibly help noticing that they have a comb-over, and worse, keep playing with the strands.” -roars laughing- Yes, yes, yes. 😀

      And this “..we see a lot of things at once when we are introduced, but I want the couple that stick.’

      This is precisely why I change the pov in my stories. We rarely see ourselves as others see us, so sometimes it’s good to get someone else’s reaction to a main character. Does away with the ‘looking in a mirror’ trope too.

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      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Glad you liked it – I got a flash: balding. Then added a bit of hair, and then I couldn’t keep from handling it, and voila! Tax man doesn’t get a lot of respect – stuck in an office, poor guy. (Or woman – it’s even worse when a woman suffers from alopecia.)

        This is why I write, because playing with the hair strands has never occurred to me before – and it did.

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          lmao – I’ve never ‘done’ a comb over either! It’s actually amazing how much emotional content goes with it though. I once knew a guy who did the whole comb over thing and the attempt to /hide/ the hair loss was a reflection of his whole personality. For me, the female equivalent isn’t hair, it’s those fake nails that are chopped off straight at the end [sharp corners?] and so long, they make the hand almost unusable. I’ve often wondered what kind of self delusion makes a woman voluntarily lose the dexterity of her hands?

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          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            I’ve had that same thought – and if you USE those tips, you could rip your own nails off your hands. Ouch!

            I especially hate them on medical personnel – I can’t believe the hands can be cleaned properly between patients, and the amount of junk that lurks under even very short nails is significant – so they seem very inappropriate, and the only kind of thing an employer could insist on, for valid medical cause.

            Me, I have the hands of one of my main characters, the writer: “…cool, short nails, no polish, no rings. A writer’s hand.”

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            Agreed! I used to grow my nails – back before kids and writing. Now they’re short and functional…and they don’t click when I type! lol

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  • Gradmama2011

    Excellent article, hopefully before its too late I will start actually writing fiction and not just read about how to do it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      lol – hi Pat! It’s /never/ too late to start. I intend to be writing prizing winning fiction when the Queen sends me that telegram! Oh wait, it’ll probably be a text by the time I hit 100. 😀

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      • Gradmama2011

        I once read in Writers’ Digest that Stephen King during an interview he said that the reason he got so much writing done was that he “had a wife” who ran interference on calls and visitors. He also said that when guests/family would come to visit it was like torture to him. I always relate to that! lol

        Liked by 1 person

  • Candy Korman

    I KNOW. It’s so hard to cut those backstories! But cut we must in order to move the plot forward.

    Liked by 2 people

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