Imagine you’re driving through the countryside on your way to a friend’s house. You travel five miles, but then you run into a pile of leaves in the road. You stop to clear it up, then start driving again. Ten miles later, however, there’s a pile of wood. You stop. You move the wood. You start driving again. Imagine that happening all the way across the state.
Talk about frustrating, yet new authors do the same thing in their novels when they drop info dumps throughout their stories.
I haven’t done the math to calculate it, but I’m going to guess that about 75 percent of the information in info dumps can be cut. And it should be. It’s not necessary to know everything about every character in a novel. Readers will need to see some backstory on the main characters, but only what’s relevant to the plot. Rarely do info dumps contain that information. If they do include necessary info, there are other ways to reveal it.
What is an Info Dump?
An info dump is a large section of information that stops the forward motion of a story. One minute the reader is watching the main character do something, the next minute he’s getting a history lesson.
This is an example of a typical info dump. In this story, three young men are getting ready to move to Tennessee to start a business together:
Rob grabbed his suitcase and tossed it in the trunk. He reached for another box when a car pulled into the drive way. Ryan and Tyler hopped out.
Ryan and Tyler were Rob’s friends from grade school. They’d all met in Miss Stanwick’s third-grade class and bonded over comic books. Since Rob was an only child, Ryan and Tyler became his adopted brothers, spending hours at each other’s houses during the week and staying over on the weekends. They’d even gone to the same university, lived in the same dorm. Tyler had insisted that they get different roommates so they could expand their circle of friends, but they always came back to each other. Friends and brothers until the end.
Rob smooshed the box beside his suitcase. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be packing.”
“We’ve got time for that later.” Tyler handed Rob a paper bag. It said My Other Son on the outside. That was what Tyler’s mom called Rob. After having four girls, Tyler had been a fun surprise for her and her husband. Having Ryan and Rob become such good friends with Tyler just added to their family. “This is for you from my mom.”
This scene starts with Rob packing his car. Instead of staying in the action – watching Ryan and Tyler hop out of the car followed by Rob asking a question – everything stops while we learn the history of these friends. The reader doesn’t need to know their third-grade teachers name or even when they met. It doesn’t matter whether they roomed together at college or how many siblings Tyler has. The only thing the reader needs to know is that they’re like brothers and they’re getting ready to move.
Fixing an Info Dump
There are two steps needed to fix an info dump.
- Cut any information that’s not necessary for the scene.
- Make the information part of the scene.
The above example could be rewritten as:
Rob grabbed his suitcase and tossed it in the trunk. He reached for another box when a car pulled into the drive way. Ryan and Tyler hopped out. Rob smooshed the box beside his suitcase. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be packing.”
“We’ve got time for that later.” Tyler handed Rob a paper bag. It said My Other Son on the outside. “This is for you from my mom. She gave one to Ryan too.”
That’s it. There’s no reason to explain that Ryan got one because he’s also like a son to Tyler’s mom. Showing what’s on the bag, saying who it’s from, and telling the reader that Ryan also received one implies that Tyler’s mom considers Rob – and Ryan – to be her other sons. In this particular scene, that’s all the information needed. Their siblings and third-grade teacher might come into the story later, but that information doesn’t matter now, so don’t let it slow down the momentum!
Pick up your WIP and look for areas where your descriptions stop the action – what can you cut from those sections? How else can you share that information?