Welcome back readers to another installment of Being a Better Writer! Today’s installment is somewhat unusual in that it was written days before the actual posting. Why? Because if all has gone as planned, today I am off on my way to Alaska to visit family, taking my first travel vacation (and my first trip to where I grew up) in about half a decade.
Yikes. When I say it like that, it does sound like I need a break. Here’s hoping it is a relaxing one and I get some peace of mind from it.
Anyway, that means no news with this post, because it was written a while ago (and it would all be out of date). So sit back, relax (like I’m supposed to be doing) and get ready to talk about writing. While I, if all has again gone to plan, will be traveling through the air or spending my night at an airport. Or something like that.
So let’s talk about infodumping for a moment. Infodumping is one of those things that worries a lot of writers both young and old—and with good reason! Anyone that’s picked up more than a few books in the last year can probably recall a moment where the story might have slowed down and turning into a page or two of just … information. About the world, about the setting, about the characters … but it was just information that hit the audience with the force and subtlety of a firehose.
This is the infamous infodump. A moment when the author sits back and says “Well, the readers need to know about this” and just dumps it all on them in solid paragraphs of informational text. Or worse, does this for information that the audience doesn’t need to know, but the author really wants to talk about (you’ll see this more with “author fillibusters” or “soapboxing“).
But the result is roughly the same in the end: Solid paragraphs of pure information, something usually akin more to a work of non-fiction than fiction, and a wall for the audience (barring the few who would naturally read this sort of thing anyway). Infodumping remains a cardinal sin in the writing world as a result, a giant speed bump to any reader that comes across it. It messes with pacing, such as one book I can recall where the author interrupted a plot-critical meeting to give a page-and-a-half long aside on the origins of a phrase one of the people in the meeting had used … and then cut right back to the meeting, in the middle of the previous sentence they’d cut off in, and somehow thought this wouldn’t be an issue.
Their editor also apparently thought so, which was why this title did this multiple times, and each time the information that was actually presented was superfluous to what was actually going on and purely unneeded. Like I said above, some authors just really want to talk about things they came up with for the setting, and well … yeah. Imagine watching a movie where every time things really got moving, the director would pause the film and talk about some behind the scenes stuff. Not as a bonus feature, but as the film you went to see in theaters.
Annoying? Yes. This, and other forms of infodumping are like kryptonite to readers. They sap the reader’s will to, well, read. But this introduces a conundrum for a lot of young writers because well … How can you get a reader invested in a world and knowing what’s going on if you don’t inform them of what the world is like? Or the characters’ backgrounds? Or anything else that’s relevant to the plot?
So hit the jump, folks, because today we’re going to talk about the right and wrong ways to infodump. Or rather, how to avoid the wrong of infodumping while still informing our readers of what they need to know.
So, I have a confession here. I actually wrote out 500+ words getting into depth on different common types of infodumping, with the goal of breaking each one down and talking about how one could dodge it, avoid it, or do better. But … I cut it. Why?
Because at the end of the day, all of them were committing similar sins, and that much detail on each one was making for a long post that was … honestly going to be repetitive and not that great. So yes, there are a lot of different ways to infodump, the most basic form of simply dropping what you want to reader to know in giant paragraphs, or trying to conceal it by resorting to something like “As you know …” dialogue (where characters discuss something each of them already knows, usually basic, in order to inform the audience while making themselves look moronic). Infodumping can come in a lot of shapes and forms.
But honestly, we’re here to talk about how to do it right, how to weave the information your audience needs to know into your story in a natural and interesting way. So let’s talk about that!
Well, okay, I do have to talk about one common vector across all the various forms of “boring” infodumping that’s worth noting: all of them are very “Tell.” Now, if you’re thinking “show versus tell” then yes, you’re on the right track. But it’s not a perfect one-to-one. Some infodumping is done fine by having a character flat-out tell another. So when I say “tell” I’m not being exact and comparing it to the more classic question of “show vs tell” we’ve discussed before on the site (hit the search if you’re interested in that).
But there is a difference. Are you “telling” the reader what they need to know? Or are you “showing” them this information in the world?
Let’s take a look at some common forms of infodumping to make this comparison a bit clearer. Three kinds, actually: The straight dump, the “As you know …,” and the Maid and Butler. All of these are known for being clunky and unwieldly, and with good reason. But one of these reasons is that none of them serve the setting, and only have the barest trappings of doing so. They exist only to tell the reader something. The straight infodump just drops text on the reader’s plate, while “As you know …” and the Maid and Butler deliver exposition that again, exists only to tell the reader something. There is no practical reason for the exchanges to exist otherwise.
See what I mean about this being similar show versus tell? Here, with the infodump, it’s a case of “Are you showing the audience the information they’ll need to know? Or are you just stating it to them?”
Because make no mistake, you can show a reader information about the setting and the world, and do so in a way that makes the reader interested in reading it. Sands, do it well, and readers will never realize they were being infodumped on.
Done poorly, however, the writer will fall into the trap of “telling” the reader. Which all the various forms of infodumping, handled poorly, appear to do. If a the reader realizes that they’re reading something presented to them solely for their benefit (or worse, the benefit of the author), then the story has slipped away from being a story, and started being an infodump.
Okay, so then how do we show a reader our information? How do we give them an “infodump” but disguise it as something else? Well, here are a couple of ways to do this, to convey the information that audience needs while not straight up telling them that we’re doing that.
The first, and most clear point I can make on this, is that you weave this kind of information into the story as a whole. Think of the most classic infodump, the paragraphs dropping information that a reader knows right before they need to know it. Now take those sentences, and distill them, then mix them into the rest of the story. Break them apart into smaller threads, no longer giant blocks, and weave those threads into the greater tapestry! Give a thread here, a thread there, little nuggets that let the audience piece together what they need to know on their own, so that when the time comes for that knowledge to be used, they already have it, no infodump needed.
But how to “weave?” Well, that depends on what they need to know, but there’s still an element of presentation to be had here. So let me deliver one of the most important lessons of infodumping that anyone can learn, gleamed from thousands of hours reading and writing alike:
The more interested and invested a character is in what’s being discussed, the less it feels like infodumping to the reader, and more like a journey with that character.
Let’s look at a really good example of this with The Martian. The Martian is full of infodumps, Mark Whatney explaining to his audience all the science he’s using to survive Mars. But here’s the thing, while pages of the book are Mark doing just that, the reader is invested in it and leaps right through it because Mark, the protagonist, is super excited and invested in it. He drops his infodumps in his style, with eagerness and excitement explaining how this one quirk of gasses and plants might just keep him from dying. And because the character is invested and eager, it makes the information less … boring, one could say. Also, it helps that it’s a journal written at the audience, so there’s an excuse to drop the big dumps on them.
But think of it like the difference between a bored, tired professor, and one that finds their topic fascinating and full of energy. One is liable to make students question why they’re in the classroom, the other is so enthused about a topic the excitement is contagious.
I use this principle a lot when setting up scenes or new places for characters. Axtara, for example, does have a lot of information in it that’s shown to the reader through the lens of the protagonist herself, from what her new home looks like to what the nearby town is like. But the catch is that Axtara herself is giddy with excitement up finding the former, and curious and intrigued by the second. So as she is excited to discover the information, so does the reader become engaged, because the protagonist, who they understand and are following, is discovering it with them.
Now, Axtara still uses weaving, as do all my other books. Single-line observations or thoughts from the protagonist themselves about how a thing works that later in the story come back up, but no infodump is needed because the audience has already absorbed the information piece by piece from earlier parts of the book. It takes a bit of work sometimes for a topic to come naturally into a character’s head, but weaving is like that, and done write, you’ve simply got another thread in the tapestry.
Getting back to having an invested character, however, another common approach to “show” infodumping rather than just telling the audience is to have a character (or characters, even better) be a “Watson,” or a character who while intelligent and capable, doesn’t know much about a subject important to the story, and therefore asks questions that the audience might ask or wonder about, or specifically things direct to the plot/setting, thus giving a character who has the answers a chance to talk about them, and thereby give the audience the information they need.
This is a really common way to infodump, to the degree that I could bring examples up in just about any novel I’ve written. Axtara, for example, has the protagonist’s friend Mia ask Axtara various questions about how and what dragon biology is like. She’s earnest, polite, and curious, so it comes off as sincere as she’s never met a dragon before. Likewise, neither has the audience, and they learn as Axtara answers. In a similar method, the reader learns about loans and other forms of finance as potential clients ask Axtara to explain them, and she does. Again, in a very enthused manner, which makes her explanations all the more inviting to the reader.
So yeah, this is a really good way to present information about a setting, place, etc, to your audience. Have a character who doesn’t know this information, who wants to gain it.
However, there is a caution with this one. It’s all too easy to slip into the trap of “As you know …” for example, and have a character explain something the other already knows, thereby making both look somewhat incompetent (a good way to avoid this in character is to have one character ask the other what they already know and let them reply with a succinct summary of what they know, allowing the other to “fill in the blanks,” thus keeping both characters intelligent and involved in what they’re speaking about). Another problem can be failing to develop the Watson past their “purpose,” making them simply come off as a flat, two-dimensional sounding board for questions and little else.
Or there’s the issue of stories where there are too many Watsons. One book I read had three viewpoint characters, and each one had a designated “Watson” who was just there to ask questions so each protagonist could explain and pretty quickly it began to wear thin, as it was a little “convenient” (plus contrived) that each character just happened to have another character with them that before the start of the book had not picked up on all these “common” elements.
In essence then, a Watson is a good “vehicle” to deliver information to a reader, but overusing it or relying on a single character to be the Watson can be a bit much. Especially if they show little to no character outside of being the Watson.
Now, despite all of what I’ve written above … this still won’t be easy. Delivering information to an audience in a way that feels natural and real is hard. It’s a tricky aspect to get right, and even when it is done well, there are some people who it just won’t click with. For all I said about “just break up that dump and weave it across the story” this is something that takes a lot of practice to do well. To the degree that, well, as I opened with, a lot of readers probably have a recent memory of coming across in a story.
So remember the comparison made at the start of this. We want to show our reader our information. Present it in a natural way, without using flawed tools like “As you know …” or the old “Maid and Butler” bit. We want the information on display to be given importance by our protagonist so that the reader feels their interest. This doesn’t mean that a character has to loudly proclaim their love for wallpaper (though it can), but that the character is invested in whatever they’re observing, commenting on, or interacting with. So yes, a character trying to ferret out a criminal can take a close look at a place said criminal might be hiding. There’s investment there!
Will it take a lot of practice? Yes. But here’s one last thing to mention here that I think is important to understand. If you’ve read anything I’ve said on “Show VS Tell,” then you know I’ve stressed it’s “versus” and not “don’t” because sometimes tell is okay.
Well, the same applies here. Sometimes it’s okay to have a small infodump somewhere. Sometimes you can just tell the audience a little bit about your setting, world, or character. I wouldn’t recommend doing it right before it becomes relevant, or even in the middle of a bit where it should have become relevant, but as to where elsewhere you put it, that does come down to practice. But yes, you can tell a little bit. Like “show vs tell” the exact style of it will be a little different for everyone.
So practice. Go out and write! Pay attention to how you’ve given out information before, and then adjust and plan accordingly.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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