Applying the feedback: Info-dumping

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Ever pick up a book that at first feels like an encyclopedia about a fantasy world and not a story? I’m sure you have. And, if like me, you’re a writer of fantasy or science fiction, then chances are you haven’t just read that book. You’ve probably written it too.

Info-dumping is a term for when writers provide information in a big chunk, in a way that takes away from the story rather than enhancing it. This can be related to world building, backstory, or even what has happened off screen.

As a querying writer and a fairly experienced beta reader of novels–I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on common negative feedback people receive on their novels from agents or readers, and how to fix the issues raised. So far we’ve done Voice and Character. And by popular vote from my querying friends– info dumping is my next topic to tackle.

I’m mostly going to be focusing on info-dumping in relation to world building. But many of the principals covered in this post will be useful (I hope!) in other areas where information needs to be shared.

Bread-crumb the world building/information–especially in the first chapter

So you’ve been told your novel has too much info-dumping. Or you are about to start a project and you want to avoid this common pitfall.

But how do you prevent it when the information is required for your novel? The first secret to this is bread-crumbing.

I first heard this metaphor from Editor Jeni Chapelle, and I come back to it time and time again. Just begin your story, and rather than setting the scene through big paragraphs of information, sprinkle it in. A sentence here and there, a little crumb of information that the reader can add to their growing knowledge of what is going on.

But won’t this leave them confused, if they don’t know everything up front? This can be a danger. But readers are often cleverer than we give them credit for. The sprinkle is enough to help the story make sense, and eventually overtime, readers will pull together all those breadcrumbs of information into a cohesive whole.

Besides, many readers will be skimming a big paragraph of info early on, because they aren’t at the point of caring about the world yet. By using bread-crumbing, your readers are more likely to notice and absorb the information anyway.

Make a Cheat Sheet!

I first heard this tip from author Amie Kaufman and I regularly share it because it feels like a game changer.

Before you start writing a story set in a fantastical or sci-fi world– write a cheat sheet. A one page explanation of the world that covers all the things people will need to know in order to ‘get’ the setting or the situation. Then start the story as if your readers have read the cheat sheet.

When you’re done, then see what you need to add to help it make sense, without the sheet. You’ll find it’s less than you think! This is a great technique because it prevents you from over explaining and it gives you the flexibility of viewing the whole story when your deciding where to put the information you still need to add. Extremely helpful for the next two points!

Let the Character Walk Through the World

When I go for a walk along the bike path by my house, I’m usually not thinking about my childhood. When I walk into a cafe and order a tea, I don’t tend to dwell on the political landscape of my nation. Why? Because those thoughts are out of place from what I am doing in that moment.

However, if I go past my childhood street, or I smell a food I loved as a child– then it is likely, or even expected that childhood things will come to mind.

One of the most organic, natural ways to get world building or other info across without dumping it, is to have a character walk through the world and reflect only on the things that are relevant to them in that moment. Or, to have aspects of the world building shown by what the character experiences rather than by what they think.

If a character says “Machines in Citadela are run off magic that is stored in gems”- that sounds both unnatural and also a little boring. If a character gets stuck in an elevator/lift because it’s magic stone ran ‘flat’, that gives us the same information by both showing the reality and also giving the character a chance to reflect on their world in a way that is natural to their circumstances.

In the end, this too is bread-crumbing. But it’s using the natural moments of the story to decide where to sprinkle those world building crumbs.

There is one more factor that can be helpful in determining where to place your information.

Give the Information When Your Readers are Primed to Hear it.

A writer I was once in a class with made a statement that has stuck with me ever since. It was: when will the reader be most excited to hear this information? Rather than thinking of information as something to drop as soon as possible, it makes you think carefully about the best place for it to go. And even better, that leads on to a second, even more technical question. How can I make the reader want this information?

What bits of info in the story can be turned into a mystery the reader wants to uncover or a puzzle to be solved? How can I tie this info into the story in such a way that the readers are dying to know what I’m already hoping to tell them?

Suddenly, rather than your info being something that slows the story down, it becomes something that has the reader flipping the page.

Info isn’t just something to be dropped into a story. It can also be a craft tool to help make your story work.

Hack: Use a character or situation that helps you explain the world.

But sometimes in a story you do need to get a bunch of information across quickly for the sake of understanding. So how do you do this in a way that fits naturally into the story. Here are too little ‘hacks’ that I’ve used.

One is to make sure you have a ‘fish out of water’ character. Someone in the story who doesn’t know this information and so they can hear it without it feeling unnatural for them to ask, or unnatural for another character to explain it to them.

When Lucy arrives in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe— she knows nothing about the world. So it makes sense for Mr Tumnus to explain things. Lucy acts as the stand in for us, she also isn’t used to this world of fawns and witches, so everything we need to know, she does too.

Another alternative is to put your character in a place where it makes sense for them to be dwelling on important world building information.

In my current WIP Half Heart, in order to understand my characters actions and motives, I needed to inform the reader of some political realities of her nation and it’s neighbour from the first chapter. But a paragraph of politics is a boring way to start a novel. So I set most of the first scene in a Library that is the only place where it’s legal for people from both countries to mingle. That was important for what my character needed to do, but it also allowed me to bread-crumb in the info that the reader needed, without it appearing as an out of context info-dump.

So there are my tips for what to do if you are told you are doing too much “info dumping”. Next up in the series…What to do when readers or agents say they “don’t buy the romance.”

Other Posts from this series:

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Applying the Feedback Series: Character