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

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Feedback is a crucial part of a writer’s efforts to grow their craft. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when someone said something about our writing that pushed it to the next level. Hard to hear but exactly what we needed at that time. Maybe they introduced us to the concept of filter words or deep POV. Maybe they told us that our dialogue sounded like writing and not people talking.  Or maybe they pointed out we were dumping in our world building instead of sprinkling it in. 

But one of the trickiest things when it comes to feedback, is knowing how to apply it. Sometimes you are told something isn’t working– but aren’t sure what you need to do to change that.

This is particularly true when the feedback comes from industry professionals like agents or editors. They often don’t have time to explain why something isn’t working– just that it isn’t.

So to kick off 2022, I’m going to write a series of blog posts on how to apply some of the most common critiques of fiction writing. And this first post relates to the topic of voice.

Voice. That elusive gem of a skill that makes all writers quake. We all know it when it find it– when we read a story and feel like a real flesh and blood person is talking to us and not a character. But how do we manufacture it? What do you do when someone says, “It lacked voice.” Or the dreaded “The voice didn’t grab me.”

Know your character well and make sure your narrative reflects who they are

Who is your character? What do they care about and notice? What lies do they believe and where did they come from? Are they bubbly? Reserved? A smart arse?

So often we can answer all those questions. But if someone was to read a paragraph from that characters POV– none of this would come through. Because we are writing the story as if we personally are riding along with the protagonist describing events, rather than letting the characters voice do it for us.

Let who they are dictate how the story is told. Are they an artist? Then they will likely use highly specific colour names. Are they are builder? Then they might comment on a buildings structure or what materials it’s made of. Are they a kid? Then (unless they are unusually precocious) they won’t use grown up words like…well, precocious.

The first thing to do to work on voice is to get to know your character. Strengthening them will only help your story– and writing as them and not you will start to give them voice. 

Write like your character is speaking to a close friend

Imagine I visited a friend’s new house for the first time. How might I describe it? I might say how many rooms there are, bring up that it’s a corner block and the backyard is small. I might say that it’s brick with cream trimmings.

But how would I talk to my sister about it?

For one thing- I’d draw on our shared experience. Id talk about how it had the homely old-fashion feel of Nan’s place. I’d talk less about the cosmetic details and more about what mattered to me- like how it had a gorgeous fireplace and how much I was looking forward to hanging out with my friend there on cold winter nights.   But I’d also talk about how it made me feel. About how the meticulous condition made me feel like a house-keeping failure or how I nearly cried seeing my friend finally find a home after a rough couple of years.

This isn’t a question of using slang or casual language. It’s a question of intimacy. Part of the beauty of voicey prose is really getting a window into a characters soul. So next time you are struggling with voice- imagine the character speaking to a friend.

It also helps with distance– an issue that will come in another post.

Get Out of your Own Way

Part of the issue I suspect with voice is confidence. We are trained from an early age to write in a formal way. We want our words to sound pretty. We have a narrative style that probably got us A’s through highschool and we don’t want to mess with that.

Writing with our characters voice can be an intimidating change, and can feel awkward when we first try it.

If you suspect you have more voicey prose in you, but are nervous that it will sound weird or wrong, I recommend writing something outside of your story. Maybe a backstory scene. Something that will never makes its way into the story itself, so the pressure is off to make it perfect.

Then, once the voice is settled in your mind and you are comfortable with it, you can go back to your novel and incorporate your new voicey style.

If you can write compelling, voicey dialogue then you can write compelling, voicey narrative. So give yourself permission! Get out of your own way and give it a try!

But sometimes…

But sometimes, sadly, it’s just not a good fit.

Sometimes it’s not that the character lacks voice and that’s why it didn’t grab the agents interest. Sometimes there is voice for days! But just like we all have different taste in books, sometimes we have different taste in voice too.

So if you are confident in your voice and if betas love it, then don’t despair! It might be that the next agent is the one that can’t resist your work.

I hope this post is helpful. And if there is some mysterious feedback that you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.