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The dreaded information dump. You’ve seen this before: You settle in to read a new story, but first, the author must tell you what you need to know to understand the book. In epic fantasy, this could include thousands of years of warfare and peace. In real-world fiction, this could include character history going back to the day the main character’s parents met! (Yes, I have read both of these things before – in actual, published books.)
Usually, the information dump is more subtle, but no less feared. When you throw untethered information at your reader, you run the serious risk of boring and confusing them.
Of course, you’ve got to tell the reader something at some point, or they won’t understand what’s going on! So how do you do this while avoiding information dumping?
First, and most importantly, I want to draw a distinction between providing information and dumping it. You are guilty of information dumping if:
Now that you know what info dumping is, here’s how you avoid it:
1. Begin with story, not with background.
Something should be happening at the beginning of your story, either an inciting incident or something that will quickly lead the reader to know, “What is this story about?” The best way to avoid information dumping is, quite simply, to begin the story, and then mention background as it becomes relevant.
2. Write in character.
If you've got a good voice going, and you can insert some attitude when you're delivering information, the reader is less likely to care when you dump a bit (as long as it’s relevant). First person makes this particularly easy to do, because your narrator can crack jokes and use interesting asides to relay information that might otherwise be dreadfully dull or take many chapters to get across. Even in third person limited, though, you have a key to your character's thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. Use it. It is your most powerful tool.
3. Give the reader the gist of the information, and fill in details later.
Even if information is relevant, it may not be the right time for a three-page essay on the subject. If it's enough to say Sally caught Bill cheating on her with her sister two years ago, then say that and move on. Eventually, we may want to know that it happened on a family ski trip, when Sally had to fly home on business, but for now, it may be enough to give us a taste of the issue. Especially at first, when it seems you have an entire notebook of background details to relay, providing the gist of things is a good strategy.
4. Very carefully, use interactions with other characters to provide information.
I say to do this carefully, because this can easily become the dreaded “As you know, Bob” conversation. Don’t stage dialog, and never have your characters say things to one another that they are entirely unlikely to say. If Bob already knows about your evil plot to take over the world using silly putty and a great big catapult, then you don't need to tell him about it for the sake of the reader. In fact, it's pretty laughable to relay this evil plot to the hero as you lower him slowly into a vat of hot oil. (And then leave the room, giving the hero time to escape the ridiculously slow dipping machine. Insert evil laugh.)
However, if there is a way for a natural conversation to provide relevant information, then use it. One character telling another something he needs to know, but currently doesn't, often works well.