Imagine the scene: you’ve sat down to write, you’re trundling along through your scene, happy as a clam, when you run into a stumbling block. There’s something you realise you haven’t explained—about the world your story is set in, or your character’s backstory, or anything really—and you’re not sure you can proceed without saying at least something about it. But how to avoid the dreaded info dump?! Not to worry folks, I’ve got you.
Sorry, what’s an info dump?
An info dump is an inelegant form of exposition, where one character or the narrator will go off on a lengthy explanation of some context or history to help the reader make sense of the situation the characters are (usually) either in at that moment or about to be in.
And the problem with that is…?
There are so many problems with that. It breaks the flow of the story to have the plot pause for a lecture, it’s boring to have information conveyed in this all-at-once way and it robs your readers of the chance to feel like they’re exploring and experiencing your story in an organic way.
Okay, so what’s your solution then?
I’m so glad I asked.
Here’s my recommended process for handling those moments where you feel the info dump impulse stirring:
- Put it all in
- Take it all out
- Keep what’s needed
- Make it fit
Step 1: Put it all in
In this phase you’re going to info dump like you’ve never info dumped before. Write down everything that seems even vaguely relevant, chuck it all in, all of the aspects of character history and world-building that you’ve got floating around in your brain, until you’ve even bored yourself with the level of detail you’ve included. This, while possibly seeming counterintuitive, is an important step because part of the desire to info dump can often come from feeling like there’s something you feel the need to explore or pin down before you move forwards with the story. So, set aside your self-editor and just write until you’re out of words, and then sit back and have a look at your sentences/paragraphs/pages of exposition.
Step 2: Take it all out
If you’re working electronically, cut and paste that exposition explosion into a separate document. If you’re writing by hand, cover it all up for a moment. Imagine the scene is progressing without any of that information being shared. Really play it through for yourself, working through the implications to the reader if they haven’t had anything explained to them. Think about the elements they’re likely to pick up on through context clues, and the parts of your background knowledge that, while interesting, aren’t actually directly relevant to what’s going on.
Now that you’ve completed Step 2, you’re allowed to look at your handiwork from Step 1 again.
Step 3: Keep what’s needed
Being totally honest with yourself, and as brutal as you can bring yourself to be, go through your work from Step 1 and take note of the bits that are truly necessary to explain in some way. Stuff that your reader honestly can’t move forwards without understanding. To take Harry Potter as an example, this would be something like the house system at Hogwarts and the way the different houses are viewed. Harry being sorted into Gryffindor will honestly be meaningless to the reader without a grounding in what that means in the context of this world.
Once you’ve narrowed down what your reader honestly needs to know before you can move on in your scene or story, it’s time for arguably the most important part of this process:
Step 4: Make it fit
You know what they need to know, now you have to decide how to make sure they know it. There are literally (probably) hundreds of different ways to approach this and, as usual, I’m going to give you a bunch of things to consider rather than any straight answers about The Best Way To Inform.
It may be that this scene you’ve got to is the right place to have some of this information come out, in which case is it going to be through conversation between two characters? Or, especially useful if we’re talking backstory rather than world-building, some kind of flashback or moment of reflection from one of your characters? Can the reader be informed indirectly through observation of something your character is seeing, giving them a chance to piece some of the information together for themselves? It’s important to have faith in your readers, and it’s easy for them to feel patronised if you insist on spelling things out for them that they could have worked out with just some pointing in the right direction. This is where beta readers or other kinds of feedback come in really handy for getting the balance right between outright informing and just hinting around plot-vital information.
Before you settle on any one of those ideas though, consider whether this is in fact the right moment for sharing your vital information. If some element of your story’s history or functioning is so important that you can’t now move forward without some kind of exposition, maybe there was an opportunity to seed it in earlier in the plot? If it’s part of your world’s history, could you be looking at prime prologue material? Or, alternatively, maybe it’s okay to forge on for the moment and have your reader be a little uncertain before filling in the blanks at another time? Just because something occurs to you at a particular moment while writing your story, doesn’t mean you’re committed to passing that information on to your reader right then.
In short, maybe you’ll go through all this and decide what you really need is for one character to explain a vital element of your story to another before you can carry on writing the scene you were in the middle of. That’s fine, nothing wrong with it, and it can absolutely be the most effective way to explain some story elements for a reader! But hopefully the process has helped you to narrow down the most important information to convey, so you can avoid the pitfall of the info dump. And if along the way you came up with some different ways that you could weave backstory and world-building into your story, then that is also great.
How do you like to see exposition delivered when you’re reading?
Are you actually a fan of getting it all out of the way in one go? Do you have any favourite ways to get key information across when you’re writing? Share your thoughts in the comments!