A ridiculous question, right? Of course not! No one wants to be dumped on, much less your hapless reader. Besides, she’s not so hapless. She can exercise her right to close your book long before she reaches the end.
By dumping on a reader, I mean an information dump. Here’s an example I just had fun making up:
Valencia was beautiful and proud of it. Her auburn hair shone just so in the sunlight, revealing strands of gold. Her simmering brown eyes, enhanced by smoky eye shadow, made her seem mysterious. She kept her nails manicured, Wine On, her consistent color choice. The four-inch heels she wore were worth every ache in her feet. She didn’t care that many women gave her the stink-eye when she entered a room. The men’s admiring stares soothed her soul.
Brad reveled in the fact he held a degree from the Harvard Kennedy School. Ever since graduating, he had adopted a number of ways he could work this fact into every conversation. It had become a game for him, and he didn’t care if his listeners had to strain to keep from rolling their eyes. They were just envious of his superiority.
Though these snapshots give the reader a great deal of insight into the characters, wouldn’t the reader be more interested in seeing Valencia and Brad in action? How about Valencia tossing her head smugly, or smirking? Or even flirting with an admirer? Why not have her show in conversation how empty she feels, even if Valencia herself doesn’t realize it?
And Brad? How about putting him into a conversation to show him dropping the fact of his education, straining to reach the topic out of context? Maybe Brad could sniff when his rival has “only” earned a degree from the Reves Center of William and Mary College.
Information dumps can be even more heinous, like catching up with your gossipy friend:
Joan was unhappy. After her first husband left her, she decided to impose her four children under the age of five on her mother so Joan could enjoy a party lifestyle. At first this seemed like fun, but late nights slowed her down and most of the time she felt lousy, both mentally and physically. She wanted a promotion at work, but was denied, and in private, she fumed and blamed being overlooked on everyone but herself. Then her best friend started dating her ex. To get revenge on them both, she dressed up her toddlers to look adorable and went to every church in town until she found a bachelor pastor and acted nice enough long enough to get him to marry her. From there, things only got worse.
Is this history important to your reader so we understand Joan? Yes, but an information dump is not the best way to handle it. Rather, place the reader in the character’s current situation, and let the information be revealed, nugget by nugget. Not only does this build suspense as to why the character is acting a certain way, but weaving necessary information in the context of the action keeps the reader engaged.
As for information dumps? Keep them on your computer, for your reference. Your reader will be glad you did.
Have you been distracted, confused, or bored by information dumps? Did seeing them cause you to stop reading the book?
Is there a time and place where you think information dumps can actually be effective?
Wise advice, Tamela. Thanks
I kind of liked the passages you cited, Tamela. If I’m not mistaken the technique was used more in the past, and show-in-action comes from the faster pace more readers today demand.
Herman Wouk used information dumps quite often in “The Caine Mutiny”, and he succeeded in creating effective, vivid characters.
Also, it seems to me that using information dumps to illuminate character is best done with the use of an omniscient narrator.
I’ve only ever read one book when the author wrote an info dump that didn’t distract me (she’s an experienced author and she cleverly disguised it in the scene). Every other time I end up skimming pages.
Like Karin, I tend to skim over a lot of detail or dumping to get on with reading the story, unless that information captures my attention or is relevant to the moment.
Christine L. Henderson
Acceptable writing styles do change over the years as can be seen if you re-read the classics. in regards to info dumps, though I’ve thought the exception is in writing sci-fi or historical since the reader is thrown into a different world and needs more clarification early on. Am I mistaken to that exception?
I’m not bothered by information dumps, but I love to read classic novels written in the omniscient narrator style as much as I like the limited-POV scene style. A descriptive passage ripe with words and phrases that form focused images is a delight to read even out of context. Great writing with staying power, the type that might someday be on a high school reading list, will probably contain many such passages.
Even in entertainment writing, I think there are genres where the reader might be lost without at least some information-rich passages. Scifi/fantasy and historical in a time other than Regency (we’ve all read Pride and Prejudice) or the late 1800s in cattle country need good description for the reader to visualize the people and places that are alien to them.
I agree wholeheartedly that it’s good to weave details into actions as much as possible, and contemporary novels really lend themselves to that style unless the setting is some exotic location. But sometimes the passages that are meant to tell us about the character by letting us watch them actually slow the action down and distract rather than propel the plot forward.
I do try to use revelation rather than dump as much as possible in my own writing, but when clarity or pace requires a description, I use it.
The fine line between info dump and necessary description is not easy to tread. Most character information and bits of backstory can be worked into the action along the way, but setting and things completely foreign to modern readers need more description that can’t always be worked into action.
When it’s the difference between a paragraph or two of description versus additional pages (or a chapter) to work such things into action, I opt for what keeps the story moving forward and balances the pace.
As a reader, I’m just as likely to close a book that is unrelentingly fast paced as one that is info-dump heavy & too slow.
As a writer, I was well aware, for example, a sailing ship that was also a musical instrument needed a certain amount of critical description before the character could use it in the action.
Fine line — actually more like tightwire walking.
You’re right about the length effect, Glynda. I’ve rewritten three completed manuscripts from omniscient to scene style, and it can add more than 10% to the length of a novel without any major change in the plot. The way I did it ramped up the emotional intensity, but it did make them longer.
Filtering description through the character’s POV can be an effective way of cementing the tone and influencing reader perception about the scene. In the ship example, the character first sees his ship from a distance, then the battle damage and beginning repairs as he gets closer and boards the ship.
The same applies to deep POV descriptions for settings. A dark woods might come through as sinister, frightening as described through one character, but the same dark woods might seem a sanctuary, a place of solace for another.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Oh, my stars, Tamela! Those info dumps were deadly….in my mind’s eye, anyway! I found myself laughing a bit over Joan, and wondering if anyone had to decency to warn the bachelor pastor off…….I guess not, since they got married……..
Have I ever been waved off by an information dump? Yes, but the books were so forgettable that I cannot recall their names……perhaps that is just as well!
Great posting today!!
Thank you for the advice. I feel the urge to run to my books and check for information dumps!! =)
There is that saying, “TMI- Too much information” and I truly believe that sometimes less is more. Thanks for the great writing tips. This really helps a new writer like me. 🙂
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Tamela, I think weaving setting and background to show it instead of telling it is challenging, but such fun–I really enjoy doing it. Like Glynda and Carol, I think the challenge is length. My last historical novel began with the heroine’s 10-year-old son body slamming (I did not use that anachronism :-)) her in her long, full skirt and nearly dumping her into a muddy street to save her from being run over by a soldier on horseback who was delivering the mail to the town. She had received a letter, paid the postage, broken the wax seal and absent-mindedly dropped the wax into her pocket, and begun reading as she stepped out into the street. After she regained the air of decorum expected of a pastor’s wife in the 1830s, the brief letter she read created the rest of the setting. With all that “showing” I didn’t need much “telling,” and definitely not an information dump–but a whole lot more words were required to do it that way! It feels a lot like painting a picture, or “hurry up and wait,” except it’s “write it to show everything, then edit it to a word count.” ;-D
Info-dumps make my eyes roll–even at the length you’ve written them. I do read old classic novels, written from the omniscient POV, that use info-dumps frequently, but they feel a bit too much like drinking cough syrup. Example: I tried War and Peace. Tolstoy is a mind-blowingly amazing writer. But I just can’t enjoy it enough to make it through. It’s too much work to constantly reign in my attention span.
That being said, I do think info-dumps can be useful. For example, if you’re writing a mystery and you’ve built a great amount of suspense around a highly detailed plot with characters you care about, then dumping the info on how it all unravels can be an illuminating and pleasurable experience for the reader. A modern fast-paced novel series that does this frequently would be the Harry Potter series. And I think they sold pretty well. 😉
Someone mentioned historical novels and sci-fi (for that matter, let’s throw fantasy in) needing more info dumps. In general, I think this is true, but not to the extent writers in those genres seem to think. I can hardly stand reading many historical, sci-fi, and fantasy novels because of the info dumps. What’s worse is most of the time they’re completely unnecessary.
Maybe my attention span has just been perverted by too many video games and movies, but isn’t that where most of the American population is at these days? I’m guilty of drafting about a million too many info dumps in early work, but in the editing phase, they nearly always go away (thereby strengthening the work).
Tamela Hancock Murray
Hi all: I have really been enjoying the comments. My blog readers are amazing!
Still mulling this over. 🙂
I think one of the problems arisen in recent years is that many writers no longer know the difference between exposition (info-dump — historical context, character backgrounds, plot events prior to the story, etc.) and description (transmitting mental images). I’ve heard as little as couple of descriptive sentences called an info-dump by critiquers and beta-readers.
Likewise, I’ve seen a sharper division form between readers who want what amounts to little more than a glorified script (all dialog and action directions) and those who want a lush (sometimes literary, even lyrical) reading experience so they can sink into both story and milieu.
Often, the question of how much is too much comes down to which sphere the writer prefers and which audience shares that preference.
Point well made, Glynda.
I wonder how many have written early drafts graced with beautiful descriptions only to skeletonize what could have been enthralling work because they keep hearing show-don’t-tell means no descriptive passages at all. That isn’t what Tamela was saying here, but I’ve had a contest judge label four sentences of description in a historical novel as a violation of show-don’t-tell while another judge praised the same description.
How many have had their description-free work rejected because they’d edited it into something cookie-cutter common instead of uniquely special?
What has been lost because writers trim their work to fit the lowest attention span instead of crafting a rich experience that draws readers into a world of more than sound bites and quick-flash images? We shouldn’t insult our readers by assuming they have the attention span of a gnat!
Hi. My name is Karen. I’m a recovering info-dump-aholic. The information seems so important when I write it. Then when I realize what I’ve done, I cut out the nonessential, re-imagine what’s left, and marvel at how something so important is suddenly so unnecessary!