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How to Avoid Information Dumps

Advice writers often get is to “avoid information dumps.”

An information dump occurs when a writer provides background information that he thinks is necessary for readers to understand the story. But unloading too much information, too quickly, interrupts the story’s flow and may bore readers.

Here’s an example:

In my novel, “Media Madness,” my protagonist, who works in TV news, tells his colleagues he wants to cover a certain news conference. This paragraph would be an information dump:

Shriners Hospital for Children had been in Erie for 80 years and earned great respect for the work it did in treating young patients at no charge. But the hospital had considered closing the Erie location; the poor nationwide economy had hurt the Shriners financially. The loss of the hospital would have been a huge blow to the community, so the decision to keep the hospital open was significant.

Write that and your readers’ eyes will glaze over and your book will fall from their hands.

However, it’s possible to provide the above information without boring your readers.

Here are several ways to help avoid information dumps:

Use dialogue

This is how I handled the information above. The passage runs:

“The big story is the Shriners Hospital announcement,” Dave said. “I understand they decided to keep the Erie hospital open. I think we should —”

“We know that,” Rachel interrupted. “What’s new about it?”

Dave's muscles tensed, but he kept his voice steady. “What’s new is that they’re holding a news conference at 2 o’clock to provide the details. I started to say I’d like to send Paul to cover it.”

Note that in addition to providing necessary background information I also introduced an element that becomes important later—the antagonism between Dave and Rachel. I could have done that in an information dump; the dialogue was a superior method.

But be careful. It’s possible to info dump in dialogue, too, such as if the paragraph started like this:

“Shriners Hospital for Children has been in Erie for 80 years,” Dave said. “It’s earned great respect for the work it does in treating young patients at no charge.”

That’s still an information dump. Make sure the dialogue sounds realistic and fits your story.

Let a character reminisce

The reminiscing could be either internal or external. In the first few chapters of my novel my protagonist’s life falls apart—his wife dies, he may lose his job, and other disasters occur. At a certain point, I decided to recap all the terrible events that my character experienced. I couldn’t write, “Okay. Let’s go over again all that happened to Dave. First, his wife dies. Then . . .” Instead, Dave meets a potential love interest and this conversation ensues:

“You asked me yesterday why I’m hiking the AT. There’s more to it.” He told Marti about the last year. “I don’t want to use a cliché,” he concluded. “But it’s true. A year ago I was on top of the world. Now my wife is dead, the man who I’ll always believe killed her was acquitted, and I may lose my job.”

Provide the information in small pieces

I use many TV news terms in my novel. I couldn’t dump terms on my readers in large doses, because doing so would make the novel sound like a textbook. Here’s how I introduced the “the comps” and “the ‘A’ block” in one sentence.

At 5 p.m. Lisa got the comps—she watched their competitors’ “A” block, the first ten minutes of news coverage.

Your readers will accept a short, essential explanation. They may not be so forgiving if you go on and on.

Trust your readers to fill in the blanks

In the dialogue version of the Shriners Hospital passage above, you may have noticed that it says nothing about the hospital’s long history, the respect it gets, the fact that the Shriners considered closing it, nor how its closing would negatively impact the area. My readers are smart enough to figure out that if the Shriners decided to keep the hospital open, they must have considered closing it. I also believe my readers have heard of Shriners Hospitals and know they’re respected. So decide what you absolutely must tell your readers and let them discern the rest.

Show, don’t tell

This is perhaps the best-known advice new writers get and it applies well here. Don’t engage in an information dump by telling your readers what a scoundrel a character is. Show the character kicking a dog.

Let another character tell the information

In science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s “Tunnel in the Sky,” the protagonist and a friend left the story’s physical location for an exploratory trip. Heinlein followed his protagonist, writing about his experiences as usual. But he also wanted to inform his readers about events in the main scene. How could he do that without saying, “Meanwhile, back at the town, such-and-such was happening”? (His protagonist couldn’t have known anyway without a point of view change.) Heinlein brilliantly had one character keep a diary. The passage sounded natural and worked beautifully.

Go ahead and dump

There’s something to be said for going ahead and giving your readers the information they need, assuming you make it interesting. Heinlein’s characters often traveled through trillions of miles of space to other planets. That’s an obvious impossibility with current technology, so Heinlein had to explain how such travel would be possible. In “Tunnel in the Sky” he used teleportation to solve the problem. How did he explain how the technology was developed? He used an information dump! Much of the second chapter explains teleportation’s fictional background. And the technique worked. The story remained interesting. But most writers aren’t Heinleins, and it’s best to avoid information dumps when possible.

As part of your final editing process, root out most, if not all, information dumps. You’ll avoid the risk of taking your readers out of the story and making them feel like they’re reading a Wikipedia entry. A good test is, “What if I removed this information? Would the reader still understand the story?” Try removing the information and then reading the story out loud. If you think your readers will still “get it,” then you don’t need the material you removed.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski