To the Dump

Here's some necessary information!
Here’s some necessary information for ya!

Mention the words “info dump” to any self-respecting writer and they’re bound to go a bit green around the gills. The two dreaded words refer to exposition in a story or novel that, rather than being doled out sparingly throughout the manuscript, happens all at once. The action is moving along, the characters are doing their thing, and then all of a sudden–BAM! The author drops a big dump-truck full of information on the unsuspecting reader.

As you have probably inferred from my description, info-dumping is not a good thing. Even if the information is crucial to the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in the book, exposition done poorly is usually bad news for a story. The most rip-roaringest of adventures will screech to a grinding halt when faced with an info-dump. The swooniest romance will suddenly feel dry and boring. Mysteries heave a last gasp and then die.

But the problem is, exposition is hard. An author, who is intimately familiar with her setting, her plot, and her characters (having, um, created the whole thing), must find a way to give her readers enough information to understand the story without smothering them under a pile of history, backstory, and unnecessary detail. She must avoid info-dumping at all costs. But, to make her job even harder, she must also avoid the opposite problem–not providing enough exposition in crucial points, leaving her readers confused and frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on.

Confession time: I have the second problem.

Fined?!?
Fined?!?

Somewhere along the line I must have internalized the whole “avoid info-dumping at all costs” thing a little too well. Instead of info-dumping, I have the habit of keeping necessary exposition vague; playing my info cards a little too close to the chest. “I’ll let my readers use context clues,” I think to myself. “They’re smart–they’re figure it out.”

Unfortunately, even the smartest reader can’t figure out the details of an insane world you’ve created brick by brick in your own mind.

There’s a sweet spot between doling out too information and keeping things too vague. Authors use a variety of methods to ensure their info isn’t getting too dumpy. Dialogue can be used very effectively to dole out necessary information, although a “maid and butler” conversation, wherein two people discuss things they already know, should be avoided. Characters can read/write necessary information in a diary. Have a character watch the news. Blake Snyder, author of screenwriting guide Kill the Cat!, recommends a technique called The Pope in the Pool, ie. having something entertaining, humorous, or otherwise engaging happen while necessary information is being divulged, thus distracting the reader while they digest the information.

Any way you slice it, exposition is a difficult thing to nail in a story. But done well, exposition can be an engaging addition to a complex world full of interesting characters!

Do you struggle with info-dumping (or the opposite)? How do you craft effective exposition? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

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