4 Ways to Avoid Information Dump When Writing

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, information dump is defined as “the practice of giving too much information at the same time, or a piece of writing that does this.” It is also a common writing mistake made by many new and independent authors. Bombarding the reader with a character’s entire life history all at once may help to introduce a new character in the story, but it also serves to slow down the narrative. To be more precise, it drives the action to a complete halt because nothing is actually happening to advance the story while you’re giving the reader all of that information. This will likely cause your reader to question what’s happening and forget where they are in the plot.

As a reference, here is an example of information dump I’ve composed expressly for this blog post:

Braelynn chose that exact moment to enter the room. She was no stranger to danger, having inherited her grandmother’s ring the year before. The lawyer reading her grandmother’s will tricked her into putting it on, and now it was stuck. At first, she didn’t want to wear it, but then she mellowed to the idea. It seemed to come in handy when she realized that her first boyfriend was a vampire. She dusted him when he tried to bite her in his car. Then, she killed her boyfriend’s best friend (who just happened to be the leader of a gang of supernatural creatures) and threatened to vanquish the bugbear who was stalking her. Braelynn had only been fifteen at the time. She was sixteen now and still living with her parents, but they were over-protective and frequently got on her nerves. Her mother had inherited her own grandmother’s ring when she was Braelynn’s age, and she spent a good deal of her youth and young adulthood hunting supernaturals, but once she was married and had Braelynn, she retired and became a sort of life coach. Braelynn’s father was okay with her mother’s line of work now, but he wasn’t always sure he wanted to marry into a line of supernatural hunters. Her parents had cut ties with Braelynn’s grandmother when she was born, hoping it would prevent her from catching the family curse, but even in death, Braelynn’s grandmother—who was a crotchety old woman in both life and death—had circumvented that plan from beyond the grave…

From “Braelynn’s Birthright–Book 2: Fallen Angel” by Elise Abram

Wow!

Lots to unpack there.

And all of this from Braelynn having entered the room.

If this is Braelynn’s introduction in the book, it is bound to leave the reader questioning why they are being given all of this information at this point in time.

Rather than dump all of this on the reader at once, it is much better if you mete out the information as the reader needs it to understand the story.

For example,

Braelynn chose that exact moment to enter the room. She scoped the room for danger. Satisfied that there was nothing supernatural within her bubble (her grandmother’s ring was still room temperature, the sapphire in its centre still dull), she tried to blend in as best as she could. Still, she reached into her messenger’s bag to feel for the stake she kept there. Ever since her boyfriend, Seth, had turned out to be a vampire and she had to stake him, you never knew what might be lurking in the shadows.

“Camille,” she exclaimed, removing her hand from her bag and using it to touch Camille’s shoulder; it was warm to the touch. Hunting supernatural creatures was a given after she’d inherited the family’s curse, and she was relieved she wouldn’t have to count Camille among those she’d vanquished.

By working in the information as the reader needs it, they get the same backstory only it is spread out, intertwined with the action that builds suspense and ushers your reader toward the climax. It is also more descriptive. In the second example, we still learn that Braelynn is a supernatural hunter, that she inherited her grandmother’s ring, and that she’d vanquished her one-time boyfriend along with other supernatural creatures. The stuff about her mother and father might be brought into a scene including her mother and father. Her approximate age can be revealed in a scene that takes place at her high school. She might hear the house settling and have a flashback to the bugbear incident. If her parents prevent her from going out one night, the narrator might let the reader know that she hates how overprotective her parents are, and so on.

The narrator isn’t the only one who can dump loads of information onto the reader. Characters can also do this in their dialogue. This is the equivalent of meeting someone and having them tell you everything that has happened to them from the second they woke up until the very moment they are talking to you. In other words, they overshare. A little character info dump is usually considered acceptable, used, for example, at the end of detective novels when they inform the other characters how they figured out who the murderer was, but other than that, information dump should always be avoided.

Here is an example of a character dumping information from my soon to be published book, Braelynn’s Birthright—Book 2: Fallen Angel:

“And who, exactly, is Samael? I mean, besides being a fallen angel who may or may not be the actual devil.”

“That depends on your system of beliefs,” Percival explains. “The Talmud says he’s an archangel, a high-ranking angel with destructive powers who is also one of the main angels of death. He is said to have opposed the creation of humankind and descended to earth in the form of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. He also slept with Eve to produce Cain. 

“In Christianity, he’s a fallen angel with parallels to Satan, although he’s also known to destroy sinners, which could be construed as a good thing—”

“Unless you tempt the person into being a sinner like he did with Eve,” Piers interjects.

“Yes, well, he’s also known as a seducer because he tempts people toward evil. He’s also credited with bringing death and disease to the world, and due to his function in the pantheon, he may also be the antichrist.”

“So, he’s powerful,” I say.

In this snippet, the characters are about to smoke out the fallen angel at a crossroads. The information is given in small bites and worked into a conversation in which one character (Percival) assumes the role of “expert” and he is informing the less experienced character (Braelynn, the point of view character) about what she will need to pull off the next phase in the rising action. This technique prevents the narrator from dumping all of the information at once and dragging on for a page (or pages), essentially teaching the reader everything they need to know about demons at crossroads.

To avoid information dump, ask yourself:

  • Is this information is really important for the reader to know at this particular point in the narrative? If not, move it to a better place and time.
  • Will it ever be important for the reader to know this? If not, eliminate it. In the first example, will it ever be relevant that her grandmother was crotchety? Probably not unless Braelynn’s mother compares her gentle approach to Braelynn’s grandmother’s more my-way-or-the-highway one. Will it ever be relevant that her father almost didn’t marry her mother because of their curse? Probably not unless Braelynn’s father resents her mother, and their relationship is failing because of it.
  • If there is a lot of information that the reader absolutely needs to know at this particular point in the narrative, is there a way to make it a part of the scene, or can you write a scene around it? For example, can you work it into a flashback? Can you have the character briefly recall a similar experience that is mentioned in passing?
  • Is there another way you can get this information across? For example, rather than tell us that Braelynn is still living with her parents, have her walk through the door of her house and say something like, “Mom, I’m home.” Her mom might respond with something like, “I thought I told you to do the dishwasher and clean your room before you left.” This would show the reader that she lives with her parents because she walks in unannounced. That she is a teenager might be evidenced by the fact that she has been assigned chores she does not do. To hit that fact home, her mother might also ask her if she had any homework.

Avoiding information dump will help engage your readers. Without it, the action in the story and the ongoing tension building toward the climax will keep going, and the reader won’t be left with useless information to sort through, wondering where it fits into the narrative. It will also make your narrative more creative in that you must now figure out ways to cleverly and surreptitiously impart this information without dumping a truckload of disjointed facts in your reader’s lap.


Like what you see and want to read more about writing and the writing process? Buy The Shape of Stories: A Comprehensive Guide for Fiction Writers, now on sale for 30% off the eBook price.

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