We’ve always been told “Show don’t Tell.” It’s an easy limerick to talk up, but application is hard. Really hard. Sometimes your readers just have to know, and you just have to tell them. Sometimes those first couple of pages just wouldn’t make sense without a paragraph of info dump.
First of all, a quick definition of terms:
First couple of pages:
Any pages in your novel. I hope to comment more on this soon, but I’ve noticed a trend in modern writing: we push to make our first couple of pages the best, spend time deciding what makes a couple of pages “the best”, but then we only apply what we learned to the first half of Chapter 1. (Or all of it if we’re really committed.) Show don’t Tell applies to your entire novel; info dumps always kill a story’s momentum.
Any point in the story when the action, emotional flow, or overall pacing of the story stops, pauses, hesitates, or stumbles in order to bring the reader up to speed with some bit of information.
The people who will appreciate you eliminating info dumps.
As with my posts on Clichés, we should begin with two basic questions:
Do I have info dumps in my story?
The answer to the first question is simple: Yes, you do. But everyone does. New York Times’ Bestsellers have info dumps in their writing, but that’s no excuse. When I read an info dump in a young writer’s work, I cringe. When I read an info dump in a Bestseller’s work, I cringe. Info dumps should be eliminated at all costs.
Secondly though, where are they in your manuscript? The simplest way to answer that question is a referral to our definition; where does your story stop to help the reader catch up? However, I added the terms “pauses”, “hesitates”, and “stumbles” for a reason. It’s true that some info dumps last for paragraphs or even (occasionally) pages. But they can also be just a sentence, a phrase, or even a word long. Just a word.
When an info dump fills a paragraph, it’s easy to spot for all (even the author given a little training.) It looks something like this:
Everyone knew Gwenn had brown hair and equally brown eyes. Her mouth was nearly as small as her nose and her dimples made her look like her mother. But she didn’t want to be like her mother. Her mother had turned her over to the orphanage when Gwenn was only one year old. It had devastated Gwenn, even though she couldn’t remember it.
Not exactly hard to spot. As soon as this paragraph started, whatever movement the story had beforehand ended. And if (please no) this is the opening of the story, it won’t take long for the reader to determine that nothing interesting is going to happen any time soon, and they’ll walk away, despite their pity for Gwenn.
But there are other info dumps. Sometimes an info dump drops in between two action-filled sentences and causes the action to pause. The dump hides so well that most authors can’t pick it out. But your readers will still notice. It could look something like this:
Peter slammed Della to the ground and stood over her, scanning the horizon with gun in hand. It was getting dark. When the second shot split the air, Peter collapsed next to his prisoner.
You noticed didn’t you. The middle sentence is totally telling, and it completely messes with the feel of the story.
Then there are those dumps which are nearly impossible to detect, little bits of telling which hide in a showing sentence. Like so:
Robin gasped for breath, his hand hurt so much.
Gasping is a strong verb. Overused in fiction perhaps, but still, the first part of this sentence is showing. He’s not simply breathing, he’s gasping. That’s good. What’s not good is his hand hurting (for more than obvious reasons.) The author isn’t showing us how much his hand hurt, and the author isn’t describing the wound. We’re simply told that his hand hurts. It’s telling. The movement of the story hesitated before it continued, and it is therefore an info dump, however small.
The info speck? Isn’t that too picky? No one notices this, except maybe a well-trained editor. This isn’t so much a misstep as a blown opportunity. This is simply one word which doesn’t belong. One word which the narrative stumbled over. One little word. Often, this word is an adjective which conveys unnecessary detail which is not prevalent to the emotional setting. It looks something like this:
The man stood, bewildered.
This isn’t near as much a slight of good prose as my other examples; it is simply weak. You could say something like “The man stood, silent, hands shaking,” which in context could convey so much more emotion. Instead, the comma and unneeded adjective add the slightest stumbling block into the narrative. causing an info speck.
Plus, there are a couple of tags which just beg to be labled “Info Dump.”
First, info dumps are always telling, though telling isn’t always info dumping. If you’re telling, (and sometimes that’s fine) make sure you’re not info dumping (which should be avoided by all costs.)
Second, if a character or the narrator ever says something like “Obviously” or, as in my previous example, “Everyone knew,” then you’re in trouble. If everyone knew it, and the only one who didn’t know it was the reader, then they’re the only one you’re informing. Thus, you’re info dumping.
Finally, if you ever stop to explain something which happened in the past, (like “I grabbed the gun which I had snatched out of the arsenal earlier”) you’re info dumping. Big time. For real.
Sure there are the big, obvious info-dumps. Sure they’re hard enough to deal with, but it might be the small ones which are your novel’s unseen antagonist.
Do you find info dumps in your stories? What are some of the characteristics that make them easy to find?