Avoiding the info dump

Have you ever been one or two pages into a scene and stopped to think "what is even happening here?" But you are very clear that the main character , André, is a 35 year old Parisian man with white hair that was smartly trimmed. He wore dark sunglasses, a grey, tailored italian suit with an oxford blue shirt and a red, jewel-toned tie that was attached to his shirt, just below the second button with a gold sword tie clip. Adorning his left wrist was a green and gold Rolex he got from his father when he graduated business school. Completing his look was a pair of light brown, leather loafers. The expression on his face conveyed the vague weariness of full night of work. He only ever enjoyed an almond croissant and an espresso for breakfast before patting is pug "Bonito" on the head, and then heading to work. Besides being kind of purple, it's also an info dump. Often times it necessary to set the scene and frame the situation for the reader. But after several paragraphs, even the most dedicated reader will start to wonder what in the world any of this has to do with the story. There are many reasons why this is detrimental to your writing, and something you should avoid.

  1. It can kill your pacing.

Beginning a chapter with a large info dump, or dropping one in the middle of the narrative is like running into a stoplight at the bottom of a hill. All the momentum your story may have had grinds to a halt and has to trudge all the way uphill again to gain any velocity. It may be absolutely necessary for your story to have all this information, but there are other ways to do it, as we'll discuss later.

2. It's too much front-loaded information.

The reader can only handle so much information. If you begin with a huge info dump, you're giving them a large amount of information and asking them to remember it later on. Chances are, they will forget and have to flip back and forth to reference it. Or worse, they'll forget it was ever there and the rest of the story won't make any sense.

3. It creates mistrust in the reader.

Scene setting is great, but if you're giving the reader a lot of the what without showing them why it is important, there's no sense of payoff. Do this enough times and it will encourage the reader to just skip future paragraphs of description.

So what can you do about it? My undergraduate degree is in theatre so I come to it through the lens of an actor. In a play, there is very little exposition and much more dialogue. Of course it's a visual medium as well so the stage, costumes, and props stand in for a lot of the exposition. All of these things do a good job of showing me the scene, but it tells me nothing about why any of it matters. Why does it matter that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker hat? Why does it matter that Romeo is hiding in a garden? All an actor has when he is evaluating his character is what little exposition is in the script, and what his character says and does, and what the other characters say about him.

If you write your exposition more organically into dialogue and action, it helps give you better control of the pacing, and it also makes it a part of the story instead of sitting on a layer removed from the story. Take the exposition from the beginning of the post. Instead of writing a paragraph explaining all these little details, we can integrate it into dialogue, and suddenly, all of these details matter and connect to the story in a much better way without losing momentum. For example:

André stepped out onto the Rue Du Jardin, and saw Sebastian waving to him from down the street.

"Nice suit! Red power tie, gray suit, classic combination. The gold tie clip is a nice touch. " Sebastian remarked with a hint of jealousy.

André removed his sunglasses with his left hand, purposely showing off the green and gold Rolex his father had given him as a graduation present. "Thanks. I had it custom made while I was in Italy. I'm convinced you won't find better tailors anywhere in the world."

Now, instead of an abstract layer of exposition, all of these details are woven into the story. It connects them to the characters, showing why they are important or how it affects them in a way that allows the the reader to digest the information and fully process it before moving on.

Another thing you can do is keep the details to a minimum in the first place. Not every detail may be necessary so focus only on the important ones. When you walk into a room for the first time, you don't notice every single aspect of everything. There are only a few details that stand out enough to make them memorable. Does it matter if there were three different colored pillows on the couch? Does it matter that a half-dead ficus was in the corner? If you're at the fair, the smell of corn dogs and the sound of children screaming on the rides may be more memorable than the red checkered shirt that the man taking your ticket was wearing. Really figure out what matters and what can be left up to the reader's imagination to fill in. Stephen King says that writing is like telepathy. The writer starts with an idea in their head that finishes in the reader's mind. If I say that a character walked into a DMV, you can already picture it in your mind without me saying anything more. After all, isn't reading an exercise in imagination?

You can also try being very specific to limit unneccessary description. Instead of saying "it was a made of a dark brown wood with a pronounced grain of varying shades of honey and molasses.", you can simply say "it was made of walnut." If the reader is already familiar with what walnut wood looks like, they can imagine it immediately without all the extra description. Instead of saying "he held a knife with a large, broad face and a square silhouette", just say "he held a butcher's knife."

These are all things you can do to avoid the dreaded info dump. Marry these tools with your personal style and goals for the story you're writing. As an exercise, take a look at some of your previous work. Identify anything that might be an info dump and see if you can rework it into the story in one of the ways suggested here, and then see how it changes the feel of the story. Good luck, dear readers!