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The Dreaded Infodump | What It Is And Ways To Avoid It

Simply put, readers need to know what's going on in a story. The author is not only responsible for inviting them on a journey in the fictional world they've created, but also ensuring that readers have all the information needed to follow along.

Relaying this information can take several forms. It's common to see it done through extensive worldbuilding, especially in fantasy and historical works in which the setting differs vastly from that of the author and intended audience. Writers will also use exposition to explore their characters' backstories and how that plays into the story's events. It also happens a lot in series, where the author recaps the events of the previous installments to refresh the memory of returning readers and offer context for newcomers.

While this can be necessary and useful for readers, it's easy to go from helpful explanations to the dreaded infodump.

In terms of writing fiction, "infodump" refers to instances in which an author goes off on tangents and gives the reader a heap of information at once. Infodumps tend to be clumsy and bulky. Readers might get lost in the passages or gloss over them in order to get back to the action of the story.

It's like you're throwing the reader into this huge pile of background context and tasking them with making sense of things.

And now all I can think about is this screenshot I took of V during my first playthrough of Cyberpunk 2077...

Nothing like chilling in a scenic pile of flaming hot garbage...

While getting the information to readers is often necessary, writers have to take care in how they go about doing so. Providing too much information at once actually runs the risk of confusing readers rather than helping them.

Think of infodumps like giving readers a textbook rather than a brochure. One is brief in its explanation, highlighting the basics and maybe one or two interesting details, and easy to tuck away. The other is a brick that, while containing a lot more information, is cumbersome and more difficult to store. Doling the information out in little brochures rather than in one chunk of a textbook makes it easier for readers to navigate your story.

Infodumps can stand out like a sore thumb. Their appearance on the page often takes the form of lengthy blocks of text slapped in the middle of dialogue exchanges and shorter passages. In the classic "As you know" example, one character reiterates information the other character is already aware of in order to tell the reader what is going on, and the phrase can take readers out of the moment in its effort to draw their attention to a certain thing. And we can't forget villain monologues where the bad guy has our hero captured and rather than simply do away with them and get it over with, they expunge all sorts of backstory about why they're up to no good; this also allows the hero to make an escape and foil the plan.

Additionally, infodumps disrupt the pace of the story. It can be jarring to be immersed in the flow of narration and hit a wall of text. The attention shifts from what the characters are doing to elaborate descriptions, lengthy history lessons, and veering into details that are not exactly relevant.

Some say infodumps are a rookie mistake, so to speak, indicative of novice writers. The truth is that infodumps can happen to any writer regardless their skill or how long they've been exploring the craft. It's one of those habits you don't always know you need to break until you have been made aware of it.

But once you are aware of it, how do you prevent infodumping?

Here are three of my tips for reducing the clutter in your exposition!

Tip #1 Show, Don't Tell

This is the most common technique for combatting infodumps in fiction.

Infodumps are often the result of telling readers things rather than letting everything be conveyed by more subtle details within the story, such as body language or dialogue, especially when that information is irrelevant to what's going on.

For example, rather than telling readers that Rebecca is angry with Caleb and diving into a lengthy explanation about what happened at last year's Christmas party, you could describe Rebecca glaring at Caleb when he mentions the incident under the mistletoe.

Here, readers are still able to get a sense of what happened and see that Rebecca is none too happy with it, without it being hurled at them in one large chunk.

Tip #2. Stick To What Is Relevant

It's no secret that I do a massive amount of research for my historical romances—and that has led to my fair share of infodumps over the years.

I'm sure this stems from being required to show your work or prove your findings all through academia, which one reason past drafts of my WIPs have been described as stiff and textbook-ish by beta readers. I have a habit of going into all of the details when broaching the historical parts of my worldbuilding.

That and I'm just excited about my findings.

One thing I'm working to improve in my narration is keeping the worldbuilding info relevant to that particular scene. If my characters are going to the theatre, I might mention the architecture or any interesting recent-to-them historical details as they make their way through the building, talk about the show they are attending, that sort of thing.

But if this excursion is in the past? Unless it's playing a key role in the current moment, all of those details become unnecessary. As cool as the history of Drury Lane Theatre may be, if it is not directly impacting the moment, I can skip over it.

Another way of keeping the information relevant is considering what your POV character would pay more attention to in that scene.

Let's say your characters are entering a room. Gerald's narration might focus more on the color scheme and the portraits on the wall, whereas Ken might pick up on the smell of tobacco in the air or notice a faded wine stain on the carpet. Meanwhile, Josephine might take stock of all the furniture, feel the space is crowded, and seek the clearest path to an exit in her assessments.

This direction may not work for all writing styles, but I've found it helps pinpoint what matters, what I want readers to really pay attention to, and avoid the dreaded infodump in the process.

Tip #3 Trust Your Reader

Another reason infodumps happen is the writer's worry that readers who don't come in with prior knowledge about a subject won't be able to pick up on what's going on in the story. Contextualizing can easily veer into overcompensation that in turn leads to infodumps.

Remember: readers aren't to be underestimated. They have ample comprehension skills and can deduce what is happening based on context clues surrounding the unfamiliar material.

And, hey, if they are still stuck or just want to learn more about something that piques their interest, they have access to the internet and can do research of their own.

My advice is to limit the explanations where possible. Then, when you send your WIP to critique partners and beta readers, ask them if anything needs more clarity of if anything felt over-explained; once you have their feedback, you can go through the story and expand on the areas lacking details and trim down the infordumps.

Infodumps can feel inevitable. Between needing to provide context and the excitement of research, it doesn't take much for writers to get lost on sideroads. But in wanting to offer a guiding hand, infodumps can have the opposite effect, disorienting your reader or even shattering their immersion in the story.

This doesn't mean infodumps are not fixable. By giving your reader this information gradually, in small doses, and focusing on what is relevant at that particular point in the story, the exposition can still be provided—just in a way that is easier to make sense of and lets readers explore your world at their own pace.


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