You’ve slaved over creating an intricate world and the time has come for you to share it with readers. You’re excited to explain the different creatures, races, countries, and government systems you’ve fashioned. With such an abundance of information, you need a method to communicate it.
Unfortunately, the result is often the infamous info dump. You halt in the middle of your story to spill a bunch of details about your world, characters, or plot all at once. Info dumps slow pacing and contain so much knowledge that they overwhelm readers and are easily forgotten. Worse yet, readers may skim pages and even skip sections to bypass the dumps because they want to return to the action. Fortunately, you can not only destroy information dumps, but employ them in your favor.
What Info Dumps Are
Info dumps are simply a form of telling. Instead of showing readers essential facts, you take a shortcut by summarizing and shoving everything into a few paragraphs. To eliminate info dumps, all you need to do is show.
Most info dumps deal with raw information, which is challenging to convert to showing. However, all is not lost. One solution is to weave that information into action. If a certain race of water-hating kelpies have a fiery temper, force a herd of kelpies to attack your MC. Give the kelpies distinct traits that indicate they’re unlike any other kelpie the MC has seen before. Instead of telling readers that the evil overlord is dangerous, show him defeating the best warrior in the MC’s village. Showing drives this information home, making it personal and meaningful.
But instances do arise when you must use info dumps. You don’t always have space to demonstrate the inner workings of the judicial system or describe various plant toxins. Thankfully, it’s possible to incorporate info dumps so readers will overlook them and value the information.
1. Disperse the Information
If your info dump is a few paragraphs long, it will be noticed. However, if you chop it into pieces readers can swallow, they won’t mind as much.
Maybe your info dump on fantastical, poisonous plants sounds like this:
The Green Wryin flowers of the eastern mountain are one of the most lethal plants in existence due to their rapid deconstruction of red blood cells. The Red Wryin, though not as efficient, paralyzes its victim before death. The Purple Wryin is the third most lethal, but, unlike the other two flowers, it has a potential antidote. However, that antidote, called the False Wryin, is identical to the Green Wryin flower. If the Green Wryin is chosen instead of the False Wryin, death is instantaneous.
That passage will be remembered as well as a hundred pages about Western America’s toad population. So, break up the info dump. Perhaps your protagonist is wandering through a museum and the plants are on display, or the villain is debating which flower to give his nemesis for Christmas. As they view and contemplate the different flowers, insert spaces or action beats between telling each tidbit. Then readers won’t be bored by the details and forget them.
2. Insert the Information into Dialogue
After you separate the information, you can include it in your character’s conversations, especially if the character is speaking to another who doesn’t know the information.
Back to the Wryin example. Perhaps your mentor character is teaching your MC about poisonous plants on a hiking trip and they find themselves on the eastern mountains. With each flower they find, your mentor could instruct the MC not to eat it. Imagine the info dump above, diced up and imbued with the mentor’s personality. Instead of:
The Green Wryin flowers of the eastern mountain are one of the most lethal plants in existence due to their rapid deconstruction of red blood cells.
“For the hundredth time, you cannot pick that flower! It will kill you, don’t ya know. ’Tis the deadliest plant on this side of the continent.”
The latter example is alive and entertaining, and it disguises the info dump by directing it at the MC, not readers.
3. Infuse the Information with Emotion
Emotion is one of the best ingredients to make a topic consequential. Compelling readers to care about the information you’re unloading is vital to them accepting it.
One way to emotionalize info dumps is to add memory. Perhaps one of your MC’s siblings accidentally ate the wrong Green Wryin and died. That painful memory will forever influence how the hero sees, thinks, and talks about Wryins. Therefore, that heartache and subtext will pervade the description of the Wryins, holding readers’ attention by the profound effect these flowers have on the MC.
4. Tease Readers with the Information
The advice above is effective in most cases, but what if you can’t cut the info dump into pieces or infuse it with emotion?
The key to managing large info dumps is to manipulate readers into wanting and/or caring about that information. This can be achieved by teasing readers with information and leaving them with the impression that it’s important, but never showing your cards till the perfect moment. Disclose snippets of information—mention a name or have your character feel an emotion triggered by a memory, but don’t reveal the whole picture. The longer you draw out the mystery, the more readers will thirst for the answer until they are dashing through pages to find it.
Like the section above, you can tease readers by attaching memory. Suppose the MC’s brother did indeed die because of a Wryin. You could hint at the story’s beginning that tragedy befell his brother and that the MC carries a deep sorrow. Give him brief flashes of memory and perhaps have him avoid flowers that resemble Wryins or act reluctant to travel to the eastern mountains. You could even go as far as mentioning the Wryins, but omit the details until readers yearn to understand what happened to the MC’s brother and will devour the information on toxic plants.
If you can’t link all the information to a memory, then make it crucial to an unsolved mystery. Perhaps a man was recently killed and no one knows how. As the MC searches for answers, readers will become anxious and won’t mind when the conclusion is unveiled, even if it is in the form of an information dump.
In the end, info dumps can be used. Though you should convert them to showing when possible, they don’t have to be exclusively avoided. Once you master making readers care, you can utilize info dumps without worrying that readers will lose interest and miss out on the epicness the rest of your story contains.