That’s right. It’s time to talk about the infodump. Are they a good thing? Are they a terrible thing? I’ve been asked to talk about them, what I think about them, and the pros and cons of using them. This seems like one of those topics of writing that everyone has a very strong opinion on, either good or bad, and I honestly think both sides have valid points. I sort of ride the fence on whether infodumps are acceptable or not. If you want a quick answer as to how I feel about them: I used two in my novel. Couldn’t get around it. But I made it work. And if you want to dump, you have to make it work too.
So are they okay?
Much like everything else in writing, and I do mean everything, it really just depends on the situation. So let’s say you’re talking about using an info dump when describing something. Like, your character sees the super important castle for the first time. And there are all of these things about the castle that your reader just has to know, right? Well, calm down. This is probably not the best time to do an infodump. Like I explained in my article about setting, there’s no point in just dropping all of the details in one sentence, or even one page. For that matter, if you’re talking about the super important castle, you’re probably going to be revealing things about that place over the entire course of your novel. Which is good! If you had infodumped all of those things on the reader at the beginning of the novel, the character would have nothing to discover alongside the reader. So, when it comes to description, don’t infodump. Just don’t.
But, if you can’t infodump when you’re describing something, when would it ever be useful and acceptable? Here’s where I think the infodump can be a very necessary thing. For instance, in my personal work, there are actually a few times that I use the info dump. I think that when it’s used to reveal plot details that can’t really be revealed in any other way, you just have to go for it. There are ways to make it interesting and not just feel like you’re dumping the life story of your world on the reader. Take my story for example. At some point, the main character is interrogated about his world, it’s history, etc. This is, technically, an info dump. I’m telling the reader everything that the character knows about his planet in a rather short scene. However, by setting it up in the way that I have, it comes across as interesting, continues to build the tension of the scene, and moves the plot forward. So in this case, it works. That’s basically all it comes down to. Does it work? If so, awesome! If not, fix it.
So, now that I’ve said a lot without saying a lot, let’s try to hammer out some do’s and don’ts for dumping.
- DON’T use the infodump when you’re simply describing a setting. It’s lazy and you should be ashamed of yourself. Integrate all of those details throughout the scene, not in one lump sum at the beginning! Bad writer. *scolds with a rolled up newspaper. For more info on setting, check out my article on how to create a good one.
- DON’T use the infodump because it’s the easiest thing to do. I know you want to. It would be so much easier to just tell the reader everything about that place, or person, or event, than try to work it into the story as you go. But that’s why you can’t do it. It feels like you copped out. And the reader picks up on it, trust me. In general- infodumps feel lazy. If you’re going to do it, you better make it work.
- DON’T just info dump at the beginning of your story. I realize that your world has a LOT going on. Of course it does. It’s a world with millions of people and events, with years of history, and blah blah blah. I get that. But dumping all of that on your reader at the beginning is two things. A) it’s lazy. It’s lazy and it’s boring to read. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are cases where the writer just lays it all out there and tells you everything there is to know before actually getting into the story and makes it work (somehow). But, generally I’d say to steer clear. And B) it’s confusing. Do you honestly think that if you give your reader five thousand years of history in a split second that they’re going to remember it all? Unless you want them to be coming back to that paragraph through the book to brush up on their history (And I’ve had to do this before), just don’t dump everything in that one place. Start in the action. Then make your way through the history.
- DO make it interesting. If you’re going to give the reader a TON of information in a very short amount of time, do it in a way that moves the story forward, that makes the reader want to keep reading, and that doesn’t feel like an infodump. If it’s not interesting to write, it’s not going to be interesting to read. And if it’s not interesting, toss it. There has to be a better way to introduce that information.
- DO think about leaving some crucial details out of your dump. This will open up opportunities for twists and turns later, and if characters needed to know everything and weren’t told, it can make for some seriously interesting scenes. They may feel betrayed that their friend didn’t tell them everything about the situation, or they may feel tricked, or whatever. It’s a cool way to create conflict whilst dumping. I mean, if there has been tension building around something, something that the character doesn’t understand, and you finally let it all out at a climax, the reader will be grateful. They had been waiting for that information for so long! But BAM! Five chapters later they realize that there was more to the story. Now they’re really hooked, and want to know the truth about the stuff you dumped about.
- DO use the info dump as a last resort. Honestly, I don’t hate them. I don’t. I think that they can be extremely effective if done correctly. But still, the odds are stacked against you. There are so many wrong ways to use the infodump (Which are probably what you’re wanting to use them for), and not a lot of right ways. If there is absolutely no way that you can tell the reader this information in another way (which is the problem I ran into), go ahead and go for it. But you better make it interesting! If you’re reader feels like they’re witnessing an info dump- you probably did it wrong.
Wow. I honestly thought this was going to be a short article. I think it turned out to be my longest. I guess I had a lot to say about dumping! (HA!) My point here is, you can make the infodump work if you have to. As a general rule, I think most people agree to find an alternative solution to it because it generally feels lazy. Which it is. But, sometimes there’s just no getting around it, and that’s okay. I like to think that there are no “rules” to writing, and that everything you’ve ever been told about “don’t do this and do do this”, is in some way flawed. Everything that you have been told “not” to do has been done effectively at some point by somebody. So I guess my final verdict on the infodump is:
If you have no other choice, can make it interesting and effective, and it moves your story forward- dump.