The dreaded info dump

by Aaron Dennis

Return to blog list


           

Adennis1111
Posted by ADennis1111
What is an info dump anyway?

A story certainly contains a great deal of information. A writer must tell readers all about the world, the people, the technology, the magic, the murder, the mystery, the history, after all. More often than not, there is a need to set the stage, so to speak, and normally, writers provide a prologue with all accounts deemed pertinent to the story’s setting, pace, and advancement, so how can such a thing possibly be a problem? Prologue or no, many books today start off in the exact same way—dumping a ton of information, hence info dump.

Let’s look at an example of a story starting with the dumping of information:

Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain was a career Navy man. He was tall, at six feet and nine inches, towering over his crew, and he was also a very big and strong man, as strong as a bull with seventeen inch arms, but what do you expect of a special forces leader who weighs in at nearly three hundred pounds? Apart from numerous commendations, he had a breast full of ribbons opposite his bright and shiny name tag, which read only: Swain.

Everyone looked up to Swain, and not just because he was tall; Swain had earned the respect of his superiors as well. In the previous war against the Cojul, a race of aliens with scales, long, sharp teeth, three mouths, and two anuses—one on each side of their heads—they were extremely aggressive and had staked a claim to quadrant delta for the last fifty years, but Swain and his crew fought against them for nearly six months straight, and after he watched his crew get slaughtered, he single-handedly commandeered an enemy vessel and took back the quadrant.

Vapid info dump; any reader of any genre has already given up on this tale. Another info dump right at the beginning of a tale can look like this:

Ilteriel was a magical land created by the Gods for all races to live harmoniously. There were elves, who had long, pointed ears, beautifully faint features, and silky hair. There were gnomes, who were short people with bushy beards and sharp minds. There were also orcs, big, scary, greenish people, who although lacked the brains of the other races, they were very hardy; they could work for days and days without rest, and they never got ill, and then there were humans, too, who were a bit average, but they had the strongest hearts of all the races created by the Gods.

For seven thousand years, all of the races lived amongst each other happily. They shared land, and food, and culture, and customs, but then a demon came. The demon was a brutish creature, and his name was Malath, and in his world, he was a general of darkness. Malath came and found a sad human named Gunther, and he promised to make Gunther rich, and powerful, and happy. Gunther accepted, and for the next three thousand years a war raged over the land of Ilteriel.

Drivel, yet I defy you; go look at just about any novel released within the past three years, and you’ll find most of them start off in a similar fashion, but the beginning of a story isn’t the only place you’ll find an info dump. Quite as often, there will be an info dump right before a scene, during the scene, or just after.

The dump before the scene usually dives into a great, descriptive block of text, something like you find in a textbook, except it’s about the setting of the upcoming event, an historical piece of information preceding the event, or even the feelings of everyone present before the event. Let’s look:

John had practiced law for nearly ten years. He had been fortunate enough to represent people who were actually innocent, but this time, his new client, Juan Ruiz, was certainly guilty. Mr. Ruiz was known to traffic drugs in from Caracas, Venezuela to the United States through Mexico. He had been arrested in Nogales, Arizona along with half his cadre.

While Mr. Ruiz ran chunky fingers through his thick, black, curly hair, he eyed John with a steely gaze. John felt uncomfortable, and he tugged at the collar of his white, collared blouse. Huge drops of perspiration dribbled down the side of his head as he tried to convince himself that everyone deserved a chance, especially since so much money was on the line. Besides, John’s wife, Celia, was pregnant with twins, and he needed to think about his family, but what about the families endangered by Ruiz’s activities, who was sticking up for them?

Terrible. That is one messy, convoluted, info dump. Readers want the meat, and they want action and dialogue, and dialogue is a great way to dump information without making it an info dump, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Another kind of info dump happens after an event. The writer makes an attempt at making sure that the reader understands every, single, little, tiny detail regarding whatever transpired. Let’s look at the following:

Since Jessica had broken up with Tom, she called her mother. The wise woman explained that breaking off an engagement was better than a prospective divorce. Divorces had major ramifications, especially if children were involved.

Jessica knew her mother was right. That was why she had tested Tom by sending her friend to hit on him. She knew he was going to fail, but she had hoped blindly that somewhere, deep, down inside, he did love her. When Tom came home from work late, Jessica knew it was because he had been out with Sherrie, there was no lying about it; after all, she was the one who put Sherrie up to it.

Yes! We get it! Presumably, we just read the event. It doesn’t need to be recapped seven ways from Sunday. Now we know what an info dump is, and we have some insight as to why they’re bad; they either prevent a story from getting started, they provide information such as that of a textbook, which no reader wants to commit to memory as though studying for a quiz, or they provide a ridiculous recap of an event we all just experienced, when what we really want is the next portion of the story.

This begs the question, how can you fix them?

When it comes to the introductory info dumping—if you’re dealing with novels and not short stories—I suggest using a prologue, but the prologue must be a mood setter; it must be a very brief account and should rightfully be a mini story in and of itself, and we’ll discuss prologues in further detail, but the prologue must not be a dry account of facts to be memorized.

The facts, if germane, must be introduced throughout the story and only when they are absolutely required. If you’re dealing with short stories or novellas, you probably shouldn’t use a prologue, but a simple paragraph or two—something clever or dark—can certainly set the scene, and give just the scant, few, necessary details before jumping into the story.

If there’s no prologue whatsoever, and the novel just starts, that’s great, too, but it needs to start without a massive info dump.

But how?!

Let’s reexamine that first chunk of filth presented in this chapter.

Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain was a career Navy man. He was tall, at six feet and nine inches, towering over his crew, and he was also a very big and strong man, as strong as a bull with seventeen inch arms, but what do you expect of a special forces leader who weighs in at nearly three hundred pounds? Apart from numerous commendations, he had a breast full of ribbons opposite his bright and shiny name tag, which read only: Swain.

Everyone looked up to Swain, and not just because he was tall; Swain had earned the respect of his superiors as well. In the previous war against the Cojul, a race of aliens with scales, long, sharp teeth, three mouths, and two anuses—one on each side of their heads—they were extremely aggressive and had staked a claim to quadrant delta for the last fifty years, but Swain and his crew fought against them for nearly six months straight, and after he watched his crew get slaughtered, he single-handedly commandeered an enemy vessel and took back the quadrant.

Okay, how about a little setting instead, huh:

Boots clanked over steel grating as Lieutenant Commander Albert Swain—a bear of a man—marched for crew quarters. The men and women aboard the USS Albatross nodded as he swished on by. He was so tall and broad they practically had to hug the corridors. Finally, the special forces leader reached the door. A sign next to it read: Captain Decker. Before knocking, the commander adjusted the ribbons proudly displayed over his pristine Navy uniform.

After knocking, Swain relaxed at parade rest. “Enter,” a gruff voice bled through the steel door. When the big man pushed his way inside, he gave the captain a salute. Decker returned it, saying, “It was a hell of a thing you did, commandeering that damned Cojul ship. Now, I know you’re still upset over the loss of those brave men and women, but, damn it, son, you single-handedly took back quadrant delta!”

“Thank you, Sir,” Swain grunted. “If I may, Sir?”

“Of course, of course,” the grizzled captain said before easing into his leather desk chair.

“I still see ‘em, the Cojul; teeth like sharks, their blue scales covered in Jones’s blood. The anuses, man, they got anuses on the sides of their heads. What kind of God allows such a thing?”

“It takes time, Swain….”

Now, which story do you want to read? Do you see the difference? Even without a prologue, the stage is set, and the actors are playing.

Every detail can be provided in an entertaining manner, and that’s what stories are supposed to be; a medium for entertainment. Whatever accounts there are to be listed must be ensconced within the story, and not the other way around. The readers shouldn’t even realize they’re memorizing facts about the story; they shouldn’t even be aware that there are words on pages.

Next, let’s check out that fantasy world:

Ilteriel was a magical land created by the Gods for all races to live harmoniously. There were elves, who had long, pointed ears, beautifully faint features, and silky hair. There were gnomes, who were short people with bushy beards and sharp minds. There were also orcs, big, scary, greenish people, who although lacked the brains of the other races, they were very hardy; they could work for days and days without rest, and they never got ill, and then there were humans, too, who were a bit average, but they had the strongest hearts of all the races created by the Gods.

For seven thousand years, all of the races lived amongst each other happily. They shared land, and food, and culture, and customs, but then a demon came. The demon was a brutish creature, and his name was Malath, and in his world, he was a general of darkness. Malath came and found a sad human named Gunther, and he promised to make Gunther rich, and powerful, and happy. Gunther accepted, and for the next three thousand years a war raged over the land of Ilteriel.

It’s so trite. There’s some back story, sure, but no story, am I right? Now, check this:

The Gods created Ilteriel, a world for many races, and among the races deigned to grace Ilteriel in harmony and accord were the elves, the gnomes, the orcs, and the humans. It was said that each race, though equal, had both blessings and shortcomings; the elves were certainly beautiful and magically gifted, yet they were conceited. The short people, the gnomes with their bushy beards, were an ingenious race, always tinkering with their machines, yet they were obsessed. Orcs, the hardiest of the races, toiled without rest, not that they possessed the brains to notice such a thing. Then, there were the humans, an average people, but their hearts; their hearts were pure…until one day….

It was said that seven thousands years passed on Ilteriel without incident, but a dark day came when the demon general, Malath, wormed his way into the world of the Gods. He skulked, and he crept, and he hid until he found fruit ripe for the picking. There was a sad human shedding tears beneath the shade of a tree. Malath approached, a crooked smile upon his black visage, and he asked of the human his tribulations.

The man called Gunther recounted his sorrows; his wife had been accidentally killed by a machine devised by the gnomes, and so Malath showed the human how he was wronged, and how to right such a wrong; he taught the human cunning, and he instructed Gunther on how to trick the orcs in to killing the gnomes. Thusly, Malath began his dark rule through Gunther; it was a reign of terror that lasted for three thousand years.

That is a story, yet it lays the groundwork for whatever is going to happen in the actual book. There’s no dumping of information, but everything has been provided, and in an entertaining fashion, no?

Before grumbling, I am aware that I left out that the elves had pointy ears, but since the reader has yet to meet an elf, such a thing needs not be revealed, but let’s move on, and take a look at the set up preceding an event, and reexamine the bit about the lawyer:

John had practiced law for nearly ten years. He had been fortunate enough to represent people who were actually innocent, but this time, his new client, Juan Ruiz, was certainly guilty. Mr. Ruiz was known to traffic drugs in from Caracas, Venezuela to the United States through Mexico. He had been arrested in Nogales, Arizona along with half his cadre. While Mr. Ruiz ran chunky fingers through his thick, black, curly hair, he eyed John with a steely gaze. John felt uncomfortable, and he tugged at the collar of his white, collared blouse.

Huge drops of perspiration dribbled down the side of his head as he tried to convince himself that everyone deserved a chance, especially since so much money was on the line. Besides, John’s wife, Celia, was pregnant with twins, and he needed to think about his family, but what about the families endangered by Ruiz’s activities, who was sticking up for them?

You or your editor must first know what event needs setting up. In this case, I just want to organize the meeting between John and Ruiz. Let’s read:

Ten years was a long time to practice law. John counted his blessings that, to date, his clients were actually innocent men and women, but that day, he sat across the shiny, mahogany table from Juan Ruiz, Caracas drug runner. With an exhale, John tugged the collar of his white blouse.

“Ahem, so…Mr. Ruiz, the report says Nogales P.D. picked you and your associates up at two thirty on the morning of December ninth. Is that correct?”

The swarthy, Latino wasn’t even paying attention. He sat there in his black suit, staring out the window, but then he licked his greasy lips, let out a chortle of derision, and turned his steely, dark eyes onto the lawyer. A shiver ran down John’s spine; before him there sat a man who had killed on more than one occasion.

“Yeah, das’ right, so?” Ruiz barked.

“Um,” John faltered. He thought about the money Ruiz offered. He thought about it long and hard, and the fact that he had already accepted; he and his wife were expecting twins. *What about other families…what about their kids? Am I really doing the right thing, here? It’s like the lines are blurred.* “We just need to get our facts straight, Mr. Ruiz….”

Much smoother than the info dumpy version, right? We add a little flair, we throw in a couple of lines of dialogue, a few inner thoughts, and bingo; all the same information is present, at least the salient points, the rest is story, which is what readers like.

Finally, let’s view the last example. We had a recap of previous events:

Since Jessica had broken up with Tom, she called her mother. The wise woman explained that breaking off an engagement was better than a prospective divorce. Divorces had major ramifications, especially if children were involved.

Jessica knew her mother was right. That was why she had tested Tom by sending her friend to hit on him. She knew he was going to fail, but she had hoped blindly that somewhere, deep, down inside, he did love her. When Tom came home from work late, Jessica knew it was because he had been out with Sherrie, there was no lying about it; after all, she was the one who put Sherrie up to it.

Well, here’s the deal, readers feel like writers assume that their fans are dumb when they see this kind of stuff. Readers have been reading the story, so it isn’t likely they need a verbose recapitulation of events.

There are certainly times in thrillers and mysteries or later portions of a series when a recap is paramount, but you must be careful in the execution of the recap. Regardless, we’re dealing with the subject of info dumping more so than recapping.

Let’s assume that this segment, this recap dump, takes place in the sequel, the second book of a story, wherein the would-be bride, Jessica, breaks off the engagement at the end of the first book. Recapping such a thing is a wonderful idea, but it certainly can be better executed. Look:

Two months wasn’t a long time to be alone, not since Jessica broke off her engagement with Tom, a man to whom she was promised for over six months, and they had dated for a year prior. With a shaky hand, she pushed the contact labeled Mom.

“Jessie, honey, feeling any better?” the old gal sounded lively on the other end.

“Hey, Mom,” Jessica sighed, choking back newly forming tears. “Um, I just, I just think I need some advice.”

“Well…you remember what I told you; it’s better to break off an engagement than marry someone you don’t love.”

“I do love Tom,” Jessica interrupted. “I don’t trust him; that’s the issue.”

“Yeah,” her mom sighed. “It’s a shame he lied about parading around with Sherrie.”

Nodding and listening to the old woman’s wisdom, Jessica thought back to her plan. Neither she nor Sherrie thought Tom trustworthy, so they devised a way to find out once and for all; they agreed Sherrie was going to seduce him and no sooner had they devised their ploy that he fell for it.

There was no denying it when he came home late from work; Jessica already knew he had gone out with her friend.

You see, it’s all about the story, the story, the art of providing an experience; writers and editors alike need to find ways to provide their story without dumping dry, sequential, accounts of events, but again, this is not something to fret over while writing a story.

Write your whole story first. Get it all down. Then, get away from it. Next, when you go back through it, do your editing, but don’t think that a single round of editing is going to fix everything—not at all. You must read and edit, and then leave your story, and then come back and read and edit some more. After that, you might want to find some beta-readers and go work on a new story while you wait for feedback. Once you get the feedback, edit some more, and finally hire an editor.

For more information visit www. storiesbydennis. com



Reply to this blog:

Login or create an account to participate in a discusion.