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Better Writing: To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Infodump

Trash bin

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What is an infodump?

An infodump is a chunk of exposition or dialog laden with facts. In its simplest definition, Infodump=Telling.

Running across a poorly-written infodump is a lot like having a seven-year-old describe the plot of a movie to you:

“And then the dinosaurs got loose and trapped the people in the car. The car was part of the theme park the scientists wanted to make, which is why they made the dinosaurs from the DNA in the mosquitoes.”

You get a lot of story information, but none of it is relevant to the current action. Eventually, you might find out what happened to the people trapped in the car, but until the tike finishes detailing all the backstory, everything grinds to a halt.

Does that mean you should never use an infodump? As in the case of most never/always questions, hard and fast rules are hard to come by. While infodumps can make readers grind their teeth, not all are bad. When done well, the infodump becomes transparent to the reader. It can build worlds, set scenes, and define characters.

TVTropes.org has an informative section on basic ways infodumps are successfully used in stories. It’s worth a look.

In 20 Great Infodumps From Science Fiction Novels, Charlie Jane Anders (i09) uses examples to back up her claim:

“A truly great infodump is a work of art.”

But what if your infodump is more like a fingerpainting than a Renoir? How the heck are you supposed to get all of that backstory into the story? Jemi Fraser of The Write Angle wisely suggests:

“Sprinkle the needed backstory throughout the first few chapters. Only reveal what you really must reveal, and only when you really need to reveal it.”

She goes on to sum up how to share without dumping:

Weave. Sprinkle. Tease. Hint. Show. Entice.

I suggest tacking those six succinct words over your desk.

When you find an infodump in your own writing, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is it a “work of art”?
  • Is it transparent to the reader?
  • Is it the only way to share the information?

If you can answer yes to all three questions, keep it. Otherwise, dump the dump.

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