Information Overload: Where to look for (and remove) info dumping in your novel
When you write a novel, there is a lot of information you have to give your readers. They need to learn about your characters, your setting and, if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, maybe even a completely new world. It would be reasonable to think that giving readers a lot of information up front will help them better understand what comes after, but frequently this isn’t the best approach. Dropping a lot of details at once (what editors call “info dumping”) can really slow the pace of your book, giving readers a reason to put it down. Readers want to know what’s happening now, so long stretches of explanation can be frustrating.
I can hear you now: “But, Erica, I have to give the reader this information or they’ll be totally confused.” Two things about that. First, readers need far less explanation than you’d think. They are able to put two and two together and catch on to what’s happening without you spelling everything out. Second, in those instances where there is information that is vital for your readers to have, you are better off dripping it in rather than dumping it all at once. This keeps the action moving forward and avoids overwhelming readers with too many details. Just give readers what they need right now, and save the rest for later, when they truly need that piece of information.
If you want to eliminate info dumping from your book, there are a few places it typically shows up. Look for these places in your story and see if you can remove some details or spread them around a bit more in your manuscript.
Backstory: When telling readers about your character’s life before the action of the story, it can be tempting to give a lot of detail. All of the things that have happened to them have contributed to who they are now, so it can seem like readers need to know about their formative years. But while you might need to know those details to help you understand their motivation and to create a fully formed character, your readers only need those details that impact how your character relates to the events of the story. Reread the backstory you have provided and ask yourself if those details shaped your character in a way that intersects with the story you are telling now. If not, consider deleting. For example, maybe your character had a bad relationship in college. If that experience shaped how they relate to current romantic partners in your story, then readers might need to know about it. If not, it’s just an interesting tidbit, but not something vital, and it should go. (For more on backstory and what you need to know about your characters, check out this previous blog post.)
World Building: When you create a world to set your story in, readers will definitely need some understanding of how that world works. You can get away with slightly more explanation in fantasy and sci-fi books for this reason. But that doesn’t mean you can just dump every detail about that world on your readers. You still need to distill it down to the necessities and keep the action moving. For example, in your sci-fi book, readers may need to know that it is possible in this world to jump between dimensions and that zanthium, a rare mineral that your protagonist hunts for, is necessary to run the machine that makes this happen. That doesn’t mean they need a page and a half description about how the machine breaks the zanthium down and how a catalyst jump-starts a chain reaction to accomplish the jump. They might need this info, if it is vital to the story. But if it isn’t, just give them the details they need to figure out how your world is different from the one they live in and how your characters fit in that world.
As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue: As-you-know-Bob dialogue is where one character tells another character something they already know so that the author can get some vital information to the reader. Dialogue that dumps information like this can come across as awkward and unrealistic, as people don’t usually mention things the other person already knows. Here’s an example, in case you aren’t familiar with this idea:
“Hey, Bob, I heard you lost your job as department manager at Zentech after ten years and they promoted Brian, your boss’s son-in-law. You were the primary breadwinner in your family, so that’s gotta be hard.”
In real life, no one would say this. There’s too much info here that Bob already knows, so the speaker wouldn’t feel it necessary to be so specific.
It’s not that you shouldn’t ever give readers information in dialogue. Dialogue is a prime vehicle for clueing readers into things about the plot and the characters. But you have to do it in a way that seems organic to the scene. The information has to be important to the characters, not just the readers, and it has to be meted out in a way that sounds natural. For instance, in the example above, the dialogue could go something like this:
“Hey, Bob, I heard about your job. I’m so sorry. Are you and Mary going to be ok?”
“I hope so. Mary just got promoted, but still. My salary paid most of the bills. I can’t believe they did this to me after ten years. Ten years!”
“Yeah, that really sucks. Who got your position, do you know?”
“My boss’s damn son-in-law! You know Zentech—always on the up and up. I’m sure he’ll make a great department manager.” He rolled his eyes.
Does this take longer? Sure. But if this information is important, this gets it across more naturally. As long as every line is vital, it doesn’t matter if it takes longer. (For more on as-you-know-Bob dialogue, see this previous blog post.)
If you’re looking to cut unnecessary info dumping from your book, these are good places to start. Make sure every bit of information you are giving readers is vital and then ask yourself if they need it all right now. If not, cut it or move it to keep your readers in the action.