I’ve talked before about “info-dumps”—that is, large passages that over-explain aspects of the story or the world in a way that completely stalls the story and overwhelms the reader. Great exposition is all about balance, and revealing what the reader needs to know at exactly the right moment with drowning them in detail. An info-dump is like pausing a story right in the middle to say, “And now let’s explain the history of the world over the past three thousand years…”
But even once you know how to identify an info-dump, they can still be difficult to avoid. I often find myself using them in first drafts, while I’m still trying to figure out the details of the world for myself; but I always have to edit them back out later. The reason that they can be so difficult to avoid is that we, as writers, don’t always know how much information is too much, and often over-explain in an attempt to avoid confusion. So how do you prevent info-dumps while also preventing confusion? Here are my tips:
- Consider timing
One of the most important factors when it comes to avoiding info-dumps is the timing of the information. I often see more info-dumps in the first few chapters, when the writer is trying to explain everything right away so they can get on with the story. But the reader often doesn’t need to know everything right away. Ask yourself, “What’s the latest possible point that the reader needs to know this?” For example, in one of my current WIPs, I don’t reveal one aspect of a main character’s backstory until more than halfway through. Why? Because in that scene, the reader needs to understand that backstory in order to understand her emotional reaction. But before then? It isn’t relevant to anything that’s happening. I include a couple of hints about it so that it won’t come out of nowhere halfway through, but I don’t tell the whole story until I absolutely need to. That way, I avoid a lengthy info-dump about this backstory in the beginning, when the reader likely won’t care about it.
- Parcel it out
I find that one of the most effective ways to deal with info-dumps is to split up that information and sprinkle it throughout the story, rather than providing it all at once. If you spread the information throughout, it provides a more even balance, and the reader may not even notice how much information you’re sharing. For example, let’s say your fantasy world has a complex religious system. Rather than explaining in one long section how the religious system works, try showing it to readers in bits and pieces. By revealing information gradually, you pull the reader into the story one detail at a time, instead of boring them with pages of explanation.
If you’re struggling with how to break up a large chunk of information, try prioritizing it as best you can. For example, let’s say you need to establish a lot of information about the history of this world. What details should you include first? Again, timing is key here. Which details does your reader absolutely need to know right now, and which can wait? At what point exactly will the lack of information be confusing? What don’t they need to know at the start? Stick with the most relevant details, and save the rest for later (if you need them at all).
- Show, don’t tell
I know, you’ve heard this advice a hundred times. But it’s especially important when it comes to avoiding info-dumps. Part of the problem with info-dumps is that they tell the reader a lot of things at once, therefore pulling them out of the story. But by showing those details instead, you won’t interrupt the flow of the story. For example, instead of using several pages to explain how the religious system of your world works, show characters practicing a particular ritual or celebrating a particular holiday. As long as you can work it into the story seamlessly, showing the reader how things work is often much more effective than telling.
- When in doubt, cut it out
If you’re not sure that you need a particular piece of information, or if you’re struggling with a particular info-dump, try cutting it entirely. (Save it to a “deleted scenes” folder just in case.) Then get feedback from a critique partner or beta reader who’s never read the manuscript before. Did they find it confusing without that information, or did they figure it out? Sometimes it will be too confusing, in which case you might have to parcel the cut information back in. But often, you’ll be surprised by how little information readers actually need to figure things out.
How do you deal with info-dumps? Do you struggle with them? What are some published books that handle large amounts of exposition well? Let me know in the comments!
Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.