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Don’t of the Day: Infodumping

Don’t of the Day: Infodumping

In this series of articles, Swann and Bedlam share advice on things authors shouldn’t do

One of the worst and most common mistakes an author can make is infodumping. This is when an author smashes the reader over the head with an avalanche of backstory, summary, and exposition. Here at Swann + Bedlam, we see it all the time in submitted manuscripts. And yet, this is not a mistake made only by unpublished authors. It’s not even a mistake made only by indie or small press authors. Even the big names are guilty of this most heinous sin sometimes. What does this sin look like in practice? Here’s an example of a book that starts with an infodump:

Harry Jones Columbus stood in the clearing, staring at the blood on his hands. He felt old. Right now he could feel every day of his fifty-seven years weighing on his back like a stack of bricks coated in lead. He came from the backwoods of Appalachia, a land where toothless moonshiners stabbed each other by moonlight. One of those moonshiners was Harry’s father. His mother was a wild woman of the hills, said to have been raised by wolves until the age of sixteen, when the state had discovered her and taken her in, in order that the cruel hands of men could beat the skills of language and sullen domesticity into her. But Harry’s first memory of her showed her in her truest light - baying at the moon, naked as a beast beneath a sallow moon on one of the many nights her husband - Harry’s father - was locked up in county on a charge of assault or burglary.

Harry treasured that memory. As chilling as it was, it was the best he had of his mother. When he started school at the delayed age of nine…

So there you have it, a (made-up) example of a book that starts off with the main character’s life story. Obviously, this is a terrible way to begin a book, yet many books begin this way. Every time I start reading a book like this, I groan and stop reading. If it’s a physical book, I throw it across the room. If it’s on my Kindle, I smash my Kindle and buy a new one. I have spent over five thousand dollars on Kindles this way (just joking - I send them to Amazon for a free replacement).

Why do I get so mad, and why is this style of writing such a no-no? Because it violates a very simple - but very important - rule of writing: show don’t tell. Show don’t tell refers to the art of telling a story through action and dialogue rather than massive chunks of summary and backstory.

Take the sample above and how it could be done right. Instead of getting Harry’s life story, maybe we meet him in the woods with blood on his hands, standing above a dead body. We follow him as he takes steps to conceal the body. All the time we’re wondering - who is this dead guy? Why is he dead? And who is Harry? Is he the killer? What kind of a guy is he? The enigmatic opening draws you in, and as the story unfolds we get little revelations here and there about the sort of guy Harry is. We might even eventually learn about his moonshiner dad and his wild woman mother - but only if these details are directly relevant to the story. A good rule of thumb is this: only give the audience the minimum amount of information they need to follow and enjoy the story. Information should be given out on a need-to-know basis only. Keep it lean and focus on dialogue, action, and narrative. Christine Morgan once used this great analogy when critiquing an infodump in one of my stories: think of a story like a blueberry muffin. The exposition is like the blueberries. You want to space it out so that there’s a little in each bite, not a huge clump. Bake a tasty muffin, and write a good story.

When Infodumping Can’t Be Avoided

So far, so good. But what happens when you can’t avoid an infodump? Sometimes there comes a time when you need to drop a block of info on the reader’s head and there's just no other way around it. What should you do then? First of all, whatever you do, don’t put it anywhere near the start of the story. Slip it in later, and do what great authors do - make it the answer to a question the audience really wants answered. By waiting until later to unleash the exposition, you can make sure the audience (hopefully) cares enough about the characters and is intrigued enough about their story, to wade through all the info.

Another good technique is to transform the infodump into an entertaining narrative. This technique, if done well, turns the infodump more or less invisible. Joe R. Landsdale’s books are often riddled with chunks of exposition, but you don’t really notice, because the exposition is transformed into an entertaining story delivered either by the narrator or one of the characters. The infodump becomes a tale within a tale, like one of the many delightful diversions of the Arabian Nights.

Until next time,

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