Here’s another entry in the From the Editing Files series, where we check out an issue I’ve spotted during an Editorial Evaluation. Read the whole series here!
This time, as you may have noticed from the title, we’re talking about the dreaded info dumping.
Science fiction and fantasy are notorious for info dumping, so much so that your typical SFF reader is desensitized to a certain amount of it and usually won’t complain about it much. But even diehard SFF readers have info dumping limits, and as the author, it can be tricky to pin down exactly where that limit is.
So in this post, let’s go over some signs that you might have hit the info dumping limit and how to fix it.
But first, what info dumping is not:
I’ve seen a lot of people online referring to any amount of providing information in the prose as info dumping, and that is absolutely not true. Giving the reader the information they need to understand the story and worldbuilding is different from info dumping. The two are not the same.
Think of it this way:
You’ve invited your reader to tea. You pick up the teapot, gently tilt it, and tea comes out of the spout and fills the reader’s cup. Once they’ve finished drinking, you fill their cup again. That’s providing information.
Info dumping is like inviting your reader to tea and then upturning the entire teapot, leaves and all, into their cup, spilling tea everywhere and giving them much more than they need (or want) to drink.
Your reader wants the tea, but they don’t want all of the tea all at once.
So with that out of the way, let’s check out the signs!
4 signs you’ve info dumped too much.
Readers say they’re bored during the more info-heavy portions of your book.
Readers say they feel lost or confused during more info-heavy portions of your book.
Readers report that they have to turn back to earlier pages in order to remember essential information for the page they’re trying to read.
Readers don’t make it through the whole book.
Now obviously, each of these four things could be caused by some other problem. Boredom can be caused by a sense of repetitiveness, feeling lost can be caused by a lack of information, turning back to earlier pages can mean there was too much action happening during the info parts, and quitting the book before it’s finished can be a taste thing.
But if you’ve got readers saying two or three out of these four things, then it’s likely that info dumping is at least part of the problem.
But, Toni, I can’t help but notice that all these signs involve reader feedback.
Yeah. See, the thing about info dumping is that it’s one of the biggest blind spots for authors in their own work. Potentially even bigger than typos, and I say that as someone who hunts typos for a living.
As the author, you already know all the info the reader needs to know. Plus you already know how the story’s going to turn out. In other words, you are desensitized to the amount of info in your book, and you’re also old hat at it—you know exactly why it’s relevant and when it’s going to be useful.
When readers are reading your book for the first time, they’re new to every single piece of information. As they read along, they have to decide which info to try and file away for later and which can be left alone. But since you as the author already have all the info, it’s much harder to anticipate where a reader might be overwhelmed or confused or left in the dark.
That’s why beta readers, critique partners, and editors are so important. (By the way, I have an entire post about pre-publication readers. You can check that out here!) They give you the fresh new perspective you need to catch info dumps where they’re happening. And info droughts, too!
>> If you need some help spotting info dumping and info droughts, my Editorial Evaluation is just the thing! Get more info here!
And if you don’t have any readers yet? There’s still an exercise you can do!
Take some highlighters (or do this in your writing software of choice) and assign colors to each function of your prose. One color goes to descriptions, one goes to backstory, and one goes to worldbuilding.
Then go through your book sentence by sentence, highlighting each one with the appropriate color. (You might leave some sentences blank, like dialogue or action sequences, since we’re not focusing on those right now.) If any one color extends for a whole page or more with few to no breaks, then you’re probably dumping too much info, and it’s time to remedy that.
So how do you fix info dumping?
Once your beta readers/CPs/editor have helped you find where the info dumping is happening, it’s time to get to work.
The only way to fix info dumping is to cut back on the info you’re providing and spread it around more, with other stuff like dialogue and action sequences in between.
Trim, trim, trim.
Chances are, you’ve included more info than is strictly necessary for readers to understand the story. (If you’re an overwriter, this is especially true!) Try trimming the info down to just the essentials—as in, if the reader doesn’t have this particular info the story will make zero sense.
Once you’ve done that, you can always add back in some of the cut info here and there for worldbuilding and intrigue. But forcing yourself to cut out any unnecessary info as strictly as possible will help you gain perspective on what readers need and what’s actually extra.
Resist the urge to topload.
The biggest form of info dumping I see in authors’ manuscripts is toploading, where the author dumps all the information at the beginning of the book/chapter and then goes purely to action from there. This tends to make readers forget critical information (leading them to flip back several pages to remind themselves).
Instead of toploading, try to put critical information right at the point or shortly before the point that it’s needed. If your story vampires can’t be killed by anything but a myrtle wood stake to the heart, a great time to reveal that would be right when your main character stabs a vampire with an oak stake instead.
Try foreshadowing and hint dropping rather than flat-out explaining.
Readers are smart, and they’re pretty good at picking up on hints and subtext. So instead of telling them a piece of information, try foreshadowing it or dropping hints instead. Then, when the time comes for the information reveal, readers will be excited that they figured it out before you explained it rather than simply filing it away as yet another piece of info to keep track of.
Use a variety of methods of information delivery.
Rather than always explaining important information in the narration, try revealing it in dialogue, during an action sequence, cleverly hidden within a description, etc.
For example, rather than telling your readers the entire history of why your starship captain is out of money, perhaps describe the recent updates to the ship, the empty bottles of expensive alcohol littering the engine room, the way they cringe every time a certain romantic photograph reappears in their memories feed but can’t seem to delete it. The descriptions will tell readers what happened: A breakup, the necessity of buying a new ship, a (recent?) drinking problem. All of this from description rather than a pages-long flashback!
(Not that flashbacks are bad all the time—no way, they are definitely not—but they are prime real estate for info dumps. Take an extra look at your flashbacks just in case!)
For non-essential information, stick to a couple of key details.
Another spot that’s common for info dumping is in descriptions, whether that’s of character or setting. Readers don’t typically need or want an entire page waxing poetic about every single character who enters the scene. (Disclaimer: Of course there are genres where this type of purple prose is not only accepted but actually desired by readers, so it’s key to know your audience. But in general, for most readers, the “couple key details” principle holds true.)
Instead, focus on a few key features to remember the character or location by. Maybe the city looks shiny and glittery from indoors, but as soon as your character steps outside, the smell of sewage hits them. That’s all readers really need to know, at least for a first impression—they can fill in the rest with their imaginations.
Intersperse information-heavy scenes with less info-heavy scenes.
No matter what you do, sometimes you’re just going to have to give the reader lots of info all at once. Yes, there are cases where it’s inevitable. But whenever that happens, make sure you follow up the information-heavy scene with one that requires much less info to understand. Like I mentioned earlier, most SFF readers can handle a bit of info dumping here and there. They just don’t want to be dumped on all the time.
Info dumping is really common, but fortunately, it’s also really easy to fix! Remember that this is an issue to tackle during revisions—dump all the info you want into your first draft, then just rearrange it later.
And if you’re stuck figuring out whether you’re info dumping or how to fix the info dumping you already know is there, I can help with that! My Editorial Evaluation service goes over all aspects of your book, including info dumping. I promise to guide you on your way to dumping less info! Learn more here, or contact me directly to reserve your spot on my editing calendar.