Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Information Dumps and Dumpettes

Jen and I got an audiobook for a recent road trip. We chose an author neither of us had read before. Yes, we live dangerously.

The gamble wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t quite hit the jackpot. The story was intriguing and the characters seemed real, but the author had a terrible habit:

Information dumps.

Jen and I learned the backstory for a large cast of characters almost from the moment we were introduced to them. My mind wandered when we were regaled with the journalist’s extensive employment history and the long relationship between the police chief and the main character. Rather than engaging with the information, I contemplated whether getting Flaming Hot Cheetos at our next pit stop would be worth the red stained fingers I would have for the next couple days.

Information dumps slow down the narrative.

They also don’t have to be as extreme as what I’ve just described to detract from your story.

Even short info dumps (or dumpettes, as I like to call them) can negatively affect your story.

Here’s an example:

Jack and Jill, a retired surgeon, go up the hill.

Jill’s occupation has nothing to do with the tragic story of Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water, unless of course she mends Jack’s broken crown after they came tumbling down. Even if that’s the case, it’s an obtuse way to introduce information the reader needs.

It’s better to have Jill flipping through a catalogue of the latest surgical tools while geeking out about how her work would have been so much easier if she had the BoneSaw 5000. Jack could then make a comment about how morbid she was and then ask her to go up the hill to fetch that pail of water.

If you can introduce important character background organically through action and dialogue, it will  be surprising when that background information is utilized later in the story.

Information dumps also come in forms other than character backgrounds.

 One form is by describing a character’s character. This is the most egregious way of breaking the classic “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Don’t tell me your antagonist is evil; show me. Don’t tell me the sidekick is lovable; show me through action and dialogue.

Another form of the info dump is the technical info dump. Technical information can be engaging, but often it comes off as a lecture inserted awkwardly into fiction.

Lee Child pulls off technical information well in the beginning of his book Gone Tomorrow. He adeptly tells the reader how Israeli counterintelligence spots a suicide bomber.

It works because:

1) The information is extremely interesting.

2) The main character, Jack Reacher, is actively thinking about the information as he assesses a possible suicide bomber on a New York subway.

3) He doesn’t give the information all at once, but instead allows tension to build as he matches each characteristic against the suspect on the subway.

Too often, technical information is inserted like this:

Detective Smith saw the front door had been kicked in and immediately pulled is .44 Magnum. He liked to use the Magnum rather than the standard issue Glock because….

And that’s when you get the lecture about the gun’s stopping capacity and reliability.

This doesn’t work because:

1) Gun specs are overdone in books and therefore not as interesting.

2) Neither Detective Smith nor your readers are thinking about gun specs at the time. They care about the danger in the house.

3) The information is a long, uniterrupted paragraph blocking the flow of the story.

Dialogue often contains information dumps.

 Robert McKee talks about a common and terrible line in movie scripts that goes something like this:

How long have we known each other, Bob? It must be thirty years, right? When we both worked down at McGruber’s.

The only reason this dialogue exists is to tell the audience the two characters have a long history. Characters shouldn’t ever utter dialogue solely to give the audience information.

One way to naturally introduce information through dialogue is to have a character who is new to the group ask questions. The new kid at school is shown around and gets the inside scoop on all the relationships; The new girlfriend asks about the scar on the cop’s arm; the baby reindeer asks why Rudolph is an outcast.

But what if the best way to get the reader the information they need is to tell them?

 Then tell them, but author and editor Jeff Gerke suggests writers do zero “telling” and all “showing” in the first 50 pages of a novel. Is this rule hard and fast? No, but the big problem with information dumps is they are usually boring.

And “Don’t be boring” is a hard and fast rule.

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