Everyone hates an info-dump, right? We don’t want to know all of the characters’ motives right from the get-go, and we don’t want to read a paragraph as soon as a character’s introduced about who their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles are and how they all died. That just doesn’t make an interesting read. But how do you avoid doing this to your readers?
Ask: Is This Necessary?
Does how the main character’s parents and grandparents died have bearing on the current plot? If the answer is yes, you’ll probably want to keep it in the wings to be placed in at a convenient time; we still don’t want to read it as soon as the character’s introduced, sorry.
If the answer is no, it’s just some cool backstory that you wanted to share, keep it to yourself. If you absolutely can’t help yourself and have to share it with the reader, make it a prequel short story or put a family tree in the back of the book. Don’t interrupt the reader’s flow with an info-dump that’s useless to the story.
From Info-Dump to Tapestry – Weave It In
Be creative. You’re a writer, it’s your job to be creative, so come up with a new way to portray information instead of just giving us a thick info-dump paragraph on the world and characters. That king is cruel and heartless and hates his son? Don’t tell us that; show him yelling at his son when the son’s done nothing wrong, or show him oppressing the peasants. Action is way more interesting than exposition, and it makes a much larger impact on the reader if they see the king being cruel than if you just tell them he’s cruel. We readers are smart and we like forming our own opinions of things.
Worldbuilding is a little tougher. For one thing, you’ve developed this whole intricate world and all its inner workings and you want to show it off! See point one and resist the urge. If you absolutely have to share it, put it on a blog or something and let the readers who are interested look it up themselves, maybe mention in the back of the book that it’s available there and be considerate to those readers who just want to read the story without the marsh of worldbuilding.
What worldbuilding is necessary should be shown as it’s needed, the same as all other information, or woven in unobtrusively so that instead of a blaring sign in the reader’s face it’s a delightful little treat that they can latch onto. Colors of Fear* by Hannah Heath does this beautifully with the memory scars of the elves. Little details woven in carefully, mentioned fairly quickly and in context, will make your world seem ten times deeper, I can almost guarantee it.
I’m realizing that while I gave a fairly concrete example with character, I’ve failed to do so with worldbuilding. Let’s fix that. As an example… My country Parenna. I’m going to start with the subtle things and see if I effectively convey them before revealing the big obvious thing. A character from somewhere other than Parenna might say:
As I look around I feel under-dressed; my linen tunic and leather pants pale in comparison to the silk and jewels that adorn the Parennans bartering in the marketplace. Even those in simpler clothes are still studded with glittering earrings and rings that catch and reflect the sunlight, throwing rainbows across the entire square.
Later, if they’re traveling to the castle as an ambassador of some sort, they might continue:
As I walk my gaze falls from the paintings on the wall to study the floor beneath my feet. The marble is inset with diamonds of various colors, polished to even with the slabs around them.
My gaze rises again when a giant set of doors opens in front of me and I step into the throne room. King Julen wears more rings than anyone else I’ve seen – which is saying something – and his crown is overcrowded with diamonds and rubies.
Parenna happens to be nicknamed The Jewel Kingdom, for numerous reasons, which gives it away even if the above description hasn’t. Parenna values jewels pretty much above all else. If you were to read the story I’m planning that’s set there, you’d also quickly realize that those born into the royal family (or other super prestigious families) all have jewel-related names: Julen, Onyx, Diamond, Beryl, Carnelian, Cordier, and Sphene, to name those I have so far. Fortunately this only applies to the royal family (and a few prestigious exceptions), because otherwise I’d have issues.
Normally I wouldn’t write that much description at once (that’s probably mostly due to the fact that one of my greatest writing issues is balancing description), but that gives you the idea. You don’t have to state things with a blaring neon sign; you can do it just as effectively with well-written description and references to things within context.
Give Information in Relevant Pieces
Remember how I mentioned at the beginning of this post not to info-dump character motivations? That’s no fun; it strips away the mystery. Hidden motivations are a big key to intrigue. While your main character’s motivations are probably transparent to the reader, your villain’s probably shouldn’t be, and even side characters’ motivations should probably be revealed in pieces. And just because the main character’s motivations are clear to the reader, there’s no reason to make it entirely transparent to the other characters in the novel. Hidden motivations are great for conflict. (For more on character motivations, check out this post by P.S. Hoffman.)
So how do you give information as it’s needed? A few things to keep in mind as a good start would be:
A) Don’t give us a character’s life story as soon as they’re introduced. We’ll figure it out as we read if you’ve done it right (which starts with cutting the life-story-in-the-introductory-paragraph info-dump).
B) Don’t describe every single aspect of a place as soon as the character enters it. Mention a few key, meaningful details (ideally that will come into play later, but if they’re just memorable and unobtrusive they’re still good), describe the basic atmosphere, but don’t describe the room down to every mote of dust.
C) Don’t give the reader every character’s motivation on a silver platter. Make them ambiguous; make us figure them out. Why is that side character so cold and distant? Because his brother hated him. Don’t tell us this things up front, let us figure it out. Plant clues, like the chess piece he always carries around that’s his only gift from his brother, or have a character go to him for relationship advice and get something along the lines of “Love only hurts.” Show his envy and bitterness when he sees siblings together, as he curls his lip and avoids them. Whatever. Just show instead of telling, and let us figure some stuff out.
Hopefully this gives you some ideas of ways to avoid the dreaded info-dump, and I wish you happy writing. What books have you read that were awful in the info-dumping department, or conveyed information wonderfully?