Beware of the Deadly Info Dumps in Your Novel: 3 Signs to Watch For

Photo credit: Keoni Cabral via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Photo credit: Keoni Cabral via Visual Hunt /CC BY

Countless writing books, articles, and workshops tell us to avoid the deadly “info dumps” and flashbacks when writing a novel. And yet, I recently read two well-publicized literary novels, which to my dismay turned out to be info-dump fests. It took me forever to finish the first book, while I simply gave up on the second. Moral lesson: Beware of info dumps, even if you’re writing literary fiction.

When I read literary novels, I’m more patient. I don’t expect a fast pace or surprising twists. I enjoy the writing itself, the nuances of the characters, the difficult themes, the uncertainty of the plot, and even a depressing ending. However, I draw the line when I encounter chapter after chapter of flashbacks and info dumps. They’re boring.

The novel I didn’t finish reading received a lot of attention for its “bold” depiction of physical abuse and suffering. Well, I didn’t empathize with the tortured protagonist because I couldn’t endure the novel’s staggering background information. In this overrated book, very little was actually happening in the present.

What’s Info Dump?

As a novelist, I struggle with info dumps and flashbacks myself. We all have the desire to tell the entire back story at once, otherwise the reader might not appreciate our brilliant characters or theme or plot or whatever it is we consider brilliant.

If you’re writing a novel, beware of such tendency. To avoid info dumps, watch out for these signs:

#1 Explanations of a character’s behavior through endless flashbacks and recollections. Instead of “telling,” show how the character behaves at present and reflect his or her background through actions. Weave recollections and thoughts in small increments throughout the story.

#2 “Lectures” in history, foreign cultures and traditions, laws, etc. This is prevalent in stories set in the past or the future or those set in exotic places.

#3 Use of diaries, letters, and dreams to relay background information. Most of the time, these mechanisms are contrived. Epistolary novels are an exception. Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” (published by Little, Brown, and Co. in 2012) is an example of a great epistolary novel—hilarious, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rare Exceptions

Donna Tartt’s Puliter Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” is a hefty book with 784 pages. It has a massive back story, which I found trying in the beginning. But the compelling characters helped the story sail through the info dumps.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is another exception. The novel begins this way: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” Talk about a back story! The entire novel is a recollection by the narrator, Scout, about her family, hometown, and her experiences when she was around eight years old.

While a grownup Scout narrates the story, she presents her childhood point of view. She doesn’t impose her thoughts and values as an adult. Lee pulled it off because of her powerful voice.

Photo credit: Keoni Cabral via Visual Hunt / CC BY

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14 Comments

  1. But my info dumps are so beautiful, Cindy. Ha ha. I cut 60,000 words of info dump out of my first book before I could get a publisher to even look at it. They are deadly no matter how wonderfully written. One of the hardest things I had to learn in my writing journey was to skin the fat from the meat and trust the reader to fill in the gaps. Great post.

    Reply
    • You cut 60,000 words? Wow, kudos! It does require discipline to keep the back story out of the way. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
      • I cut whole chapters and turned some of them into short stories. I never want to do that again, but I learned my lesson!

  2. Reblogged this on Angie Dokos.

    Reply
  3. Reblogged this on Calliope Writing and commented:
    The awful info dump…this is one that I have a hard time with in my own writing. Great post by Cindy Fazzi.

    Reply
  4. the worst thing you can do is info dump, dull writing and boring to read, agree with you!

    Reply
    • Hi Chrissy. When I find myself writing tons of info dump, I have to think whether I should start the narrative “earlier,” so there is no need for flashback(: Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  5. schillingklaus

     /  May 24, 2016

    I love reading info dumps in fiction; consequently, I write them massively and remorselessly. I will not be tricked by any of your diatribes into considering them a bad thing.

    Reply

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