The INFO-DUMP Scene

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Hi All,

Sorry I am late, I pulled very late-nighter getting a book to my editor.

Info-dumps: the places in a novel where a writer dumps way too much info on to the page, thinking that the reader needs all this stuff to understand what is going on. In the writer’s head, they are paramount to the reactions of the characters and the forward motion of the story.

 Info-dumps take place in every genre, most often in these instances:

  1. In a standalone, when a new character enters the action or is brought up.
  2. In a series, when a character from a previous series book enters the action, or is brought up.
  3. When the writer is trying to do world-building that is crucial to the plot.

We all know not to do info-dumps. But we need the info. Below is an info dump that I have rewritten to show how to spread that info out into a scene. To set it up, we know Charlie, a detective, and the scene takes place in cop-central.

***

Charlie shoved the papers across the desk went across the room for coffee. He raised the cup to his mouth and sipped. It was hot, blacker than sin, and strong enough to melt the cheap metal spoon as he stirred in more sugar.

The woman walked into the room. She was stunning, five-ten, blond, blue-eyed, and curvy in all the right places. She moved like a dancer, like she had been dancing on her toes for all her life, graceful and beautiful and damn. She should have worn a halo and wings. Her dress was red and fit her like a man’s hopeful hands had sculpted it onto her. She was heading to his desk.

Charlie put his cup down. And went to his desk.

***

In police procedurals this scene is seen all the time, the stop-action entrance of an important character. It’s actually useful in scenes where the observer character is accustomed to taking in everything about other characters in a specific order and manner, like a cop looking over a suspect. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

***

Charlie shoved the papers across the desk went across the room for coffee. He raised the cup to his mouth and sipped. It was hot, blacker than sin, and strong enough to melt the cheap metal spoon as he stirred in more sugar. He stretched slightly, pulling tired muscles across his back and torso, feeling the weapon harness restrict his movements. He was mid-stretch when the woman walked into the room.

She was stunning. Charlie stood straight, sucking in his stomach, and sipped, the scalding coffee hardly noted. Five-ten, blond, she was curvy in all the right places. She moved like she had been dancing on her toes for all her life, graceful and beautiful and … damn. She was heading to his desk. Charlie put his cup down, and walked across the room, back to his cubical, tucking in his shirt which had bunched during the day, pulling his jacket over to hid the mustard stain from lunch.

She looked over his desk, the untidy spill of papers. The coffee stains. And yet she sat in the chair beside it, her red dress fitting around her movements like a man’s hopeful hands had sculpted it onto her.

“Can I help you ma’am?” he asked. She smiled up at him. And damn if she didn’t have blue eyes. The woman should have worn a halo and wings.

***

Same info, but broken up into the action, making the description a part of the scene instead of cutting the action into two parts.

I’ll do some more info dumps in the last month of the year.

Hope you have a great shopping season!

Faith Hunter

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20 comments to The INFO-DUMP Scene

  • Megan B.

    Aha. I never really thought of the description of a new character as info-dumping, but now that I’ve read your example I can see how it fits the category. I like how you spread the description throughout the scene. Now I need to go back to my WIP and see if I can make use of this.

  • Ken

    Brilliant! I read the first part and I thought to myself “Ok, where’s the problem?” It made sense and seemed to do the job. THEN I read the next part and all I can say is that when enlightenment comes, it comes like a brick to the head.

    Yes, it did the job, but there wasn’t any finesse. Like a T-Bird without any paint on it, it’ll get you where you need to go but, you’d almost rather be walking.

    I’m going to keep this one.

    Thanks Faith!

  • Nathan Elberg

    Very helpful. But what if the info we’re dumping is part of back-story, previous events that need to be known, but don’t warrant a chapter of history? I’ve had trouble with that. Do we do it as memory flashbacks interrupting action? Someone telling a story? How do we introduce the behavior and deeds of characters who were dead before the novel began (protagonist’s father and grandfather)?

  • Megan B and Ken, Glad you liked.

    Nathan, that is a great question. I’ll play with some info dumps on that topic in the next post. And yes, they are a lot trickier.

  • Thank you Faith, this is really helpful. I’m seconding Nathan’s question. I more and more dislike flashback info dumps when I’m reading other people’s work, which is making me more aware of how unskilled I am at incorporating back story without swamping the reader or stopping the action in my own writing. Anything more on this would be very helpful.

  • Sorry to nitpick mildly, but the second example still feels like an “infodump” of the kind you describe, but with a few sentences acting as washerlike padding between the sentences of the first example. And these sentences aren’t about the woman, they’re mostly about Charlie and Charlie’s perspective.

    I’d argue that this kind of writing does not ditch the infodump, but makes it more bearable, making the description more “verbal”, more part of what’s going on, as you say. We feel more on Charlie’s shoulder in the second extract, if not less burdened with descriptive information. What the verbal washers do is make this more bearable. I was mildly surprised that you used virtually identical descriptive sentences in the two extracts, however.

    I’d be curious to see how to deal with infodumps of character and setting information and/or history that goes beyond the description, a la Lord Asriel’s lecture on Dust in Northern Lights that explains the mechanics of dæmons succinctly while adding to the mystery or Fred Forsyth’s quick outline of the mujahedin’s history in The Afghan as part of an MI6 briefing. These two do have the distinct advantage of having lectures as part of the story, but they do it well by bringing in dialogue to break it up or comments on characters’ reactions and the like. How to do this sort of infodump smashing is something I’d love to hear your thoughts on.

  • Vyton

    Faith, this is very helpful. Some of my stuff is like a travelog. I like the way you wove it in for the re-write. And I guess you shouldn’t do this too early on in the story either, right? Thanks.

  • Thanks for the example–it’s really helpful to see how you rewrite the scene!

  • Razziecat

    Faith, I see what you did there… :)

    Crucible, at first I thought as you did that there was a bit more of Charlie than strictly necessary. In re-reading it, I saw a distinct contrast between Charlie’s awareness of his own body and appearance, and his reactions to the woman. I really liked the descriptive phrases for the woman, especially the dress “fitting around her movements like a man’s hopeful hands had sculpted it onto her.” That, too, points in a subtle way right back to Charlie. I think it works pretty well.

  • quillet

    It’s always so tricky to get that balance right, to get the info across without bringing the story to a screeching halt. I love how you did this by weaving those details into continuing action — which also reveals character. Hmmm, now if I can just get *my* prose to do three jobs at once…

  • Hi Sarah, Yep. It is a much harder *do* but I’ll get it done. I hope.

    Cruicible, that was the point. Being in Charlie’s POV means that I *intended* for his reactions to do double duty and assist in describing the other character. I needed the info, and I needed it here, not later in the insuing convo, when the MC’s dialogue is dependant on his initial reactions. Breaking up the info dump makes it, mmm, not a dump. And it would have been easier to use all new words, but the point of that was to show how nothing is ever really wasted.

    Vyton, Actually the genre (and one’s editor) can make the all the difference in how much info and the placement of it in the story line. In police procedurals delivering info up front and in your face is expected. Much less so in literary. In BloodRing, my editor requested specific worldbuilding and a full world history within the first 25 pages. It was a huge challenge.

  • Thanks SiSi, Razzie, and Quillet.

  • Cool stuff, Faith. I might play with info dumps as I continue the worldbuilding series, since so many info dumps happen in the process of introducing readers to the world.

  • So basically (and I think I’m repeating what you said back to you in my own words, but this helps me) is that incorporating the info that needs to be dumped into the character’s voice, as the action continues? So in this case, Charlie’s impressions of the woman become part of his thoughts rather than a pause for description? I noticed that all of the actions are described in his voice.

    Thanks, Faith! I really like this technique. I hadn’t thought of it this way before.

  • Megan B.

    “But what if the info we’re dumping is part of back-story, previous events that need to be known, but don’t warrant a chapter of history? I’ve had trouble with that. Do we do it as memory flashbacks interrupting action? Someone telling a story? How do we introduce the behavior and deeds of characters who were dead before the novel began (protagonist’s father and grandfather)?”

    Nathan, it’s interesting that you bring that up. I have a little pet peeve about characters telling each other about important events in their past. Even in good books it often feels unnatural to me. I know the author stuck it in because they want to reader to know it. The best way I’ve seen it done is through a little mention here, a little mention there, until the picture becomes clear. Rather than the character telling the whole story in one scene.

    Also, you mentioned ‘chapters of history,’ which really caught my attention. My own WIP contains several chapters that are flashbacks to key events in the major characters’ pasts. I’m struggling like you wouldn’t believe with this (does it belong, or should I find another way to reveal these events?) I adore telling them as their own stories, letting the reader really experience them. I feel like it’s richer and more meaningful. But flashbacks are so widely poo-pooed that I just don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. Sorry, went off on a little rant there. But I bring it up because I would love to hear other people’s opinions. Your mention of ‘chapter of history’ makes me think maybe you have used the same technique. I’d love to hear about it.

  • Laura, yes. Everything we write needs to do double duty. Backstory needs to inform the reader of the importance of the now and the possibility of the future (foreshadowing), dialogue needs to do backstory and info and descriptions, a character’s reactions to things/characters/events must also add to the forward motion of the plot. Or any combo of the above. :) In this case, Charlie is the POV character. His reactions to the woman are as vital as the women herself.

    Here is an example of double duty, if Charlie was not the POV character and a female cop was witnessing the scene:

    Charlie shoved the papers across his desk and stomped across the room for coffee. The guy needed a break from caffeine and smokes but I knew better than to suggest it. The last time I did, was the Wilson case, and he nearly belted me one. The expression he made when he sipped the coffee-sludge was classic, half god-awmity-bad, half gimme-more of the addict.

    He yawned and was mid-stretch when the woman walked into the room. I coulda laughed out loud. In one composite move, Charlie put his cup down, sucked in his belly, tucked in his shirt tails, and pulled his jacket over to hide the mustard stain on his tie. And practically ran to his cubicle. Like he had a chance with her.

    She was freaking gorgeous, five-ten, blond, built like Barbie, with all the plastic parts in place. And Charlie’s eyes on her ass like he wanted to offer her a massage.

    “Can I help you ma’am?” he asked. She smiled up at him and Charlie went all google-eyed and tongue-tied. I couldn’t help it. I had to leave the room or laugh out loud. Poor Charlie. The woman looked a lot like Melissa, when Melissa was young. And still keeping house with the poor schmuck. This woman had him wrapped and she hadn’t even started in on her spiel.

    ***

    Here we have two descriptions, backstory, and a hint at future problems.

  • Megan, I adore flashbacks for just the reason you said, the full in-depth info you obtain. That said, my editor doesn’t like flashbacks, feeling that they slow down the forward momentum of the plot. Which they would, being flashbacks. So in the Jane Yellowrock series I had to find a way to bring my character’s past into the present. I use Cherokee rituals to bring her past into the present, which gives the past a poignancy and importance to the present. Now my flashbacks are highly emotional in context and format.

    I’ll put one in my next post as an example, and one form Gwen’s work too to show the comparison.

  • David, I do huge infodumps in my worldbuilding and then have to break them up!

  • This is something I am trying to improve upon in my writing. Using the character’s narrative voice to impart crucial information. After all if the POV style is a tight 3rd Person the reader should be experiencing this info how the character does.

  • CE, exactly. The POV character’s voice (no matter if it is first person or limited third) should give weight and import to everything. And every info dump should move the plot forward.