Hot writing tip: why info dumps happen and how to get rid of them

The thing about written words is that they are a linear thread. One word at a time, one idea at a time, one sentence at a time.

Sam Gamgee's house on Bagshot Row - where the very last scenes of The Lord of The Rings were shot.
The late Professor T. had a unique way of info-dumping. Just saying…

The problem about it is that we don’t think that way. We think in interlinked ways and – usually – also don’t start with a blank page.

What that boils down to in storytelling is figuring out ways of scene-setting, without interrupting the plot or losing reader interest.

The way not to do it is the ‘info dump’, when noob writers drop a load of back-story into the novel after the opening paragraph. All that does is stall the plot and there’s a fair chance of losing reader interest along the way.

Some writers do it by prologue, but that’s risky too – you can fail to capture the reader anyway.

The only writer I can think of who’s really gotten away with it is Tolkien, for a whole pile of reasons that don’t have a lot to do with what writing for current twenty-first century readership is about, and quite a bit to do with being the absolute master of ‘epic’. (Don’t try this at home, folks).

The real question is whether that back-story is necessary at all. All it does is ‘tell’ the reader what is going on, whereas the better way is to ‘show’ them through the actions of the character as the plot proceeds.

If we divide the usual content of such things up they fall into two main categories: (a) what’s needed to understand the plot and setting, and (b) what’s needed to understand the protagonist. A lot of ‘back story’ often has far more than this there – frequently it reflects the writer’s own development of the story and is what the writer needs to know to write effectively. But it isn’t needed for the reader to understand story and characters.

So the first step is to winnow the intended back story down to the bare bones needed to understand character and plot.

Both are then best drip-fed – meaning a minimum of ‘telling’ and a maximum of ‘showing’. And one way of doing it is by building a dynamic into the explanation. Character X doesn’t want to go to City Y, which allows the writer to show something about the character; but it also demands something is shown about the city – why doesn’t the character want to go there? Is it something there, some feature the character doesn’t like, or fears?

Unfolding the character and back-story this way can also be a powerful tool for drawing the reader into the plot. And it gets around the info-dump problem.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


11 thoughts on “Hot writing tip: why info dumps happen and how to get rid of them

  1. Great blog! I absolutely *hate* info-dumps. I think too many writers don’t realise that they don’t need to include every single bit of back story they’ve come up with. And I agree, Tolkein is definitely the master of epic- when you said he “info-dumped” I had to think about when he did it because he did it so well.

      1. I’m sure there’s more to it, but what has always stood out to me was involving us in Frodo’s life first and building an air of mystery around Gandalf, Bilbo, and the ring before delivering the info dump, which he delivers via dialog, for the most part. Establishing the novel’s tone with such assured and swift skill was a lot of what made it possible. He was not only a masterful writer, but a master of his subject: Middle Earth.

        1. He certainly was. I think he did it iteratively, as much as anything else: I have the ‘first draft’ version of LOTR somewhere in my messy personal library – Christopher Tolkien’s annotated release – and vaguely remember that the elder Tolkien went through quite a few versions, not least because the tale literally ‘grew in the telling’ for him.

  2. I found the first few chapters of The Hobbit deathly dull, and only completed them after flipping ahead (on my second attempt) and realizing the story really picked up later. So, I personally wouldn’t say Tolkein mastered it, as much as he got away with it. Either way, it’s something for a modern writer to try to avoid.

    1. “The Hobbit” was – by modern standards – definitely a period piece; stylistically of its time, around 80 years ago – but also very classically the ‘hero journey’. I have John Rateliff’s two-volume set on how Tolkien wrote it, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the tale.

  3. I wonder if writers would better handle info-dumps if they studied the way nonfiction writers work data in. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns Of August has a lot to teach any novelist.

    1. Tuchman was a fantastic writer on all counts! She got quite unjustly bolloxed by the history community over ‘The Guns of August’ for not being a ‘proper’ historian or engaging what that community regard as the parameters of their debate, but I think this was more to do with the fact that she addressed the past in such a wonderful and popular way. The technique absolutely transfers from non-fiction – I use it myself in my own NF works. And I’ve also infused mine with a technique from novel-writing, which is to open with a punch and then back-track.

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