How to avoid the dread info-dump in your novel

One of the biggest ways to kill the unfolding tension in a novel is to drop in a wad of back-story.

The Hill on the Hobbiton Movie Set.
The Hill on the Hobbiton Movie Set.

It’s distracting at the very least. Usually all it does is stall the plot, often it leads to some hideous stylistic gaffes as the author tries to write about past-past tense or past-future tense (‘was to be’) – and there’s a fair chance of losing readers along the way.

Some writers do it by prologue, but that’s risky too because the back-story is just that. Back story. It’s not the main plot, and it’s not going to be so interesting.

The only writer I can think of who’s got away with it is J R R 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’. The lesson? Don’t try this at home, folks.

What you have to ask is whether the back story is actually needed? You might have to write it in order to know, yourself, what’s going on. But how much of it does the reader need in order to follow the plot?

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

The next step is to drip-feed it, which means ‘showing’ and not ‘telling the reader what’s happening. You can do that by building those ‘back-story drips’ into the current plot. 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 intrusion.

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


2 thoughts on “How to avoid the dread info-dump in your novel

  1. In the opening chapters of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carre placed one of the best info-dumps in all of literature, with protagonist George Smiley pitted against a garrulous bore at dinner who will simply insist on going over bits and pieces of Circus history that Smiley would simply rather leave in the past. Except…maybe…isn’t there a string that needs pulling in there somewhere, a string that a case man like Smiley simply can’t resist tugging on?

    Sometimes I read Tinker, Tailor just for that one part. A master work by a master writer.

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