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One Man's Treasure Is Another Man's Trash - Avoiding The Dump

Creating stories is fun, isn't it? Chances are, your novel flows like a movie in your head, complete with character studies, story images, and script notes. Heck, I bet I could ask you how your MC would feel or what s/he would do in a particular situation, and you could tell meeven if it wasn't in your book!

You know your story and your characters frontwards and backwards, inside and out. And your readers don't. This is the reason new writers are so prone to committing the infamous info dump.

What qualifies as a dump?

Basically, it's any information you include that the reader doesn't need to know to understand the scene or (initially) bond with the characters. Although a dump can happen at any point in a story, and often does, they're usually worse at or near the beginning.

Sometimes it helps to come at a problem from a different direction,
so let's do that.

What ISN'T a dump?
  • Natural-sounding, un-stilted dialogue
  • Appropriate action beats and well-written description
  • Enough information for the reader to know who your characters are (not the whole cast all at once!), get a feel for their motivations, and begin caring about what happens to them
  • Any necessary information your reader needs to understand and visualize the scene

And that's where the problem lies, isn't it? Deciding what's 'necessary.'

Some writers are so worried about committing the dreaded dump, they go too far in the opposite direction and dole out such scanty details that readers put their book down for an entirely different reason. Starving them is just as bad.

Symptoms of the anti-dump:
  • Not giving enough details of the setting. (Where the heck ARE these people? I don't need interior design plans or GPS coordinates, but a general location and two or three details would be nice.)
  • Not giving enough description of movement, expressions, or visible traits for the reader to visualize the scene. (Did she say that with a smile or was she serious? Is she human or just a talking head? Is he young or old? Naked or clothed? Does he even have hair?)
  • Startling the reader with characters who suddenly appear. (If you open the scene with your heroine sitting on a bench in a busy mall, okay. But if you drone on for five paragraphs with her staring out the window of her room, I'm gonna assume she's alone. Caveat: Sudden appearances are okay if the new person also startles the POV character.)

So what's a writer to do?

I don't claim to have all the answers (I'm still figuring this out myself), and the topic is somewhat subjective, but I'll offer a few thoughts that might be of some help.

I'm a visually oriented person, so I'm going to attack this subject from a visual angle.

(Note: The following scene example was crafted for the purpose of illustrating info dumps and how to avoid them, not teaching plot or story beginnings. Translation: I threw this together for a blog post. Don't judge me. :P)

Prior to reading the first line, 
this is what your opening scene looks like to you.

This is what it looks like to your reader.

They may have vague images floating around in their heads after seeing your cover and reading your blurb, but they're waiting for you to set the opening scene.

Which character will be mentioned first? Where will the opening scene take place? Will it be indoors or out? Will the character be alone or with others?

Your readers are picky and impatientthat's truebut they're also hungry for information. If you play your words right, you'll get them to nibble long enough to set the hook.

Let's look at the scene again.

How would you approach it?
What information would you include?


Thanks for sticking with me through that mile-long post.

What are your thoughts on info dumping?
Do you have any pet peeves?
Do you have any tips for avoiding the dreaded dump?  

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  1. This is a great post! I like to think I have mastered the skill of not info-dumping now - but I used to be terrible!

  2. It's tricky to find the balance of sharing just enough detail for the reader to picture the scene. I used to have so much trouble with not describing the characters' surroundings, so they were speaking in a void! A good way to avoid this is to show the characters interacting with their surroundings while speaking/walking, etc. I usually start with the most important detail, from the POV character's perspective.

  3. I like the example of what it looks like to the reader!
    I'm light on description when I write, so that's something I add later. I try to do it in snippets to keep the pace going.

  4. Great article! I've got a bad habit of flopping between the two extremes. The novels get tons of information, but Cera's novellas don't get enough (this I've found out the hard way). And then there's the whole telling vs showing that instills great terror within me. What if showing doesn't tell enough?

    Wonderful example with the picture. When it comes to describing it, though, I think it really depends on genre. :) I'd go with creepy and start from Vince Badboy's POV.

  5. I thought this was a great post, Mel. One of your best. Loved the example, both POV's, and didn't judge one bit. ;)

    I think back to Anne LaMott...write in one-inch frames. And do things as naturally as possible, as if coming in and viewing the scene from the narrator's viewpoint. We certainly don't notice everything at once, do we? And disperse description in dialog and narration. Be inventive. I don't set formula to me, just make it sound good. Ha.

    M.L. Swift, Writer

  6. I'm thinking how I'd start the story to make it as tense as the picture. Wonder if I'd have to use 1,000 words?

    Very well written explanation of the dump and the anti-dump. Perfect visuals.

  7. I think that we have to ask ourselves "Is this interesting to readers?" If not, toss it. Otherwise I think anything goes, depending on how it's done.

  8. What a great post. Deciding what information to provide, when to provide it, and how to do it is always a challenge. Sometimes I think we need to just write it to get it out of our systems. Then, it's there in the backs of our minds, ready to use if it's really needed.

  9. I do both the info-dump and anti-dump in my first drafts. You have to know how to spot it and how to get rid of it. It's why I take time to distance myself from my book, so I have a better idea of what the scene looks like to readers. Betas/CPs help a lot, too.

  10. My first inclination is to write from the POV of Vince Badguy. A first line that came to me as I read:

    'The scent of her perfume filled his head.' Elaborate a little and end the paragraph with 'He switched the gun to his other hand to wipe off the sweat.'

    I change beginning things over and over and over, so I probably would end up with something different.

  11. What a great post, Melissa. I guess the hardest part about info-dumping is learning to catch yourself before your actually doing it. As writers and authors, we tend to get so lost in our plot and dialogue that we forget we are actually writing. I mean, we know we are typing away but our minds are inside of the story. Once we step back and re-read what we have created, I think it's easier to figure out what needs to be added or taken out. We just have to be real with ourselves, even if it hurts. And a lot of times, that means taking out unnecessary words, paragraphs and pages.

  12. "Translation: I threw this together for a blog post. Don't judge me. :P"
    LOL! Great post, Melissa!!

  13. I loved this post. Description is so hard for me and it was really interesting to see the example of how the scene looks to the reader.

  14. It's funny to me how, when someone else does an info dump, it's immediately apparent, but it's harder to see in one's own writing, innit? Therein lies the value of a CP (or editor)! :-)

  15. Thank you, Melissa. It's helpful for me to keep this all in mind. I especially like your caveat about sudden appearances of new characters.

  16. I tend to be scant with details in earlier drafts, but I'm grateful my CPs let me know where I need more.

  17. Awesome. I think my weakness is the opposite of the info dump. I want readers to infer and draw their own conclusions based on the context clues, and sometimes I just need to spell it out a bit more.

    Awesome post.

  18. Deciding how to start scenes is what drives me crazy the most. What should I say, what shouldn't I say. Sometimes I fret about this so much I grind all the voice out of the words. That's why I depend upon crit partners to set me straight.

  19. Oooo, I love that visualization! Great tool.

    My approach to exposition is to DUMP, big-time. Just get it all out there, write out all of the info I think a reader needs...and then cut, and cut, and cut, and cut, and keep cutting until I have it down to the essentials.

    This takes...a long time. Probably NOT the best approach, LOL. I'm learning!

  20. Ach, this is always something I worry about, especially at the start of stories. >_< But that part about what your opening scene looks like to you and to the reader is so very true - it's far, far too easy to forget that the reader can't know what you're thinking and assume that your writing shows something that it doesn't. I've done this and I've seen others do it as well. Good advice all around in this entry, though. ^_^

  21. From a reader's perspective, I like little snippets of info revealed over time :) Happy Friday!!


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