That shiny new world you’ve been working on for years – you can’t wait to get it out there and show the world. The world wants to see your world, I know I do.
BUT – like anything remotely fun in this world, you need to slow down and think carefully.
With a brand spanking new world, there’s a whole lot of information you need to pass over to your reader. The way you do this can mean the difference between them finishing your book and wanting more, or them wanting to launch your book into the nearest sea.
I’m talking of course about info dumping.
Info dumping is as pleasant as it sounds. It means dumping a tonne of information in front of a reader, whether they want it or not.
It’s expecting them to shuffle through wades of information to awkwardly get to the other side of the story where they find out why they should care.
It’s the kind of opening paragraph that tries to squeeze as much information about the world in as possible.
It’s those first pages where you find out everything and nothing.
You come away knowing the history of the last 100 years history of this village but with no information about characters or anything that really gets us on board with a story. The reader is left feeling overwhelmed, but more importantly they’re left to wonder “why do I care?”
As readers, we don’t want to be overwhelmed. If we wanted that we’d just read the news of the world. I love hearing about all the weird and wonderful details of a newly created world. But do I want to hear about everything on the first few pages? No, because I’m going to:
- Forget most of it
- Not know which bits to focus on (and forget the important bits)
- Feel overwhelmed
- Feel like I’m reading a textbook (I’ve been to school, I’ve already paid my dues)
How do you know you’re info dumping?
Now I’ve thoroughly insulted info dumping, it’s time to admit it – we’ve all done it. I’ve done it. I’ve known I was doing it at the time and thought, I’ll edit the shit out of this later.
I think a lot of us are guilty of trying to over-explain everything in our worlds, especially in first drafts. We rush to tell the reader as much about the world that’s been growing in our head for years. We’re like an excitable puppy.
It’s an easy mistake to make, especially for new writers in general but also for world builders like us. The key is to recognise when you’ve done it.
Things to ask yourself:
- Does the reader need this information NOW?
- Does the reader have room to breathe?
- Are you spoiling stuff that could be revealed later with added suspense or intrigue?
- Has the reader already realised this piece of information?
- Why should the reader care about this (yet)?
People care about people
I read somewhere that an author hated books that started with battle scenes. Why? Because they didn’t know any of the characters so why should they care about what happens to them in a battle?
It’s a popular way to start off a fantasy or historical novel. A battle scene or something similar can show off your world in a sort-of organic way. Similarly, a new character entering a new town can do something similar, that’s why they’re popular openings.
However, unless the reader has a reason to relate to these characters, and quickly, they’re going to lose interest. Characters are what pull people into a story. It’s not all about how amazing your world building is (although that can pull readers in too).
Draw the process out
You don’t have to explain every single thing in your world straight away (or even at all). If there’s a long list of things you want to explain, there’s space in the rest of your book or series to answer questions and resolve mysteries.
In fact, drawing information out and making readers wonder about stuff is part of the fun in fantasy.
Have you seen those trailers that show you the entire plot of the film in 2 minutes? Doesn’t it spoil the fun a bit and leave you wondering why you need to see the rest of the film? This is what info dumping does (for me at least).
Sometimes less is more and it’s more exciting to discover things as part of the overall reading experience as opposed to being told straight away.
An extra point – The reader is cleverer than you think. They pick up on more than you think. A big wedge of information down their throat is not appreciated and underestimates their intelligence. Readers like to work things out for themselves and not feel patronised.
The good news
The good news is if you know you’ve done a bit of info dumping, there’s still time to fix it. You can go through and edit what you don’t like, what bores the reader, what you know you don’t need anymore.
In fact, info dumping can be a useful tool for writing first drafts. I think that first drafts are all about you telling yourself the story. Edits are for readers.
So go ahead and throw as much info in there as you need to make the first draft work – just remember to edit for the reader!
How do you navigate the delicate process of giving the right amount of information? Got any examples of bad info dumping you read or even wrote yourself?