If your critique partners and beta readers comment that you’re infodumping, this blog will help you avoid it in the future.
Being an author is sometimes compared to playing god. You build entire worlds from scratch, create characters from nothing. You make them interact, throw in a plot line, and bam. Hours upon hours of careful crafting, shaving off, adding on. You should be proud of that, and probably, you already are.
But then, you have to write the story. What does that mean for the world you created? Do you add detailed description of the previous marriage of your main character? When do you explain to the reader how the religion works? Or the magic system? Is the love interest’s complete previous sexual history required to add?
You’ll never please everyone, but you can follow these broad guidelines to avoid infodumping. Here’s what you need to take into account.
The bare minimum
Decide what the minimum amount of info your reader needs to know. For instance, imagine your character running into someone at the laundromat. What would they want to know about someone new when talking the first five to fifteen minutes? What’s their name? Do they make them feel at ease? What do they do for a living? Do they have hobbies? What’s something important to them? Is this person worth spending time on? Try and describe these things, as if your character is a real person.
If you write a fantasy novel that contains a magic system, explain what the magic looks like. What does it cost the user? How big of an effect can you reasonably expect? If you slip in thoughts and comments on those three questions, most readers will be satisfied. (For the die-hard fans you can always bundle the extensive infodumping details and background stories into a master document and sell that separately – GRRM has great success working on side projects like these.)
The guiding thread
Second, there’s the guiding thread of your scene. Non-English folks might know it as the red thread. It’s the thread you use to weave scenes and situations together. When considering your whole story, it’s the main plot line. But on chapter level the guiding thread is what moves your plot and characters from A to B.
Some people call this the bones of the story. It’s what’s left when you strip away all information that isn’t directly needed to advance the scene or characters. From there, you fill out your writing with descriptions of the character’s direct environment. You could describe their appearances, the food they’re eating, or mention some worldbuilding.
How much you should share depends on what kind of chapter or scene you are writing. When you’re in the middle of an action scene, you have less room to stray from the thread. The description and dialogue needs to be tight or you lose the tension you built up. Are your characters catching their breath? Now is the time to ask about the confusing monster they just ran away from, not describe the intricate details of how the monsters affect the political climate.
What you want to avoid is taking detours from the thread that are too long, or too confusing. Describing how a character received their ancestral family sword ten years back is fine. That is, if you’re describing a scene where they have time to contemplate this. Maybe your character is reminiscing about it at the anniversary of the event, or because it’s a cherished memory of their relative who died recently. On the other hand, describing in graphic detail how their grandfather slayed a dragon and broke off its tooth for the blade, then went off in search of a master forger who would only fulfill the request in exchange for a blood price paid while dancing naked under the blue corn moon – yeah, I’ll stop myself.
The further you drift from the moment, the larger a detour you create. The more details you add into that detour, the longer it becomes. Just like Red Riding Hood, you don’t want to wander too far off the path. Your readers will lose where they are and have trouble finding their way back on track.
Create room for exposition
Third and final, you have to create room for your required exposition. A common trick is to have two people discuss the background information in a conversation, but those can feel contrived and fake very fast. It all depends on context. For example, Harry Potter not knowing shit when he first goes to Hogwarts is completely believable. After six full years at magic school, that same ignorance is a hard sell. Keep in mind what your characters know and how they would interact with each other about the topic.
Another way to create room is to steal tiny bits of sentences here and there. When you describe the dragonfang sword, mention how it was forged in the Old Way. Two sentences later, comment on the superb craftsmanship only someone of the Ze’Tani tribe could’ve mastered. As the first enemy approaches our MC, describe how they’ll pay the blood price to claim the sword as their own, just like their grandfather did a hundred years ago.
A third trick is to have the reader craft their own legendary story about where the sword came from. You only need to pick a few key elements and weave them into your story. Create space where your guiding thread allows it, and when you start describing things, stick to the bare necessities. Not everything that you know needs to be known to the reader. The world as us authors have built it in our head will always be more grand than the one that the reader picks up on. To enjoy your story and submerse themselves in your world, they only need enough to make a fair copy.
Tying off the thread
Some readers love filling in some blanks for themselves, while others love watching the pictures you can paint with your words. What’s important is keeping their attention centered. So, make sure that the amount of information you provide is consistent throughout the book. While you want to avoid infodumping, different readers enjoy different amounts of info, so don’t try and catch all readers with the same net. As long as you make conscious decisions about when and where to put what detail of description, there is little you can do wrong. It’s your story after all, and you get to decide what’s important enough to include.
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