Talk To Me 29: Information Dumps in Books

Posted July 17, 2014 by Ana in Talk To Me! | 22 Comments

One of the things I really like seeing in fantasy books is world-building. I love it when a writer is able to weave a whole new world, or an alternative universe of our world, and make it seem like a place of exploration of adventure. However, this can fall flat sometimes. There are many reasons, like the world being rather unoriginal or the author actually not fleshing out their fantasy world. Today, I’ll be discussing one of the things that makes this fail for me: information dumps.

Characteristics of an information dump:

  • A really long explanation of something in the fantasy world (e.g. the history of a city, an ongoing war, how a system works)
  • The explanation may go on for a page or two. When it goes over two pages, I’m definitely wary.
  • Only one person speaks or talks about the thing. Maybe this is some teacher/authority figure or the narrator, but info-dumps usually leave no room for other characters to react.
  • Lots of technical terms and jargon that have not been previously explained.

What I like:

  • When it isn’t too long, I’m relatively okay with info-dumps. If it’s a few paragraphs compared to a whole page or two, I can easily read it and continue on without being disrupted.
  • They can be interesting if it’s a subject that I like reading about, like some technologies or how groups interact.

What I don’t like:

  • They can be really boring. Like I said, some info-dumps can read more like textbook material rather than an actual narrative.
  • They can take me out of the story. Let’s say I’m cruising about and exploring the world in the book, I really like it and it feels like I’m discovering the culture. All of a sudden a wall-of-text info-dump comes out at me. It’s like driving down a scenic road and being stopped by a wall that requires you to read it before going on.
  • It can seem like a weird shoe-horning of information, just to show the author’s research skills. Like when I was in the middle of reading a book about fantasy creatures, I didn’t expect to be hit with a wall-of-text about real-life martial arts.
  • When an info-dump is less world-building and more of “omg this character is so hot/sexy/awesome/smart and let me go on about how great they are and how everyone loves them.” Nope. No. Sorry.

Trying to put aside the info-dumps, what are some alternative ways an author can get their world-building out and still be interesting?

  • Dialogue! Two characters talking, having a back-and-forth banter/discussion about the world would help. It works well too if one of them is from another culture, and makes comparisons to their own.
  • Have the main character explore and learn! Instead of having them just sit in a room and listen to someone talk, have them go out and experience the culture through interacting with the locals.
  • Musical number. Just picture it. MUSICAL NUMBER WITH TAP SHOES.

So, what about you, dear reader?

What are your thoughts on info-dumps? What do you think is a good alternative to them?

Let me know in the comments!

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22 responses to “Talk To Me 29: Information Dumps in Books

  1. Sometimes info dumps can be done really well. I know that Julia Quinn isn’t a fantasy writer. She writes historical romance. And one of her beloved series is the Bridgerton series. In the first book, she needed a way to show who these Bridgertons were, so she created this gossip columnist called Lady Whistledown, and at the beginning of the first chapter she had a little info dump of the Bridgertons. It worked so well, that after the book was over, people were begging Julia Quinn to tell them who Lady Whistledown was – even though she wasn’t a big character in the story.

    It’s a tough thing to do, but when it’s done well, it can totally rock!
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    • Ana

      Oh, that sounds so cool! That’s a unique way of doing it, and I think I would really like it. :)

  2. I hate info dumps! I’m a very world building focused reading, but I want it to fit into the narrative naturally. No one sits around pondering a three page monologue about the history of their city/village/species/whatever. I like when events happen that illustrate the way the world works, what the species are like, etc. I don’t want to be explicitly told every single detail like facts, unless it’s some term that needs to be defined and is hard to decipher from context. Essentially, let the world speak for itself!

    I actually cannot stand world building in dialogue! I do like your suggestion of characters from different cultures talking about differences, but overall, I feel it’s unnatural. Again, no one sits around talking about things that are commonplace or common knowledge about where they live or who they are. It’s just super awkward to read. It’s like if I suddenly turn to my mom on our way home from wherever and stat describing our house or street. She knows what it looks like, and I don’t actively notice what it looks like since I live here, so we’re not going to talk about that. Why should characters be doing this?

    I’m just very picky about how I like my world building, since it is my favorite thing.

    • Ana

      Definitely very valid points, Angie. I think it’s good to be picky about world-building, because bad world-building can bring an entire book down. Or even an entire series!

  3. My boyfriend and I were JUST talking about this the other day! He really hates that, too. I haven’t read too much fantasy, and I feel like the books in that genre that I have read have been pretty good about that…so I can’t really comment too much on it. But I know exactly what you’re talking about it and it’s so annoying. It just makes me think that the author is too lazy to figure out how to include that information in without just plopping it all in your lap to digest yourself. Like you outlined, there are definitely ways to get information across without doing it like that, so they really have no excuse!!
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    • Ana

      I need to ask you for fantasy recs if you’ve read books with good world-building. :P It’s like getting handed a list or a pamphlet about the world. I came to read a narrative, not a pamphlet about the world. :P

  4. I’m not a fan of info dumps either, but I think you’re onto some great ideas for minimizing them!

    I think introducing an “outsider” whom the characters have to explain their world to can be very effective. The key is really to space out the dialogue and explanations, so you don’t just have one character giving the info dump to the newbie.

    I also just read some books, similar to the gossip column mentioned above, where pertinent information came out in places like news broadcasts, classrooms, or interviews. These are all places you’d expect information to be broken down to the basics.

    Exploring is also a good idea! If the character can just go out into their world and comment on world-specific things like their purple sky or the fighting arena in the middle of town, it can sound a lot more natural than an actual explanation to the reader.
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    • Ana

      Oh, that’s totally true! Spacing it out rather than just in one sitting is so much better than getting pages and pages of “okay here’s what you need to know about the city.” I really like the idea of using articles, letters, and things like that to get the world-building done well. :)

      It does sound so natural. I’d rather the MC goes out to see this sky or arena rather than the MC’s friend telling them all about it.

  5. Info dumps are definitely a good and a bad thing. I read CHARMING by elliott James and loved it and supposedly it had a ton of info dumping but I thought it was delivered in a palatable way because the character was talking to the reader is if preparing them for this world like they are going to be a trainee or hunter sort of thing.

    I think the teacher method is overly employed but sometimes I really enjoy it.
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    • Ana

      Well, if it works for you, I think that’s great. :D I wish I picked up more books that can make info dumps actually work.

  6. Info dumps are real turn offs for me because my eyes tend to glaze over and no matter how interesting the subject matter is, I am less likely to care if it doesn’t connect with me whatsoever. I know 1984 is a well loved classic but that massive info dump in the 2nd half of the book – just nope.
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    • Ana

      Haha! Glaze over! I think that describes how I react to info dumps. I think there’s another book out there where the author uses difficult language or info dumps on purpose, or at least that’s what my professor said. About halfway through the book, there’s this huge info dump describing a massive door. And if you get through that, you can supposedly get through any info dump.

  7. Just like you I love world building! World building can really make or break a book for me. I don’t like info dumps either, if they are relatively short they are okay, sometimes there just isn’t a good way to explains oem things except for just telling them. I also have seen the teacher explains somethign style a lot, again if it’s short it’s okay, but I hate long info dumps.
    Last month I read a book that started with an info dump in the middle of an action scene, no, just no. Basically the character was running for her life while thinking about the world she lived in, it was just weird, took me completely out the story and the action. And the dump was boring as well, I quickly DNF’d that book.
    Sometimes info dumps can be interesting indeed, especially when the subject is interesting. I prefer when characters explore the world or pieces of info are interwoven in the story so you actually gradually learn about the world and indeed conversations are a good was to get world building as well.

    I also liked how Lauren Oliver handled the world building in Delirium by posting newspaper articles or poems at the start of chapters.
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    • Ana

      Ugh, info-dumps are bad enough but info-dumps in a bad place? Horrible! It totally throws off the groove of the action scene if you run into a wall of text. :(

      I like the gradual world-building too! I’ll keep my eyes out for Delirium, because I like books that incorporate articles and poems to help enhance the story. :)

  8. I had this really badly recently with Earth Girl. The main character seems to know EVERYTHING, and all her classmates don’t. So they helpfully ask her questions which she then basically lectures them on and it was SO ANNOYING. I just wanted to punch her in the face.

    Not the way to world build. I’m not sure what to suggest but so many other books have built worlds successfully without info dumping :P
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    • Ana

      Haha! Definitely not the way to world build! I’d get so sick of a main character who keeps dumping info everywhere, definitely. :\

  9. Eeeeeek, info dumps.

    I have to get it out there: I hate them. I can handle MAYBE two paragraphs, but if it’s just a wall of text explaining terms or a world or anything, then I am bound to be irritated.

    Like you said, there are a bounty of ways to weave information into a story, which is why info-dumps annoy me so much. It kind of like: why did the author not put the time into explaining this information in a more creative way?

    Overall, it won’t make me hate a book, but it will definitely raise my hackles because I don’t like to be bored by information when I’m in the middle of the story. D:

    • Ana

      Eeek indeed! I think information put into a creative way of delivery improves a book. :)

      Boo to boredom! :(

  10. Musical number. HAHAHA. I also do not like info-dumps. They can get reeeeaaally boring. Sometimes my mind would wander when those happen and then I’d be really confused with what happened. Haha. The worst I’ve read to date was Allegiant by Veronica Roth. The first half (or maybe even more) was so FULL of info-dumps. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to cry or rip my hair out. It was such a WTF happened moment. I do think that some authors can’t paint their worlds without info-dumps. Maybe slowly revealing the world piece by piece as it is necessary to the story. Dialogue helps too. I’m not really sure, but I do know that some authors can do it while some can’t.
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    • Ana

      Exactly. A musical number would come out of nowhere and entertain me, haha! I remember reading Allegiant and not being TOO bothered by the info dumps. Not sure why, but I wasn’t too fussed over it. :)