Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ask O: How Do I Avoid Info Dump? Don’t Feed the Readers

Happy Wednesday my writing friends!

“But I have to set it up!” Have you heard writers say this? I have, and to be honest, this objection has even burst from my own lips. It’s usually when one of my McCritters tells me something’s boring in my chapter. “Nothing’s happening,” they say. Yawn. “I just don’t care.”

They’re not really that mean, but the point’s valid: I haven’t pulled them into the action. Instead, I’ve prattled on about some fact I think they need to know. In other words, reader feeding. Bah!

Another term for reader feeding is info dump. Very descriptive, eh? When I invest in a novel, the last thing I want is the author to burst on the scene to tell me something. Imagine watching a movie and suddenly Stephen Spielberg appears on the screen. “I just have to tell you something here. It’ll help you understand the rest of the film. Trust me.”

How annoying would that be? It screams, “I didn’t do a good enough job showing you this in my story, so now I have to explain a few things.”

So, reader feeding is bad, but how do you set up a scene so readers understand what’s happening without dumping on them? Three ways have helped me:

1. Start with the interesting part. Often reader feeding comes at the beginning of a scene, especially the early scenes in a novel. Here’s my character and this is what he likes and doesn’t like and his hair is brown and his eyes are blue and he lives in Santa Monica and drives a BMW and never wears socks …. Problem is, by the time I get to the socks, I’ve lost my readers. To prevent this, I take a look at the first half of my scenes. If they linger on (and on) without anything happening, I grab my Samurai sword and slash mercilessly until I get to the interesting part and start there.

2. Avoid the college professor. Once, in a book I edited, the author slammed on the brakes of a suspenseful plot to have the protagonist call an old college professor. A lengthy conversation about the complete history of Islam ensued. It felt like non-fiction and totally stopped the flow. Fiction readers (like me!) want to get lost in the story, not lectured.

3. Sprinkle, sprinkle, sprinkle! I say this a lot. I know. But it’s key! Background, set-up, pertinent info—these are all important. But I don’t have to lay them all out in one big clump. Have you ever accidentally dropped a bunch of Malto-Meal into the saucepan while cooking? You know what happens. It clots into big nasty clumps that are moist on the outside and powdery in the middle. Yuck! Every time I’m tempted to dump info, I think of those disgusting clumps. Just like Malto-meal, it’s much better to sprinkle. Show the info a little at a time through action and dialog.

Have you ever read a book flush with reader feeding? What are your tips for avoiding this big no-no? I’d love to hear.

Happy writing!



  1. Very helpful blog. I love the Malto-Meal analogy.

  2. Ocieanna, great points. Info dump sometimes accompanies a syndrome that Randy Ingermanson calls Look How Much Research I Did. I've seen several books in which the author tries to provide it all in major clumps (love your Malto-Meal example). Thanks for this excellent advice.

    1. Great point! We want to share all that great stuff we found in our research, don't we? That's why I have an O History! board on Pinterest. I can unload all the cool stuff I find, so even if it doesn't make it into a book, it's at least out there.


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