The Art of the Info Dump

One of the difficult things, possibly the most difficult thing, about writing is figuring out how to convey information to the reader. In order for the reader to understand the story, explanation is necessary, but is usually also boring. For example, a conversation consisting of one character asking questions and another answering tends to be uninteresting, regardless of how natural it would be for that to happen. Likewise, having a character explain something in a lecture, read something in the paper, hear something on television, or look it up on the internet tend to be tiresome. The banality of these latter methods might even make them worse than simply dumping information into the narrative.

What is a writer to do? Fortunately, there are situations when the above modes of supplying information are not only acceptable, but eagerly devoured by the reader.

First, while the reader is fairly uninterested in what happened before the current scene, the reader is usually quite interested in what is happening to the character now. The reader wants to know what the character sees, smells, touches, and tastes, and wants/expects some description of the current environment.

Part of the reason is that the reader wants to vicariously live through the character. However, the degree to which description is desired by the reader depends on the emotional content of the scene. In key moments where emotions change or deepen, or when important decisions are being made by a character, the action needs to slow down to convey the character’s thoughts, precisely so that the full impact can be realized. The reader wants the chance to feel the emotion too.

Of course, the things described have to be relevant to the emotion or decision. Readers usually don’t care what the sky is doing. However, the description of the knife sticking out of the character’s chest matters a lot. How much the blade gleams, what the pommel looks like, and all the different ways in which the pain manifests (or doesn’t), should be spelled out in detail.

Descriptions of the scene can also be used as Trojan horses to carry information into the scene. By the description of a knife, the reader can learn whether the character is a cook or a killer. This latter method is interesting to the reader because it involves the brain at a deeper level, at deduction and inference.

The second major way is to present things backwards, to show the reader a result before clarifying the cause. Raise a question in the reader’s mind, and the reader will seek the answer. Make it a big enough question, and the reader will gladly read through an information dump in almost any form when it finally arrives.

If the main character of a story is named Artemis Gold, and he discovers there’s a professor with his name in three different universities, both the character and the reader will want to know why. When a fourth and fifth are discovered, the character will go out of his way to meet these other Artemis Golds and find out what they have in common. When the hero finds the millionaire who paid five couples to give that name to their child, the reader will be reading attentively during the question and answer session with the millionaire when it finally arrives. Actually, I almost want to read it now.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on valid ways to convey info to the reader. If anyone has more insights on this topic, I’m interested to hear about them. Please dump that info on me!

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