Are You an Accidental Info-Dumper?

From Writer Unboxed:

The infodump: one of the Four Horsemen of the Writerly Apocalypse (the others being Passive Voice, Too Many Adverbs, and Telling Not Showing). When authors infodump, they interrupt the flow of their story to drop a chunk of exposition onto readers’ laps. You’re happily reading along, following, say, the protagonist as she goes to board an abandoned spaceship, when—bam!—you smack your head against two full pages of how exactly this class of spaceship creates artificial gravity. (Probably because some nerd complained about how their immersion was ruined if the author didn’t explain how artificial gravity worked.) Regardless of the reason, the interruption takes the reader out of the story, breaking the illusion of the fictional reality.

The opposite of infodumping is “incluing,” a word attributed to author Jo Walton. Incluing is the process of scattering information seamlessly throughout the text. The author who is adept at incluing provides just enough information to situate the reader in the story without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

But like everything writing-related, this is easier said than done. Not only can it be difficult for authors to recognize that they are infodumping, it’s not always obvious where or how to include background information in a story. As a result, in attempting to avoid infodumps, writers seem to have created a few new troublesome habits. Like Hydra’s heads, as soon as we think we have solved one problem, more crop up in its place.

Others may have coined terms for them, but for my purposes I’m calling these pitfalls “uber-minimalism,” “the mirror glance,” and “the side quest.” While these are all attempts at solving the same problem, they also all have the same fundamental flaw: they take the reader out of the story.

Uber-minimalists provide zero information or context clues to help situate the reader. You know the type: you pick up a science fiction book (scifi often gets ragged on for doing this, though it’s hardly unique to that genre alone), and right away read a sentence that sounds like this:

“I picked up my blargstetter from the floor and set it next to my old flerf.”

And nowhere in sight is an explanation, or even a few context clues, of what a blargstetter and a flerf are.

Then you have the mirror glance, an only slightly less awkward cousin to the “men writing women poorly” genre. You know how it goes:

“She stood in front of her bedroom mirror and ran a hairbrush through her shoulder-length brown hair, noticing the slope of her too-pointed nose and sharp cheekbones in the morning light.”

(For “men writing women poorly,” just have the character notice her breasts, a definitely normal thing that people with breasts do on a daily basis.)

The side quest is less of a sentence-level problem and more of a structural issue that I’ve seen crop up in some critique groups and workshops. Writers are so worried about infodumping that rather than take a moment to just explain something in exposition, they create new plot threads, scenes, or other narrative tools to “show” some important aspect of their worldbuilding. It’s fair to say that if you have to invent a side plot to provide important information, that information may not actually be as important as you think it is. But you may also need to share a piece of worldbuilding that won’t necessarily come into play until later, yet provides critical context for a character’s actions in the present moment. In that case, wouldn’t it just be easier to simply include a brief sentence or two of exposition?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed