This is the third in a multi-part series of Motley Writers Guild posts specifically about the craft of writing, on a basic level. It’s intended to help you become a better writer overall, as well as provide you with something to refer back to whenever you need some guidance.
*Bear in mind that these are only suggestions; merely “guidelines” (writers, like pirates, love “guidelines” instead of “rules”).
Sometimes your writing is going to need to break the guidelines. And that’s fine! Do it! But first, it’s good to know what they are and how to use them to take your writing to the next level.
In February we celebrated the launch of our Services feature by doing a Critique Blitz, where we offered free critiques for over a dozen writers who submitted their amazing work for us to read. I found there were some common grammatical and structural areas in need of improvement running through quite a few of the stories. They were also things I’ve noticed in my many years as a beta reader/critiquer, and something I pointed out to the individual authors of the Critique Blitz too.
Based on those common areas of improvement, I was inspired to write this series to help other people see the often very simple and easily fixed issues present in lots of creative writing.
The first in this series was about Using “That” In Creative Writing, which detailed some quick and easy ways of utilizing “that” to be most effective.
The second was about Dialogue Tags in Creative Writing; how to use them and omit them entirely sometimes.
This third installment of the series is something I’ve been dreading trying to tackle, because it truly is a behemoth of an issue — but it’s also one of the most important.
So I figure it’s best to get it out of the way. Rip off the bandage, so to speak.
Have you ever been reading a story…
It’s moving along nicely, it’s got an engaging premise and interesting characters. You’re really getting invested in it, and (I dare say) you’re enjoying what you’re reading.
A large block of exposition goes on for far, far too long, and takes you completely out of the enjoyment you had.
The writer goes into excruciating detail on the history of a village/city/country/world etc.
Or perhaps they wax philosophical about the motivations of a character or a group of people.
Maybe it’s a complete monologue telling you how exactly this thing became this other thing and when it happened and why.
You’ve just experienced an Info Dump.
Let’s talk about the much maligned “Info Dumps” in creative writing…
An Info Dump is a chunk of writing with too much information, given all at the same time; hence the name: INFO DUMP. Often presented as entire paragraphs, or possibly (even worse) as entire pages or chapters, Info Dumps may contain seemingly pertinent information, obviously unnecessary details, backstory, or descriptions which otherwise should be omitted at that time — or entirely.
Info Dumps are frequently considered unenlightening and can be excellent examples of ‘telling’ instead of showing (stay tuned for a future post about that topic too…).
Basically, you may be guilty of writing an Info Dump if your necessary details balloon into gratuitous exposition which should otherwise not be included.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking, “But Em, couldn’t ANY description or backstory be considered an Info Dump?”
And to that, I answer with a resounding:
Not really, no.
The difference between an Info Dump and necessary information is the length, and whether or not it should be included at all.
Obviously you need to have descriptions and backstories in your writing. That’s what makes an interesting novel! As a writer, you need to know pretty much everything about the world and characters you’re creating, otherwise they will be one-dimensional and flat.
But you don’t need to put all of that into your story.
In fact, the difference between what to keep and what to cut can be the signifier of a competent writer or an unskilled one.
How to know if you’ve written an Info Dump.
Ask yourself these questions whenever you’re writing or revising:
- Does the sentence go on for too long?
- Is the sentence/paragraph/page too large and centered on one topic?
- Do you detail the entirety of a motivation/history/scene?
- When re-reading your own writing, do you reach a section of exposition where your brain kinda turns off for a bit?
If so: You MAY have written an Info Dump.
How to avoid Info Dumps:
Remember what I said before about how you need to know everything about your world but not necessarily include it in your novel?
I brought that up because it can be key to knowing how to avoid Info Dumps entirely.
When writing or revising, take a hard look at what you’ve included. Ideally, you want to sprinkle in details about a character/world/situation; just enough to give the reader context but not so much that you’ve overwhelmed them with unnecessary details.
Does your planet have a rich history and fascinating ecosystem?
Does your society have a bloody past and complex hierarchy?
Now, what do you absolutely have to tell the reader and what can be inferred from context?
And better yet: What can you show the reader without telling them outright?
Instead of plunking a page of details about the story into the story itself, write those details in a separate place (like wherever you do your notes/plotting). Now, take the most important things about those details and distill them into as few words as possible. Keep only what is absolutely necessary.
Then, put that into your story instead.
If you ever find that you’ve written an entire paragraph all about one topic, it’s very possible that you’ve Dumped Info, and your reader won’t appreciate it. If you notice you’ve written a whole page of backstory, it’s highly likely your reader will stop reading, put down your novel, and never pick it back up again.
Weaving a compelling narrative is like walking a tight-rope of showing and exposition, while trusting your readers to be clever enough to pick up on the things you aren’t saying, too.
Another way to know if you’ve written an Info Dump.
Sometimes we’re too close to our stories to see their flaws. You feel like every single detail is absolutely crucial and must be included.
Well, the best way to get some perspective is to find someone else to read your book, baby! Someone who will give you honest, unbiased opinions, and who will be able to spot the areas you could improve upon. They may be able to point out sections that drag or seem like “info dumps”, and hopefully their input can guide your revisions.
You can turn to friends, family, or ideally other writers for feedback. In fact, one of the very first blog posts I wrote here at the Motley Writers Guild was about Finding Your Writing Buddies!
Having someone else read and critique your work can be invaluable for growing as a writer and for creating a really great story. This post goes over How To Improve Receiving Critiques. I highly recommend you check it out, because sometimes the truth can hurt…and sometimes you may not know what to do with the constructive criticism you’ve received.
Need some professional feedback?
The Motley Writers Guild offers beta reading and critiquing services! With years of experience, we’ve helped many writers hone their craft and polish up their writing. Our members have an array of styles and wealth of knowledge gained from countless hours spent writing, reading, and critiquing. You can hire one of us, or request a FREE sample critique from multiple members!
Have you enjoyed learning about Info Dumps? Did you not know what they were prior to this post? Do you love reading long sections of exposition in creative writing? Leave a comment on this blog post to tell us what you think. We love hearing from you!
The Motley Writers Guild’s – Em Van Moore
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