Publetariat Dispatch: Infodumps, AYKB, and Other Author Intrusions

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, professional editor Jodie Renner fills us in on the dreaded author infodump, and why readers hate it.

This post, by Jodie Renner, originally appeared on the Crime Fiction Collective blog and is reprinted here in its entirety with that site’s permission.

When you’re revising your novel, be on the lookout for any obvious  blocks of information or mini-lectures that you may have inadvertently  wedged into the story here and there.

Author intrusions and info dumps come in various shapes and sizes, but  whatever their form, they can be perceived as an obvious and clumsy  attempt by the author to quickly impart some facts, clarifications, or  personal opinions directly to the reader. It might even be considered  lazy—it’s much easier to just insert a bunch of backstory in about a  character in one lump than to find ways to artfully weave in that  information through dialogue and thoughts, etc. But do we really need all  that information on the character, anyway? Definitely not at the risk  of turning off your reader, who’s just been wrenched out of the story to  be filled in on details, opinions, or background info.

Or, say you’re really riled up about an issue that you feel people need  to pay attention to. Maybe you want people to care about the environment  more. Or stop eating so much junk food and exercise more. Or maybe  you’re just passionate about something like gardening or Ancient Greece  or figure skating or poodles or scuba diving. Should you use your  fiction to convert others to your causes or enlighten people about your  pet topics? If you do, proceed with caution! People read fiction for  entertainment—to escape their boring or stressful life and get immersed  in a fascinating story with great characters doing exciting things. If  you really want to stop cruelty to animals or raise awareness about  anorexia or talk about sailing or World War II history or French  cuisine, make sure the info comes out in small doses, and in a natural  way through a character who is passionate about that topic—and that it  actually works for the plot and is believable for that particular  character.

Some common types of author intrusions include:

Interrupting the story to explain facts or details at length to your readers

Readers like to stay immersed in the story, not be pulled out of it to  be given a lengthy explanation of something as an aside by the author.  This can include long, detailed explanations of a specific type of gun,  for example, or stopping the story to describe in detail a castle or a  family lineage or some historical facts or the customs of a different  country or epoch. Yes, do your research, for sure. But pick and choose  what you actually share with your readers, and blend the info in in a  natural way, through dialogue, introspection and short expository  (explaining) passages, preferably filtered through the viewpoint of the  POV character.

Soap-boxing about an issue or cause

Maybe you’d like to increase consciousness about worthy topics such as  the plight of whales or the lack of clean water worldwide, or unfair  treatment of minorities, or lack of green spaces. You say, people really  need to be made aware of the situation—we all need to sit up and take  notice and do something about it! That’s true, but you could always  write letters to the editor, or newspaper or magazine articles on the  issue, or even blog posts. Or give talks at the library or to local  groups. Or insert allusions to it here and there in your novel, as long  as you have a character who is passionate about that issue and  knowledgeable. It can work in small doses, as long as you don’t go on so  long about it that it comes across as preaching. And it needs to fit  naturally in the scene, with the character’s personality, politics and  thoughts.

Giving the readers a history lesson or a lecture on a topic

Say you’re passionate about Aztecs and Aztec ruins and want to tell the  world about this fascinating subject, so you decide to write a Raiders of the Lost Ark  type of adventure story. You have a main character who’s an  archaeologist, and because you can’t resist sharing your knowledge, you  have this character giving impromptu detailed lectures on Aztec history  to anyone who will listen. Not a good idea. Just drop in a few  tantalizing tidbits here and there to pique your readers’ interest. If  you get them curious enough, they can easily google Aztecs and find out a  lot more on them. You could even add some info at the end of the story  somehow, as an Afterword or Glossary or related links or whatever.

Dumping in a pile of backstory about a character

While it is a good idea to create background information on all of your  main characters for yourself, be sure to avoid copying and pasting it  into your story in blocks, like a mini-biography or a resume. I’ve  edited novels where a new character comes onto the scene and the writer  feels compelled to immediately write several paragraphs or even pages of  background on that character, to introduce him or her to the readers.  The problem with that is that the plot has just come to a skidding halt  while you fill us in on this person. Secondly, why would we even care  about all those little details when that character has just come  onstage? Wait until we warm up to them a bit, then provide any pertinent  info little by little as we go along.

For example:

Jessica heard her cell phone ringing. “Excuse me.” She grabbed it  from her purse and flipped it open. It was her husband Richard.

Richard,  who was 42, was an engineer for the city. He and Jessica had met while  both college freshmen. Jessica was in Nursing and Richard was in  Engineering, and they’d met at a dance arranged by the two faculties.  They dated through college and married the year after they graduated. By  then, Jessica was a nurse and Richard was an engineer. They waited a  few years before starting a family…. yadda yadda.

“Hi, Richard,” Jessica said into the phone. “What’s up?”


Does the reader need to know all that backstory? Probably not. Certainly  not all at once, in the second between the ringing of Jessica’s phone  and when she answers it. Any of it that you feel is necessary can be  introduced gradually through dialogue, thoughts, and short exposition.  Jessica can be thinking about her college days or chatting with a sister  or friend, or Richard can be talking to a colleague or golf partner, or  Jessica and Richard can be talking to each other. But still, make sure  the info fits naturally and organically into the conversation, and  doesn’t look like it’s been planted there by the author to get the info  across to the readers. Which brings us to our last subtopic:

Info dumps disguised as dialogue: AYKB – “As you know, Bob…”

This is where the author has one person telling another a bunch of stuff  they both know, just to impart that information to the reader. Here’s  an exaggerated example, to illustrate:

Ralph said to his brother, “As you know, Bob, our parents were both  killed in a car crash when we were young, and we were raised by our  grandparents.”

Readers today are too sophisticated to go for this type of heavy-handed  information-sharing, and if you do it too often, it’s sure to lose you  respect and credibility.

Or it can seem off even when it’s more subtle, as when one homicide  detective says to another, “Serial killers have usually been abused as  children, and their victims often have similarities.”

You get the idea.

How about you? Just for fun, can you make up an obvious, AYKB dialogue for us? Use the comment boxes below and go for it!

Copyright © Jodie Renner, June 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers,  mysteries and other crime fiction. For more info on Jodie’s editing  services, please visit her website.


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