I'm sure many of you have heard of the term "infodump." But what it is exactly? Why do so many people regard it with scorn?
Infodumping is a literary term (sort of) that refers to an author inserting a large amount of information into their story, of "dumping" it onto the reader all at once. Most often, it interrupts the story as it is not woven into the action and slows the reader down. Most writers use it to introduce a chunk of worldbuilding, backstory, or even trying to get across description or a character's personality. As writers, we have to get information across, and sometimes it's not as simple as to be condensed into a sentence or two. So is it all a bad thing to "infodump"?
Infodumping is not defined by quantity. There is no set number of words you're permitted to explain something. It's considered infodumping when the writing becomes irrelevant to the task at hand-- getting your reader to follow where you're going and keep their attention. As writers, we spend months and even years stewing over our worlds and characters, but the reader has only a few hours or days in which to process your novel. Therefore, when you try to force a lot of information at them at once, it can be difficult for them to follow and causes them to lose interest.
But how do you know when you have infodumps in your writing? Often it can be hard to see, especially if you see what you've written as necessary to the story-- and perhaps it is. But infodumping violates one of the most important writer creeds: Show, Don't Tell. When you're infodumping, the information is not woven into the story, and so it is not being "shown" to the reader. This is what makes it awkward. The same information can be revealed through the action of the story, often pieces at a time, at times when it becomes necessary.
Infodumps can take various forms. They can come as a prologue with long histories of fantasy worlds or excessive backstory that spells out the main character's entire personality and childhood. They can also come across as newspaper articles or newscasts that spell out a danger or upcoming plot point. There are also the blatant "As You Know, Bob," troupe, where characters will over-explain things to each other in order to catch up the audience. It's a lazy way to pass off information to the reader, but it will almost always come off as dull and clunky. In video games, infodumping can take the form of characters explaining things in long, awkward monologues filled with information that may or may not be actually useful to the player.
Is it Ever Okay to Use an Infodump?
Generally, most readers find infodumps to be rather annoying. Though it has been used in the past and in published novels, it's generally frowned upon in current marketplaces. Even the most literary and languid novels tend to shy away from infodumping, in part also because it can often reveal too much information too soon and take away intrigue.
Current publishers, editors and agents shy away from a lot of infodumping because they're looking for more action driven narratives with quick paces and high tension to hook the reader in and keep them reading, in the hopes that they will purchase the book.
But It's Been Done Before
Some writers have managed to use infodumps, and sometimes effectively (though that will vary based on personal taste.) Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and JRR Tolkien are among a few. Adams and Pratchett managed to weave their copious amounts of information into their narrative by using humor and keeping the reader entertained, which refers to the point I made above. Infodumps are defined by quantity, but by whether you can keep the reader engaged. Many other writers have used humor or voice to keep readers engaged while they carry them through the information.
Tolkien, however, is another matter. Tolkien wasn't necessarily writing a traditional narrative, as his focus was not on the story or the characters, but on the world and its history. Tokien used his characters to move the reader through the world and the landscrape, rather than had them as the focus. LOTR was also written during a time when writers tended to be more omniscient, which allowed them to step out of character's heads and make observations and judgments that weren't about the immediate situation. Even then, Tolkien went above and beyond for his time, though he had already published before this epic, including the Hobbit, which has much less infodumping.
Infodumping is not popular to do in the marketplace these days for the same reason that high fantasy and long epics are no longer in demand—the need for more tension and story, with less details is what the readership, or at least the publishers, are looking for.
So How Do You Avoid It?
The most important thing when communicating information is to weave it into the story. Reveal information only when it becomes necessary. Usually this means heading straight into action, and then saving the big whys for later. The whys and questions are what keep readers turning the pages. Using small tidbits to hint at the bigger picture will keep readers invested to find out more. Sometimes teasing is the best policy. And, of course, sometimes the best ways is to have a beta reader look it over, because they'll be happy to let you know which parts are dragging.
Sometimes the best ways to get across things like description is to weave it into the action. Explain what they're wearing by snagging their jacket on something. Have them brush hair out of their face. Describe a room by focusing on how your character feels about it, and let it color their description. But for the love of god, please don't use a mirror to describe appearance. Some tactics have already been beaten to death.
Hope you enjoyed my infodump on infodumping. Happy writing!