Info-dump can be a major problem in any story, but it is found most often in fantasy and science fiction. For those of you who are new to writing, or who just haven’t run across the term before, info-dump occurs when you attempt to provide a massive load of background information in a short space. The problem is common in science fiction and fantasy writing because of the alternate world setting.
Introducing readers to a whole new world, with significant differences from our own, along with certain similarities, is a difficult thing to do. Info-dump makes it easy. As the author you simply take a couple of pages and explain the background of your world and the similarities and differences within. This is an excellent example of info-dump. Info-dump makes introducing your world easy, the problem is that it is horrendously boring to read, especially in the middle of a story. In a blog it isn’t such a bad thing, as readers can just skip to the next entry. In a novel, where many readers feel compelled to read every page, it can be devastating.
Any info-dump can hurt a story, bad info-dump can irreparably damage a story, repeated info-dump can kill a story. Imagine watching your favorite movie. Now imagine that the main character takes a break every ten minutes to explain what’s going on. It breaks the flow of the story, destroys the reader’s immersion in your world, and will often make your characters look like idiots. Needless to say, info-dump is a bad thing that you want to avoid.
So how do we define info-dump? My opinion is that more than a paragraph of straight, explanatory information borders on info-dump, more than two paragraphs is definitely info-dump. Furthermore, you must be careful how things are presented. If you info-dump using characters, like a lot of authors do, then you probably have your characters telling each other information that should be obvious to them. If you find any dialogue in which the phrase ‘As we all know’ or the phrase ‘As you should know’ could comfortably fit, then get rid of it. This is info-dump of the worst kind, and you need to find some other way to present your information.
Obviously some amount of explanation is required to introduce the peculiarities of your world to the reader. The first step to avoiding info-dump is to decide what needs to be explained and what doesn’t. For instance, if the sky on your world is green, or it has two moons, or no moon, this is probably something that the reader should just accept. It doesn’t need to be explained. At some point the effects that these differences have on the world might need to be explained, but the difference itself doesn’t.
On the other hand, if an individual or group of individuals can defy the laws of physics, then this probably does need to be explained. How do they do it? Why is it only them that can do it? These are questions that will occur to your reader, and they deserve to be explained. However, don’t drop answers on them in one lump sum. Spread it out. Let the mystery fester for a while. As long as he feels like there is an explanation the reader will keep reading until he finds it. But if your reader feels like there is no explanation, this is when you’ll lose him.
You generally want to avoid having your characters provide information about your world. However, there are some strategies that can work. Insert a character who would reasonably not be aware of the information, perhaps a child, or a new initiate to the order, and then let your other characters teach it to him. Alternatively, you could have one of your characters break the 4th wall and speak directly to the reader. This is dangerous though, if done well it can be very effective (the comic book Deadpool is an excellent example of this), but if not done well it will kill the realism of your story.
Another way to avoid info-dump is to provide information in another source. The easiest way to do this is by providing a glossary at the end of your book. In the modern world where most authors have their own blogs and websites, and where eBooks are quickly becoming very popular, one other option you might try is providing encyclopedic information on a website or blog, and then linking to it from your eBook. As far as I know this has not been extensively tried yet, so I can’t be sure if it would be a potential goldmine of reader information, or a potential distraction from your story.
That being said, the best way to avoid info-dump is to draw things out slowly, provide a glossary of terms for reference, and steep your readers in the mythology and realism of your world. They’ll absorb the information naturally and figure it out on their own – most of the time.