There is a phrase that writers and reviewers like to throw around and if you haven’t been living under a rock you might have heard of it. The phrase is, ‘info dumping.’
What exactly is info dumping? Basically, it’s when an author has a character give a long monologue on the 500 year history of the world and/or their entire life story. This can also be done via first person, but the general idea is that we, as the reader, get dumped on with all this information that could have been given to us in a more organic way.
I can give you a couple examples of this; I’m going to stick with first person perspective for this post because often this is the biggest culprit of info dumping. Some authors use their characters first person thoughts to give you details they don’t want to put into dialogue and/or can’t think of a better way to deliver you that information. Frankly, it’s lazy writing.
Example one comes from The Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. In the first chapter we meet our MC Laia and she has just caught her brother sneaking in through the window in the middle of the night.
“The Empire killed our parents.” I whisper. “Our sister.”
I want to shout at him, but I choke on the words. The Martials conquered Scholar lands five hundred years ago, and since then, they’ve done nothing but oppress and enslave us. Once, the Scholars Empire was home to the finest universities and libraries in the world. Now, most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory.
“How could you side with the Martials? How, Darin?”
Have you ever gone to a live theatre show and suddenly the actor stops in the middle of a scene and turns to the audience to give them a little back story on what’s going on? That is what this feels like. In theatre it’s called ‘breaking the fourth wall’ but here it’s just called bad writing.
If I were the editor for this book, I would have told her to cut that entire second paragraph after the first sentence. Who thinks like that? Why, if the character had grown up in this world, would she suddenly think, “five hundred years ago…” Stop. Just stop.
Another offender is Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett. In this example we just met Kamzin, our MC, who is racing through her village with her best friend Tem when a descending hot air balloon flies over their heads. They realize right away that the balloon belongs to the royal explorer for the empire and thus this exchange happens:
Tem rolled his eyes. “All right. But I’m sure she and Elder have known about this for weeks.”
“Of course they have.” I kicked at the top of the tree poking over the edge of the cliff. Somewhere below, a vulture let out an angry squak. “They wouldn’t think to tell me. What in the world would the Royal Explorer be doing here?”
Emperor Lozong had many explorers in his employ- men and women, mostly of noble blood, charged with mapping his vast and mountainous empire, spying on the barbarian tribes that threatened his southern and western borders, and charting safe paths for his armies. As his territory expanded, the emperor relied increasingly on explorers to provide him with vital information, not only about lands he possessed, but also those he wished to conquer. My mother, Insia, had been one of them, though her connection to the nobility was so distant that it would have counted for little at court. River Shara, on the other hand, belonged to one of the oldest noble families, one with close blood ties to the emperor himself. He had earned the official title of Royal Explorer- the most powerful position at court, rivaling even the General of the First Army- after leading a harrowing expedition beyond the Drakkar Mountains in the farthest reaches of the empire, scaling mountains and glaciers and cheating death countless times. Though many men and women had occupied the position of Royal Explorer, few were spoken of with the same reverence as River Shara.
HOLY SMOKIES! That was the biggest info dump I’ve ever seen! Let me guess, you started skimming half way through that monster paragraph didn’t you? My eyes certainly glazed over. Now, I’m not saying that this isn’t interesting information but good gracious don’t dump on me ten pages in when I’m still deciding whether or not I’m interested enough to continue to read your book. 95% of that paragraph was unnecessary and could have been scaled down especially this early on in the story.
Please, I’m begging you, do not put an info dump in your chapter one. I promise that your reader does not need to know all of that information ten pages in. There’s a better way.
Be selective with the information you provide in chapter 1:
Is this information necessary, in this moment, to move the plot along?
Does the delivery of this information feel like breaking the fourth wall? And/or pull the reader out of the moment?
Can you possibly wait to deliver this information later?
Don’t jar your reader out of the story by being overly obvious with your delivery of info: Readers are savvy, give them a little credit. Example: I felt my temper rise. “Tem, I’m seventeen years old, and I’m still only a junior apprentice.” Stttttttoooooopppppppp iiiiitttttt. Find a better way to introduce your character's age. This was such an obvious attempt to slip the information to your reader but GUH! Stop.
Spread it out: Do not give us twenty facts about your world in one paragraph, that’s too much my friend. Slowly pepper world facts and/or character background throughout the first 100 pages of your book. A sentence here, a sentence there, not entire paragraphs of history. It is not necessary to shove it all into chapter one. Your reader does not need to know the entire history of your world in order to keep reading to chapter two.
Lastly, if you’re writing in first person and the thought doesn’t feel organic for your character cut it out. Just like Laia is not going to think “five hundred years ago…blah blah blah" neither is your character. Just because your reader is hanging out in your character's head does not give you the right to use that as an excuse to be lazy.
Now fly my little birdies and edit the crap out of your chapter one because I promise we don’t need half the info you wrote into it!