Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to earn your info dump

You’ve researched the setting of your novel. The occupation of your protagonist. The historical time period. The science and philosophy upon which you’re building the world of your story.

How much of that actually belongs in your book?

The simple answer: as much as you can make inextricably relevant to this character and her specific story.

Here are a few benchmarks you can use to assess the inclusion of your research.

1. Does your research complicate the journey of your protagonist toward her story goal, as set out in the beginning of the book?

This speaks to reader expectation. Let’s say your character is a woman trying to gain acceptance as a physician in 19th century Chicago. Research tells you that the Great Chicago Fire started in 1871, and there’s room for doubt as to whether it was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. So you create a morning-after scene in which your protagonist discusses her alternative theories about the fire with her neighbors, who report in about the extensive damage the fire caused. Good enough?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with your character gaining acceptance as a physician. Because you haven’t raised expectations about the ramifications of this fire from the outset, your reader just won’t care. She’ll start to skim, looking for that point when this story gets back on track. She wants to know if the heroine will be respected as a physician or not!

Now if your character must use a Bunsen burner (research: invented in 1854!) to mix up her own medications because the male-dominated pharmacy industry won’t have anything to do with her, and she is so tired she gets the ingredients wrong, creating an explosion that some reporter later blames on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow…perfect.

2. Is your protagonist immersed in this conflict deeply enough to motivate her behavior?

It’s not enough for your character to arrive in town, hear about the fire, and vow to be a physician because too many lives were lost.

Your character should be unpacking her bags when the first alarms are heard and immediately move into the fray. She will roll up her sleeves and pull people from the wreckage, triage, and set up a field hospital all while the men are still strategizing in the town hall. The historic event itself will help propel her toward her story goal.

3. Have you fully explored all the ways this research can interweave your characters and raise the story stakes?

What if Mrs. O’Leary became a character? When your protagonist learns the a reporter blames the fire on the cow, she keeps mum—she would never become a respected physician if her culpability got out. But her guilt draws her to the cow’s owner, and they become friends, even as the woman secludes herself from the public eye because of shame—and a medical condition caused from smoke inhalation. If your protagonist can cure her, her reputation will benefit, even as her secret erodes her soul.

4. Have you used the setting to reflect the emotional arc of your protagonist?

If your budding physician is touring through Chicago to witness the devastation the fire wreaked on its wood-based architecture, you’ve written a travelogue, not a novel. But if your protagonist was changed by that fire in a way that motivates or complicates her story goals, you’ll find metaphoric potential in setting details that will make them relevant to her—the charred façade of the bank that represented her security, the inhaled ash that became part of her physical being, the first hopeful buds that emerged the year after the fire.

Earn the inclusion of your research by using these suggestions to interweave the facts you unearthed into the fabric of your story. That’s what fiction’s all about, and your reader will thank you for it.

How much info dump have you (or your editor) removed from your work? Did you ever use your deleted research to write an associated nonfiction piece, whose timing was conveniently related to the release of your book?


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. Definitely like #4 - it's about the characters, which means it's about their emotions.

    I always ask myself, "Does the reader need to know this?" and "Does the reader need to know this NOW?" when I'm working information into my books. This goes for facts as well as character reveals.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Good points in the post and in the tips you left, Terry. I think this is one of the hardest things for some writers to get in balance. Most of the clients I edit for have way too much info dumps, and I know I did that early in my career, too.

  3. Terry: Your questions do simplify the decision! Thanks for your comment.

    Maryann: You do have to love an editor who is also a writer: you know they've already made all these same mistakes!

    How I avoid this particular one:
    1. Don't research until the story is fleshed out.
    2. Don't write historical fiction (lol).

    But don't get me started on "description dump"...

  4. Info dumps are soooo hard to avoid. Thanks for the post!

  5. I'm always amazed (and honestly, a little ticked) at how little of all my research makes it into my ms. Yes, my plots take place in the past, and yes, I reference actual events. But none of my characters are movers and shakers of history, and (of course) *none* of them can see into the future. Little tidbits of everyday life (all researched) add to the texture of the plot, but I avoid info dumps. Dull, dull, dull and they add nothing to the advancement of the plot or the development of the characters.

  6. You're welcome Ellyn, and thanks for tweeting!

  7. You've made getting rid of the info dump seem easy! Thanks for the great examples. One thing that helps me get rid of info dumps is during one of the revision phases I highlight all dialogue; then I reduce the MSWord page to a full page view so that I can see how many highlights there are per page. Any page that doesn't have enough yellow stripes on it is bound to be where I've dumped my info! So I try to take those sections and reweave them into less of a dump and more of a story.
    Judy, South Africa

  8. Yes Elspeth--yet the research always seems worth it, doesn't it? It steeps us writers in the era/sense details/story possibilities. I think if more writers realized the research is for the writer--not necessarily the reader--we'd all be better off.

  9. Wonderful post! As a writer of historical fiction, sometimes I get trapped into thinking - all of my research is necessary - when it truly is not. Only what furthers the story.

  10. I've removed about 4,000 words of infodumping from my manuscript over the last month. Yikes! Even I was bored while I read the infodumps, so they got the axe!

  11. This so needed to be said, and you said it so well, Kathryn.

    Fantastic post! :-)

  12. Thanks Judy. But don't be fooled: Info dump can land in your dialogue as well! "As you know, Judy, a meter is just shy of a yardstick."

  13. Scooter, I love this: "even I was bored..."

  14. Thanks for commenting Linda, Heidi, and Barbara!

  15. Kathryn,

    Excellent article. Lots of great ideas.

    I've been wrestling with a scene I need to write, one where I've debated several approaches. You've given me fresh perspective. I can't wait to get started.


  16. Thanks, Newbie Author! Haha--hang out here at The Blood-Red Pencil long enough and you'll have to change your handle. Great tips every day!

  17. Whew! I almost missed the word 'info' ... I wasn't sure I wanted to read this post.

  18. Haha--good one, Chris. A little something for everyone here, even the whackos and word-skippers.

  19. Thank you for this helpful post.

  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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