19 April 2023

A Fine Trip to the Dump

 Do you know Thomas Perry?  He writes mostly  thrillers, and one critic described his work as "competence porn," meaning that we follow in great detail as a single man or woman outsmarts and when necessary outfights a whole regiment of villains.

I'm currently reading his newest title Murder Book and I want to discuss one scene.  It consists of a bad guy on the phone with his boss, the even worse guy.

Bad Guy fills Boss in on what's been going on and in the course of doing so he explains part of the conspiracy in which they are engaged.  Boss Man gets irritated.

 "We know." the man said. "Remember the reason you're good at the details.  You're a realtor, not a gangster.  To hear you use slang like you were a Mafia boss  from yesteryear I only feel weary despair."

My reaction to that was: Ooh.  Nice expository dump.

The expository dump, alias info dump, is a problem that most fiction writers face sooner or later.  In short, you need to explain some piece of backstory or plot to the readers without boring them to death.  

The dump is sometimes known as the "As You Know, Bob" speech.  As in:

"As you know, Bob, as accountants you and I are legally required to blah blah blah..."

Why is our character telling Bob something he clearly already knows?  Because the reader doesn't know it.

But here's why I so admired Perry's way of dealing with the problem.  The Bad Guy is actually attempting to flimflam the Boss, avoiding admitting that things have gone badly (because of the actions of the competence porn star who is the book's protagonist).  He is using this extraneous information  as a smoke screen.

In other words, the info dump has become an important element of the drama.  Now, that's clever.

And by the way, the Boss's reply, quoted above, is an example of a different writerly technique: lampshade hanging.  That is: Perry is smoothing over the rough spot by (paradoxically) calling it to the reader's attention.

I had a bit of an info dump problem in  story I just sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  My Delgardo tales are set in 1958 and I had found a really cool historic fact from that time I wanted to slip in.  

How do I include it without making it look like I'm showing off my research?  I turned it into a vital clue, which only my clever beat poet detective would recognize.  Seems to have worked.

By the way, I went to the ever-helpful website TV Tropes to see what they had to say about the info dump and they parsed it several different ways:

Infodump: A particularly long and wordy bit of exposition.

Mr. Exposition.  A character whose only purpose is to provide the info.

Exposition Fairy.  A recurring character whose job is always to, well, you know.

Exposition Already Covered.  "You must find the Sacred Kumquat.  If you fail--" "The world will end.  Yeah, I get it."  

Exposition Cut.  "Well, that's a long story..."  "Gosh," the newcomer said, after hours of discussion we won't bore you with.  "It certainly was."

So, how do you deal with trips to the dump?  And which ones bother you the most?


  1. Writing historical romance as well as mystery fiction, I do a lot of research. When I edit my work, I often find a need to cut information which I found so fascinating. It's easy to info dump. That's why rewriting is necessary.

  2. The Exposition Fairy is a wonderful term- or story title. Would I had a plot to go with it.

  3. Good article, Rob, but allow me to explain how I avoid this trap by employing skills I have honed over many years whilst growing up in the southern Punjab...

  4. The only good thing about an info dump is that it makes me reexamine what I'm doing and figure out something better. The rest of the story gets better after that.--Susan Oleksiw

  5. In his Breakout Writer's Workbook (I no longer have the book, so that might not be the exact title), Donald Maass says: Take every bit of backstory, setting, and description you find in the first 50 pages, and move it to chapter 15.

    I don't do precisely that, but when I have backstory or important information, I try to break it into small pieces, no more than a paragraph at a time, and spread it over several scenes whenever I can. That's usually fairly easy in a novel, especially since most of my novels are in one of two series and many (actually, both) of my readers tend to read the series in order. And I don't need to recap every single detail again.

    Short stories are trickier. My usual advice to people in my workshops is, if you have a lot of backstory or detail in the beginning of the story, maybe you're starting your story in the wrong place. I'm especially tough on physical description. Unless a character has a look-alike and it will be important to the plot, I try to depict characters through their behavior and attitude rather than their appearance.

    Truth be told, one of the main reasons I have stopped reading Michael Connelly is his habit of ramming a ten-page info dump into the middle of the story.

    I agree with Janice about the Exposition Fairy. I'm stealing that.

  6. Isaac Asimov said science fictions greatest contribution to literature is killing the back story-opening. Think of how fiction used to begin with "I was born to poor and humble parents in a log cabin I built myself..." If you started an SF novel by explaining how the galaxy is run you would never get to the plot, so you just jump into the story and either catch up later or make the reader figure it out from context. One of my favorite SF novels, Robert Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress, gives you a pretty clear idea of how the moon settlements are organized, but it's all told in the plot...

    1. One of my favorite novels, too. And probably should be read again in light of all the latest AI stuff...

  7. Crime/Mystery/Detective Fiction probably requires the info dump more than most genres, but as you've stated in your post, there need to be creative ways around it.

    1. I disagree that one genre requires an info dump more than others. An info dump is lazy writing. If you're willing to do the job right, I think you can find a way around it. Start the story in a different place. Break the info into small parts over several scenes (I said that above). Have different characters explain different parts of it. Maybe you don't even NEED it.

      Historical novels need more information to establish the given circumstances, and science fiction may require world-building, but it can be done gradually, maybe in dialogue, description, action, and with little or no nattering exposition.

      For a brilliant example in a short story, read Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross" has a brilliant opening scene that sets up the conflict with no "As you know, Bob" dialogue. It's an argument with a little job-specific (never explained) jargon that moves everything along.

      I'm sure there are good novel examples out there, but I can't think of one on the spur of the moment. All I know is that when I hit an info dump--often distinguished by long paragraphs that go on for more than a page--I'm gone like a cool breeze.

  8. I agree that revision is the key. My greatest fear in writing is that I'll never reach the end of the first draft. So I put everything in without censoring myself. Then I take it out. Everything that stays has to have forward momentum and/or be necessary to the plot. I also believe in the "use 2 to 10% of your research" rule. My novel about Columbus's second voyage really needed backstory about events on the first voyage, and I tried it a dozen ways that didn't work. Finally I got back the rights to my story about my protag on the first voyage and used it as a prologue. It not only turned backstory into forward action, but it worked perfectly as a prologue, probably the only time that ever happened for me either.

    1. I am in your camp: pour everything into the first draft and then edit out.


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