Countless writing books, articles, and workshops tell us to avoid the deadly “info dumps” and flashbacks when writing a novel. And yet, I recently read two well-publicized literary novels, which to my dismay turned out to be info-dump fests. It took me forever to finish the first book, while I simply gave up on the second. Moral lesson: Beware of info dumps, even if you’re writing literary fiction.
When I read literary novels, I’m more patient. I don’t expect a fast pace or surprising twists. I enjoy the writing itself, the nuances of the characters, the difficult themes, the uncertainty of the plot, and even a depressing ending. However, I draw the line when I encounter chapter after chapter of flashbacks and info dumps. They’re boring.
The novel I didn’t finish reading received a lot of attention for its “bold” depiction of physical abuse and suffering. Well, I didn’t empathize with the tortured protagonist because I couldn’t endure the novel’s staggering background information. In this overrated book, very little was actually happening in the present.
What’s Info Dump?
As a novelist, I struggle with info dumps and flashbacks myself. We all have the desire to tell the entire back story at once, otherwise the reader might not appreciate our brilliant characters or theme or plot or whatever it is we consider brilliant.
If you’re writing a novel, beware of such tendency. To avoid info dumps, watch out for these signs:
#1 Explanations of a character’s behavior through endless flashbacks and recollections. Instead of “telling,” show how the character behaves at present and reflect his or her background through actions. Weave recollections and thoughts in small increments throughout the story.
#2 “Lectures” in history, foreign cultures and traditions, laws, etc. This is prevalent in stories set in the past or the future or those set in exotic places.
#3 Use of diaries, letters, and dreams to relay background information. Most of the time, these mechanisms are contrived. Epistolary novels are an exception. Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” (published by Little, Brown, and Co. in 2012) is an example of a great epistolary novel—hilarious, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Donna Tartt’s Puliter Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” is a hefty book with 784 pages. It has a massive back story, which I found trying in the beginning. But the compelling characters helped the story sail through the info dumps.
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is another exception. The novel begins this way: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” Talk about a back story! The entire novel is a recollection by the narrator, Scout, about her family, hometown, and her experiences when she was around eight years old.
While a grownup Scout narrates the story, she presents her childhood point of view. She doesn’t impose her thoughts and values as an adult. Lee pulled it off because of her powerful voice.