When I work with young, emerging writers, probably the #1 issue I run into is the dreaded information dump. However, when most of us think of the term information dump, we assume it refers to just dropping tons of backstory information in one place. That's only one form of it. Information dump doesn't always refer to the amount of crap we're dumping (Ew!). It can be just one line of dialog that makes your characters look pretty stupid.
There are many names for the Cardinal Sin known as the information dump within dialog:
1) Tell me again, professor...
2) Idiot Lecture
3) As You Know, Bob...
Tell me again, professor
This is a classic information dump. Here, you have a characters asking the "professor" something he should ALREADY know. But the reader needs to know, right? But here's it pretty obvious that this piece of dialog doesn't fit, and a reader will be jolted right out of your story.
"Tell me again, professor, what does this gadget do exactly?"
If the assistant works with the professor everyday in the lab, either he has amnesia or is the dumbest person ever.
It's cousin is the equally bad: "Tell me again why we're here?"
As you know, Bob
This is my favorite term for the information dump.
"As you know, Bob, Jane is our sister."
Um, yeah. Duh. Again, unless Bob has amnesia, this really rubs the reader the wrong way.
I watched a little bit of Return of the Jedi on Saturday, and I laughed out loud when The Emperor said something that was a great example of the Idiot Lecture. It's the scene where Darth Vader presents Luke to the Emperor, and Vader hands him Luke's lightsaber.
"Ah, yes. A Jedi's weapon, much like your fathers."
REALLY? Isn't this line of dialog so out of place with what's going on in the scene? It is obviously for the viewer's benefit just in case they haven't been paying attention. It is information dump, despite it being just one line of dialog. The Emperor isn't really talking to Luke, he's talking to THE AUDIENCE.
It's almost like a Shakespearean "aside," isn't it?
There are many ways to make sure the reader is armed with the backstory information they need:
1) Prologue. Mixed feelings on this one. It makes sense if you need to show something that happened long before the time period of your story. And make sure it's not too long. I hate long prologues.
2) Flashbacks and dreams. I'm personally not a fan. Flashbacks work better for TV and movies. For books, it's trickier. Dreams are so overused, they've become cliche.
3) Something in the plot makes the character get a little nostalgic. This can work if done well. Maybe your main character is nearly hit by a car while walking across the street. That could trigger a time when he was a kid and was hit by the ice cream truck.
4) Give your character amnesia. Not joking. That way, you can information dump your ass off all day long. And it's okay! Soap operas are notorious for this. That's why viewers can skip watching for a couple years and pick up the storylines very quickly. The characters are constantly idiot lecturing AND somebody's always got amnesia.
5) Weave in specific details into the story. This is my favorite way. There's no need to drop a gazillion details in one chapter. Let the reader pick up on stuff as they read. If backstory is woven in, the reader will remain engaged. Picking up a tidbit or two of backstory stuff feels more natural this way.
So don't make your characters look really stupid by talking about the obvious (to them) just for the reader's sake.
Because as you know, Bob, a disengaged reader is an unhappy reader.
Blogging since 2005.
Medical sales warrior by day, writing ninja by night...
I am the author of The Mechanica Wars series. The first book, Dragonfly Warrior, will be published in January, 2014 by 4 Wing Press.
I love science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, biographies, and chocolate chip cookies.