Backstory adds a rich, accessible feeling to your characters.
It tells us about your hero’s traumatic past, the villain’s abusive spouse, or the layout of your story’s world.
In other words, it’s an essential part of storytelling.
But backstories can be very difficult to tell without info dumping.
So how do you fix an info dump and tell the reader what they need to know?
Here are some of the tips that helped me take control of my info dumps and clean up my characters’ backstories.
Identify Info Dumping
What is info dumping? Info dumping is when the author tells the reader everything they need to know, all at once.
It could be a chapter, it could be a couple of sentences.
For example, if I wrote a story about a guy named John. John had a tough day. We’ll assume this is important to the plot, so I need to tell the reader.
An info dump would look something like this:
John sat down. It had been a hard year. In January, his mom was diagnosed with colon cancer, and she passed away in March. In June of the same year, John bought a puppy from the pet store, but it bit his neighbor Mrs. Potts, so he had to find another home for the puppy. He had named the puppy Oliver. Oliver was the name of John’s dad, who had been a chronic smoker and unfaithful husband until he died in a car crash in 2003. John still missed his dad and wished he had time to build a good relationship with Oliver before that fateful evening.
Did your eyes glaze over?
Or better yet, did you skip the whole paragraph?
Sometimes, backstory is important.
If my story ends with the revelation that John’s mom is alive and disguised as Mrs. Potts, the stuff in that info dump might be really important for the reader to know.
Info dumps include dialogue too:
“Hi, Mrs. Potts,” John said as he walked outside. “Why did you report my dog Oliver when he bit you last week? Is it because my dad’s name was Oliver, and he used to smoke a lot, and you’d complain about the smell?”
Monologues are usually full of info dumps.
When you can identify info dumping in your story, it’s time to start cleaning it up.
Is It Necessary?
The first thing to ask yourself about backstory should be, “Is it necessary?”
This can be broken into three categories:
The vital stuff is the things you need to know in order for the plot to make sense.
If two characters end up getting in an altercation, their messy breakup is vital information. The breakup explains the fight.
When talking about interesting info, the key is understanding if it affects the plot.
We won’t care about the villain’s childhood if it distracts us from the plot.
For example, let’s say the villain’s mom hit him over the head with a slipper. This shows the anger between the villain and his mom.
It’s not vital. The reader doesn’t have to see the villain getting smacked with a slipper.
But if it adds some information to a subplot or makes the story easier to understand, go ahead and include a flashback with the slipper.
This information is interesting, because it helps us understand the plot, without being vital.
Interesting information can also affect the subplot.
So how can you tell if it’s vital or interesting?
- If you leave it out, and the story doesn’t make any sense, it’s vital backstory.
- If you leave it out and it makes the story a bit confusing, but readers can still figure out what’s going on, that’s interesting backstory.
There’s nothing wrong with clutter.
Clutter is anything about your characters, setting, or plot that doesn’t influence the ending.
It might be cute, heartwarming, or terrifying details about the hero. Maybe it’s the stray cat who lives in the cemetery, or the fact that the villain is secretly a florist.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with clutter… unless you call too much attention to it.
Clutter shouldn’t take up a whole flashback scene. At most, give it a quick paragraph.
3 Ways to Fix Info Dumps
There are three easy ways to fix info dumping in your stories.
1. Interrupt the Monologues
Monologues are so hard to write well, without dumping a ton of information on the reader.
The easiest way to avoid a boring info dump is to take out the monologues. But if you can’t do that, try interrupting them.
Every 2-3 sentences, add an interruption.
Maybe it’s another character who disagrees, or it could be something else like an animal or a storm brewing on the horizon.
2. Sum it up in One Sentence
This will force you to stick to the vital information and get it out quickly.
No time to yammer.
Now you can choose how to tell this one sentence of information.
I recommend putting this information in an argument.
According to Conflict & Suspense by James Scott Bell, an argument is the best way to give the reader information.
For example, instead of writing:
John’s mother left when he was a boy, and he’s never been the same person since.
We could put it in argument:
“This is all her fault!”
“John, you don’t know what you’re—“
“She didn’t stay, so why should anybody stay? Why should I trust you?”
“Who didn’t stay?”
“My mother. My mother didn’t stay. Ran off when I was a kid.”
The only sound was the lone cricket, chirping to itself in the bushes outside.
“I was just a kid, Robert. Just a kid. Not even twelve yet.”
3. Decide if It Merits a Flashback Scene
- Does this information have conflict? Would it make a really good scene with tension and suspense?
- Can you leave this out altogether?
- Does it impact these specific characters?
It’s very hard to show a flashback that happened hundreds of years ago, because the reader isn’t connected with it emotionally.
(Remember, you could always save some of this info as a plot twist for the end of the story.)
Example: One of My Old Stories
I thought it would be funny to embarrass myself today.
This is the prologue of a story I started writing when I was 12. I never finished it, but I figured it would be fun to try and fix an info dump from an old story of mine.
And this prologue is full of info dumping.
I’m going to categorize the info (vital, interesting, and clutter), and try to sum it up in one sentence.
If you’d like to see this example from my old writing, please click the button to read more.
Original Story (not edited)
“Eleven year old Lucius was the youngest of his family. First was fourteen year old Kalmin, then Vicki, who was thirteen.
They were kids living in a slum of the great city of Agatan. There was dirt all around them, and no food. City snobs thought it was fun to jab them with sticks, knock them down, or even break their bikes.
Agatan was a dirty, overcrowded city full of poor people. Tall apartments towered over the slums. Businesses were scattered across the city as well.
Living as a slum kid was hard, but living as an orphan was harder. Most orphanages had a bad name, and the kids avoided them like the plague.
Agatan needed one ruler to fix all of the differences and bring everyone together. But it didn’t look like it would happen any time soon.”
Let’s Organize This Info
Now I’m going to try to determine what’s vital, what’s interesting, and what’s clutter.
- The siblings are named Kalmin, Vicki, and Lucius.
- They live in Agatan
- Agatan is not a safe place for them to live
- The city snobs hate them and they get bullied a lot
- The orphanages are bad
- Agatan needs a good ruler
- There are lots of apartment buildings
- There are business buildings
In One Sentence
Three kids live in a dirty slum where they face class discrimination, and the city’s leadership doesn’t care.
I could take this sentence of summary and work it into the next few scenes, or I could try to rewrite this scene with conflict.
I know today’s post was a bit long, but I hope this helps you figure out some ways to organize your info dumps and start fixing them.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and I will see you guys again next week.