One of the most common mistakes, even with professional storytellers, is to deliver a lot of exposition in a small space, or otherwise give “idiot lectures” where you have one character being a bit more dumb than usual simply so that a second character will have to explain something to him (and therefore to the audience). This is often called infodumping, and it’s often hard to avoid — but the best authors watch out for it and work around it.

Infodumping comes in five basic forms:

  • InfodumpingThe Recap: One character gives another character a bunch of information that already happened, which serves to give the audience new information or otherwise get reminded about something they might have forgotten.
  • As You Know, Bob . . . : It’s similar to the recap, but in this case both characters already know about what happened, or how to do something that’s about to happen, but they go through it anyway for the sake of the audience.
  • Educating the Idiot: One character just doesn’t get what’s going on, and so needs it spelled out in detail, despite the fact that this character normally has the knowledge, skill, or intelligence to figure it out along with the rest of the cast.
  • Shooting the Breeze: Two or more characters start talking, and the only purpose for the conversation is to give information to the audience.
  • The Long-Winded Narrator: Rather than dialog, you’re getting a heavy amount of exposition through the narrative text.

Infodumping is a writing sin that comes up most often in science fiction and fantasy, simply because you’re writing about a world that’s different from the audience’s. You have to clue them into new rules, new settings, new people, and you have to make it natural and yet give all the information necessary to understand what’s going on.

The opposite of infodumping is called “incluing,” To inclue is to seed the necessary information throughout the text, giving the minimum necessary and then moving on. It’s also more commonly called “show-not-tell,” where instead of laying it out straight, you show things like motivation and backstory through the actions of other characters.


A good technique to remember is to include humor when you need to deliver information to the reader. This is because of two things. First, a good joke is by necessity something short, or as short as possible; humor, therefore, is often about giving a lot of information to the audience in as few words as can be managed, and often on multiple levels at once. Second, a good joke is always appreciated, which means it is the only thing in a story that will justify itself; letting the information ride in on a joke means it becomes more acceptable (and often more memorable).

Fixing infodumping takes practice, and no one blog post is going to solve things for you immediately. That said, I’m going to take a look at those four types and give a few tips on dealing with them.


The Recap

Why we do it: Recaps are often hard to avoid, particularly if you’re doing something fast-paced with a lot of information (such as a thriller). It’s why TV shows use “Previously on . . .” montages; they only have a few minutes to give you everything you need to understand the episode you’re about to see.

How you know you’re doing it: Your characters are gathering together, and just patiently waiting around while information is dumped on the New Guy. No one is busy with anything else, there isn’t any urgency, and everything is answered before the action restarts.

How to fix it: Recaps almost always happen because the audience either didn’t know, or it’s been so long that you can’t assume the audience remembers it well enough. That probably means that the New Guy is our point-of-view character or even our narrator. Have the New Guy get shoved into a new situation and have to learn on the go.

The bad example: In the 2009 Star Trek reboot, we pause in the middle of the movie so that everyone can figure out that this movie doesn’t replace previous Trek lore, but instead has created an alternate universe. Of course, from the perspective of the characters, this is the main universe and everything about the Original Series onward is an alternate future. The only reason for that scene is to let the audience know that this new reality is here to stay, and it’s not going to be erased at the end of the movie.

The good example: Pretty much any Brandon Sanderson novel. While his worlds are full of rich detail, most of that detail comes out in dribs and drabs as you read along. It leaves you with just enough information about it to understand the context, but with the same sort of feeling as when you read a 19th-century novel with cultural idioms that have gone out of style. It gives an impression of a larger, wider world, and leaves you hungry for more.

As You Know, Bob . . .

Why we do it: It’s often easy to get suckered into this, because we do it in real life all the time. We try to get someone else on the same page as we are, so that we can get to the new stuff or make certain that the upcoming job will go smoothly because everyone knows what they have to do. The problem with fiction, though, is that we edit out unnecessary dialog, just like we edit out “ums” and “senior moments” and outright flubbing like we’ve forgotten how to talk.

How you know you’re doing it: If one character should know it, then it feels unnatural for another character to describe it. The same goes for when a character genuinely didn’t know, but it would have been more appropriate in another setting; for example, in a procedural drama where one police detective fills in her partner on the person they’re about to question only as they arrive at the guy’s apartment, instead of on the drive over.

How to fix it: This takes practice, but the best way to do it is through incluing. Seed your story with clues via dialog, action, and — sometimes most important — what you leave out.

You can, however, simply hang  lamp on it and have a reason for why the other person missed the briefing (Detective Bob might have come separately, without a chance to discuss things). You might need to use a New Guy to avoid it, or look for reasons why someone would discuss it anyway.

The bad example: At least every other CSI episode in any of the series. Strangely, the expert forensics investigators are constantly explaining and re-explaining things to each other, even though they already know it.

The good example: In Randall Garrett’s alternate history/fantasy/mystery short story series Lord Darcy, the title character is assisted by forensic sorcerer Master Sean O Lochlainn, who will often explain things that our POV (Darcy) usually knows. However, Darcy encourages him to do this, as it helps both of them focus: Darcy because he has a need to gather all relevant facts and not assume anything, and Master Sean because (as a professor) he works better when focusing on academic matters. In addition, Garrett packs an immense amount of detail into these moments, but never so much that you feel entirely satisfied that everything was explained beyond what you really need to know for the story itself.

Educating the Idiot

Why we do it: Face it, we’ve all had these moments ourselves. No matter how smart and quick-witted you are, there are always those moments where you’re lagging behind someone else and need it spelled out for you. Plus, it’s just plain handy to use someone as an audience stand-in; of course, when you do that, you’re often telling the audience “I think you’re stupid too.” It’s best to avoid this whenever possible.

How you know you’re doing it: Is there only one person who doesn’t get it? Then you’re probably doing it. Is the person typically smart? You’re definitely doing it. Is the action pausing so that you can deliver all the information and maybe make someone else look really smart? Yeah, you get the picture.

How to fix it:  Most of the time, all you really have to do is put in the bare amount of information and let the audience draw further conclusions. There’s an interesting thing about human nature that affects this. If we feel people don’t expect us to do much, we tend to live up to that expectation. When a movie or book challenges the reader to pay attention, however, you’ll often find the audience responding. We tend to be smarter than Hollywood executives seem to give us credit for, but we need to be engaged or it won’t come out.

The bad example: A lot of times in the Harry Potter books, Harry needs some information about magic or the Wizarding World that he apparently didn’t pay attention to in class, which usually gets filled in by Hermione (often, in turn, triggered by something Ron says). This can feel natural because Harry isn’t the best student in the world and he’s a just a kid besides; but as good as Rowling is at setup, there are a few too many scenes that feel like they’re just for the audience’s benefit.

The good example: In the TV show Person of Interest, nearly every one of the main characters avoids telling each other the full story, which means the audience has to learn alongside them. Even Fusco, who comes across as a lazy and uneducated cop, is shown to have a sharp (if occasionally less-than-flexible) mind capable of getting from Point A to Point C without a map.

Shooting the Breeze

Why we do it: Even the most introverted among us can’t stand an awkward silence; and dialog is often the best way to show a character’s personality. It’s natural to have that going on in a story, and hey, if it’s setting things up for later, that just means it’s multi-layered . . . right? It’s a trope that’s often pointed out in Muppets productions, such as in The Great Muppet Caper or the 2011 movie The Muppets (though the latter was more of an As You Know moment).

How you know you’re doing it: If your characters aren’t causing direct plot development in the course of a conversation, or provoking questions that engage the reader’s attention, you’re probably infodumping. Even if every bit of information is going to be needed in the book, if it goes on for more than three good-sized paragraphs, you’re overloading the reader, probably to the point of skipping ahead. It’s a natural human reaction to information we don’t seem to have a use for. Your audience is smart, but they’re not going to pay attention if they’re bored.

How to fix it: Inspire curiosity. Let the audience know there’s a mystery here, that there’s something that’s not being explained fully; or have the conversation lead up to a definite action, or something that solves that mystery. Let the audience know there’s a reason to pay attention. Alternatively, go back in a later draft and find other places in the story to put parts of the information revealed here, so as to spread it out in more accessible chunks.

The bad example: Seemingly every other episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ve got a scene that’s just two characters walking down a passageway, discussing something that seems casual but is just there to be given to the audience.

The good example: In the Lord Darcy mystery “The Sixteen Keys,” the story starts with several characters shooting the breeze, which just happens to tell the audience that this is taking place in an alternate history where Constantinople never fell and the King of England is also the Holy Roman Emperor. It does it with an excellent economy of words, however, and with just enough humor to justify its existence on the first page. The next few paragraphs tread closer to genuine infodumping, but (this being the ninth Lord Darcy story and there being a lot of incluing throughout the series) the fans tended to jump at the chance to know more about this strange-yet-familiar world. Garrett had built up enough credit to give him another page or two. (It’s really a shame that he only wrote eleven Darcy stories before he died.)


Okay, okay. SOME narrators can keep talking.

The Long-Winded Narrator

Why we do it: Stories require description, and when we describe things in conversation with each other we often tend to give all the details we think are important not only now, but also for the rest of the story to come. Just as the other person can find that boring, however, so too does it wind up working against you in a book. If we don’t know how it’s relevant, we want to move on.

How you know you’re doing it: Generally, you can spot this by seeing line after line after line of description about one topic without any dialog or even just describing actions by a character.

How to fix it: There are two ways to deal with it. The first is to take your exposition and diagram or outline it. Identify which parts are 1) immediately relevant (keep those), 2) are more relevant elsewhere (move those), or 3) aren’t necessary to the book at all (save those — you might find a place on a rewrite or in a sequel).

The other way is to make a story out of it. That’s often hard, but there’s an example I’ll use below.

The bad example: The beginning of The Hunger Games. It’s six pages of Katniss describing her house and life without any promise of action or character development.

The good example: David Weber has a habit of doing this a lot, whether it’s in his signature military-SF Honor Harrington series, his high fantasy War God series, or in his contributions to 1632. However, he often gets away with it (not always, but often) by turning a page or two of exposition into what amounts to flash fiction: one or two pages of backstory which can often be divided into a three-act narrative. The best example of this is in the first Honor Harrington book, On Basilisk Station. At one point, the action pauses to give background on a relevant slice of history from Honor’s native country, the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Almost all the information is immediately relevant, while the rest is there to give strength to this micro-story. However, it is a difficult skill to master, and a lot of it depends on Weber’s unique style — so if you want to try your hand at this, take care!


As I said, no one blog post will fix your problems, if you have them. (And if you don’t have them, you probably just haven’t noticed. I can stand infodumping about as well as a vampire likes extra garlic, but I when I write, I often find myself dipping into the Shooting the Breeze mistake.) But I hope you can use this as a bit of a checklist to see what you might be doing wrong and how you might try fixing it.

Was this helpful? Do you think I left something out? Do you have a suggestion about how to fix infodumping? Leave a comment!