How to Dump Info without Info-dumping-- Writing Lessons from Inception

Jun 29, 2011

I am a nerd. As a kid, I spent my summers doing science experiments in my giant white science book. For fun. And to this day, I get excited about things like sea slugs that absorb plant DNA and become photosynthetic. I get weepy about the space shuttle's last flight. It's why I write sci fi-- because I'm a nerd, and I love all that science stuff.

Here's the thing about writing sci fi: there's a lot of science in it. Which means there tends to be a lot of necessity for explanation, which leads to a lot of potential info-dumps. This isn't unique to sci fi, of course. Most authors have a lot of information to convey, and sometimes we have no choice but to reveal large bits of it at a time, potentially boring our readers just so they understand what the heck we're talking about.

I had some trouble with info-dumps in Devs, and it took me lots of revisions to get it right. And some of the biggest lessons I learned were actually from the movie Inception. There's a LOT of information they have to convey, but the movie never lags in its pacing. Here are the things I learned to apply in my writing. (Warning-- there are a few small spoilers if you haven't seen it before!)

1. Early in the story, weave as little information as possible to keep your reader engaged.

Inception doesn't start with Leo DiCaprio's character Cobb explaining the ins and outs of shared dreaming. We start with tension-- he's trying to convince Saito that he needs to train his mind to not be vulnerable to idea theft. Here's the thing. We learn, in a few brief sentences of dialogue, that someone can steal your secrets through shared dreaming. And THAT'S IT. We don't know how it works, or who can do it, or the history behind why it was developed in the first place.

We know just enough that when we learn everything we're watching IS a dream, we get it. Maybe we don't understand why Cobb gets dumped in the tub to wake him up, but we get it enough to be invested and intrigued. It's the technique of weaving small bits of information into a scene so we get small bits instead of large chunks. And especially for the first 30-50 pages of a novel, that may be as much as you need.

2. Have a character who doesn't understand what's going on so someone can explain things to them-- and the reader.

Enter Juno-- er, Ariadne. She's new to the team. She doesn't understand any of the history or the hows and whys of dream sharing. The team teaches her all the ins and outs, and as she learns, so do we. This neatly evades the "maid and butler" dialogue of "As you know, your subconscious is represented by all these people," and "Yes, Cobb, and they will attack us if they sense something is wrong in the dream." It's natural for Ariadne to be learning it, so it's natural for us to learn it too.

3. Don't explain everything at once-- use small chunks in addition to weaving.

The first time Cobb takes Ariadne into the dream, we don't get all the information about how dream sharing works. We get small bits. We understand that the dream can be changed by the people sharing it, sometimes in fantastic ways, and that the subconscious of the person dreaming can become aggressive when it's messed with too much. And, very briefly, we see again Cobb's projection of his terrifying wife. We don't learn much about the other parts of shared dreaming, such as the use of chemists, or about what on earth is wrong with Cobb's deranged wife. These things are woven in later as scenes.

Which brings us to another point.

4. Information should always be revealed as part of a scene.

Aka, NEVER SIMPLY TELL THE READER. Paragraphs that say, "and this is the history of x, and this is how y works," are the exact definition of bad info-dumps. In Inception, every single bit of information is worked in as part of a scene. In other words, it is not just giving you information. It's developing character, deepening mystery, and furthering plot at the same time. It brings tension around the very information we're receiving, and we're so engaged, we don't even recognize it as an info-dump.

For example, the scene where Cobb risks going behind enemy lines to find Eames, we learn about how inception is possible, and we learn about the idea of a chemist and using dreams within dreams. All around this information is the tension of Cobb being potentially caught by people who want him dead. And then, when we have just enough information, we get some action as Cobb is chased through the streets of Mombasa. We are kept engaged because it's a scene in a story, not an aside of information.

So, my friends, do you have trouble with revealing information in your writing? What are some techniques you use? What are some books or movies that you think do this well? And, just because I'm curious, did you like the movie Inception?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post (and pretty banner up top!)

I've definitely had my info-dump moments, but I'm trying to weave the information into the story in a more natural way while editing. It's hard cause half of my critters say "this is too much" and the other half say "I need to know more!"

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Great post. I did a TON of info dumping in my first book. (Well, who didn't?). In my second book I have been really careful where I place information that both the reader and MC need to know. I use this as we get closer to the climatic point of the story and will also save one bit of info for the very end of the book as a surprise. Outlining really helped me with info dumps.

First, I did my character sketches, wrote everything I could about them and the world I created, then I wrote down the entire outline, scene by scene, also putting in (and pacing) the info I needed bit by bit, as needed. And as you say, in a manner that is natural to the story.

Good info for everyone.

Unknown said...

Really wonderful post! In the past one thing I've noticed about my writing is I either dump a lot at the beginning, or leave the beginning void of information and then dump it at the end.

Obviously neither worked! This is actually something that I've been careful about with my current WIP. I try to keep them natural to the flow of things.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am fabulous at info dumping.It has become my speciality. Thanks for this great post. Will bookmark it so I can reread it often and avoid the info dump malady.

Shelly said...

Steven Koonts does a great salt and peppering of the need to know stuff.

As for me, I dump it first and then in revisions figure out where to sprinkle it.

Alyssa said...

I completely agree with you especially about point number four. I hate when in books all an author does is dump info... it's so boring!

S.B.Niccum said...

Thank you! This was very thought provoking. I like that you used Inception as an example, it totally get it and will implement!
S.B. Niccum
Author Website

Carol Riggs said...

Ooo, I liked that movie, very clever and inventive. Yeaaaah, I've had a bit of trouble with info dumping and world-building dumping. Had to slash and trickle out the info more. It's a fine line sometimes, getting enough info in so the reader isn't lost, yet not dumping it. And every reader is slightly different--what one gets, another doesn't. Tricky!

Unknown said...

Great break down on how to weave information effectively through scenes. Thanks!

Ruth Josse said...

LOVED Inception. Such a cool movie.

I think another big no-no is the info dump through dialog. Where you make your characters say things they normally wouldn't say just to get some information out.

Great post, Shallee!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Hey great examples and techniques! :D Just watched this movie before reading this too. LOL

ali cross said...

Ack! I am the *worst* at remembering examples! But this was a GREAT lesson, Shallee. Really nicely done.

I write sci fi too (though interestingly, my YA urban fantasy was so much harder to pass on info than my MG sci fi! Go figure!), and I employ all of these tactics. I also think putting information in context helps people grasp the truth just intuitively. But you can't do too much of that, or the reader just gets lost.

Loved this!

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