Fantasy and sci-fi writers are pros of worldbuilding. I mean, y’all are out here creating entirely new worlds and civilizations! It’s amazing. But there are also limitations to how much worldbuilding you can show in one book and things you want to avoid. One thing to avoid? Info dumps.

We’ve all heard that term; maybe you’ve even had beta readers or editors tell you that you’ve infodumped.

What is infodumping, exactly? And what constitutes an infodump compared to relevant context? Well, that largely depends on your story and the exact passage we’re talking about. 

What are Info Dumps?

Put simply, info dumps are when the writer “dumps” a ton of information about the world or characters at once.

This might show up as several paragraphs of information at one time, or it might even be longer, like when writers dump a ton of world history onto the readers in one fell swoop.

Infodumps generally mean you’re telling rather than showing your worldbuilding, which isn’t very engaging for readers. And besides that, when being hit with a ton of new information like that at once, many readers will either (a) skim it (b) skip it entirely or (c) forget what you’ve told them because it’s overwhelming. None of those options are great!

Identifying Info Dumps

When I’m story editing for clients, these are the things I’m asking myself as I evaluate their worldbuilding:

  1. Length of worldbuilding done in one section: Am I getting paragraphs of dense worldbuilding (including world history) at one time? Or am I getting a few sentences—maybe one full paragraph—of context to let me know what that new “thing” is?
    • If it’s a few sentences, are those sentences dense or easy to follow?
    • Is the exposition necessary, or can I understand what the new “thing” is from context clues?
  2. World rules being provided: Has the author dumped a ton of world—and magic if we’re in a fantasy world—rules into one section of a chapter? Or are they providing necessary context while trusting me—and readers—to understand the rest through the scene(s) playing out?
  3. About characters: Are we being given intense and long character descriptions—their appearance but also possibly their personality and/or personal backstory—in one spot? Or are we given enough information to get a base understanding of this new character, then given the opportunity to learn about them through what’s shown on the page?

These can sometimes be fine lines to walk. What one person considers an info dump, another person may consider appropriate context. What one person may consider appropriate context, another person may think is not enough information at all.

That’s why having a couple of rounds feedback from different people [link to beta reader article] can be really helpful. And this is one of the reasons I love doing developmental edits and manuscript critiques. I can help authors find more balance in infodumping vs. giving the reader building blocks!

Avoiding Info Dumps

I know writers, especially sci-fi and fantasy writers, take pride in their worldbuilding. And I get it! I also write fantasy. But you have to remember that you literally cannot show the whole world you’ve built. Not at once, anyway. And even then, there are some limitations to how much you can show in one book or one series.

Even if your characters travel from country to country, there are so many nuances you simply can’t get into because of pacing and plot constraints. You might be able to paint in broad strokes, but you likely still can’t fit in ALL the info you have written down in your story bible.

Besides the obvious advice to show rather than tell, how can you explore some of the wider aspects of your worldbuilding without using info dumps? Think about the following:

  1. What your characters will see and what they’ll already know. If your characters are in a really big city with a diverse population, maybe they interact with people from other cultures. There might be various cuisines they can eat, languages they hear, and so forth. These small details can start hinting at the larger world your novel exists in even if your characters aren’t traveling to those locations.
  2. Your characters’ backgrounds. Even if they live in one location, are their parents—or someone else in their family/friend group—from another country? If so, what traditions might they engage in and what knowledge might they have? In what ways are these aspects of your characters important to both them as people and the story?
  3. What’s relevant to the story. Even if you have 18 countries you’ve deeply developed, if your characters aren’t engaging with those countries . . . you probably don’t need to bring them into the story. Too much extraneous worldbuilding is going to confuse readers and throw off not just their understanding of things but the pacing.

Even if you’re conscious of how much information you provide while drafting, you’ll likely need to balance your worldbuilding as you revise. We all do! So don’t worry about getting it perfectly right in your first few drafts.

Good luck and happy writing!

Need help with infodumping, worldbuilding, and the structure of your manuscript? Get in touch about a story-level edit!

Like this post? Share it on Pinterest!