The last thing you want is for your novel to read like a textbook. Yet, the intelligent story frequently involves some form of data exchange. A well crafted info dump can draw readers into a subject they never thought they would care about, while a poorly constructed one can be the death of your novel.
So how do you write a great info-dumping scene without making the reader either drift off to sleep, feel like an idiot, or wonder what happened to the plot? Here are a few tricks I have learned for informing without overwhelming.
1. Keep it simple
We research obsessively. We dive into our characters, their lives, their habits, their worlds. We get so many great new ideas through following our first, and we learn so many new things that will flesh out our novels. It's hard not to pile them all into one scene. Don't. Too many data points will overwhelm the reader, and, with no knowledge of what will later be important to the story, your poor reader will feel obligated to learn all of them. Instead, trim each scene down to reveal only the most important pieces of information. Then build suspense toward those reveals, and the reader will realize they are critical to the plot of the story.
2. Put it in dialog
Dialog is an invaluable tool for info dumping. It is particularly handy to let a character who is an expert on the subject explain the data to one who is not, thus having no choice but to express it in lay terms. I use this technique a lot in The Vesuvius Isotope, a thriller rife with collision between medicine, ancient history, archeology, and theology. Rather than subject my readers to authentic jargon that will be utterly foreign to anyone outside of the field, I try to inform by informing lay characters in the scenes.
3. Say it again, Sam
My readers are constantly thanking me for summations. Even if the info dump was successful (by this I mean understandable and not boring), it is great to hear the inform-ee repeat what he or she just learned. Not only can this further simplify the information for the reader, but it also reiterates which parts of it are the most important:
“So, you're saying Cleopatra was ugly as sin, but she somehow manipulated the two most powerful men in Rome. She grappled her way to Egyptian Queen by killing both of her co-regents, even though they were her brothers and she was married to them. She was implicated in the murder of Julius Caesar, literate in nine languages and proprieter of the world's largest library. Yet, she left behind not one single writing?”
"Yes, that's what I'm telling you."
End of scene
4. Break up the scene
Just after an info dump can be a perfect time to change scene entirely. This is a great way to keep the action moving along while giving the reader's brain a rest. In a third person story, I find this is easy - just just jump to a different POV. But a first person story might require a diversion - one important enough for the protagonist to credibly drop whatever led her to the info dump in the first place. There is an earthquake. She needs to vomit. Or she just got a cell phone call from the mortician she bribed to hide her husband's body (one has no choice but to take such calls).
What are your favorite techniques for info dumping? What are some of the data you have dumped?