What I imagine the judge was talking about is the tendency to give the reader every last bit of information about a character or situation, going on for pages and pages without moving the story forward. Remember, you have at least 50,000 and at most 100,000 words with which to create your fictional world. You are not laying tile; you are weaving an intricate tapestry with your words. A bit of discovery here and a reveal there, adds up to a rich story; an information dump is a mud field in which a reader gets bogged down.
There’s an old joke that illustrates the act of info dumping. A small child asks her mom: “where do babies come from?” The mom, a passionate teacher, sits down and patiently explains all aspects of biology from conception to birth, mixed with elements of the family’s faith. After ten minutes, the child is overwhelmed with details. She holds up her tiny hand to interrupt her mom’s lengthy explanation and says: “So the part I really want to know is…it’s the hospital, right? Babies come from the hospital?” In writing, don’t be the parent who is trying to share details from the beginning of time with a child who only wants to know a fraction of the info. Be a good curator of info for your readers. If you try to convey a huge quantity of backstory or a massive chunk of background info in one quick dump of detail, you are not doing your job. In real life and in writing, info dumping is overwhelming and distracting. Your knowledge of details may be interesting to you when you are collecting info, but when you share the details, the reader just wants to know the part that directly connects to the story.
An info dump is a wet blanket, a damper, a downer, a drag. It can consist of a long list of items or events, or an overlong description of a character’s backstory. An info dump can be an overly detailed explanation (often happens with techie things), a showy discourse on the history of a setting, a detailed definition of something only tangentially related to the plot.
Every story has a plot, characters have arcs. The building, then cresting and the resolution of the dramatic arcs are shown in the narrative flow, and that flow is what keeps the reader reading. An unnecessary distraction from the flow – a dump of information that is often tangential, breaks the story and the reader’s rhythm; it’s confusing and (worst of all) often boring. Info dumps have no emotional connection.
An info dump can contain information that is vital to the plot or enriches the story but it is given all at once – it’s a blatant telling dump on the reader – either in narrative or dialog – dampening the story. Every scene has action that is happening in the moment and an info dump is recognizable as narrative that is happening outside the moment of that scene. When Lady Hilda is poised, crystal snow globe in hand, on the landing above Lord Angst it is not the time for a description of Hilda’s life long history of tormenting living creatures with heavy valuable baubles. Just send the damn snow globe crashing down on his bald pate. When Inspector Earnestly digs into the mysterious death he can learn of Hilda’s gruesome past in tidbits and tales from the servants, her friends and family. The reader learns the same information but in a way that emotionally engages them and adds to the dramatic arc.
Info dumps are common and necessary in most drafts. After all, “that’s just you telling yourself the story” (N. Gaiman). When reading over your draft spot those big chunks of information and ask yourself two questions: how much of this info is useful to the story, and how can this info be sprinkled throughout to provide more engagement, emotion and drama? Delete the extraneous stuff even if it is obscure data you would love to share. If it doesn’t move the story forward or improve the tone or feel, it has to go. If it is vital plot info then there absolutely will be a better way to reveal it within the context of appropriate scenes.
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