I admit, I'm prone to info dumps in my dialogue, especially in my first drafts, and I have to edit them out in my revisions. I wrote this article, which originally appeared on Suite101, with some of my tips and tricks.
Avoid Info Dumps in Dialogue
Strengthen Your Dialogue By Eliminating Telling
Eliminating the Info Dump in dialogue will create mystery that keeps your reader riveted while strengthening the prose.
In publishing days long past, it wasn’t uncommon to find a character who starts a line of dialogue with the infamous, “As you know ...”
Gerald walked into the living room and announced, “Phillip, our mother is at the door. As you know, she ran off twenty years ago with the family lawyer and we haven’t heard from her since.”
Today’s readers and publishing industry has moved toward eliminating this technique, which is “telling” and not “showing” the story to the reader.
Emulate Real Life
In real life, people don’t need to remind their listeners about something the listeners already know.
For example, if Gerald is speaking to his brother Phillip, who is fully aware of their mother’s infamous behavior, he wouldn’t need to say something like, “Phillip, our mother, who ran away twenty years ago, is at the front door.”
That would be silly. In real life, listeners would be insulted or confused.
When writing your own dialogue, think about what information the other characters already know. Even if the reader doesn’t yet know the information, make your dialogue appropriate for the characters who are speaking.
Withhold Information From the Reader
If the character has some backstory the reader doesn’t know, a good writing technique is to hint at the backstory but not reveal it at once, especially if the dialogue is early in the book.
This tantalizing hint of some trouble in a character’s past will create an aura of mystery, and it will often spur the reader to keep reading simply to find out what happened. A reader who knows all the character’s backstory upfront can easily get bored with the story.
Some Dialogue May Not Seem Like Telling at First Glance
Beware of dialogue that “sneaks in” an info dump:
“Phillip, has it really been twenty years since she ran away?”
Phillip already knows she ran away. Gerald doesn’t have to include that information in the dialogue. Instead:
“Has it really been twenty years?”
Trimmed dialogue strengthens the overall feel of the prose and also makes a manuscript more crisp, more professional.
A Rewritten Example
Gerald rushed into the room. “Phillip.” His voice scratched out of his tight throat. He didn’t want to tell his brother, but he had to.
Phillip did a double-take when he saw Gerald’s face. “What is it? What’s wrong?” He left the fireplace to stride toward him.
Gerald’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t force words out. There was a raging in his chest like a wild minotaur.
“Gerald.” Phillip grabbed his arms. “What is it? Tell me.”
He was frightening his brother. He finally managed a single word: “Mother.”
Phillip’s face became corpse-like. His jaw locked, even as his lower lip trembled.
“She’s at the front door.”
A moment stretched out like a decade. Finally Phillip said, “Let’s see what the b___ wants.”
The characters’ emotional reaction to the news of their mother at the door makes the reader want to know why they react that way, and spurs the reader on to find out.