How to avoid info dumping in dialogue

 

What’s wrong with slipping backstory into conversations?

Simply put: people don’t really do that in real life. When you listen to conversations, (and if you aren’t, you should be) you will notice that people never restate things both parties already know.

For example

Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just finishing up the calculations for the teleportation ray. The test is scheduled for this morning, and if we don’t get this right, the department of defense will take the contract to our big rival, Trademartin.”

You’ve probably already figured out that Sam and Joan both already know who their biggest rival is, when the big test is, and what the project is, so there’s no reason for Joan to restate that. Notice how it makes the conversation feel false.writing backstory in dialogue

This type of dialogue is called “as you know,” because you could easily insert this phrase at the beginning of the line. The entire point of Joan’s speech is to relay information to the reader. It does nothing to increase or resolve the tension between the characters. It does not move the plot forward. This is why info dumping in dialogue never works.

The purpose of dialogue must be to relay information to another character. When you write dialogue, keep the reader out of the equation. What would Joan really say to Sam if she only needed to Sam to understand?

Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Just finishing up the calculations on the defense project.”
I feigned shock. “You ran them again? I’m insulted.”
She turned the monitor toward me. “Better insulted than unemployed.”

Now the conversation has subtext. This forces the reader to engage in the conversation and use the implied meaning to puzzle out the context.

The importance of subtext

People rarely say exactly what they are thinking. Most conversations are not exchanges of literal statements, but the implied meaning behind those statements.

For example

Joan slid the glass across the table.
I raised my eyebrow at her. “That was your fourth.”
“Dammit, Sam. If I wanted a nanny I’d just build one.”

From this conversation, we can see that Joan is under stress, that she drinks heavily, that Sam cares enough about her to protest, and that Joan is in some sci-fi tech field: either robotics or cloning. None of this is stated outright. Readers are capable of extrapolating information from subtext. Stating it overtly, rarely works.

Subtext is the most important component of most dialogue.

To make dialogue sound realistic, keep your focus on creating subtext. Look for ways for your characters to talk around what they really mean, rather than state it directly.

For example

“Good morning, Joan. Looks like you have been here all night. What are you working on?”

vs.

“Morning, Joan. Same outfit, I see.”

Just by looking at Joan’s clothes, Sam realizes she’s been working all night. Both characters know this, so there’s no reason for Sam to say it. What he does instead, is acknowledge her dedication through playful banter.

The second thing this accomplishes is to establish that Joan and Sam are not just colleagues, but friends. We don’t need any overt backstory to establish this relationship. It’s already present in the subtext.

Using argument to tell backstory

A second technique for correctly adding backstory to dialogue is the argument.

The argument is the only realistic place where two characters will state what both of them know (or should know, but one of them isn’t willing to admit to.)

The reason the argument works where the straight “as you know, Bob” doesn’t, is conflict. In an argument, the purpose of the conversation is rooted in conflict. The tension between the characters becomes a reason for the reader to engage. In straight “as you know” dialogue there is nothing at stake. The writer is simply using the device to relay information. This information does little to affect the conflict in the scene and, as a result, readers are not interested in the information.

For example:

“Hey honey, where’s the clothes?”
My husband looked up from the campfire. “What clothes?”
“Our clothes.” Who did he think? “They’re not in the boat or the tent. Do you have the bag?”
“No, this is the food. Did you put it in the boat?”
I’m gonna kill him. “No, I told you to put it in the boat.”
“No, you didn’t.”
I bit my lips. “So what you’re telling me is, I have to spend the next three days in the same pair of underwear?”

While not earth-shattering, we learn how long the couple plan to be on their boat ride while keeping the conversation natural. It also gives us a pretty good indication of how the rest of their trip is going to go.

another example

“Sarah is my choice.”
My mother doesn’t even look up. “Why did you bring back such a useless wife?” I start to speak, but she doesn’t pause to take a breath. “She can’t even dive. Who’s going to feed her? You selfish fool of a girl. What were you thinking? We are ruined. No one is going to call for you. No one is going to call for a selfish king.”
This is pointless. “And what if no one does? Mahawai isn’t going to win against a full-grown dragon and no one can beat Kamakani.” My father’s black smoker is unstoppable.
My mother stops punishing the seaweed and glares at me. “What happened during your huakaʻi? You were supposed to return a grown woman, but you are obviously still a child.”
My chest clenches. “With or without Sarah, if the race were tomorrow, there would be no chance. So what does it matter?”
Her face drops. “And after tomorrow?”

In both these examples, we have instances where the characters both make statements that the other character already knows, but in the argument, it works.

Dialogue should always be between characters

Once a writer starts using dialogue to speak to a reader the scene no longer works. “As you know” and other types of info-dumping can ruin an otherwise excellent story. By keeping the reader out of the conversation, the characters become the focus and their story becomes real.

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