Once, when I was at a conference, I heard an author say the first hundred pages of a book teach you how to read that book. I love that so much, but the sad truth is, sometimes a reader won’t wait around for a 100 pages. And especially in YA fantasy, where things generally tend to be fast paced, readers want to get to the good stuff: the cool magic system, the irresistible romance, the epic best-friendship.
But readers usually need to understand something fundamental to appreciate the more complex aspects of your world and plot. And without that foundational knowledge, they can get confused or bored, and are more likely to stop reading. And this is when telling or even lightly info dumping can come in really handy.
I read a book recently where an author just included a three paragraph summary of how magic worked in this world. The authors really wasn’t trying to pretend it wasn’t an info dump. And you know what? I actually appreciated it! It was helpful for me to know how magic worked since the characters were using magic in that very scene, and the system was different enough from what I’d seen before that I was a little lost.
But how do you do it well?
When I know I need to do a bit of telling, the first thing I do is ask myself: What do readers absolutely need to know in this scene that will affect how they understand the rest of the book?
(Pay special attention to “absolutely need.” You need to be very honest with yourself on what is a necessary piece of knowledge versus something you could explain with more nuance later.)
For example, in the project I’m currently revising, one of my notes is to state up front the differences between two of my countries. While the nuances of the cultures are woven throughout the manuscript, there was no clear definition of what people from these countries were like. So I knew I wanted to incorporate a paragraph that outlines this in one of the early chapters.
And once I’ve figured that out, the next step is figuring out how I’m going to do it. My trick to telling/info dumping is: the info dump must do more than just convey info. I’m a firm believer that every info dump should be pulling double duty–at least! And here are three ways in which I do this.
My favorite way to tell is to filter through the character. I give my POV character strong feelings. If a character hates the thing they’re info dumping about, that’s going to affect things like word choice, the metaphors they use, the tone of the passage etc.
You can also use it to really hone in on the character’s personality or their unique way of thinking. For example, if the character is snarky, this is where they’re extra snarky. And this way you can have a great character establishing moment while also telling readers vital things.
If the POV character doesn’t have an opinion, maybe someone else does. That’s where a conversation can come in. Of course, this can fall into the classic pitfall of the “as you know Bob” interaction, where characters are discussing things they should already know. You can avoid that by having the focus remain on the dynamic of the characters. If two characters are bantering lightheartedly about the topic, that tells us about their relationship even as you convey the needed information.
In the methods above, the characters already know some information about the world and are trying to convey that information to readers. But in cases where the character also needs to learn some important information, I love incorporating stories. These can be orally told to the characters, written as journal entries or letters, or even presented as separate sections between chapters. And it can be a fun way to play with voice and flesh out aspects of the world in addition to telling readers what they need to know.
Here’s the thing: readers often know when they’re reading an info dump. But as long as it’s done in an engaging way, they won’t care. When it comes to the core details of your book, I believe it’s better to be a little more explanatory than have readers lost and confused. And if the best way to do that is to include a quick info dump, there’s nothing wrong with that!