No Dumping Allowed

Info dumps will kill the pace of a novel in a heartbeat, in my opinion.

Hopefully our readers are lost in the world we’ve created, but when an author pauses to jar them back into the physical pages by including blocks of details that can be successfully distributed at other times throughout the book, we’ve done them a disservice.

When descriptions, backstories, or elements are released at the volume of an open fire hydrant, all of those specifics will stall the novel’s momentum.

Timing is also critical. Is it necessary to stop the story with details about a person’s clothes, hair, or wrinkles? Why not introduce those characters with a detail or two, them build on that description as we get to know them.

Why not show them those elements? By showing and not telling, you can include more action, and keeping it in your character’s point of view, those factors are less noticeable.

Your protagonist can run fingers through thick gray hair. He can pop a button on a soft, often washed denim shirt he’d owned since college. She can unconsciously touch a scar across the bridge of her nose that she received in an auto accident when she was six and is now terrified of Mustangs. He prefers a Beretta M9 because he carried one in the military.

Imagine meeting someone at a party.

“Hello, my name’s Reavis Z. Wortham and as you can see, I have gray hair, though thin on top, and I’m kinda lanky, measuring in at five foot eleven inches. My polished black boots are ostrich skin, but I wear jeans and my shirts lean toward blue, because that’s my favorite color. Since I’m a fifth generation Texan, I wear a felt silverbelly hat. These brown eyes can look right through a person if I dislike them, and the crows-feet at the corners of my eyes tell a story.”

Good lord! I’d run from myself, or pour a stiff drink and hope the next person I meet will give me information about themselves and their lives a little at a time as we get to know each other.

Think back to a first date. Would you finish the evening if that individual pours out similar information in long, boring paragraphs?

Instead, let’s seed your character’s past, interests, or physical descriptions that are throughout the story.

Now, with all that said, rules are made to be broken. I’ve heard that it’s terrible for an author to put their character in front of a mirror to describe them, and that’s true most of the time.

However, I cheated with a mirror in my novel, Dark Places (which was listed by Strand Magazine as one of their Top 12 novels of 2015, so I know it worked). But I cheated in a creative way that gives the reader a backstory and attributes of two characters who we met much earlier in the book.

In Dark Places, my teenage female protagonist, Pepper, runs away from home in the late 1960s to follow Route 66 from Texas to California. Her dad, James, granddaddy Ned Parker, and a tough, mysterious character named Crow are on her trail. They fear she’s been picked up by a gang similar to the Hells Angels, and one of the three have to go inside a biker bar in the desert to get her out.

Of course I sprinkled physical characteristics for all the players on stage throughout the first and second act to give them depth, but now I needed to drill down even more so we can see who is most qualified to take on a biker gang.

They argue in a room in my fictional mid-century motor court and we learn which one is hard enough to take on the gang.

Here’s that except from the novel.


Crow and James were arguing about who would go to the bar where the Devil Rattlesnakes hung out. Standing beside the window, James fumed. “It’s my daughter in that saloon!”

Expressionless, Crow nodded. “I completely understand. But for one thing, we don’t know for sure she’s in there, and I kinda doubt it. What do you do for a living?”

“What? I run a hardware store.”

“Ever been in a fight, other than the one in the courthouse?”

James squared his shoulders. “Yeah. More than one, too.”

“Um hum. I meant after you got out of school.”


“Any experience in law work, like your daddy there?”


Crow tapped the dresser with a fingertip. “Come here.”


Softly. “Come here.”

James joined him. Crow pointed at the mirror. “Tell me what you see.”

“I see us.”

“Right. Tell me what you really see. Truthfully. Describe…us. Start with you.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It’ll explain what I’m trying to tell you, James. What do you see? Describe your head.”

James Parker looked into the mirror. “A head.”

Crow nudged him with a hard shoulder.

“All right. Short, graying black hair of a man in his late thirties. Cowlick. Two eyebrows, also black. Brown eyes. A nose. Two ears that need trimming, I guess. Lips, and a chin with a dimple.”

“That’s about right. Now, describe me.”

“A guy with long hair.”

“More detail. Lots of detail, more than you used on yourself, but don’t stop at my chin.”

James growled in frustration, low in his throat. He drew a deep breath. “Long black hair, like an Indian.”

“I am Indian, but you’re right. Keep going.”

“Hair that looks like them hippies, then. A scar across your forehead from the middle to your temple. Black eyebrows. Almost black eyes. Indian cheekbones. No mustache or beard though, like those hippies, but that’s because you’re Indian again. A nose that looks like it’s been broke before…”


“Huh. Square chin with a horizontal scar in the cleft under your bottom lip. Scar on one ear. Wide shoulders. Some kind of necklace under your western shirt that needs washing, but it was expensive when it was new. Shirt’s hanging outside your jeans. You look tough.” He looked down. “Levis and work boots.”

Crow flexed his hands. “These?”

“Big hands. Big knucks. Lots of scars.”

Crow turned them over.

“Rough. Calluses.”

“So between me and you, who do you think has more luck walking into a rough bar full of bikers?”


We already knew a lot about those two, but it was necessary at that point in the story to pit James and Crow against one another in front of that mirror. It was timing.

Yep, I threw a lot out there, but paragraphs of information didn’t stall the story. Instead, I chose to show and not tell by providing those details in conversation, which flows naturally, hopefully making the readers part of the story. With what I provided, you were able to build those characters and see them in your mind’s eye.

Weave your story elements as you go. One quick sentence or two to set a scene, a couple of sentences further down to provide a backstory for your protagonist, or a phrase here or there are the building blocks of a successful story.

Remember, no dumping allowed.

This entry was posted in Writing by Reavis Wortham. Bookmark the permalink.

About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

9 thoughts on “No Dumping Allowed

  1. Great point, Rev. Writers can “hide” exposition by putting it into confrontational dialogue. A valuable skill to develop, helps prevent writing the parts that readers skip (h/t Elmore Leonard).

  2. Excellent point, Rev. Your “mirror” by way of confrontational dialogue example is a very creative way to avoid the “police blotter sketch” info dump. This is something so many writers struggle with. I’m with you on getting to “know” and “see” details in characters like you would a new friend (or enemy), bit by bit, and at crucial moments.

    Thanks for today’s post. Have a great Saturday!

  3. As I mentioned in the recent article on first chapters, authors are prone to putting information on the page more for themselves than the reader. They are figuring things out. They just need to prune it during that first rewrite when they recognize the info dump for what it is.

  4. I can’t stand it when I’m told a character looks like in such an objective-characteristic, on-the-nose, as you offered in your top example. I hate the literal “mirror moment.” Why? Because when you tell me what a character looks like, you’re robbing me as the reader of my right to decide for myself what the character looks like. You’re denying me the right to form my own mental image of the character, to engage as deeply with the text as I want.

    In my own writing efforts, one thing I’ve learned at some point, and internalized, is the idea of describing characters strictly through how other characters react to them. For example, in my manuscript, all you really learn in narrative is that my POV character is almost fifty and that he was the smaller half of fraternal twins. Otherwise you get a picture from bits like this:

    — He overhears a woman describing him as “a five, maybe five and a half.” Another describes him as looking to her like “the sort of guy who makes a career out of making keys at your hometown hardware store.”

    — His name is Lennox, but people call him Lenny against his wishes because, as one says, “You just look like a Lenny, all pinchy and squinchy.”

    — He’s obsessed with the 1970s (the story is a bout a guy who faces his 50th birthday in part by deciding to pretend it’s 1972) and at one point someone who knows that about him describes him as “the love child of Ed Lauter and Anthony Zerbe. The sort of guy who looks like he’s going to light a cigarette at the counter of your diner and eye-drill you through the smoke.”

    — At one point he’s told he that he shouldn’t bother trying to write true-crime because “nobody wants to read true crime from a guy who looks like the kind of guy who’s hiding inside their shower curtain when they get home at night.”

    Here and there you’ll see glancing references to his thinning hair or his graying muzzle or the fact that he should lay off the second orders of seasoned curly fries, but otherwise that’s it. Because I know what he looks like, in my mind, but I don’t see it as my place to force the reader to share my mental image. I respect them enough to let them form their own image. Because I want them to engage with the text — to want to WANT to engage with the text — not to have the text wash over them.

    My job, in my view, isn’t to smother their ability to form images by insisting my images be theirs. The moment a book’s in the hands, the characters belong to them, not to me. Am I wrong about this?

    Maybe I’m setting my bar for engagement too high. Maybe what wide audiences want are rigidly templated characters and a comparatively passive reading experience. Maybe I’ll never sell a book, and maybe I’ll never sell well any book I sell. But as they say, write the sort of book you want to read, and the sort of book I want to read is the book that doesn’t take away my ability to see the world of the book and the people in it the way I choose to see them. I see my job as giving he reader enough context clues to form their own impressions of what the character looks like. At that point, their impressions of the character ARE the character.

  5. Think back to a first date. Would you finish the evening if that individual pours out similar information in long, boring paragraphs?

    When I read the above, my brain leap-frogged back to the most boring guy I ever went out with. (Once!)

    This is not exaggeration: He talked non-stop. About stuff I didn’t care about. I said two sentences during the entire evening, which were: “Hi! How’s work going?”; and “I’d like to go home now.”

    In between those two sentences was 2.5 hours or so of info dumping, none of which allowed me to get to know him at all. Except that he liked monotones.

    I hope my stories don’t sound like him!


  6. If the POV character doesn’t have an irrefutable reason for thinking a thought at this exact moment, then there is no reason to drop that tidbit into the story.

    Ditto for saying or doing something.

Comments are closed.