There is little that makes a reader roll his or her eyes faster and harder than info-dropping.
It happens like this: the story is moving along smoothly, and the main character picks up the phone. It’s her sister; they are very close.
“Hey, Marcie. Are you coming to dinner tomorrow?”
“Oh, you mean our traditional Sunday dinner at our parents’ house? Sure, I’ll be there. Are you bringing Grandma’s pumpkin pie?”
“Yeah, it’s the delicious pumpkin pie Grandma made every Sunday until she died. I’ve made it every weekend for fifteen years.”
“That’s great. Well, see you tomorrow!”
Eye roll. Both sisters already know that “dinner tomorrow” is the traditional Sunday family dinner, and when referencing “Grandma’s pumpkin pie” they clearly both understand the history of said pie. The only reason they are saying any of this is because it’s a quick-and-ugly way for the author to get the info to the reader without actually having to find a proper place for it—and at the same time, it gives much less information to the reader than a paragraph of narration would, and because the dialogue sounds stilted, the characters lose their believability.
The real conversation would go something like this:
“Hey, Liz, you bringing pumpkin pie for dinner tomorrow?”
“It’s in the oven as we speak.”
Conversely, it doesn’t sound so stilted if a character spouts the same information to someone she recently met at the gym.
“Where are you running off to?”
“Oh, my parents’ house… my family has had dinner together every Sunday for fifteen years.”
“And I’ve made my grandma’s fabled pumpkin pie every week for fourteen of them.”
Still, though, it’s just an overview—a lot of potential meaning is missing.
While telling certain familiar stories multiple times is common (“Remember that time when Grandma set that pumpkin pie on the windowsill to cool, and a badger crawled in the window, burnt its mouth, and tried to climb up her leg?”), real people rarely rehash everyday information they both already know. It sounds wholly unnatural. The information will often fit better into a narrative musing:
I pull the pumpkin pie out of the oven, and breathe in the warmth and spice. The smell always reminds me of Grandma—her cozy house, her hugs, big family on holidays—and my eyes water a little. Yes, water. I set the pie on the stovetop and wipe my face with my sleeve. It’s 4 pm on Saturday, which means Marcie will be calling me any second, just to double-check that I won’t forget to bring the pie to dinner tomorrow. It’s that strict-older-sister syndrome. Hell, we’ve gotten together for dinner every weekend since Marcie left for college, and in fourteen years I’ve only forgotten the pie once. Well…maybe twice.
But how do you recognize info-dropping in your work, and learn to work around it? We would suggest that it is a separate but intrinsic piece of learning to write good dialogue.
When you’re rereading your dialogue, listening for various dialogue miscues, you should pay attention to the characters’ standard speech patterns. But that’s not the most important part: the most important part is knowing your characters well enough to hear their voices in the back of your mind, and understanding them well enough to recognize what they already know about each other. If your characters are speaking about something they should already be familiar with, but they act like it’s news to them—you are probably guilty of info-dropping. Unless they have amnesia.
Ask yourself: Where can you fit the information into the narration, instead? How can you subtly expand upon the information, so the reader becomes as familiar with it as the characters already are?
Do you find yourselves guilty of info-dropping now and again? Do you see much info-dropping in the books you read? Let us know!