Ah, the information dump. That wordy bit of fictional exposition, during which all the background information the reader needs to enjoy a story is expressed in one great big pile of, well, dump.
The fictional info dump is nothing new. After all, at least half of Tolstoy's War and Peace is an extended info dump of bowel-extending dimensions. But while all fictional narratives rely to a degree on info dumps to quickly explain needed information, science fiction has taken the info dump to heretofore unseen proportions of dumpiness.
In many ways, the embrace of info dumps by science fiction is totally understandable. Traditional fiction deals with worlds with which readers are already familiar. But when an author creates a brand new world that no one has ever before imagined, said author has to explain the world so the reader will understand it. In addition, science fiction is grounded in the ideas and jargon of science, meaning SF authors have to explain concepts which, while clear to them, may not be easily understood by the general reading public.
Now comes my info dump confession: Forgive me Father, for I have info dumped.
Yes, as a science fiction writer I have engaged in info dumps. The first time I got called on it was by Edmund Schubert, editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Edmund wanted to publish my story "Rumspringa," about Amish settlers on a far away planet, but first he asked me to clean up an info dump in one of the scenes. I looked at the scene and realized that Edmund was right. This was a classic case of info dump original sin. I rewrote the scene as a mix of action and explanation, and the scene emerged much stronger and far better than it was.
So in general, the writing teachers are correct when they say it is better to pass on information by mixing it into the narrative and action than to remove the reader from their imagined world to inject a sudden shot of understanding.
But that rule isn't absolute. Look at how we live our real-life lives. Just as there are many times when we understand the world in little drops and dribbles, so too are there times when we understand something new in a great burst of insight. Remember: epiphanies are merely a nicer word for real-life info dumps.
So my advice to writers is to spread the info dumping around. Push it about, like the manure you throw into the rose garden so your flowers will grow strong and healthy. But also realize that there are times when a great big dump is called for. In such cases, don't be afraid of the info dump. But like all big dumps, make sure they are spaced few and far between!
(originally printed in Grasping the Wind)