On March 15, 2020, Myra S. wrote, How do you find ways to worldbuild without infodumping?
Several of you had ideas.
Erica: What I’ve done in my poor, neglected WIP is to get the plot started quickly, and then slow down a little. For example, once I got my MC suitably injured, I then described the evening he spent in the hospital. What actually happened wasn’t important to the plot, bur it gave me the opportunity to explain better what was going on.
future_famous_author: Also, if a character has to explain your world to another character, a character who has just been introduced to the country/realm/dimension/planet then you have a super easy excuse to easily plant new information into the story about the world that it is set in.
Melissa Mead: Here’s a handy resource: http://www.pcwrede.com/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Christie V Powell: I’ve enjoyed watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on the subject. He has two recent ones on worldbuilding, and covers this topic. Here’s the first one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATNvOk5rIJA&list=PLSH_xM-KC3Zv-79sVZTTj-YA6IAqh8qeQ&index=5
Raina: I think two aspects of worldbuilding are what to share and when to share it. For the first, I like to think about a concept called Chekhov’s gun: basically, the idea is that if you introduce an element in the story, it should be used later on. The original concept applies to plot devices and props, but I think it’s a good way to think about worldbuilding. Beyond basic details about the world, if you introduce some information about the world, it should be relevant to and have some impact (even if not directly) on the story later on. In other words, the information should be used–whether to justify a character’s actions/personality, to have an effect on the plot, or just to explain why something happens the way it does–eventually.
For the second, it helps to introduce information slowly, as it gradually becomes relevant/noticeable to the characters. I play Dungeons and Dragons (basically a group-based storytelling game with dice), and our dungeon master (the person in charge of the game and the overarching story) does a LOT of worldbuilding, but doesn’t tell us about it until it becomes relevant for our characters or we interact with the world. When we enter a city, he gives us some basic information (the size, the climate, the general atmosphere, stuff you would notice by looking at a postcard) but doesn’t tell us all the details in one go, like the precise demographic makeup, every historical event, the internal power structure, where all the best taverns are, etc. To find that information, we have to walk around the city and talk to people and investigate, and we get bits of info here and there. And if we choose not to go down a particular path, he doesn’t tell us about it, even if he already created an intricate plot but we completely ignored the inciting incident. (Which has happened a couple times!) The beginning of the Hunger Games is a great example; we’re gradually introduced to more details about the world as Katniss draws connections between what her world is like and what she’s currently doing/thinking about.
Another tip is to think about how people process “worldbuilding” information in the real world, and how we think about the world around us. For example, our government system: most of us know that America is a democracy, and we choose our president by voting every four years (the political system), we know who the current president is (current state of things), and we know this all came about after the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain (history). If we’re interested in politics or history, we may also know how the electoral college and the two-party system works, which party is in power in each of the three branches, or that the Constitution that set up the American governmental system was ratified on June 21, 1788. I would guess that considerably fewer people would be able to explain in detail how our first-past-the-post electoral system led to the development of exactly two major political parties, name each congress member and their platform, or list the names of everyone who signed the Constitution. If you want more examples, check out some academic nonfiction books about history; they go SUPER in-depth about specific topics and analyzes their impact on everything we know. All of these things shape the world we live in, but different people know it in different levels of detail. And even if you DO know these things, you’re not always thinking about them. Most often, the things at the top of people’s minds are the things that are most noticeable or directly affect them. So while you build a complex world, keep in mind that your characters might not know every single detail or realize how that affects them as a person.
These are great!
As you know, my next book, Sparrows in the Wind, is about the Trojan War, which figures in Greek mythology, although some parts of the myth may have really happened, as archaeological discoveries suggest.
When I was around nine or ten, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which, though it was first published in 1942, is still selling briskly. I loved it and and reread it many times. When I started writing Sparrows in the Wind, I assumed that almost everybody knew the story of the Trojan War, just as most people know the fairy tale “Cinderella.” I didn’t think I’d have to do much world building.
I asked my friend, the terrific kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young, to read the first eighty pages. She was bewildered.
When I explained the mythology, her eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth fell open. Until then, I hadn’t realized how complicated it all is, beginning with a banquet on Mount Olympus with the gods, a golden apple, and the goddess of discord.
I went back to page one and explained everything and finally finished the novel. I sent it to my editor, who wrote to me in her editorial letter that I had created an infodump (the first time I’d ever been told this in all the worlds I’ve made up), and the mythology still wasn’t clear, and she had to supplement her reading of my story with her own research.
Not what I’d hoped for.
So I started again, again.
This goes to Raina’s “when to share it,” which I had never had to think about before: My MC in the first half of my book is Cassandra of Troy, a minor figure in the myth, who is given the gift of seeing the future by the god Apollo. Then, after she won’t do what he wants, he curses his gift by making no one believe her.
When she receives the gift, in my unrevised telling, she knows immediately all the terrible things that will happen to Troy and the people she loves, and I pass the details on to the reader–the infodump.
Not telling everything at once seemed to me like tricking the reader, which, when another author does it, prompts two reactions in me: I think it’s fun but obvious–the story machinery is showing. But I did some of it anyway, in that I allow Cassandra to know more than her thoughts and dialogue tell the reader.
What I wound up doing mostly, though, was to have Cassandra herself see only one terrible event the first time the future is poured into her. The second time she looks, she stops the internal movie when the tragedy becomes too great for her to tolerate. The infodump goes away. Knowledge is revealed in digestible bites.
So that’s one strategy: find ways to break up the revelations into small morsels.
My favorite way is to introduce the world as our MC or another character comes upon it. Cassandra doesn’t know the future when my book opens, so it’s as new to her as it is to the reader. That’s handy, but it can’t always be that way.
My book begins twenty pages before Cassandra receives the future. She’s already in her world, which she knows and the reader doesn’t. How do we show it?
A little at a time, but quickly. The book starts with Cassandra awakening at dawn. She stretches lazily in bed (so there are beds) and leaps up, remembering that this is the day she will be kanephoros for the city of Troy.
What’s a kanephoros? She tells the reader in her worried thoughts. Being kanephoros is an honor, but it’s risky. She has to lead a procession in a festival for Apollo while carrying on her head (hands free!) a heavy basket of offerings for the god. If the basket falls off, the whole city will suffer. The reader frowns. Everybody makes mistakes! These gods aren’t very understanding.
For those who don’t know anything about Apollo, Cassandra tells the reader about him in her thoughts–that he’s her favorite god and why.
So thoughts and a POV character’s narration is a natural way to show our world.
Let’s consider the fairy tale “Puss in Boots.” Here’s the beginning from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book:
There was a miller who left no more estate to the three sons he had than his mill, his ass, and his cat. The partition was soon made. Neither scrivener nor attorney was sent for. They would soon have eaten up all the poor patrimony. The eldest had the mill, the second the ass, and the youngest nothing but the cat. The poor young fellow was quite comfortless at having so poor a lot.
“My brothers,” said he, “may get their living handsomely enough by joining their stocks together; but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger.”
The Cat, who heard all this, but made as if he did not, said to him with a grave and serious air:
“Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master.
And so on. Here’s a link to the rest of the story, which is in the public domain: https://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Andrew_Lang_fairy_books/Blue_fairy_book/The_Master_Cat_or,_Puss_in_Boots.html#gsc.tab=0.
The world building doesn’t begin in this excerpt until the third paragraph. When the cat is first introduced, there’s no hint that he’s anything extraordinary. I think we accept the abrupt shift because we know this is a fairy tale, and the story is mostly told rather than shown.
But if we were writing a novelized version, we’d have to prepare the reader. The first time the cat is mentioned, we’d want to drop something in that suggests he’s more than the usual feline.
If the youngest son is our MC, he can think of his dead father and the cat and of hints his father dropped. Our MC can talk to the cat as people talk to animals without expecting an answer in words. The cat can answer.
But let’s say our MC is Puss himself since he carries most of the action. Then the reader will know instantly that this is a world of super-smart cats. We’ll probably have to reveal quickly whether the second son’s donkey is super-smart too. We can bring this out in Puss’s thoughts or in something he does.
We never have to explain why cats are so smart unless that reason is essential to our plot. We establish it. This is the way things are. Brilliant cats.
That’s another strategy. We don’t need the history of the ways our story world differs from the reader’s–unless the history figures in our plot. We don’t build any more world than we need.
The reader will accept the world we’ve laid out, even if it’s wildly improbable (think Terry Pratchett’s Discworld carried on giant elephants and a giant turtle), especially if we bring it on early. Pratchett describes his world as soon as the reader opens a book. So that’s another strategy: Pile on the surprises while readers are still settling into their chairs.
In “Puss in Boots,” the reader learns that the story is unfolding in a monarchy. This comes up suddenly when the cat brings a rabbit to the king, so we probably want to alert the reader beforehand that there is a king and also that he has a daughter. How much introduction the two of them need depends on our plot. We don’t have to go into the details of the monarchy unless the plot calls for it. For example, the reader doesn’t have to know if there’s an assembly and how the members are appointed and how much power they have or how wealthy or impoverished the king’s subjects are. Unnecessary details may lead to the info dump. And we should keep in mind that readers of fantasy have a lot to keep track of. We don’t want them to sink under the weight of it all.
If you love worldbuilding, you can figure it all out and write down every bit. If your plot isn’t set, you can examine what you’ve come up with to find spots you can exploit to make trouble for your MC. Once you start the story itself, you’ll drop the details in gradually, but only the ones your story needs.
Here are three prompts:
• In “Puss in Boots,” when the king and his daughter go on an outing in their carriage, Puss contrives to have his master taken inside with them. Then Puss runs ahead of the carriage and tells the peasants this from Lang: “Good people, you who are reaping, if you do not tell the King that all this corn belongs to the Marquis of Carabas, you shall be chopped as small as herbs for the pot.” The good people believe him! Write a scene that makes his threat believable, or write an entire story that leads up to the threat.
• Not much later, Puss comes to a castle owned by an ogre, and this is the first the reader learns that ogres exist in this world. Write an earlier scene that introduces the ogre.
• Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. Imagine that he brings his “Puss in Boots” as I’ve quoted it here to a workshop for a critique. Write the scene, imagining who might be in the workshop and inventing your own Andrew Lang as a character, rather than the historical figure. (For this, I recommend reading the whole story–which is short.)
Have fun, and save what you write!