Worldbuild Minus Infodump Equals Fantasterrific!

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.

Wrong, alas.

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!

  1. Great article! The D&D thing is totally accurate (we walked around a dragon’s territory for an entire campaign and had no idea it was there), and I love the title “Sparrows in the Wind.” My personal tendency is to put in infodumps when I’m stalling to try to figure out what happens next. I think my record was a two-page scene explaining how they did laundry on a spaceship.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      It’s very early in the process. I’ve revised twice for my editor and resubmitted yesterday. Next, she says, will be line edits, which she probably won’t get for over a month. For the publishing question in the last post–publishing is SLOW! My guess would be no less than two years. But I’m glad it sounds fascinating!

  2. I’m brimming with questions, so you guys better watch out –
    My MC hates another character, but I need to make them become friends and then fall in love. Is it realistic for them just to “talk it out” and then become friends? Or should I extend their friend-making over a longer period of time? If the latter, how should I do that?
    Thanks!

    • In my opinion, it would be best if they didn’t go straight from hating each other’s guts to being in love with each other, but how long that process takes is up to you. My advice would be to make them see some good things about the other one, even before their big conversation. Even if they don’t want to admit the other one isn’t quite as awful as they thought, the reader will pick up on the clues, and not be as surprised.

    • I would say it depends on the source of their hatred. For clarity’s sake, let’s call these characters Anna (the MC) and Bob. If Anna hates Bob because he tripped her as she was walking down the aisle at high school graduation, that hatred is much harder to overcome than if she hates his knitting club and thinks guys who knit are weaklings. In the second case, having them become friends after a long conversation is much more reasonable than in the first. But if she only hates him because she’s holding a grudge (like Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables), talking it out would seem reasonable there, too.
      One word of advice. Whatever you do, the readers need to be able to see the friendship and romance coming. Romance makes a terrible plot twist, and the readers will never forgive you. Read The Queen of Attolia (high school and up) if you don’t believe me. Worst. Romance. Ever.
      For the knitting club type of hatred, I would recommend Moon Rising and Winter Turning, books 6 and 7 of Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series. (Middle school and up, and you don’t need to read the first five to figure out what’s going on.) The two don’t end up together, and romance is a subplot at best, but the author does a really good job at turning an unlikeable jerk into someone you want to be happy.

        • Yeah, that would do it. A long talk might still work, but probably only after he’s convinced her (and the readers) that he’s really a nice person.

        • Pleasure Writer says:

          Like all things, forgiveness takes time. Unless you intend to have your MC just wake up one day in love with the boy who indirectly murdered her mother, I would let the wound heal. You could write a scene or two with them just talking about something useless. He could say something that makes her laugh, and she may realize that she doesn’t hate him as much as she thought she did. Though the actual content of the scene may not be super beneficial to the plotline of your story, the reader will get to know the characters and the relationship between them better. Just a thought. 🙂

        • What I would say is maybe she slowly starts liking things about him, but she hates that she thinks that way. Or maybe he has loved her for years. One of those incidents may help the overall romance. Maybe he hates that she hates him so he apologizes and they work it out. You also don’t want the romance to seem abrupt and out of place. Maybe you could weave the romance and reconciliation in through the plot and overall theme of the story.

        • Fantasywriter6 says:

          If you throw these characters into some situations where they have to throw a little bit of trust at each other(i.e. fighting a dragon) the transition might seem more normal than if they just had a conversation and fell in love. I don’t know if that would work for your particular story, but I usually find that actions speak louder than words.

          That’s not to say never have them talk it out…just maybe use some action as a way to push them a little closer. 😉

      • How did he “indirectly” murder her mother? was it the kind of thing she could end up eventually understanding, or even sympathizing with? Like he thought her mother was having heatstroke, and the water he offered her was poison?

        • Well, he was part of an army that set fire to the MC’s city during wartime, and her mother died of smoke inhalation because she went out to help the fallen soldiers.

          • Well, her mother actually saved his life, so I’m thinking, you know, once she finds out that her mother cared about him, she’ll be reconciled to his actions.

  3. I have a question on Point of View. Normally I write in the first person past tense. It’s what comes naturally. I really struggle with any other POV. Whenever I try to write something in the first person present tense it just all gets confusing. I enjoy books and stories that use this type of POV but I can never figure out how to write it myself. I can write in the third person and third person omniscient so that’s not a problem. But I get truly befuddled when it comes to any story in the present tense.

    • What about it makes it confusing? Personally, I’ve only written in the present tense once, when one of my narrators (the villain) was going to die at the end of the story so I couldn’t write it in past tense. It was really hard to remember the verb tenses at first, but it got easier as I went along. From a reader’s perspective, though, I can say that it really doesn’t matter which tense you use, because most people aren’t going to notice, and the ones who do probably aren’t going to pay much attention.

      • I find that I get frustrated and confused with my story when I put it in the present tense. Whenever I try I end up scrapping it. I had one very short (hardly a page long) story that was successful in the present tense. The only reason it worked was because I was holding back most of the information.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’d suggest you write a page in your story in past tense–or take a page from a story you’ve already written–and then rewrite it, changing only the tense. Does that work? Is it still confusing? If it does work, you can write a chapter or the whole story that way, until you become comfortable with the new tense. Later, it’s possible but not necessary that the present tense may affect other things too. I would worry about that. I’d just let it happen if it does.

    • Do you need to? Personally, when I’m reading a book in present tense, my brain automatically translates into past… and then I get really confused whenever I come back after a break. So I thought I’d never try doing present… until my current WIP, when one of the points of view is from journal entries. I’ve written in journals my whole life, so writing those in present tense is completely second nature. Would it help to view your story as some kind of detailed journal?

      • That may help. I’m a big journaler myself but I can’t say my writing is in any specific tense when I do so. I just flip-flop around. I’m thinking of trying to do that differently though so that I can get more comfortable with present tense.

  4. World building always reminds me of fantasy, but I realize starting our MG contemporary stories with the MC’s “normal life” and throwing him into a crisis is part of world building. Just finished James Ponti’s new first in the series CITY SPIES and fell into the worlds of each teen or pre-teen character, a little at a time. Can’t wait to read Book 2! Highly recommended mystery.
    Beth Schmelzer, pre-published MG family mystery author.

  5. idratherbewriting says:

    Some great writing advice I’ve received about worldbuilding is to treat your readers like they know what you’re talking about. Readers are incredibly good at picking up on details and bits of dialogue and actions and piecing them all together to understand your world. Infodumping has its place and there will still be things that need explaining, but your readers are quite perceptive most of the time. Some of my favorite books set in other places don’t ever sit you down (metaphorically) and go “Here’s what you need to know!” Instead, they have the characters talk about it to each other, or they make a character have a thought about their world and the way it works, or sometimes they do nothing at all and allow you to realize “oh, that’s how it works here.” You get a much more cohesive story, and your reader gets to feel smart for figuring the world out all on their own.

    • In principle, I agree, but I was a beta-reader for a story recently that used that strategy, and while I could pick up most things from context, there were a few things where I could understand generally what they were supposed to be, but I couldn’t figure out why they had the names they did, and a couple where I still have no idea what they were. Sometimes you need to just sit down and write a couple of explanations, even if it does break up the story a little bit.

  6. Great post.
    I really struggle with world building and back stories. I normally write discriptions that are hundreds of words long and then try to shove them in.

    My editor recently gave me lots of advice on that subject, she said that if someone was talking about a really tragic story they would probably be briefer then if they were talking about a really exciting story.

    Also, that thing about only put in stuff that is going to be used later.
    My mom always says that you shouldn’t introduce a apeman in the first act if you aren’t going to bring him back in the third.

  7. I need some worldbuilding brainstorming advice. What would happen if a forest swallowed up the castle of an island kingdom that had been at war with another kingdom?

      • Overnight. It’s part of a Sleeping Beauty story. When the princess pricks her finger, everyone in the castle is already asleep, because it’s night. They just don’t wake up. And, a forest springs up throughout the city.

    • My first thought was of what happened to Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian. (I’m not sure if I spelled it correctly, but whatever). What do you mean when you say ‘swallowed’? How long ago did this happen? Were there people who tried to stop it? What happened to the people who lived in the castle? Hopefully, these questions are helpful, and can get you thinking.

      • The people in the castle were all asleep. I realize now I misstated my question. It wasn’t the castle that was swallowed up by trees, it was the surrounding city.

    • You might want to think about how the forest affected the war. If it’s an island kingdom, they probably need ships to get to the other country, unless the fighting is taking place on their island, which it doesn’t sound like from your description. There are a few possibilities here. The war might stop because the generals were all in the castle when the forest came, it might speed up because of the extra wood they have for shipbuilding, or it might speed up but become more disorganized as they try to force their way through the forest to the castle, making ships out of all the trees they’re cutting down. Just a few thoughts.

      • To be clear, the war had not been going on for the past sixteen years, due to a marriage treaty. But tensions were becoming more strained all the time.
        During the war, the fighting was taking place on the island. It’s a large island. The opposing kingdom was trying to take it over, and I was wondering if they would try to take advantage of the fact that there was no government.

        I guess my question really is what would you do if the city you lived in turned into a forest overnight?

        • It really depends on how thick the forest is and how much it disturbs the city. If the trees just grow around the buildings, like in the streets and such, then people could probably adapt pretty easily and keep living there. But if the tree roots broke up underground pipes and building foundations, then everyone would be forced to move out because it was too dangerous to stay.

          • I was thinking the trees would be pretty thick, and possibly murderous. By that I mean they would bury people under their roots.

        • Something similar happened in the tv series Legend of Korra. “Spirit Vines” took over a large section of a big city. At first there was a lot of conflict as people were trapped. A lot lost their homes or jobs and had to move to the other half. Roads were destroyed, making travel difficult.
          But after three years, people had adjusted. They had tours going into the mostly abandoned “spirit wilds” and even used it to attract tourists.

          • Of course, there is a certain difference between vines and trees, namely in how hard they are to get through…but I thought of that example, too.

  8. i💜writing says:

    On a completely unrelated note, does anyone have any middle-grade or “light” YA book recommendations for a thirteen-year-old girl?

    • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall is a MG series about four sisters, with a feel similar to Little Women, but modern.
      If you like fantasy I’d recommend The Door Within trilogy by Wayne Thomas Batson. A boy travels from the real world to a sort of fantasy mirror realm.
      For historical fiction, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has some great books, like Jefferson’s Sons and The War That Saved My Life.
      I could give recommendations all day, but that’s probably enough. What specific genres do you enjoy most?

      • i💜writing says:

        Me, personally? I like fantasy, with a bit of historical or contemporary fiction mixed in. The young lady that I’m asking for also likes fantasy, with an emphasis on fairy tales.

        • Try Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter. It is, in my opinion, the absolute best Beauty and the Beast retelling out there. Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles (the Dealing with Dragons series) are awesome, and her Cecelia and Kate books are really cool if you want a bit of Victorian fiction with magic thrown in. The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland is also really good if you like books where all the characters are dragons. (And all of these are MG, by the way.)

    • Belle Adora says:

      Of course, the Harry Potter series is great if she hasn’t read those yet. And on fairy tales anything by Gail is awesome! The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christoper Healy is a fresh take on fairy tales, making it more about the princes than the princesses. E.D. Baker has a few good fairy tale series that are more MG. Anything by Patricia Reilly Giff is going to be good. Her books are lighter historical fiction and tend to pretty short. Personally, I would always recommend classics such as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Mary Poppins, Little House on the Prarie, The Hobbit etc.

  9. FantasyFan101 says:

    I am a fantasy maniac, so there are many great books I could offer. I highly recommend The Hobbit/The Lord of The Rings, but that’s also a long read. I love the Valkyrie series, but my highest recommendation by far is The Green Ember, by S.D Smith. If she likes fairy tales, The Land of Stories would be perfect. It’s fantasy and fairy tales rolled up in a bundle. Hope this helps!!!

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