A Note on Worldbuilding
Worldbuilding - don’t front-load your reader.
Many people who read science fiction and fantasy do so because they love escaping into a new world filled with possibilities for adventure. It’s escapism at its best – it is so easy to dive headlong into a high stakes situation that will have your heart pounding and your eyes flying across the page to find out what happens when it isn’t raking your real-world anxiety through the coals.
As an author writing in these genres, the questions are:
How do I create this world in a way that immerses the reader?
How do I include all the details that are needed without reading like a history book?
What is an info-dump and how do I avoid it?
We hear over and again that we shouldn’t front-load worldbuilding by info-dumping, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Info-dumping can be tough to avoid. We spend hours dreaming up and writing down the details of our worlds. We make maps and create creature references. We design rules for magic, games, or class systems. Think about the last fantasy novel you really enjoyed – did it start with paragraph after paragraph of history? Did it draw you in with an inciting incident and then lose you with pages of non-action?
As long as your characters live within the rules of your universe, you can detail as you go.
Here, I’m going to take a look at ways to effectively give information without info-dumping. The example included was made up by me just for this article. With some aspects of writing, it’s a lot easier to show than to tell (please say you appreciated that), so I’ll make examples for those of you that prefer them. They won’t be my best writing – they’ll be quick.
First, a list of some ways to avoid the dreaded info-dump:
- Sprinkle in the worldbuilding throughout the novel as it becomes more relevant.
How many readers will remember all of the rules and history we give them at the start when it becomes needed in act three? Not many…and you’re probably going to re-iterate the rules when they’re needed anyhow. So, it’s okay to not explicitly detail every little thing from the start.
- Don’t allow yourself to have more than two-three uninterrupted paragraphs in a section giving backstory.
I think this goes for narrative and for character speech. How often does a person in real life tell a clear, well-organized, monologue? With everybody listening intently, nobody moving, nobody arguing, no other important actions happening? Even in college classes students are texting or pinching themselves to stay awake.
In big family reveals you can use reactions and questions to break it up. “Honey we’re all vampires. You see….” Nobody would NOT interrupt that with feelings or outbursts, or trying to lengthen their fangs that they now know they have, right?
- Utilize conversation – but make it realistic.
My personal style is to have character thoughts within the narration between out-loud dialogue. There are many ways to use conversation. It could be banter back and forth that gives out information, as well. In “Wilders” I use an early phone call between Alyssa and Renna to detail some of the ways the world has changed since the outbreak.
- Show how the world impacts daily life.
Do people not hug each other anymore? Does everybody wear iron rings on their left hand to make them safe from the Fae? Does somebody put on cologne every morning to mask their human scent among the aliens they’ve infiltrated? If there are changes in transportation, you need to anticipate the increased or decreased travel time. There are a million ways to show how the world rules impact the characters. The key is to be consistent in how they impact every character throughout the book.
- Use character arguments to demonstrate various beliefs/alternate views.
In any universe, there will be a wide variety of reactions to events. Some people will support terrible things. Sometimes it’s hard to write viewpoints or people that are far removed from our own. It can feel like supporting ideologies that you don’t. But remember that this can be a good tool for growth, or for showing morally grey areas. It also allows for back story exposition, through arguments.“Oh you old goat, that is not what happened. Prince Elm rose up against his brother because he was a tyrant. He’d been keeping his foot on the throats of his people for years!” “Don’t you old goat me! Elm, if you want to call him a prince, was scheming with his seven sisters for years before their father died. How do ya think the good king died anyhow? Poison, I heard.” “Poison? Nay. A wolve snuck into his room and—” “Ya both are idiots. My cousin worked in the castle and she knows for a fact that the king was suffering from the disease. You know, the one you knotbrains are arguing if Elm created or not? It came from Varines. Two years ago, it was first seen in a traveling theatre troupe from there. It spread like wildfire in the city of Eckles before it made its way here.”
Now, I’ll make up a world and give you a front-loaded (but short) info-dump.
In the great city of Merkil, Blood Trials had been held for just over thirty-five years. The brutal trials began with Queen Itel, beloved monarch, was beheaded by her power-hungry Nephew, Kellir. The people of Merkil rose up in anger at the coup, but we quashed by Kellir’s band of hooded assassins. These assassins were known far and wide for their shadowbending abilities. They could easily jump from place to place, using shadows. Attacks began at night. When the cityfolk realized that the shadows were of greater aid to Kellir, they began raging against his power during the day. But the buildings of Merkel stretch tall, reaching up into the clouds and casting long, deep shadows across the streets. There was no escaping the shadowbenders.
Little did the townsfolk know, but all in Merkil have this power running in their veins. In the peaceful times created by Queen Itel, the people of Merkil were happy, free, their lives were easy. Many lived well past the age of two hundred before their energy began to flag. It wasn’t until Kellir’s coup and the start of the Blood Trials that Merkil’s people learned the stories of their aunties were not mere legend. The legends told of Shadowbenders that would move not just a street or two over here and there. No, the lore was that long before Queen Itel reigned so peacefully, Shadowbenders could twist the shadows to travel to other lands. Maybe even other times. Nobody knew for sure. Before Queen Itel, there was a great war, and then a long rest. Prosperity and comfort had made the people or Merkil soft. The skill was lost, as people built spires that stretched into the sun, and lived lives of comfort and happiness. Shadowbending took pain. It took sacrifice. It took a will power that the soft people did not have.
Once blooded, the shadows twist and writhe for you. With great suffering comes great skill.
Kellir, in search of the best shadowbenders to maintain his assassin force, instituted the Blood Trials. Upon the age of seventeen each child of Merkil would be placed in a lottery. Children with relatives that were known to have fought in the uprising were entered thrice. The trials lasted for months, sometimes years. Until the best of the trial contestants showed Shadowbending skills.
Jevvy was turning seventeen one day before the lottery. Her grandfather had led the revolt against the coup. Her name would be in the trial lottery not once, not thrice, but once for every night he’d battled. Her father had died in the trials In the tradition of those in Merkil, a piece of his skin, the spot from his neck that held their family brand, had been preserved and returned. The family kept it in a magically airtight plaque by their door. It was shameful to have none. Those who had not suffered for their King were taxed extra. So. There it sat. At their door.
Jevvy pushed her hair to the side, looking at the brand sitting below her right ear. It might as well be a death mark. Few survived. Those that did were never seen again. Knowing her fate, Jevvy had illegally trained for years with her best friend, Pell. King Kellir did not sanction any fighting training. It was believed that going into the trials with training would decrease natural talent from showing.
Pell didn’t care. He wasn’t the biggest, or the fastest, but at least he was willing to help Jevvy. And he was consistent. Plus, he wouldn’t be in the trial drawings until the year after her. Maybe she could find a way to help him. A girl couldn’t ask for a better best friend. In fact, he was waiting outside her window right now, while she took a break from their training.
Example of keeping action flowing, keeping info paragraphs short, and giving details while setting up relationships.
Jevvy shoved aside the hair matted to her neck. Sweat made rivulets through the dirt, revealing the brand below her right ear.
“Jev’s, you ready?” Pell stood just outside her window, gulping water from a canteen between heaving breaths. “You can’t give up now. You have to keep training.”
With a frustrated groan Jevvy shoved off the porcelain sink and out the door. In habit grown from years of fear, she touched the preserved mark from her father’s neck, sitting in the magic frame that kept it from decaying. It was a talisman and a reminder; in two short weeks her own mark was likely to join it.
“Alright you naggy-hen. I’m back. What’s next?” Jevvy narrowed her eyes at Pell, but she knew without him she’d be toast. He was the one who pushed her to her limits. For six hundred days now, he’d gotten up and been at her house by sunrise. Not one day did he miss.
“Footwork.” His dark eyes danced as he demonstrated a complex array of side-steps, humming to himself as he went.
“I’m too tired for footwork.” She didn’t know if she loved or hated his natural happiness. Who could be sweet and happy in a world built on violence?
“Is that what Kellir’s assassins will say in the Blood Trials? Is that what your grandfather said as he rose up again and again against incredible odds trying to throw back the coup?” The hero-worship in Pell’s voice was unmistakable.
“No.” Jevvy’s mouth turned down. She knew she should be proud to have come from a family that had led the revolt against King Kellir after he’d beheaded his aunt in a bloody coup for the throne of Merkil. All she could see right now, though, was that her name would be entered into the Blood Trial lottery not once, like her friends. Not thrice, like most descendants of the uprising. No. Hers would be entered once for every day that her grandfather had battled against the King’s Shadowbenders. For her, there was no escaping the trials. The question was how many months she’d survive inside them.
“Then footwork. You’re not dying because you were too slow on your feet. Not this year. Not next year. And not once you’re one of the King’s Assassins.” Pell’s face was grim, but his voice was firm. At only sixteen, he had enough hope for the both of them.
“I don’t want to be a Shadowbender.” Jevvy repeated the mantra she’d been muttering during farmhouse chores for years.
“You don’t have a choice.” Pell’s voice carried the horrible undercurrent of sadness she associated with her mother.
Jevvy’s will to argue dissipated. This wasn’t only about her. “Fine. Show me again.”
As Jevvy danced in short steps, ducking and dodging, the flow became graceful. She didn’t know yet, what was better. Survive the Blood Trials and serve a mad king? Die in the trials and be yet another hanging piece of skin to remind her Mother of all she’d lost?
Pell swung his stick, and she ducked, then popped up and hopped over it as he swooped it low.
He thrust it toward her in an unplanned jab.
She danced back, snagged a rock with her heel and landed hard on her butt. How much pain would it take to become a Shadowbender? Grunting, she shoved herself back up. She grinned at Pell.
“You look like a mountain lion with that grin.”
“Good.” She widened her lips, baring her teeth in challenge.
“I think I like scary Jevvy better than whining Jevvy.” Pell swung again, his large stick giving him the advantage of reach.
They continued, fluid and practiced. Would she be able to do this in the trials? To lose herself in the flow of the dance? Is that what it felt like to bend the shadows? As if you cease to exist, mindless and moving.
How far could one bend shadows? It wasn’t the first time Jevvy had wondered. Few survived the harsh conditions of the trials to awaken the ability. But, if she could… could she bend more than a moment?
Legend had it that before the peaceful reign of Queen Itel, shadows could be bent in many ways. Short hops from place to place were nothing compared to the lore. If she could learn to bend time, maybe should go back thirty-five year before mad King Kellir had—
“Stop!” Her mother’s voice rang across the fields.
As one Pell and Jevvy turned to see the dust of the long road that led to their home clouding up behind a trail of horses. Kingsmen. As if they had nothing better to do than to taunt the people banished to edges or Merkil. Knowing, of course, that almost all of the children over seventeen summers would be called in during the lottery. Afterall, those loyal to King Kellir lived close to his luxuries. They would have only one entry. And, despite the rules against training, Jevvy would bet the Kingsmen did not patrol their fenced in gardens to police against pre-trial training.
“Pell, you gotta go!” Jevvy shoved at him, her hands frantic. It wasn’t the first time they’d been nearly caught, but it was the closest to dusk. If the Kingsmen had a Shadowbender with them, they’d be sitting ducks in moments.
While not the best writing I’ve ever published, I think this showcases a lot of information within action. With more time to smooth and revise, this could work even better. I would likely add some moments of Jevvy’s Dad during her trip to the trials. Have her see some of the assassins and delve deeper into the suffering needed. Maybe actually move the paragraph about the legend into that space to make this flow faster.
That’s the best part of revising once you have a fair amount of the story written. Fixing the pacing can be practically cut and paste, with a little rounding and hedging of the pieces to make them all fit.
I think, too, that sometimes we spend so much time detailing the world that we over-inform ourselves. It’s very easy to want to give every piece of information to the reader. But give them credit. You don’t need to explicitly state every detail, as long as your characters demonstrate them within their actions. And, unless it directly informs something that happens in the story… your reader doesn’t need to know the family tree/history/reason behind each piece of the story.
You create worldbuilding worksheets for you. So that you have a fully formed world to make your characters live in. Not to write a textbook on the world you’ve created.