Now you've got your setting, your thinking about the appropriate mood and tone to bring it to life, the details that make it ring true, all the ways to build the world your characters will take action within. How do you do it? How do you take the whole depth of a created world, or the rich history of a city, a small town -- a character, for that matter -- and pass everything on to your reader so they know it as well as you do?
This, in my opinion, is the greatest skill one can learn from world-building. One can't go hurling an entire fantasy world, its cultures, histories, and beliefs at a reader alongside the background, temperaments, and goals of half a dozen characters all at once. This very problem can be blamed, in part, for fantasy's reputation for the dreaded long-winded prologue spewing out Everything You Need to Know before you actually care about it. At the same time though, the need to learn so much creates in both fantasy writers and readers a fine sense of the subtle cues and hints one can find in the text. There's a joy to developing a world-building skillset, to finding puzzle pieces and putting them together to build the whole. It's a skill that transfers to absolutely every genre of fiction.
Burying and Scattering
If you've got something you need to explain, especially if it's lengthy, start early and plant many seeds. Drop remarks, narrative asides, hints of history or context, into the narrative action. Embed them in what's going on rather than stop to mention them, and while the reader won't even notice them, they'll remember them. Or rather, they'll notice them and know they're being told something, but they're also being told something when you say "Alice snatched the kitchen knife and thrust it into the empty space between them." That is important information, relevant to the scene and necessary for the story. If you say Alice snatched her favourite kitchen knife, or that she thrust it up as she'd seen him do numerous times before, that's a remark that will stand out and stick with the reader. That's something worth knowing. If you decide to expound at length on Alice's history of being on the other end of such knives, hoping to add resonance to this scene, it will in fact do the opposite. To see the hint and wonder carries so much more power -- and tension. Now you've given us something else we want to know and we'll keep looking for hints, and keep reading, to find it. Scatter enough of these seeds around, and within a few chapters we'll know everything you do, or enough to fill in the blanks according to our own tastes, and look, we never even got lectured at!
How you plant your world-building seeds may be the difference between lecture and hiding in plain sight. Remember, even in a third person narrative, your characters already know things. In a contemporary setting, you wouldn't describe Alice getting into the car, putting the key in the ignition, and then pause to explain how a car works. We know it, and more importantly she knows it. Or, more accurately, we probably don't know the fine details of how, but we know it does, and we accept it as fact and don't think about it. The same is true of things we don't know, if the character still believes them. If you're introducing a new concept, culture, vampire healing factor, or just something you didn't know but the character did and now you've done tons of research on it, think about it from the character's point of view. Dashing alpha cops don't think about what's going on inside a pistol when they fire it, they just aim and shoot.
If Alice's fantasy counterpart goes to hire a scribe, she won't pause to think "We need scribes because not everyone can read and write on their own." She might, however, think the scribes in this part of town are growing mighty fat because they're the only ones who can read and write. One throws information at you, the other slips it in amid other narrative. Actually, that example does two jobs in one by slipping in info about scribes and also that the uneducated class live in a different part of town than those who can read. Both are world-building info, but together, they don't feel like info, because they come from the character's own voice and views.
If you really need to get a chunk of vital information across, either about your world, your characters, or both, you can always dramatize it. Make it a scene, make it a character changing moment, and it will have value. Alice can watch the vampires at their rituals rather than telling us about them, or perhaps she can perform a little scientific analysis on their tissue and discover for herself how they heal so rapidly. Likewise, Alice could have a spitting and snarling fight with her old flame about the way he used to treat her and why she'd be compelled to pull a kitchen knife on him now. Again, remember to hang on to character context. Alice and her former flame won't stop to explain details, they'll make references to events they already know exist. Likewise characters in a fantasy novel won't talk about famous events, cultural lore, or religious tales as something that needs explaining. You can reference Romeo and Juliet, I can reference Cyreon and Amaris, and through the context of a conversation (a couple, love, potential loss) we'll both know the meaning. If it's an unknown reference, you just might want to drop another line or two in elsewhere to flesh out the context if a reader might be curious.
The big thing to look out for with dramatizing information is the verbal infodump: As you know, Bob. The proverbial Bob, it seems, knows enough about everything, but people keep feeling the need to remind him. Although Bob already knows it, they'll explain to him how a shotgun works, or how bone priests work their magic, or where the Vega planet orbits within the solar system and how long ago it was discovered. I fell into a similar trap a while back, working on a scene ostensibly about a job offer, but also helping to shed more light on a significant amount of information readers need to be armed with soon after. The first draft of the scene wandered horribly off the mark as one character dispensed information left, right, and centre, regardless of whether my protag knew it or cared. It's one thing to write a long-winded character who talks without caring whether someone wants to know. It's another when it's obvious Mr Long-Wind is talking to the reader. After a bit of fighting I realized the problem: I was focusing on the info, and not the scene. The purpose of the scene was negotiating the job. All I needed to give was info relevant to the job. If it's not enough, in the end, I'll have an entire draft to go scatter more hints through, and I bet I won't even need them.
The Iceberg Effect
By now you might be thinking, "But I put so much time and effort into building these characters, this world, how can I possibly show it all to my readers this way?" It's simple -- you can't. And really, you shouldn't want to. If the reader knows everything you do, suddenly they'll see the boundaries of your world and the extent of your character. As I discussed in World-Building 101, the key is to make the world feel alive, as though it will just keep going after you close the book, and those characters will go on with their lives. I think this is also why some HEA endings fall flat, when it feels like not just the story, but their existence as people, ends at that last page. You want to bury your seeds throughout the book, drop hints in narrative, shed light in scenes and dialogue, but let the fine details rest with you. You'll talk about it knowing there's more, and the characters will convey the same feeling, so your readers will be left with the feeling they've only scratched the surface.
Think of it like an iceberg. If we see the whole mass, it's big, and that's about it. If we see the tip floating above the water, and that hint of how much more might be lurking beneath, it becomes ominous, unsettling. It's the same reason good horror movies don't show all of the monster (including the zipper running up its back). As soon as you show it all, you've got nothing left. The loss of mystery takes away some of the magic, the alchemy of taking text and ideas and turning them into living, aching, intangible beings. More than that, only showing your readers hints of the world you've built, the parts that poke through the soil, allows them to connect the pieces together. The same as spelling out every detail of a character's appearance can alienate a reader from identifying with them, laying down every nuance of a world, or a backstory, removes the reader's chance to interpret for themselves. Show us what we absolutely need to know, and let us draw the pattern of things according to our own preferences. We'll become invested in the story for it.
Next time, I'll share some examples of seeding your world-building into the narrative, since showing always surpasses telling. For this week, I'd like to hear your world-building (or character building) quandaries. What's a tough challenge you overcame without infodumping? What about information you just don't believe there's another way to dispense? Share your problems and let's find some solutions!
Missed the earlier posts?
~The Rules of Magic