Worldbuilding is hard. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of good storytelling. So many pitfalls, so many opportunities to wander off into that scary word-forest only to come back out the other side covered in ticks, mud, and other smelly sorts of dreck.
Then again, worldbuilding is one of the most rewarding aspects of storytelling, so it’s sort of worth the journey into that quagmire of suck.
So what is it? What is worldbuilding? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory: it’s the world your story is set in and it covers absolutely everything (even the things you as the creator haven’t quite worked out yet).
This includes (but is not limited to) religion, government, economics, entertainment, environment (both man-made and natural).
We could even zoom into your characters unique set of circumstances and explore their personal history ranging from past lovers, present employer, children, brothers and sisters, old uncle Leroy and the way he used to take your character to the ballpark to grab a slice of ‘za and toss the old pig-epidermis around. Whatever. It’s all fair game.
Worldbuilding is one of the main reasons I like writing science fiction and fantasy. Because as the story creator, I’m sort of like a pimply faced deity abusing my powers of omnibadassery. If I want my story set on a farm hugging the darkside of an asteroid as it careens through one interstellar neighborhood after another, great! I can do that. If I want the primary form of currency to be milk caps, poof! It’s done. If I want my characters to worship the mighty Brown Paper Bag in the sky, well, alright. I can make that happen too.
The sky is the limit (but only if I want it to be. Shit, it’s my world. I can use the sky for a carpet if I want to).
These are the things that make writing SFF really fun (in my opinion), and seems to be the way that most first time authors get their story ideas. They don’t start with characters (though the character must eventually become the focus of the story otherwise you just have worldbuilding wankery), they start with an idea for a new world and expand from there.
The difficulty inevitably comes when we try writing about that world. We want it to seem authentic and grounded in reality and so we have this impulse to drop steaming paragraph shaped piles of words in our stories with the hopes of getting our readers up to speed, or to just give them a deeper understanding of this neatorific world we’ve conjured up during our last spirit quest to Wal-Mart.
But this is wrong, and we’re all guilty of it. It’s called the Infodump, and it needs to be avoided at all costs. Why? First, because it’s lazy. And second, because nothing bores a reader faster.
You know when you’re being infodumped because the story just stops and it suddenly feels as though you’re reading an encyclopedia entry. Let’s do an example, but first let’s lay the scene: In the paragraph before this we have an autistic child who’s consciousness has been transferred into a giant killer robot, and who is now going on a bit of a rampage. We have action and things are exploding and tension and drama and OMG a giant rampaging robot, we need to do something! What should we do?
How about this?
“Autistics are often taught to communicate their wants and feelings through an intervention protocol called PECS–Picture Exchange Communication System. PECS is a natural way for non-verbal autistic children to “talk” with their caregivers. The system is simple: it consists of a board and a set of pictures, and each picture has Velcro on the back so that it can be–“
Wait.. what? where’s the giant killer robot? Why do I feel like I’ve been transported to wikipedia suddenly?
“–adhered to the board. But for the non-verbal autistic child, the system is a powerful tool: it provides a way for the child to express his needs. For instance, if he wants to go outside with his brother, he can place a picture of himself on the board, then one of his brother, then one of a tree. “I want to go outside with my brother.””
Seriously, where is the rampaging robot? Is he still rampaging? Has he taken a nap? What does any of this have to do with not getting ripped limb from limb by a warbot?
“By starting with single-picture messages and gradually moving toward more advanced structures, the child begins to understand that there is a way to get the things he wants or needs. The frustration of not being able to communicate is mitigated.”
Oh, cool. That was uh… informative (if not a bit dry and tangential when considering the life-threatening robot we’ve now lost track of).
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with infodumping. You rip the reader straight out of the scene to hold their hands and explain something to them as though they were sitting through a lecture.
So how do we avoid the infodump? Not easily, unfortunately, but here are a few tricks to help you navigate that sticky-wicket of a dump.
Cut, Prune, Shave
I know you’ve put in a lot of time thinking about how the folk music of the hill people informs their perspective on life and death, but unless it is entirely relevant to the story you’re telling, it doesn’t need to be there. We also don’t need to know the conversion rate between Twinklaberries and the American Dollar (or whatever makes your fictional economy go). That is, unless that particular detail is important to the story you’re telling. Which, let’s face it, it’s probably not.
“But the way young suitors intricately braid their hair and toss it over their left shoulder to indicate…”
Doesn’t matter. Seriously. Well, unless it does. You decide.
And that’s the real problem, ’cause as the creator it’s really hard being unbiased about what needs to be in the story versus what you just want in the story because it’s cool. This is why you need beta readers and editors going through your stuff. They’ll pick up on the extraneous stuff real quick. Usually.
Good rule of thumb is you’re better off under-explaining and leaving it to mystery and the readers imagination than boring them into submission.
So what about those shish kebaby parts of your world that you really need to have in the story. How do we share those tasty tidbits without blatantly thrusting our little skewers in the reader’s face?
Having characters interact on screen is always more engaging than simply listening to a monologue. A good writer will impart a huge amount of worldbuilding information via dialogue without the reader ever really noticing.
But here’s the key: the reader cannot notice.
If they do, you’re sunk.
Nothing comes off as more false than characters on screen doing the old “As you know…” bit. For example:
“I’m so glad our southernly neighbors from Radishville have stopped warring with Beetsville. Sure, they are our sworn enemies, but what with Princess PompPomp coming to town to pick a sire–of which I sure am rooting for Duke HumptyLumps–it will be nice not having to worry about any raiding bands of mutinous soldiers upsetting the Winter Festival–which as you know is tomorrow.”
“For Lairnea’s sake, Dwillard, we’re hanging garlands of garlic outside Mr. Coffeepot’s tavern. Why the hell are you telling me all this?”
“Oh, just wanted to remind you, is all.”
You pull that shit and I won’t just put your book down, I will find you and throw it at your head when you’re not looking. Probably while you’re doing something really important, too. Like driving a car or drinking a hot cup of coffee. You’ve been warned.
Wrapping your infodump with quotation marks does not make it any more appealing. So think real hard about how you’re using your dialogue to impart details of your world. Do it in a way that is natural to your characters and the way they would speak otherwise it’s going to stick out like a red flag.
“What’s that jackdaw doing here dressed like that?” Dwillard said, balancing on one foot and leaning dangerously off the side of the ladder to nail another bulb of garlic to the tavern wall.
Streich turned to see the “jackdaw” in question; there, across the street and hiding away from the flakes of snow falling from the sky, was a fully armored Raddisher. “Maybe he’s here for the Festival?”
“Not dressed like that he ain’t,” Dwillard said. “Likely to get his arse kicked is what I say. Not that the Beeter’s didn’t do a good ’nuff job for us all on that account. Boy, I wish i could’ve been there to see that.”
“Might get your chance, Dwill. From what I hear, Duke Bigsocks is coming for Princess PompPomp’s speed dating extravaganza.”
Dwillard almost toppled off the ladder in shock. “You’ve got to be kidding. No chance she’ll choose a filthy Radisher over the likes of Prince HumptyLumps, mark my words.”
End Scene, thank god. Okay, I apologize for subjecting you to that. It was to prove a point, but that point has long since sailed away so now we’re hopelessly adrift in a sea of wonky worldbuilding.
Something you’ll notice from that second scene (besides the fact that it’s not any good) is that a lot of information is being conveyed fairly naturally. Two grunts are working and sharing some gossip. Through this sort of typical interaction we are getting a lot of details about the world they inhabit. No, we don’t necessarily know what the hell a Radisher or a Beeter are, but we can infer it. Later, as the story progresses, we can fill in some of these details, but throwing too much wood on the fire too soon only smothers it.
Stoke it with a little tinder and hot air along the way. That’s the key to good worldbuilding.
Before we move on, let’s draw attention to the fact that worldbuilding of the sort we did in that second scene takes up a lot more space than in the first scene. Sometimes this is a tempting reason to simply infodump. Like I said earlier, we all infodump; sometimes it’s for the sake of expediency and sometimes it’s out of laziness.
Expediency is important in certain situations. With the example I mentioned earlier–in the middle of a giant robot fight scene–you should probably aim to be on the side of quick and to the point. Whatever worldbuilding detail is so important that it interrupts the drama on scene, you better make it fast.
Now, let’s reverse for a moment and chat about old Dwillard and Streich up above. For this scene they are the POV characters, which makes sense if they are the main characters in whatever story we are telling, but if they aren’t? Well… why are we in their heads at all? Is it simply because we needed two guys having a conversation about what was going on in the wider world?
If we’re leaving those characters and never seeing them again, then I argue that that second reason is pretty piss poor. If that’s the case, they are merely a plot device and that’s stupid.
BUT! BUT! BUT! What if later on in the story our Prince HumptyLumps and Duke Bigsocks get into a fight outside the tavern. HumptyLumps slams into the wall and dislodges one of the bulbs of garlic old Dwillard nailed up there earlier in the story. And then what if Bigsocks is deathly allergic to garlic, a weakness HumptyLumps exploits to murder the visiting dignitary.
Granted, we’d probably want to know “Why garlic?” and it’d be good to know Bigsocks was allergic to the stuff before that climactic scene, otherwise that twist comes clear out of the blue and sideswipes us like a Ford Taurus on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon.
So, we’re in a really weird, foreign world dreamed up during our last opium binge, and we want to share details about that world and how awesome it is, without being utterly transparent in the process. How do we do that?
Introduce A Watson
A Watson character is a foreigner to your world. He needs things explained to him because he simply doesn’t know how everything works. As he learns, so too does your reader. This is a great little tool in our writing quiver if used correctly.
For a great example on how to use this effectively go watch Sherlock.
Now, a little caveat here: your Watson needs to do more than just idly sit back asking questions and generally acting as a question repository. If that’s the only purpose he serves in your story, well, that’s a weak character and you’re gonna have other problems. Remember, characters are multi-sided beasts; play with all their different nooks and crannies. If you don’t, then they quickly turn into one dimensional, cardboard cutouts.
Okay, so, the important takeaway from all this is that your reader deserves better than a simple infodump. Your worldbuilding needs to be sprinkled in like a spice. Too little and it’s bland, but too much and we choke and die.
Nobody wants to read a story that’s going to kill them.