Part four is all about What Comes Next after we’ve pushed past Worldbuilder’s Disease and gotten to drafting. Science Fiction & Fantasy writers with WBD face a particular set of problems when we finally put pen to paper. This post is dedicated to looking out for and troubleshooting those issues as they arise.
Most of our worldbuilding-related drafting problems can be boiled down to a single root cause:
We worldbuilders love our infodumps.
We’ve spent ages building a lush, interesting world. Now we want to show the whole thing to readers, and wow is it hard to resist the impulse to throw the story bible at their heads.
In my experience, there are two kind of infodumps:
- The irrelevant exposition and backstory dump
- The very-important-information drop that still somehow manages to be boring
And they’re often presented in one of several ways:
- A fourth-wall breaking chunk of text from the narrator describing a thousand years of history
- A tremendously boring story or lecture from a mentor or authority figure
- Awkward “as-you-know” dialogue
Look, getting this information on the page is difficult—and ensuring readers have enough context to understand the story is critical, so SFF writers tend to walk a thin line between too-much and too-little exposition. I struggle to find that balance when writing my early chapters. It’s tempting to sneak in a paragraph here, a lecture there, an occasional “as-you-know”. But it helps me to remember that I take an enormous risk every time I incorporate worldbuilding information using any of the aforementioned techniques. A poorly-hidden infodump is one of writing’s cardinal sins. Why?
Because infodumps break immersion for the reader.
Thus, our goal is to figure out a crafty way of incorporating worldbuilding information on a need-to-know basis that doesn’t involve clobbering the reader with our story bible.
Why infodumping isn’t the answer
If this is the first time you’ve encountered this concept, lemme quickly get us all on the same page.
According to TvTropes:
“Infodumping is a type of exposition that is particularly long or wordy. Intensive infodumping about the world itself is most commonly used […] where the reader cannot necessarily make assumptions about the way the fictional universe works. […] most infodumps are obvious, intrusive, patronizing, and sometimes downright boring.”
In other words, this is not how to hook a reader.
This is hard to hear, because we think our worlds are amazing! Fascinating! And of course they are—otherwise we wouldn’t have put so much time and effort into building them. We know everything about these worlds and want to share them with our readers. So why aren’t readers interested?
Good in-story worldbuilding comes down to two major factors:
- What we choose to share, and
- How we choose to share it.
Get choosy with your worldbuilding integration
Here’s one of the most important worldbuilding lessons I’ve learned: readers tend to care only about the parts of our world that impact our characters.
The information in our story bible is irrelevant to the reader unless a character encounters it, or unless the reader believes that piece of information will soon become important to the story.
In other words: no one ever wants to sit through two pages of explanation about rainbow wyvern physiology… but readers are far more likely to tolerate a paragraph of it when the protagonist encounters a rainbow wyvern in the wild.
Think of it as Schroedinger’s Wyvern. The reader doesn’t care what exists inside the box until the character opens it.
Or, another silly metaphor:
If a bear is pooping in the woods and none of your characters are there to see it (and the bear poop has no bearing on the plot)…
The reader doesn’t need to know about the bear. If we’re getting choosy with worldbuilding integration, the bear won’t make the cut.
What does that mean for us?
What does Schroedinger’s Wyvern mean for us and our worldbuilding? Alas, it means that a heaping ton of it stays inside the box, only seeing the light of day in extras, deleted scenes, or companion books.
If readers don’t care as much about the behind-the-scenes worldbuilding, then we can only (or mostly) show them what our characters encounter in-story. Characters may come across lore, wisdom, and history … but we need to use these bits and pieces of our story bibles sparingly, and only for the sake of advancing one of the Big Three: setting, character, or plot.
That’s not to say worldbuilding is unimportant. Fleshing out our worldbuilding is vital – it adds depth to our story, it makes drafting easier, it creates the toolkit we use to craft our arcs. But. Storytelling isn’t about finding a way to cram the entirety of our story bible into narrative form.
Think of it this way: if the world we’ve built in our heads is an iceberg, the tiny tip above water is all our readers ever see. That means most of the details we spent ages crafting will never make it out of our story notes. And that’s okay.
If we dream of being the next GRRM and having our readers keep wikis of our worlds—the iceberg in all its glory—we must first write a compelling story. We must fascinate our readers—enough so that they read our book and crave a look beneath the water’s surface.
Make no mistake: their curiosity comes not from the rainbow wyvern itself, but from the story we told with it. Readers want to see what lies beneath the surface because they sense there are more stories waiting to be told. They say, ‘hey, I heard the matriarch of the Blurgity line slayed a rainbow wyvern barehanded when she was fourteen—let’s have that story next, plz.’ They don’t say ‘hey, I just wanna know the name of every female heir of the Blurgity house for ish and giggles.’
(I mean, okay, maybe a few people do, but—they aren’t our majority audience.)
Most readers aren’t looking for facts.
They’re looking for more stories.
They’ll start sniffing around our world for more stories only when our primary plot and characters are so compelling that they, on good faith, assume everything else about our world must be that interesting, too.
But we can’t acquire this level of faith from our readers unless we tell a good story first—and alas, a good story isn’t an encyclopedia of the history of our world, no matter how cool it is.
It’s not just about what we share, but how we share it.
Let’s talk about guiding readers through our worlds—and the worldbuilding information they need to know in order for the story to work. For the rest of this post, we’ll look at what not to do, expanding on the worldbuilding pitfalls I listed in the intro. My next (and final, I promise) post in this series will break down tips on how to incorporate worldbuilding without infodumping.
This is by no means an exhaustive no-no list, but it should give us a good starting point for how our love of our rainbow wyverns could come around to bite us in the drafting phase.
A big fat caveat:
Sometimes, when we’re working on early drafts, the best (only?) way to get words on the page is to let it all hang out in an infodump to rival the Titanic AU fanfiction I wrote when I was ten years old. This is a totally fine and absolutely normal thing to do in our rough drafts.
We can throw all of that information at the paper to get it out of our systems. I do it every single time I start a new story! But if we’re going to infodump in a first draft, we must remember most of that information will be pruned out, rewritten, or rephrased during the editing process. Infodumping can be used as a crutch while drafting, but it ought never make it into the final manuscript.
Here are a few examples of what not to do: ie: ways we might break reader immersion via infodumping when describing our rainbow wyverns:
- By having the narrator explain everything about rainbow wyverns long before we encounter the first one on-page.
This tends to be a prologue or intro chapter problem. We, as authors, know the book will be about rainbow wyverns, so we want to give the reader full context on what wyverns are and how they came to be before the story even starts.
Problem? The story is what makes the reader care about the wyverns, not the other way around. A prologue or early-story infodump about wyvern history will make readers scratch their head the same way Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday party made all of us headdesk repeatedly during our first reading of The Fellowship of the Ring.
They will look at the prologue and say “why do I care?”
That is the absolute last thing we want our readers to ask.
And yes, there are absolutely writers who are the exception to this rule. Fantasy published in Tolkien’s time was famous (infamous?) for it. Some of today’s writers manage to do it and yet still hold their readers’ attention. These writers are not the norm. Until we’ve honed our craft and built a devoted reader following, it’s best not to play fast and loose with infodumping, and structure our stories accordingly.
- Video game infodumping, and/or a lecture from an authority figure.
Our protagonist has encountered their first rainbow wyvern in the wild! Big! Scary!
But instead of jumping into the fight, we end up with two pages of solid text in which the full history and physiology of wyverns gets dumped onto the page either by the narrator, or through the story/lecture of a mentor figure. Oop! This is like seeing a Pokemon pop out of the grass and, instead of getting straight to the fight, cutting to Professor Oak reading a super-detailed entry out of the Pokedex. Boring.
Again: there are ways to use the mentor/neophyte trope to get information across to both our POV characters and the reader—but the volume of information and when that information gets dispensed is vitally important to consider.
Information transfers like ^that will immensely slow our pacing. This might work well after the fight with the wyvern to allow the reader (and protagonist!) time to process and recover from what just happened. A lecture immediately prior to the fight, however, will trainwreck the pacing and tension we’ve tried so hard to ratchet up in the pages leading up to it. Readers are smart! If we drop enough contextual clues, they’ll be able to follow along with the fight, hovering at the edge of their seat, until the fight is done and a broader explanation of What The Heck That Colorful Dragon Thing Was surfaces.
- The dreaded “as-you-know” dialogue.
Hear me out: this is the mansplaining of the fictional world.
In “as-you-know” dialogue, the POV character and at least one other character explain the history and physiology of rainbow wyverns through dialogue. This seems like an immersive way to get around the infodumping rule, but it’s a trap. Why?
Because “as-you-know” implies just that: one character is telling the other something they know the other character already understands. Imagine a bunch of knights standing around and mansplaining rainbow wyverns to one another—
“Well, Bob, as you know, the rainbow wyverns have a variety of scale colors.”
“Yes, Bill, and as you’ve experienced, their venom is highly toxic.”
People NEVER talk like this—unless, of course, they’re condescending jerks. It’s as obnoxious in fiction as it is in real life. Unless our characters are inveterate mansplainers, why would they tell one another things they already know?
Because the author is trying to find a way to convey information to the reader without using either of the two ^above methods of infodumping. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work either. It breaks 1) immersion, 2) characterization, and 3) maybe even the fourth wall. Why? Because our characters aren’t talking to each other—they’re talking to the reader.
This is eye-roll inducing. Don’t do it.
So how do we get important worldbuilding information across to the reader?
Join us next time for tips on how to properly incorporate worldbuilding details!
This post was all about what not to do when translating worldbuilding onto the page and why. Next week, we’ll look at:
- How to tell when a worldbuilding tidbit should make it into the story, and
- Examples of how to include that information based on why we want the reader to know it.
I look forward to seeing you there! Until then, you can check out my Morning Pages or, if you enjoyed the content, support the blog on ko-fi or find more of my writing Patreon. I’d appreciate it a great deal!