Part five is all about how to incorporate worldbuilding details to enhance (rather than detract from!) our stories. Those of us with Worldbuilder’s Disease have often spent long, long tracts of time dreaming up everything about our world. Some of us have story bibles with thousands of words inside. The hardest thing for us to remember when getting started on the actual writing, however, is that these details don’t tell a story in and of themselves.
Worldbuilding =/= plot:
Setting isn’t plot. Or: epic worldbuilding does not a story make.
Setting doesn’t drive plot, either. Setting drives character, which drives plot. Our world isn’t the main attraction. Our characters are.
When readers open our books, they don’t have a reason to care about the mountain range we’ve built, or how that range is actually the spine of an ancient sleeping dragon.
I mean, that’s a super cool detail, but how does it impact the characters?
Beware irrelevant worldbuilding details
If the sleeping mountain dragon doesn’t impact the plot, but is a cool idea we really want to mention in-story, a little yellow flag should wave somewhere in the back of our minds. While there is wiggle room for irrelevant, but cool in SFF, only so many of these details can make it onto the page before we stop enriching our setting and start detracting from our story.
The most important rule of irrelevant-but-cool is:
The more we describe something on-page, the more readers will think it’s an important part of our plot. Over-described but irrelevant details will ultimately frustrate our readers. They spend time learning and conceptualizing these details, expecting them to connect first to our characters, and then to the plot. If we never deliver on those connections, they’ll begin to lose faith in our ability as storytellers. This could have two possible outcomes:
- Our readers succumb to information overload
Information overload—or an ultra-steep learning curve—is a common issue for SFF writers (and one I’m constantly grappling with, myself). Adding in too many irrelevant details will make it difficult for the reader to keep track of what’s going on. Frustrated, they may simply shut the book and walk away before reaching the “good parts”. And that’s the worst case scenario for a writer, isn’t it?
- Our readers can’t see the forest for the trees
Even if readers stick with us through information overload, scatter-shotting our description across too many irrelevant details will make it hard for them to hold onto all of that information. At that point, they’ll start missing out on important details, too.
Failing to draw the reader’s eye to the plot-important worldbuilding details will create a foreshadowing problem. When the plot-twist comes, it will fail to hit, because we gave the reader too much irrelevant information for them to follow the main track of the plot.
How do we avoid these unfortunate outcomes? By limiting the number of irrelevant-but-cool details, and limiting the amount of time we spend describing those details. We ought to use our narrative space to draw the reader’s eye to the most important parts of our story: bits and pieces that will become increasingly relevant as time goes by.
So—how do we draw the reader’s eye to important worldbuilding details?
When worldbuilding impacts character
Let’s return to the example of the sleeping mountain dragon. Let’s say this mountain dragon will directly impact the protagonist—it’ll wake up and torch the protagonist’s village, killing most of their loved ones, and driving them on a vengeance quest.
Now we’re talking.
This is a major story event in which a worldbuilding/setting detail drives the character, which in turn drives the plot. This major story event will require setup/foreshadowing, but most of the specifics (where did the mountain dragon come from? Why did it come back to life now?) will only interest the reader after the protagonist’s village burns.
Thus, we must balance the worldbuilding details and how we distribute them to the reader. A handful of mentions of the mountain dragon range can come before the dragon returns to life. Think of these most important details as, again, the tip of our narrative iceberg. Everything under the surface can be discovered by the protagonist after the village burns, or, after the reader has skin in the game and wants to know more about the monster that killed our protagonist’s family.
To prologue, or not to prologue?
SFF writers often try to get around the infodump problem by including the history of the sleeping mountain dragon in a prologue. But prologues are an iffy choice.
While they often do an adequate job of foreshadowing and laying out the story’s main conflict, they also attach the reader to the wrong character—a character who is often long-dead by the time the real story starts. It shows too much detail. It crosses way past that iceberg boundary and explains history to the reader in a way that won’t matter to them until the protagonist’s town burns down, which doesn’t happen until chapter four.
The Great War that happened 1,000 years prior doesn’t matter until its legacy directly impacts our protagonist.
We must filter our details in order to expose what’s necessary, and use only the Necessary to motivate our characters and drive the current plot.
What are Necessary detals?
Worldbuilding is a bit like sending Indiana Jones into a booby-trapped ancient temple.
We understand what the ancient temple is. We have just enough backstory on the temple to know why Indy is going into it, and suspect that Bad Things Will Happen in the temple. What we don’t know is where all of the booby traps are, and what they’ll be like—until Indy trips over them.
In fact, none of those booby traps (read: worldbuilding details) are shown on-paper until Indy activates them.
If we were to write an Indiana Jones novel, we wouldn’t start the temple scene by writing “there’s a giant rolling ball, a pit of snakes, death knives, and poison spray between Indy and the Object He’s Looking For. There are also spiky gates, alligators, and a team of death-cult guards, but Indy won’t see any of those because he takes a different tunnel.”
For one thing, that’ll suck the tension right out of our story. For another, why does the reader care about the booby-traps Indy doesn’t encounter?
We find out about the booby-traps—aka, the worldbuilding details—because Indy sets them off, then has to wrangle his way out of them.
That’s what good worldbuilding looks like. We may have a story bible full of backstory, history, and magic, but the reader ought to only see what the protagonist steps on. Doing this creates the illusion, the knowledge, that we’re standing on the tip of a very large iceberg. We don’t need to see the rest of the iceberg to believe it’s there.
It also lets us reveal relevant details as they come up instead of throwing them at the reader all at once and hoping some of it sticks.
But how do we incorporate major worldbuilding details without infodumping?
Let’s return (again) to the dragon-mountain-range detail.
There are loads of plausible ways this sleeping dragon mountain range could impact our characters, and therefore impact our plot—and it doesn’t have to be the most dramatic (dragon burns the town down). I’ve picked the three most likely off the top of my head—three different reasons we decide the mountain range must be mentioned in-story:
- We’ve already mentioned this one: the ancient sleeping mountain dragon is a legend, and one day this mountain dragon is going to awake.
In this case, we need to foreshadow that the dragon will awake. In order to decide how to spread our worldbuilding details, this is the question we must ask ourselves: prior to the dragon awakening, what does the reader need to understand?
- There is a legend that the mountain range overlooking the village is actually a sleeping dragon.
- At some indeterminate time in the past, that dragon rained fiery terror over the land.
- People may or may not believe in and fear this legend.
- In the days/weeks leading up to the dragon awakening, things aren’t quite right in the surrounding lands.
How can we expose those worldbuilding details without infodumping?
- The protagonist or one of their relatives can tell a younger sibling to behave, or the mountain dragon will come to eat them.
- A religious service could give a sacrifice to the sleeping dragon to appease it and keep it from raining fiery terror upon the land.
- An older sibling looks at the dragon-shaped mountain range, scoffs, and says “that doesn’t even look like a dragon, that’s stupid”, but the protagonist feels icky about talking smack about the dragon.
- Animals have started acting strange. There are sightings of dark things in the forests. Smoke has begun to rise from the place where the dragon’s nostrils would be.
The above examples are all ways that the dragon slowly coming back to life can be foreshadowed. Worldbuilding details are peeled away piece-by-piece in a way that compels and interests the reader, because these worldbuilding details are viewed through the protagonist’s eyes and delivered in a way that impacts the character personally.
These details also give just enough context that when the protagonist wakes in the middle of the night to screaming and their village lighting on fire, the reader knows immediately what happened. The reader might not understand why the dragon awoke, what the dragon wants, or how the protagonist will defeat it—and that’s okay. But we’ve drip-fed the reader enough information that they understand the protagonist’s terror and fear when they wake to an ancient mountain dragon’s attack.
We’ve walked the delicate balance between giving away too much information (thus boring and overwhelming the reader) and not giving away enough information (thus preventing the reader from understanding the context and stakes).
- The ancient sleeping mountain dragon will never awake, but the range itself is a hint that dragons exist in this world.
In this case, the mountain range itself is foreshadowing for a plot-relevant event. Perhaps, in this case, the protagonist is fated to become a great dragon rider.
This is foreshadowing of a different kind, but the mechanics of foreshadowing would be very similar. This mountain is very important, these dragons are important, and they’ll be mentioned in passing multiple times.
Here, the mountain itself is the foreshadowing. We’re using the mountain to:
- Put the idea of dragons in front of the reader.
- Transmit lore about dragons or dragon riders.
- Foreshadow that something big is about to happen to the protagonist.
How can we do that without infodumping?
- The protagonist’s village celebrates a holiday honoring the Dragon Mother—the mountain from which all dragons were born.
- The protagonist sneaks away from the village to get a closer look at the mountain and has a close encounter with a baby dragon.
- The protagonist sees or senses something about the mountain that none of the other villagers can perceive.
These examples don’t foreshadow that the mountain itself is about to come back to life, but can transmit information about the world and foreshadow that something dragon-related is about to happen to the protagonist—which is why we’d include the detail of the dragon mountain in the first place. In this scenario, the dragon mountain drives the characters—to celebrate, to sneak away from the village, to question their reality. Thus, setting drives character, which drives plot.
- The ancient sleeping mountain dragon will never awake, and dragons aren’t real, but the characters in this story superstitiously (or religiously) believe in dragons
This could be plot-relevant—especially if these belief systems get called into question, or cause conflict further on in the story. Why might we include mention of such a belief system?
- To enrich our world by showing characters with a diversity of religious beliefs.
- To create a storytelling tradition that allows characters to orally pass on pieces of their history and culture to young members (and thus, the reader).
- To build a cultural or ideological conflict between characters.
And how might we show this diversity of belief?
The most important question we need to ask ourselves: does this diversity of belief directly impact the plot, or is it meant only to flesh out our setting and characters?
If the first is true, we’ll spend far more time ensuring our readers have an intimate understanding of how this belief system works—because knowledge of the system will help them understand the tension and stakes in future religious conflict. If the second is true, explanation becomes less important than passing description to build a vivid setting.
For example, if the practice of dragon-worship is plot relevant, we could explore it by:
- Showing a religious ceremony.
- Getting a window into our character’s religious life or holy studies.
- Show an argument between our protagonist and someone with different beliefs.
- Show a greater conflict that has taken on sociopolitical dimensions (ie: the hanging of a heretic in the square, discrimination against a minority population, etc.).
A plot-relevant practice of dragon worship would also touch on some of the following examples, which will enrich our setting and worldbuilding to make it feel real and unique. In other words, if dragon worship is plot relevant, we’ll use both types of examples, above and below. If it isn’t, we’d focus only on the examples below rather than the ones up ^there.
How to enrich our setting? (a handful of ideas)
- Show a character praying.
- Show how a character’s religion impacts their diet, clothing choice, and vocabulary.
- Have the character interact with artwork or architecture reflective of society’s religious beliefs.
- Show relics or items of worship in the character’s home.
Most importantly: we shouldn’t describe all of these at once. A world develops its richness when the reader experiences the character’s repeated interactions with their setting—not through hearing about these worldbuilding details as part of a long litany of descriptions in chapter one.
Remember Shroedinger’s Wyvern from previous posts? Readers will care about rituals of prayer, celebration, food, art, clothing, etc. inasmuch as they influence the daily life of our characters. Even if a protagonist’s religious beliefs don’t have much of a bearing upon our overall plot, they will show up as part of our character’s day-to-day life. Occasional mentions of time spent at prayer, in-universe swear words, or even introspective questioning of faith during difficult times are all ways for us to inject worldbuilding into our stories.
We can mention these setting-enriching details as our characters encounter them, but must resist the temptation to dump a page-long explanation of their religious beliefs when they first appear on the screen—an explanation that reads more like an encyclopedia entry than a story.
Those of us with worldbuilder’s disease have an incredibly broad and deep world to draw from as we write. The hardest thing for us, at a craft level, is editing—picking and choosing which details make it through to the page.
Our goal isn’t to shoehorn the entirety of our story bible into our narrative. Rather, our goal is to select which details to focus our readers’ attention upon in order to build the illusion of an immersive, real world.
This takes time (and practice!). It’s extremely rare to strike the right balance during the first draft. But in order to keep improving our craft, we must go through successive drafts with a critical eye and a creative mind, looking for ways to ground our worldbuilding details in the protagonist’s POV and show them to readers as part of an immersive setting—and not a laundry list of details they have no reason to care about.
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