By: Bowen Gillings
No matter your genre, you have to engage is some form of world building to orient readers to where, and by what rules, the story takes place. Even if you set your novel in modern-day New York City, you have to be familiar with the landscape of Manhattan and the outer boroughs, the patterns of traffic, the smell of the side-streets, the presence of law or lawlessness in each neighborhood, and more.
World building is a necessity as a writer. But, you don’t need another article on how to build the world of your novel. There are resources aplenty out there for that. Google it. What I want to spend a few hundred words on is how to reveal the world you’ve built to your readers.
Many beginning writers, particularly in speculative fiction, fall into the trap of starting off with a massive chunk of descriptive information in order to set up their world and its paradigms for the reader. Don’t do this. Ever.
“But what about Lord of the Rings?” you ask.
Don’t do it. Only Tolkien was Tolkien. Don’t do it.
The opening info dump does nothing for your story. There is no action, no conflict, no character development. Here are a few better ways to reveal your world and its rules to the reader. And you don’t have to take my word for it. I posed the idea of revealing your world to a room of twelve fellow writers. They came up with the following ideas. So, keep your buts until the end.
The first, and overwhelmingly agreed on best method, is to reveal your world through your story. As your characters move through the world and interact with the world, that is where you give details to the reader. You can do this easily in action. You can do it in dialogue, though be careful that the dialogue stays real to the characters engaging in it. Narrative can be used, too, particularly if the reader is getting the character’s perspective on the setting.
One of my favorite examples of revealing the world through the story is the opening chapters of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Logen Nine Fingers is on the run. By the end of page one, the reader knows the world uses medieval technology, there are fantastic creatures, and that the north is lawless and dangerous, plus all the sensory details that paint the vivid, action-packed opening scene. As the chapters progress the reader learns more and more about the world’s geography, its politics, the use of and feelings towards magic, and all through character action and interaction.
It is an ideal example of letting the story reveal the world.
Another key is to only reveal elements germane to the immediate scene. If it makes sense for your character to think about other lands, the political situation at present, or what atrocities led up to the current state of affairs, while sitting down to tea with an old friend, then you can use it. If not, don’t include those elements of your world until the story dictates that they should be revealed.
In my current work in progress there is an ongoing war. The opening scene is a battle, but I don’t have my protagonist pondering what led the nations into conflict or how the colonists view the natives because it would not make sense for him to do so. What is shown are my character’s thoughts on the present moment, which allows me to tie his motivation to the greater conflict and give the reader enough information to follow the story.
Having your characters engage in everyday activities is a great way to reveal your world. A character hitching a plow to a horse sets up an entirely different world to the reader than having a character pull clothes from the dryer or connect her iPhone to her Volvo’s Bluetooth. What’s more, showing how the characters feel about these activities lets you double your money. You’ve educated the reader about your world and your character at the same time. You’re welcome.
There are also certain tried-and-true tropes (or tricks) you can use to reveal your story. Having a character mentor another character is perhaps the most wildly used method. Think Gandalf or Obi-wan teaching Frodo or Luke. Through their teachings the reader (watcher) learns more about some of the world’s secrets. Be careful, though, the mentor trope needs to be used subtly. Having the crotchety older police detective tell the rookie how it is for three pages just so you can reveal the level of corruption on the force and who is involved and which mob bosses are profiting will come off as exactly what it is—a tedious info dump.
So, remember how emphatically I told you not to open your story with a big piece of world background information? Well, there are ways to do it and do it in a way the reader likes.
“But, you said to—”
Forget what I said! Every rule in writing can be broken if you can do it well.
There is value in starting the reader at a distance, giving her the broad scope, then narrowing in on the particular characters and their place in the world. Few books do this more enjoyably than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The key to the success of Hitchhiker’s is Adams’s narrative voice. The deft use of humor in a third-person omniscient point of view lets the reader chuckle her way through the background about aliens and expressways until actual characters are introduced.
If humor is not your thing, you can still be successful as long as you have a strong narrative voice. Or, you can cheat, one of my favorite books as a youth opened with a song, called The Canticle of the Dragon. The song sets up the world even before page one of the prologue. This is not too common in today’s novels, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Hopefully, these thoughts give you a few ideas on how to open up the world you spent so much time building to a reader eager to be immersed in it. My thanks to the folks at Writers Night who contributed their thoughts to this article.
About the Author: Bowen Gillings lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, daughter, and dog. He became a member of Pikes Peak Writers in 2015 and now serves as President. You can catch him climbing the Manitou Incline or at Garden of the Gods Park, where he heads the school programs for area elementary and high school students. Or come listen to his overbearing voice as the emcee of Write Brain the third Tuesday of each month at Library 21C. He is screaming along the rollercoaster ride of his first novel about a disgraced soldier and pregnant sorceress fighting their demons in a fantastical version of the French and Indian War.