1. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody The Ole Frazzle-Dazzle Contributor

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    How to World Build in your story without "lecturing"

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by J.T. Woody, Mar 16, 2018.

    I don't know if my question is phrased right..... but in my Writing Popular Fiction class in college, we had to read a genre every week. We ended up reading Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings. The professor's lecture on it was to the effect of: if your description of the setting takes you out of the "world" and provides a long winded history before even getting to the plot(s) of the story, you run the risk of lecturing your audience on this "world" instead of letting them "see" it for themselves.

    This is all well said and all.... but how do you let the audience "see" your world? How do you describe the scenery and the architecture and culture of your "world" without "lecturing"?
     
  2. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    The simplest way is to give just enough information to establish it. Modern-day settings
    need basically 0 intro since we all kinda know what the world looks like now.
    So by all means don't be afraid sprinkle little bits about the world throughout the whole
    story, and not try to headline with telling us everything about it. Scatter it out a bit,
    as it becomes relevant. Pretty much should get a fairly good idea/feel for your world in
    context from the narrator and dialogue.

    Though there are those that build such elaborate worlds that they can't help but go on and on
    about them. It really comes down to just how complicated your's is. Though you should still
    be able to do the sprinkled method, so as not to distract from the main plot(s) of the story
    itself. Not every detail down to how green the grass is, is really relevant. Just the important
    stuff it pertains to the story. So don't tell me about the Utopia/Dystopia world, show it to me
    as the character exp. it.

    Good luck. :supersmile:
     
  3. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    The two or three factors that make any exposition interesting – as opposed to being an infodump – are

    1) The information being exposited
    2) The person – either an omniscient narrator or a POV character – conveying the information

    and, if the information is being conveyed through dialogue instead of through narration or internal monologue, then

    3) The person receiving the information

    What is happening in the story that makes the information relevant? Why is the information important to the character? How does the character feel differently about the information than another character might feel about the same?
     
  4. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    You do it in small increments, and almost always accompanied by the actions and dialogue of your characters. The human mind is wonderfully adept at filling in the blanks and connecting the dots. Our readers have imagination, just like you and I. Give them only enough to see your world through their eyes. And when you do dive into exposition, do it with gusto and great purpose!

    Here's an example...


    Rosemarie stood at the top of the stairs on the landing opposite two garishly painted doors. She knew to knock first, but with arms full of boxes stacked so high that she could scarcely see her way, and harried seamstresses bumping by her, she dispensed with the cords of etiquette and backed into the fitting room unannounced, promptly caught her heel on the rug, and tumbled into the room.

    “Rose!” came a cheerful voice. A young woman — her face painted porcelain white, cheeks caked with rouge — was, save a garland of flowers around her waist, unabashedly naked.

    Rosemarie sprang to her feet, straightened her dress, and presented herself to the naked woman standing on a footstool.

    “Valerie!” Rosemarie sang out.

    “Young lady, have you ever considered knocking first?” mumbled Hugo the tailor, his mouth full of pins.

    “You know I would if my hands weren’t busy! I’m so sorry, Valerie. I don’t think anyone saw...” Rosemarie shut the doors behind her and entered the brightly lit apartment. An enormous oak table strewn with the instruments of the tailor’s trade took up the center of the room, on the far corner of which sat an elaborate birdcage, home to the second floor’s most thieving and untidy resident, an acquisitive black and white magpie that welcomed each visitor with the aplomb of a Bombay pickpocket. Rows of lavish fabrics and racks of costumes lined the facing walls. On the back wall, spanning the entire breadth of the room, was painted the most remarkable trompe l’oeil; it was of a sun-dappled forest clearing, where a sisterhood of muses frolicked amongst the ruins of a Roman garden. So absolute was the illusion that one might step into the mural and be inexplicably banished from the natural world. But all Rosemarie saw was her friend standing, statuesque and unashamed and returned to her so unexpectedly — as if one of the muses had broke free the bonds of pigment and brush strokes for a brief sojourn in the muck of flesh and bone.
     
  5. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    You convey the world in a natural manner, keeping it relevant to the plot and scene at hand. @Iain Sparrow above gave a nice example, and I shall dissect it for you:

    Rosemarie stood at the top of the stairs on the landing opposite two garishly painted doors.
    Painted doors - it gives the place a bit of character and I'm imagining something bright and ugly, maybe old-fashioned.

    She knew to knock first, but with arms full of boxes stacked so high that she could scarcely see her way, and harried seamstresses bumping by her, she dispensed with the cords of etiquette and backed into the fitting room unannounced, promptly caught her heel on the rug, and tumbled into the room.
    She's carrying a big load and required to knock, so probably a servant. This gives me some idea of both the character and the time period she might live in (probably not a 21st century middle class home). Seamstresses and rugs further reinforce my assumption that this is not a modern setting.

    “Rose!” came a cheerful voice. A young woman — her face painted porcelain white, cheeks caked with rouge — was, save a garland of flowers around her waist, unabashedly naked.
    The make-up definitely makes me think of period novels now. I'm thinking French for some reason - it doesn't have to be French. The point is, I'm now imagining your typical oil painting set some time in history (sorry my sense of history sucks so I can't tell which time period exactly lol - but old!)

    Rosemarie sprang to her feet, straightened her dress, and presented herself to the naked woman standing on a footstool.

    “Valerie!” Rosemarie sang out.

    “Young lady, have you ever considered knocking first?” mumbled Hugo the tailor, his mouth full of pins.
    There's a tailor, suggesting both the idea that Valerie is wealthy/upper-class and that they exist in some historical period.

    “You know I would if my hands weren’t busy! I’m so sorry, Valerie. I don’t think anyone saw...” Rosemarie shut the doors behind her and entered the brightly lit apartment. An enormous oak table strewn with the instruments of the tailor’s trade took up the center of the room, on the far corner of which sat an elaborate birdcage, home to the second floor’s most thieving and untidy resident, an acquisitive black and white magpie that welcomed each visitor with the aplomb of a Bombay pickpocket.
    The mention of the magpie gives it a humorous edge that keeps the description interesting. It adds to Valerie's eccentric edge too - a cheerful, naked woman who's unembarrassed appearing naked, even when caught by surprise, who also happens to have a bird that has an equal amount of personality.

    Rows of lavish fabrics and racks of costumes lined the facing walls. On the back wall, spanning the entire breadth of the room, was painted the most remarkable trompe l’oeil; it was of a sun-dappled forest clearing, where a sisterhood of muses frolicked amongst the ruins of a Roman garden. So absolute was the illusion that one might step into the mural and be inexplicably banished from the natural world. But all Rosemarie saw was her friend standing, statuesque and unashamed and returned to her so unexpectedly — as if one of the muses had broke free the bonds of pigment and brush strokes for a brief sojourn in the muck of flesh and bone.
    The painting is tied back in to give the reader a sense of how Valerie might look (like a goddess, beautiful, essentially), keeping the description relevant. I have only a small bone to pick, which is that if Valerie was all Rosemarie can see, then the rest of the description becomes illogical - Rosemarie couldn't have described all that if she didn't see it. But that's me nit-picking. The idea of tying description back to the character of interest is a good one, and done smoothly.

    What is important to note is the description is generally tied in to what's happening in the scene. It's absolutely ok to have straight up description from time to time, but you couldn't get away with chunks of them. Details are given as the scene goes, like a cookie crumb trail rather than a giant cookie right there in your face. The approach will differ depending on your style and genre of writing, but in general this can be applied to most things.
     
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  6. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Adding to this ^:

    'Complicated world' does not mean you need an info-dump or a lot of exposition or a prologue to explain it. It took me a long time to learn that but once I did I was pleased with the outcome.

    I have a really complicated world. People fled Earth to colonize a new planet. It's 150 or so years later. A second group arrived ~50 years after the first. Half of them ended up fleeing into the wilderness, the other half stayed hoping to eventually become integrated into the established population.

    The story starts 3 generations after the group fled into the wilderness.

    Try explaining educated hunter-gathers. Explain why they've been unable to develop much technology while in hiding on a planet they know nothing about. Throw in a sci-fi city 150 years in the future and explain why they've never found the hidden villagers (that part was easy).
    You have all this stuff in your head and at first you think the reader won't know what's going on unless they know it too. But they don't need it. The world can unfold all in due time. You start with the opening scene. There are some great examples in this thread about how to do that. The reader only needs to see what is around the character or characters at that moment.

    Think of it like a mystery regardless of the genre. It can be an intriguing page turner where the reader learns more and more about the world the story is taking place in along with the reader seeing the story unfold with the characters.

    In my case it was easier to explain the educated hunter-gathers while telling the story. Describing the villagers ahead of time led to a lot of reader misconceptions because they applied what they read to what they knew about hunter-gatherers and it was wrong for this story. So in a sense, prologues and info-dumping exposition can cause problems you don't encounter if your world unfolds along with the story.
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2018
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  7. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    That is actually the first time I've had a detailed description of how my writing comes off... thank you very much! Indeed, you deduced the things I had intended and I'm feeling rather good at the moment, so thanks!
    Btw, it is indeed France, the Paris of 1792, and Valerie is a courtesan in the service of the Queen. Rosemarie is 12, and sort of idolizes Valerie; a woman who has taken an interest in her and has plans for the young lady. It's going to be a very bumpy ride for both Rose and Valerie.:)

    Thanks again. Getting feedback like this is extremely helpful... and builds confidence!
     
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  8. GingerCoffee

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    It was cool, wasn't it. At first I thought, is she critiquing that? And then I saw she wasn't. :superidea:
     
  9. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    This is probably as good a statement as I've read about the inherent dangers of beginning a story with a prologue. I had in fact begun my story with what I thought was a perfectly brilliant one paragraph prologue.:) In the end I tossed it out in favor of taking the long way around.
     
  10. Robert Musil

    Robert Musil Comparativist Contributor

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    Found this image recently and it may come in handy. It's really mostly common sense, but sometimes it's hard to remember just how much goes into a well-developed setting.
     

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  11. Kalisto

    Kalisto Senior Member

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    That's what a protagonist is for. They see and experience the world. As they learn about it, so does the audience.
     
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  12. soupcannon

    soupcannon Active Member

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    Part of it will come down to the skill of the author, too. Maybe Eddings lifted some readers out of the story, but Douglas Adams manages constant infodumps in the Hitchhiker's trilogy that actually pull you in further. His infodumps are narrated by the eponymous book and either relate directly or tangentially to an event or person or place in the ongoing story.
     
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  13. Cephus

    Cephus Contributor Contributor

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    You explain just enough so that the reader knows what's going on and when the reader needs to know more, you let a little more out of the bag. Like describing characters, settings and world-building should take place throughout the book. They shouldn't just appear in the first chapter as an infodump. Provide the minimum amount to keep the reader going and dole out a little more as necessary until, by the end, the reader understands the setting as well as you do, or at least as well as they need to.
     
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  14. Le gribouilleur

    Le gribouilleur Active Member

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    I tend to world build as I go along with my story. It can be done through dialogue or the narrator's description of the current plot. My characters aren't describing intentionally. They talk about something, such as current events or history. This would give the reader clues about the world the story takes place in. Sometimes I'd start with one detail about a character or the location and then continue from there. The reader would find out more about the world as the story goes on. Lord of the Rings is like this.
     
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2018
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  15. GiveMeBackMyMagic

    GiveMeBackMyMagic Member

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    Basically, mystery is what keeps the page turning. Give us the bare minimum, and what you have to give, try to work into compelling dialogue in a conversation that also drives the plot forward. A clueless main character who is entering the world with us always helps, though is obviously not always possible.
     
  16. Max Redford

    Max Redford New Member

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    I don't read previous responses until after my post so my initial response isn't biased in any way, so some of this may have already been said.


    I totally agree that the author should not be jerking-off to his own world -- writing excessive about it in long streams like he's stroking himself off, tee-heeing. oooh-waa! Vampire trolls! Mmmh--mmmm! Hobbit-orc hybrids who turn into bats when the sun goes down because of the ancient pact that Gergio Lunsbunker made with the eldritch earth-born god who takes the form of a twisted gnarled tree that grows from the side of Mt. Thunderbone . . oooo---god! Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Fantasy writers, new and old, tend to fall victim to the front-loaded world-dumping more than others. I coined an expression for this awhile back: The Sprawling Wilderness Of Infodumping. Often takes the form of a horseback rider or a person(s) walking through the forest or along a road and the author spends most of the first page or two describing the surroundings. Is this a story about an emerald leaf touched by virgin dew born of a pure spring morning in the lush forest that lies right outside the village where the Sumfestival is honoring the glorious crops brought by the fertility god Grenosha?

    Put a rubberband around it. Tie it off. Dribble it in.

    See, here's where the power comes in. You don't tell the audience everything up front. In fact, you don't even tell them half of what they need to do. You drop crumbs, delicious crumbs, that they follow.
    --------------------------
    Gorgio grimaced as the full moon rose. He'd doomed his entire race and he would have to pay in his own blood to redeem himself. But a return trek to Mt. Thudnerbone was the last thing he'd ever wanted to do. He chugged down the next mug of brown lotus ale and belched loudly. He wanted one more round of the bittersweet ale but if he waited around in the tavern much longer and that hungry full moon rose high in the darkhorizon, he'd be drinking more than his fair share tonight and it wouldn't be ale but the blood of every patron in Tomdangle's Tavern.
    --------------------------

    Lots of loaded concepts up there that can be unpacked over time.


    Most things don't need to be explained until that thing has a direct and immediate effect on the scene.

    A golden rule, for me, is this: if it doesn't generate intrigue or drama within a paragraph or two then move on to the next beat that does create intrigue/drama.

    Dramatic beats are what keep the readers' eyes rolling through the prose. Static descriptions of things that don't have any direct relevance to the current scene, or any even any scenes in close proximity to the current scene, usually don't mean a lot to the reader and you're running the risk of boring them.

    Which brings me to the #1 Rule Of Fiction: DON'T BORE THE READER.
    It's actually the only rule that really, really matters.
    So, if you think you can worldbuild world-jerk and make it intriguing then go for it. But worldbuilding, the effort and time and passion put into it, can be intimately tied to the author and he may not be capable of knowing when he's bordering or gone full-overboard on world-jerking.


    ----------------------------------------------------------
    Here's a video I found a few weeks ago that tackles this exact thing:



    I agree with the 'triggers' being used to naturally prompt more specific details about something. The details should be closely intimate to the POV character -- in this case, Will is describing his commander's appearance. The further the intimacy is from the POV character the less relevant it becomes.

    Think of your POV as an anchor that marks where the reader is in relation to your story world. They're right there with that POV character. Now, if you're there, in the scene, you don't want the POV character to suddenly stop doing whatever they're doing and start telling you in excruciating details about the history and trivial facts about the setting because the readers gonna be like, "Dude! We're in the cold woods, what the heck are we doing out here right now?"
    Your POV isn't going to nod and say, "Well, you see that big wall over there? That's where the Night's Watch is and it protects the kingdom from from these nasty barbarians called the Wildings who roam around out here in the cold woods -- oh!--and they're may or may not be these frozen zombies but it's cool, cause we'll be safe soon as we get back to the Wall."
    Well, lookuh there! Everybody gotten killed and eaten by White Walkers while Will was jabbering away.


    ----------------------------------------------------------





    Tl;dr : Readers don't care, so don't bore them. Create intrigue and sprinkle the world into the prose.
     
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  17. TheRealStegblob

    TheRealStegblob Kill All Mages Contributor

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    What sane person would actively want to write like GRRM?!!?!

    Joke aside, he's okay at explaining his world building. He suffers slightly from the fact he'll randomly asspull stuff for his world while writing, which is fine and good by itself, but he'll waste time explaining it because it'll only ever have context in itself and no one will ever mention it ever again. For instance, he randomly decided one of the eastern cities (Qarth maybe? I forget which) was going to have 'layers' of walls around it, with the outer-most walls being older which was a sign the city was literally sinking and couldn't sustain itself. This is a cool idea, but because he randomly came up with it while writing the scene where the characters enter into the city, he hamfists some generic descriptions of the walls and their significance, instead of naturally explaining it anywhere else in the book.

    GRRM in general is a very good thing to study if you want to learn how to write worldbuilding, because he does a lot of things right but also a lot of things wrong.
     
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  18. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    As an experiment - if nothing more - indulge in some fanfiction. Write a story in a world that already exists, wherein the elements, props, features are already understood to you. Pick a less-obvious fandom, something off the beaten path. Allow this pre-arranged basket of goodies, so to speak, to free you from the obsession of over-explaining the world, as you mention in your OP. Write it as you would any fanfiction, with the assumption that the reader knows where she is. Let someone read that work without telling them wherein the work is set. See if it works. See if the reader gets the setting, the elements, the props, the features. If it does, then you have your answer.
     
  19. Max Redford

    Max Redford New Member

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    To be honest, I trudged through GOT here and there but it was such a task I didn't continue the series, but I still think the opening to the first book did quite well with putting you into his world without frontloading it with worldbuilding. I have studied particular portions of his writing for examples of certain things, such as his intricate worldbuilding. I think any author, even Stephen King whom I don't much care for on a whole, has something to offer somewhere in their body of works.

    SK, for instance, in regards to world building knows how to bring to life the feel of a close knit small town and the cast of personalities who thrive there. But many times he gets carried away doing this and forgets to have anything truly interesting happen, but keeps filling the pages with the days in the lives scenes of Everyday Joes and Smalltown Sallies and by the time it does I'm irritated with him.

    Borrow a little here and borrow a little there and leave what doesn't work for you and you're on the way to acquiring a decent style all your own.
     
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  20. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

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    Unfortunately, different readers want more or less exposition to ward off the feeling of confusion.

    You can technically write something perfectly so that the reasons for the characters motivations are clearly known, and some people will say that you overwrote the obvious and others will be left in confusion, wondering about the causes of the causes and how they came about -- like someone in calculus class getting the right answer but not understanding why the computation works.

    Hard stuff, but both kinds of readers will overlook the world building being slightly out of their taste if other things are good.
     
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2018
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  21. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    I write historical fiction, but it many cases the challenge is the same. I have to build a credible consistent world, though mine is based on research and fantasy on imagination.

    My approach was to break the rules (since at the time I was writing I didn't know them!) by writing an expositional paragraph, or several, at the beginning of the chapter. For example, I might describe the city of Alexandria, how old it was, when founded, where the gates were and their names, the relationship of the two harbors to the island where the lighthouse was, where the naval base was, the name of the main street, where the library and main temples were. Ins short; BORING! But it put the city in my head, and as I described the trip through the city, I knew where everything was in my mind and could describe it consistently. On the first or second edit, then the exposition paragraphs were chopped out, they had served their purpose. I call them "scaffolding".

    If I were to do it again, I would do all of my world building in a separate document that would describe the geography, history, politics, economy, key families etc. of my real or imaginary world, in a separate document from the story I was writing. I would then draw from that reference material as I told my story.
     
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  22. Oscar Leigh

    Oscar Leigh Contributor Contributor

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    As other have said do it naturally over time based on what the characters are doing, thinking and where they are. As @John Calligan said, which hasn't been said enough in all these replies, is another aspect is differing. Some people have a bit more interest in and patience for imagery and exposition. So I'd say an important notion is what kind of story you're writing. G.R.R.M wrote his story as descriptively as he did because he knew it was the kind of story that would attract more worldbuilding fans that the average. The kind of story with fans who had read other long fantasies like LOTR. Another aspect, mentioned a few times here in different ways, is that you try to make your exposition interesting. Which should partially be achieved by the natural pacing, as demonstrated by the text exert earlier. If you give it perspective and narrative relevance it'll be more interesting than three paragraphs that teeter increasingly off-topic from the characters. Again, there's a degree of your personal choice, genre choice and the tastes of your audience but like all things in writing the most important part is understand why you do each thing and what other options you have. A well-considered purposeful choice is generally good no matter if some people hate it because writing has no overall objective standard. Only aspects of logic and information in your methods.
     
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  23. Lawless

    Lawless Active Member

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    I'd say it depends on what kind of a story you have.

    In my current almost-finished novel, the first actual event is a group of soldiers returning to their base with some prisoners. I wanted my readers to have a general idea of what was going on, so I preceded that first scene with a prologue (about 5 book-pages), outlining the first civilization, outlining the second civilization (they are extremely different), and explaining briefly how the war began. Someone else might have omitted the prologue and left the readers wondering who were those soldiers and what was the war all about. I felt that in this particular story, I'd rather not do that. I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with a 5-page prologue.

    In another novel of mine, of which I have written the first part and then laid it aside (giving preference to writing the novel I just mentioned), I begin with two men standing in a harbor and talking, and they are obviously up to something and worried about something, but I don't tell just yet what the location is and what kind of a planet it is on. I explain it later, bit by bit, as much as needed.

    I mean to say that it is totally the writer's choice how much or little he feels the reader needs to know in the beginning of this particular story. I fully agree with several previous comments that say that you mustn't reveal too much too soon, because the mystery is what keeps the reader turning the pages. There should, hovewer, be reasonable balance. Too much mystery becomes WTF. Mystery intrigues, WTF annoys.

    As to your question how you let the audience "see" your world – I prefer to do it through dialogue. I am not too good at describing things as the narrator (although I do get lucky sometimes). I have a friend who, in one of his stories, wrote a magnificent scene about how a dove flew over a city early in the morning and how the people below woke up to their daily activities and what the mood in the city was like. I don't think I could ever write something like that. But dialogue comes easily to me. A character can ask another character about something, and the other character can explain it, or two characters can argue about whether something is good or bad, which allows you to drop all kinds of information you want your reader to learn about. Children can ask their parents about things. A bureaucratic-minded superior can give thorough instructions to an employee, leaving the latter to think: "Yeah right, as if I didn't know it already." And so on. Pretty much everything can plausibly come up in conversations.
     
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  24. Antaus

    Antaus Active Member

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    I used to have the problem of using 'description blocks' in my stories that would interrupt the story itself, and my early works were rife with info dumps. The way I do it now, just start writing with the MC doing stuff like he normally would before 'it' hits the fan. Then during the course of the story most of what I relay to the reader usually comes during normal story flow. I'll give a really simple example. Say you have two soldiers who just finished killed a group of orc raiders, and for some reason you want to relay the fact there are orcs out there even worse than those in the newly made pile of corpses. So do you do this without an info dump or something that screws up the flow of the story?

    "I hate fighting orcs," Dolf said. "They're so vicious and brutal."
    "You think this is bad?" Felgin said. "Try fighting northern orcs, these will seem like a gentle summer's breeze."

    Two sentences, and the bigger badder orcs are in the setting. There are more ways to do this than with spoken dialogue, this was just meant to show how you can introduce something unobtrusively. Not only that, it will likely peak the reader's interest making them curious and want to know more about why these northern orcs are so much worse. Intro and interest hook all rolled into one, if that's what you're aiming for.

    Later on you could have the Felgin remember coming upon a village they'd attacked. Rather than taking women and children as prisoners like the southern orcs, they'd slaughtered everyone and mounted their heads on wooden spikes outside the village.

    Not only does this give a little more info about why they're worse, it can have an emotional context for the character remembering it.
     
    Last edited: May 5, 2018
    J.T. Woody likes this.

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