1. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Worldbuild with Reason -- How Do I Do It?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Link the Writer, Jul 31, 2017.

    Question: how in the world do I worldbuild with reason? After having a discussion about this with a fellow writer friend of mine, I am utterly confused.

    My issue, she told me, is that I worldbuild and infodump without rhyme or reason. That I don't allow my characters to spell out the information through their thoughts or action. I'm constantly spoonfeeding my audience, talking to them instead of just telling the story. That I keep asking my readers for permission to describe certain things and hoping they're not jarred.

    I mean, I kind of get what she's saying about describing what's relevant, but at the same time... how do I know when it's appropriate to worldbuild/describe a lot over less?

    Advice? Help??
     
  2. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin A tombstone hand and a graveyard mind Staff Supporter Contributor

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    A lot of it relates directly to POV. If you're talking fantasy and sci-fi, the world might be strange to us readers but to the characters everything is normal. Imagine a regular book set in contemporary America. We don't go around giving the technical specs of our cars when we drive them, or how our towns and government are set up when we walk down the street. We don't need to explain how a smartphone works or how our livers process chemicals in our bloodstreams. Shit like that is common and unnecessary for the mechanics of the story. Now contrast that with some sci-fi where the author feels the need to describe how cool the spaceship is or how the imperial government is set up or why the character's alien biology is so interesting. All that stuff might be relevant, might it can make the characters sound fake. Especially (and this happens allllll the time) when they sit around discussing things that should be common knowledge them. Readers might not be consciously aware of it but they know when an author is telegraphing information directly to them. It feels weird. They might not know why, but they know something is off.

    If you have multiple characters I've found it helpful to have one particular character handle the info dumps. Maybe that character is naturally curious or has some role to play in the story that will allow them to release information to the readers through their natural actions in the plot. Sometime I have to contrive circumstances to make that possible, but I always felt it was better to accept the necessity of the dumping and plan for it accordingly.
     
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  3. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Aaah, so a trick for writing fantasy/sci-fi is to either SHOW how it works through the characters' actions and words, or if it requires explanation, have the character in question be ignorant/curious about it (like say someone who doesn't know how a gizmo works...) and an expert clarifies.

    That is good advice though. Even if the readers don't know, it's still common knowledge to the characters and it's still possible to explain it without halting the narrative and writing half a college thesis on the history/specs of a certain dodab.
     
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  4. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I'm 18,000 words in and haven't really built my world. This is certainly a way to avoid spewing world background when it doesn't belong. :) But it's probably not recommended. This probably comes from the fact that I don't all that much like fantasy, but I'm illogically writing fantasy. I'm interested in the characters, and I'm discovering or creating just enough world to hold up the things that I want to happen to the characters.

    Edited to add: I should note that I didn't create the whole world after writing the first action of the story--it has origins in stuff that I created long ago, but that was just enough to give me a canvas to mess with.

    So anyway. The result is that the details are getting created when they're needed or they hit me. And they're mostly getting created in only as much detail as I need when I need them.

    For example, Character is afraid of being convicted of a crime and sentenced to "the mines". Where and what are the mines? I don't know, because the scene didn't need to know. I needed a concept of poverty, and out of the air I plucked the idea of the cost of "heating oil", so I know that my primary setting does get cold and that for some reason homes, or at least poor homes, aren't primarily heated with wood fires. I know that the ground in my setting is suitable for cellars, because I needed cellars.

    Of course, later I may need a bonfire and the heating oil may go away.

    You've presumably created a full and detailed and consistent world, but I'm suggesting--based on no expertise whatsoever--that you still probably often don't need any more than the equivalent of "the mines". Not, "The gold mines of Northern Whatsit, worked by slaves, many of whom are convicts from a variety of seafaring nations...." etc., etc.

    Even if you have sixteen pages of worldbuilding notes about the mines, the first gold strike and the kingdom that was funded as a result of it, who owns them, the wars between the owners, the laws about slavery, the varieties of valuable intoxicating lichens that grow in them, etc., "the mines" may well be all the coverage that those sixteen pages get.
     
  5. Stormburn

    Stormburn Contributor Contributor

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    I read a fantasy book where one of the MC's was a former royal assassin who had decided to give up his career and take a long journey to a monastery with the intentions to become a monk. Now, the author wrote exposition after exposition of what sort of assassin he was, the order he belong to and the in's and out's of his life story. So, there is a scene where this guy is confronted by bandits. One of the bandits spies a tattoo on our MC and a red flag goes up. He doesn't remember the details, but, he warns his friends that this guy might be dangerous. What could have been an mystery to the reader, "who is this guy and why does this tattoo scare people? "has already been ruined because of all the exposition. So, the scene is little more than' one guy kills a group of bandits to show what a bad ass he is'. Even that is pointless because we already know he's a bad ass from the previous exposition.
    I hope this example helps.
     
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  6. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Oh my, sounds like something I would do. Once I had Mishu (MC of my fantasy) confront another character about his past and rather than keep it a mystery, he basically went, "OK, sit down and I'll tell you everything." So whatever big surprise later on when his backstory does become important, well...it's like spoiling the end of a Game of Thrones episode before anyone gets to see it. The fun of finding out is just...gone.

    If you want to keep a character interesting, keep them a mystery, leaving bits and pieces here and there to keep the readers interested. <jots down the notes> Got it.
     
  7. FlyingFishPhilosophy

    FlyingFishPhilosophy Member

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    Brandon Sanderson has a very interesting (and funny) lecture about this. Discusses the 'iceberg theory' and 'learning curve'.

     
  8. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    OK, here's what I wrote for my General Mysteries a week ago:

    -------
    The McWeegie’s Whistle’s interior was shaped to look like a giant wagon wheel. Tables and chairs were strategically placed to look like the spokes with the center being a raised black podium for the music band. On one side of the ‘rim’ was the bar area with the kitchen directly behind that separated by a thin wall decorated by trophies, liquor bottles, and various holiday decorations like a Mardi Gras mask, a plastic Halloween pumpkin basket, and multi-colored Christmas lights.
    More of these lights hung traced the outline of the ‘rim’, going a full circle from the bar and back. Below them were black and white vintage photos of people long dead. Celebrities like Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe smiled through their pixilated glass. Other photos had everyday men and women in 1940s dapper clothing standing on street corners, conversing over the newspapers, or smiling and posing in the McWeegie, each holding a cup of their selected booze.

    Flanked by two of such photos was an aged American flag, tattered around the edges with holes dotting the faded stripes. Local stories held that it belonged to the founder of The McWeegie during his time in the US Navy — that the flag itself served under the USS Anchorage during World War II. When the war ended, and the ship was to be decommissioned from service and scrapped, he somehow managed to bribe the right people to let him take the flag home as a souvenir of his war days. The holes in question were actually bullet holes left behind from Japanese pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy as they sniped at the ship and her American gunners. Kevin spotted a table just below the flag, with empty chairs beckoning him to come hither. He shrugged. Why not?

    -----

    Let's see if I can fix it...

    -----
    The McWeegie's Whistle resembled a giant wagon wheel, with tables and chairs strategically placed to look like the 'spokes' and the music stage located at the 'axle'. Kevin had to wonder what inspired this design -- perhaps someone with an affinity of the Old West?

    Well, they certainly like the '40s, he thought as he walked to a table, eyeing one such photograph of a group of people in dapper clothing posing for the camera, champagne glasses held high.
    "Mama, why are there holes in the flag?" A small child the table behind him asked. Kevin turned, saw a toddler pointing at a wall. He followed her gaze to a large American flag tacked to the wall, the colors faded, the edges tattered and the face riddled with what Kevin knew to be bulletholes left from strifing Japanese planes. All he knew from the local stories was that it served on a battleship, and the owner of the bar somehow bribed the right people to take the flag home as a souvenir.
    -----

    How's that?
     
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  9. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Definitely better. I'd get the flag in there a while later--I think that putting it here and having the convenient child will likely put you over quota on background.

    In a later scene or later part of this scene a customer could gripe, say, "They're too cheap to replace that old ripped flag!" and a waiter or customer could briefly tell them what that flag is. That would do double duty if the griping is done by a character that will be part of the story and the griping illuminates part of their personality.

    Or it can enter slowly:

    ...American flag on the wall...
    ...torn?
    "And ketchup, please. Hey, are those bullet holes?"
     
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  10. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Ah, so having a convenient child asking blatantly about the flag seems too forced. The narrative would be smoother if later Kevin either notices the flag and asks a waiter if the holes in them were from bullets.

    OR to juice things up, have a character (maybe an overly patriotic character?) say something like, "Who the fuck defaced Old Glory?!" Or something to that nature, leaving Kevin and the readers to focus attention to this flag. Basically work it in the narrative to showcase personality without the token "curious child that serves as worldbuilding device."

    And since I brought it up and made a scene about it, readers might expect at least a subplot about it, right? Or would that just depend on how I handled the scene in question?
     
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  11. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin A tombstone hand and a graveyard mind Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Don't know. Can't say I've ever expected a subplot from anything before.

    Be careful with subplots. Starting one can be a bit like planting mint. It'll take over the entire herb garden if you don't prune it carefully.
     
  12. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Yep, any of those would work. My view is that it's good for a thing to serve multiple purposes. So, piling purpose on purpose on top of your suggestion, the bit about the flag could:

    - Establish the flag's existence.
    - Maybe establish a tiny bit about the owner ("Old Fred stole it from somebody when he was in The War." or "Old Fred likes to pretend he was in the War. He really bought it at a flea market.")
    - If your story isn't in the present, maybe establish its present. ("'The war'? Fred's war is ancient history. 'The War' is in Viet Nam. Oh, no, wait--that's a police action." )
    - Introduce the patriotic character.
    - Introduce the character arguing with them.

    So you've gotten ambiance, two characters, their relationship, a placement of the story in time, and attitudes/politics.

    And I don't think that you necessarily need a subplot. You could keep the flag in mind, in case you have a situation that needs a Thing, and consider whether that flag could be the Thing. Something gets vandalized, something gets stolen, the bar burns down and the owner rescues just one thing, and so on. But if no Thing thing comes up, I don't think you need to create one.

    IMO.
     
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  13. halisme

    halisme Contributor Contributor

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    It does not matter how much you build your world, what matters is how much you put in to your story. The country south of the one my novel is set in has fifteen knightly orders, seventeen if you want to include renegade ones. And the amount of those that appear in my story, is one. Why did I do all of this? Because I enjoy world building. How much am I going to include? That one nightly order, and any references to the others will be mostly unexplained.
     
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  14. MythMachine

    MythMachine Active Member

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    Like others have said, and like you seem to now understand, worldbuilding is best done when through the views, actions, and interactions of the characters. You CAN include general descriptions of certain places, but avoid exposition level detail. Remember that you're writing a story, not a tourist pamphlet or homebuyer brochure. Besides, by having the characters describing their surroundings through their words and actions, you nail two birds with one stone: You learn about the world or culture, and also of your character's opinions and personality in regards to said world or culture.
     
  15. mashers

    mashers Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    That’s a considerable improvement. The only thing I would change would be to make the part about what Kevin was wondering come sooner, so that it’s all from his POV.

    Kevin had to wonder what inspired this design Of The McWeegie's Whistle. To him, it had always resembled a giant wagon wheel, with tables and chairs strategically placed to look like the 'spokes' and the music stage located at the 'axle'. Perhaps the designer had an affinity of the Old West.

    This has a bit less telling, and more from the character’s POV.
     
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  16. Link the Writer

    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Ah, perfect! Weave the description into the character's POV. Have them take pause and wonder about what he/she is seeing.
     
  17. mashers

    mashers Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Yes, exactly. If you don’t want to tell the reader and it won’t come up incidentally, have a character stop and think about it, and show their inner thoughts.
     
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