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Sinking Into The World

Fantasy city by Steven StahlbergIn the fantasy genre, many writers love to indulge in worldbuilding, they may have produced stacks of files, papers and (of course) maps before they’ve written the first chapter. While this gives them an invaluable resource for reference, the writer is left with a new problem, translating that information into the novel without it bogging down the story or reading like an encyclopaedia. Some opt for the prologue method, this allows the writer to establish a world and limited back-story in a way acceptable for the narrative. But this method won’t suit all stories, and there’s only so much you can fit into a prologue.

Some writers launch into the story and begin with an action sequence that precludes any lengthy explanation or extra detail, the reader’s need for information is therefore held in abeyance by the circumstances of the scene, waiting for the action to resolve before more is revealed. However, at some point the writer will need to start feeding information to the reader, especially when introducing a secondary world construct and all its associated rules and aspects. Lack of information for too long will make it difficult to fully enjoy the story and make progression of the narrative difficult.

The Bridgelands by whatyoumaydo

When introducing your world the key is to find a subtle balance that suits the reader and the story, allowing the reader enough understanding for the story to progress, but not dumping so much information it slows the pace. Aside from the classic mistake of sharing too much of your worldbuilding with the reader, the writer needs to work on how they deliver the information. The writer must learn to pick the right moments to reveal information, as well as finding ways to slip in details about the world without the reader even noticing.

Fantasy Feast from Shrek by Nathan FowkesThere are moments in a narrative when it is more acceptable to reveal information about the world, a group of protagonists may take a break on their quest, they’ll want to rest and catch up on things. A classic is the sit down meal, it provides a legitimate excuse for your characters to have a chat about things while they eat; the conversation can be whatever your plot needs, history, politics, or the details of a newly discovered land. Be careful not to let it drag too long for the sake of pacing, but your heroes are entitled to a rest stop. After all, it can’t be swordfights for the entire novel, eventually your character’s arm will get tired.

No matter how skilled the writer, the sit down meal can still be read as an info dump, another method to reveal your world to the reader is to camouflage it in the normal narrative. Rather than dropping massive chunks of data, reveal snippets of information as the character progresses, allowing the reader to steadily build up a picture.

Tessa sidestepped an old man as she made her way down the narrow streets, moving out of the way of his crutch, a veteran perhaps, or just suffering the weight of time?

She drifted through the colourful mass of humanity as principality citizens thronged the streets. In the shadow of an alley to her right a trio of men were clustered, laughing and talking loudly in a docklands drawl. She veered off to her left, wanting to put some bodies between her and the burley men, just in case.

Tessa imagined she caught a whiff of the fetid vapour that hung across that quarter of the city.

If your character enters a new area it is a prime opportunity to slip in a greater detail about the world as you describe the local environment. The above passage alludes to a number of elements beyond the protagonist’s immediate view. Tessa’s suspicion of the old man as a veteran implies a conflict, past or present, without having to go into detail to the reader. It could be the first of many subtle implications, beggars in the streets, displaced refugees, the roaring trade of a local blacksmith. Using just the imagery of the world a writer can imply things about the state of the conflict, how long it’s been going on, all without actually telling the reader – an example of the show don’t tell rule in action.

Monks in the Market by su jian

And what about the docklands men? Immediately upon seeing them the reader can infer a number of details, the view of docklanders as seedy or dangerous, and the mention of the “fetid vapour” without any description of location, implies a rotten, slum aspect to the city quarter. Even as the protagonist goes about her walk, the reader has found out a bit about the history of the city, details of a location, potentially to be visited later in the narrative, and an idea of some of the class differences in the city.

Arlan walked beside her now, for which she was grateful, Tessa had feared she would get lost in the big city. It was pure luck she had come across her brother exiting the Master Merchants Hall. A shadow passed over them as they walked under a grand archway, the siblings emerged onto a stone plaza populated with market stalls.

Feeling safer now, Tessa approached a stall covered in hand crafted combs. A hand on her arm stopped her.

“Fal’sith,” Arlan hissed, nodding at the proprietor, a middle aged man with a blue armband around one sleeve.

She recognised the phrase from her studies, an old Vryman word meaning ‘unmasked’, or ‘fallen’.

The Crafty Merchant by Alex KonstadLanguage itself, along with phrasing can be used to good effect, providing volumes of information in just a few words. Use of slang can be a quick and effective way to establish a particular concept or idea along with many other details. The term above “Fal’sith” is spoken with a tone that implies it is a derogatory label. Even without Tessa’s line to add explanation the reader would be able to infer something about the character. The way it’s used also reveals part of the culture and politics of the city, showing a sub group looked down upon. Take into account as well the line that shows Tessa’s brother coming from the Master Merchants Hall, signifying he comes from a high social standing and potentially implying that Arlan’s feelings are shared by all the upper class.

With careful thought and attention to detail the writer is capable of imparting massive amounts of information about their world in a very limited space. Simply tweaking the wording of a sentence, or adjusting how it is spoken can allow you to cram in a lot of subtext and save on lengthy explanations.

Unknown Artist from Menzoberranzan City of IntrigueThere may be a particular aspect of the world the writer is keen to show the reader, in this case they can set up an event or situation in the narrative to showcase that particular aspect. Those familiar with R. A. Salvatore’s Drow will know them for an evil and treacherous bunch. In The War of the Spider Queen series there are numerous references to this fact, but there is a moment in one of the books where a character stealthily makes their way across the city and comes across a perfect example. Hidden in the shadows this character witnesses a scene where three male Drow, who she judges to be brothers from their looks, are engaged in a struggle. Two of the brothers are duelling with swords. When one kills the other, a third who was hiding in the shadows kills the victor with magic. The POV character takes this in stride, idly commenting on it as part of the Drow culture and to be expected. The event serves to cement the reader’s understanding of Drow society and establish norms for their world.

Mushroom Landscape by m0zch0psThe scene itself is just a bit part in the character’s story, but it fits nicely into the narrative without breaking the flow and allows the writer to showcase an essential truth of their world construction. As long as the writer can make it fit into the character’s story in a natural fashion this method can be used to explore a host of ideas, the writer can even kill two birds with one stone and use a pivotal story moment to showcase an aspect of worldbuilding.

All of these techniques aim to allow the writer to teach the reader about their world without them realising it. Developing this skill requires subtly and finesse within the writer’s craft, try think of it as an invisible lattice which supports the reader’s understanding of your novel. Let the reader comfortably sink into the world, then they can focus on the story.

Title image by Adrian-W.



  1. Yora says:

    This is one of those cases where I think writing in omniscient instead of third person can be a real advantage. When the world is very unusual and complex, it can be so much easier to just tell the reader a few facts than having to come up with some way of sneaking the information into descriptions or dialogues in a way that feels natural.

    • Dan says:

      Good point. I had never thought about using omniscient specifically for that.

      I know Brandon Sanderson is an advocate of using pictures instead of using pages and pages to describe something that just doesn’t exist in our world. He has fought for some of his novels like Way of Kings to have pictures.

      He and Scott Westerfeld talk about how most novels used to have pictures back in the day it in this interesting podcast:

    • Aaron says:

      Even using the omniscient p.o.v you have to be careful. Simply telling the reader a chunk of information can ruin the flow. An omniscient writer will still need to make sure they deliver the information in the right way. Crafting a good narrative voice is one method, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has an excellent conversational and humorous tone when detailing aspects of the world.

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