“And there among the lofty peaks of the Sanandrin Mountains were the tombs of the Founding Kings carved into the living rock. The angels guard their entrances as they guarded their lives, and shield their bodies from the churning rot of time. When the winter passes into spring, the fresh melt carries the blessing of light and is said to heal any affliction of the body. So, blah blah blah…”
I know, it’s tough to refrain from sharing with the world your awesome piece of worldbuilding. You want them to appreciate your creativity, to validate the many months you’ve gnawed over the minor details of your awesome. The unfortunate truth is no one cares about your worldbuilding. You haven’t given them a story equal to your universe. Instead, you’ve given them a huge pile of infodump and the unintentional distrust in their ability to work through your creation.
“But my world is pure genius!”
To you, yes. To everyone else, it’s an encyclopedia entry. Your world amazes you because your mind has tens of hundreds of half-formed stories breathing life into it. The reader isn’t privy to your mind and can’t see your world animated by your imagination. It’s like a meal. Your audience can’t eat the recipe, they want the finished product first. The recipe can be appreciated once they’ve accepted the quality of the food created by it.
“But other authors have done it!”
Yes, but they’ve put the cart firmly behind the horse. Such noteworthy tales as The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time have extensive worldbuilding that has captured the hearts and minds of millions of fans. Indeed, you can buy companion books flaunting the details of their masterful craft. But you are not they. You haven’t earned the adoration of millions of people by giving them the story first.
“But, but… Fine. What’s the advice?”
There are many levels of concealing worldbuilding. Let’s take a look at them below.
Level One: Framed Encyclopedia
The Framed Encyclopedia takes an infodump and thinly nests it into the exposition. This may take the form of “research” or having a character “ponder” on an aspect of your world. Adding a few lines before and/or after an infodump creates a larger pile of stuff the reader may not want to read. I’m sitting in an airport as I type this article. I don’t think many people breakdown the history of aviation as they wait in line to board an airplane. Why, then, will your reader want to know how your thingamajig works, or the history of awesomeness? I’m looking at people and the story is etched on their faces. Some smile as they greet loved ones, some tap their feet as they wait in line, and others are sitting next to one another absorbed in their phones instead of speaking to each other. I want to know those stories.
Level Two: Outsider In
This is an effective, but oft used method of concealing worldbuilding. You bring an outsider unfamiliar with your awesome and have them ask the questions you want your audience to consider. The problem arises when your character asks too much. You’ve reverted back to the Framed Encyclopedia and dragged your plot to a halt. A way around this is to have your ignorant bumpkin interact with your awesome. The consequences will serve as a reveal of your awesome as well as move your story forward. Make the interaction part of your plot to further screen your worldbuilding.
Level Three: Dialogue
Dialogue is similar to the outsider in except not so ignorant of your world and awesome. Showcasing your world through dialogue helps cut much of the fat found in exposition. You’ll reveal just enough to make the dialogue natural and give your audience a taste of your awesome. You’ll find this used in battle strategy discussions, or debates between two different ideologies. Be careful not to turn dialogue into an “As you know, Bob…” Characters don’t need to discuss what is already known and agreed upon between them. Also beware of the dialogue overtaking your story. Pages and pages of unbroken dialogue discussing your awesome, no matter how naturally flowing, may cause your readers’ eyes to squint in suspicion of the Framed Encyclopedia.
In this example from a reworked novella, I have a general speaking with a subordinate. This is a segment highlights the genetic caste system of this race and how a tryst between two lovers has farther-reaching implications.
Excerpt from The Rage Within (reworked version not yet released).
Khona sighed. “It’s no use. Sir, two ragers ran off together. I planned to track them once my watch finished. I’m sorry.”
“No. They took a blanket. Kissing and giggling. A tryst.” The words tumbled from her lips like a rockslide and ended with a crash.
The innocence of her confession eroded through his embarrassment. He barked a laugh before he managed to stifle it with a hand. Her glower returned and she aimed her indignation back at the night.
He cleared the last of his mirth from his throat. “Can you identify them?”
“Were they Tamed?”
Aulog nodded in relief. “Be sure to remind them of their obligations. Send the woman to an artificer for an infertility glyph.”
“She used bog onion root.” Khona rubbed her palms against her thighs. “Can we talk about something else?”
Level Four: Matter-of-Fact
This method assumes your audience knows everything about your world. You don’t tell them anything, only narrate what your awesome is doing. This method thrusts your readers into a world and places them on a panicked horse with no saddle. It’s cruel, fast, trusting, and unforgiving. A good example of this method is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. There are many reasons readers put down this series, one of them is that it employs this method of concealment. For the millions of fans who have championed this series, one of their praises is that it trusts the readers to catch up.
In the following example I have a race blessed with the gift of “seeing” the energy of the natural world. Note I never describe this attribute, only their reaction to viewing a miracle.
Excerpt from Seven Undying found in the Iron Pen Anthology: Volume 1
“Praise God! Praise God! We are nothing!”
Makeel flinched at the passionate cries of the kazum. Light poured from their eyes and reflected off their wet cheeks. He shifted his grip to his sword and screamed a wordless protest of frustration.
The horses neighed as they launched from the bank. Makeel inhaled a final deep breath and tensed.
Hooves clapped atop water as unyielding as a paved road. Surprise jolted free the treasured air in his lungs. Non-kazum imitated the earlier outcry. Makeel watched the grey surface of the river pass below in disbelief
The best practice is to employ each of the last three methods and the only sparingly the first. A healthy mix will change the pace of your story. Doing so with purposeful intent may help other facets of your story, primarily tension and, well, pacing.
Besides the above levels, two other tips may help conceal your worldbuilding.
Why is your wizard called a Fa Allun? Why is your warrior called a Badassian? If you can describe something with existing names, why are you using fabricated ones instead? Some may think using fabricated names helps distinguish facets of worldbuilding to the reader. I’m of the opinion it only slows down the reader as they try to puzzle out the pronunciation and memorize the term. It takes them out of the story. Fabricated terms should be used sparingly to describe unfamiliar or significant concepts.
Off Screen Worldbuilding
Don’t show the audience your awesome! Sometimes it’s better to keep it a secret and let it govern your narrative behind the scenes. Many reasons can exist why your awesome isn’t revealed. Maybe your characters, or to a wider extent, everyone in your world, don’t know your awesome exists. Maybe they don’t know your awesome is influencing your story and don’t think to comment on it. Whatever the reason, doing so will add wonder to your world. What’s to hate in a fantasy story containing wonder?
I have a mechanism in my world which permits an incalculable amount of fantastic beasts. This mechanism, or natural law, is as unknown to the denizens of my world as the Theory of Relativity was to the neanderthal. By extension, my readers are ignorant of the mechanics as well.
Worldbuilding is important. Before I started writing, I invested considerable time into defining the laws of my world, a timeline, various races, and magic systems. At times I feel the urge to show people my awesome and empathize with every worldbuilder out there. But worldbuilding isn’t a story, it’s an ecosystem for your story. A vast majority of your potential audience consume stories, not ecosystems. Give them what they want.
Follow Up Questions
- What author has created the best world? What drew you to their work, the story or the world?
- Has a bad story kept your interest solely on the merits of its worldbuilding?
- How much time have you invested into your world? How many stories do you have completed in that world?