One of the first books I ever wrote takes place on a pirate ship in 1725. The 1725 part is important, because that was the end of the Golden Age of Piracy and several countries were combining their efforts to hunt down the last of the big-name pirates; specifically, one of the pirates in my story. As a first-time author, I struggled in my attempts to let my readers know this important worldbuilding information. Some of my early tries basically boiled down to:
The Captain reached the end of his letter: “We are not able to careen at Tortuga,” he wrote. “As you know, I’m being viciously hunted down. 1725 has certainly has had its challenges!”
“So, [name of character], here we are in 1725, and we certainly are being viciously hunted down, are we not? That is because I am a very important pirate.”
*delete with extreme prejudice*
The problem is I was dropping information in without any motivation for it—creating the notorious “info-dump,” where the author basically stops the story dead and tells the reader a bunch of information. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear your readers rolling their eyes while they put your book down.
So I spent a lot of time studying this aspect of the craft. To this day, I still look at how other authors handle the balancing act of letting the reader know the when, where, and why-it-matters of worldbuilding without “telling.” Three techniques I’ve noticed effective authors using over and over are:
a) To avoid “telling,” write information in such a way that it sets up story questions the reader will ask and then reveal world information that answers them.
b) When possible, use concrete, world-defining objects to answer story questions.
c) To keep readers reading, keep raising immediate story questions and answering them, but only to raise more.
Eric Nylund’s book The Resisters is the first of a YA science fiction series, which is, in my mind, possibly the most difficult worldbuilding situation you can find yourself in. Here’s how he uses these three techniques to show me his world. These are the first three paragraphs of his book:
1) Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.
This seems straightforward, at least at first. We know battles mean some kind of war. So Ethan is involved in a war.
2) In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt…or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.
In (2), Nylund presents a brief inner flashback. Although it might appear to be, Nylund’s flashback isn’t “telling.” It’s a response to the question raised in the first sentence: “What battle is Ethan preparing for?” But I have no way to contextualize the information the flashback gives me and so it raises more story questions—“in which someone didn’t get hurt” [wait, so the battle Ethan’s about to be in has no casualties? What kind of a battle is it where no one gets hurt?] and “his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk” [WHAT? The entire human race? And why isn’t his life at risk in this battle?].
3) At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.
(3) answers one question raised in (2)—why this “battle” isn’t a battle (it’s a game)—but it raises another immediate question: “What time period am I in?” Nylund doesn’t tell me, he shows me, in (3), by introducing a concrete, world-defining object—manned robotic exoskeletons used to play sports. He could have just told us about the exoskeleton: “Ethan put on his six hundred pound, nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit and charged out onto the field, ready to play.” “Oh really?” the reader says, “It’s six hundred pounds, is it? And it’s nuclear powered? Well, thanks for telling us that, Mr. Author! I see we are not in 2013.” EYE ROLL. We have this reaction because there is no story question driving the description. It’s just dumped in there.
But the appearance of that suit is motivated by the question “Why is this game, whatever ‘it’ is, considered a battle?” This gives us a totally different encounter with the world-defining exoskeleton: “Oh holy crap! Why are they wearing those? What is this ‘it’ they’re playing?”
Now let’s get back to (1), and its apparent straightforwardness. (2) and (3) make us we realize we no longer understand what “battle” means there. In fact, that battle now appears to be some kind of game! And that’s how we get to the story question: “What is this game, this ‘it,’ which is considered a battle and requires Ethan to strap on a six-hundred-pound metal suit?”
Nylund’s given me so much story information in such a short amount of time without me really even noticing. My attention has moved from story question to story question and so I am fully engaged as a reader—I want to know why Ethan’s life and the whole human race are in danger, and I want to know more about this mysterious game/battle and these suits. I also want to know what battle Ethan’s headed for, and whether or not I’m on earth, so I’m motivated to keep reading. But most importantly, not an eye-roll in sight because all the information was generated naturally from story questions Nylund led me, as the reader, to ask.
And now back to those pirates…