In my last post, I talked about the kinds of questions I ask myself when I'm building a brand new world and magic system for my manuscripts. You can read it here. This time, I'm talking about the other key component of world-building: releasing information without boring or overwhelming the reader.
When you're building a completely new world, there's a temptation to explain everything about that world right away so the reader understands the mechanics upfront. You might narrate a lot of background information that the reader 'must' appreciate for the story to make sense - or to save you explaining it later. This leads to info dumping - and annoying even the most patient of readers. So, how do you let the reader into your cool new world without paragraphs of dull exposition?
Start with the barest, most relevant components and flesh them out.
Here are three broad questions I ask myself while I'm working on a new manuscript:
1. How can I show my MC in characteristic moments and keep world-building relevant?
2. What is the minimum the reader and MC must understand for this scene to matter and make sense?
3. How can I use conflict to explore this world and reveal its complexities?
I ask these and a wide range of related questions the whole time I'm drafting and revising. They all link back to that one concept - start thin, flesh out. Keep everything tight and relevant. I find it easier to add details than cut. It helps me avoid info dumping if I consider my manuscript a canvas: I can always deepen the colour and add layers if it's too sparse or pale in spots.
We don't need to know everything at once. In the opening scene or two, I focus mainly on introducing the character and an initial story question as opposed to heavy world-building. I then consider what is important to that character about the world - if it matters to the MC, it'll matter to the reader. This helps with voice, too. Starting small with a narrow focus gives me something to build upon after allowing the reader to become invested in the MC and their situation.
The gist of this, then, is to keep everything directly relevant to the main character. If it doesn't matter to the MC at that point, why are we learning about it? If we don't 'need' to know yet, why tell us? Every revelation must earn its right to be there. Start basic, then expand. Show your hero or heroine in an engaging situation and make the revelation count - readers absorb details more effectively if they feel immersed and part of the action as opposed to bystanders reading a textbook.
Speaking of showing over telling, use conflict to your advantage. Keep everything tense. Have characters bicker over a world flaw, or a poor leader, or the empty kitchen and coffers. Don't simply tell us these problems exist somewhere, some place in that world. Make your characters suffer at the hands of twisted laws. Show us the unique, personal reasons why they're marrying or allying with someone they can't stand, and the consequences of failure - don't just narrate the background.
Show us the antagonist in action, and characters debating over what to do - or fighting over the aftermath. If your MC has a sore spot, make them confront it - don't only tell us what they fear or what they hate about their world. Make setting count, but have your MC interact with it as opposed to just paragraphs of description. Again, this helps with voice - something I'm talking about next time!
Bottom line - world-building is hard. It takes practice. Keep things focused and relevant with the promise of expansion, and you're well on your way to creating an immersive world.