How to insert world building into the narrative

World building in the narrative.

This is the single most difficult aspect of storywriting for me and has been mentioned by some commenters and one reviewer - on the webfictionreviews blog. I'm trying to do the inserting in a way that feels natural, and it's a huge challenge for me. I'd like to ask for some advice on how to do a better job with it.

Superhero stories often seem to use the "students in class" approach to tackle the issue, but I'm avoiding superhero schools altogether. They've been done plenty elsewhere. I'm using a newscast in at least one chapter, but most of the time there's no realistic reason to be checking the news at the moment an unique world aspect comes up. I care a lot about natural conversations and internalization, which means I can't elaborate on something with a whole lot of detail, especially not with a certain happy-go-lucky character. And I don't want to interrupt an ongoing scene with a big paragraph of exposition.

There's also the fact that I use a third person narrative rather than first person. And that there's a lot of world building in the background - I'm striving for a Worm scope cast of characters, who all do their thing somewhere. If I can't at least hint at something, it effectively didn't happen, and that frustrates me.

Any kind of advice would be appreciated!

It's always difficult to handle exposition without it turning into an infodump, but you're doing better at it now than you were at the very start. I think it just takes practice.

Introspection can be a good way to handle this. When you write a scene reread and see if there's anywhere the POV character might actually reasonably consider something. Like Dancer - she's got very good reasons to be thinking about her situation.

Not much help am I?


I have my own issues with world building. Its so tempting to ramble on about this aspect or that, just to give it further depth or to clarify a point that got a mention earlier. But resist.

If you can find a way to slip a little bit in to conversation you don't have to clarify right away. There are many readers that do world building treasure hunts. A bit here and a bit there.

News casts and papers are good as long as they come at the right time.

I know people advocate clarity which makes the temptation to clear up any possible misunderstandings as soon possible, but see if you can delay it. If something isn't vital leave it be.

A great many readers like having to work something out themselves.

Hmm. Well, I've had a number of readers complimenting me on my worldbuilding recently, and I do also write in third-person, so I suppose I have relevant experience here.

There's a hell of a lot of exposition that goes on in my story, but I always try to wait until either A) the explanation is immediately relevant to the plot in some way, or B) it's something that has already mentioned two or more times but has yet to be explained in detail. I think as a kind of loose general rule, serial authors should hold off on giving exposition until the reader has a reason to care about it--until the reader is curious, in other words. Let them WANT to know the explanation.

How do you do that? Well. First, I think you have to let them know that there IS an explanation, that you're not just spouting nonsense. And perhaps the best way the way to accomplish this is by doing it on a smaller scale in the very beginning of your story. Like a trial run, basically. Present a curious scenario, something in need of explanation, and then do exactly that. Explain. Preferably whilst setting up the next plot point or set of plot points. It's a bit boring if all plot progression is halted that early in the story, so try preserve as much forward momentum as you can. If you pull it off, you'll be able to establish a quick rapport with your readers. They'll understand that you actually DO have explanations for the things in your story and that you won't keep them perpetually in the dark. Because readers hate that sort of thing. Usually. I know I do.

After that, start doing it on a larger scale. And try not to screw up. That's important.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that the worldbuilding isn't only supposed to explain things. It's supposed to give the readers a glimpse of what your story has to offer, of where it's going, of its tone and feel. And that glimpse should probably be <i>exciting</i>. Exposition IS the story. It's not just a narrative tool or an opportunity to show off how smart you are. It's just as much a part of the text as anything else you put down.

Hope that helps.

The world must serve the story, not the other way around.

I think you have an advantage over, let's say Tempest, by having your story occur on an altered version of the real world. I might be wrong, but as far as I can see, the world in Anathema is pretty much the same as our world up until 2010. That will help you greatly because you won't have to hold the hand of your readers when it comes to the way the world itself works, its history and culture; its nations and their politics; the level of technology, etc.

The other advantage you have over other works of fiction is that, speaking in general terms, Chris and Sarina are both relatively new to that part of your world that is different from ours. Why is it an advantage? Because they can draw attention to the fantastic elements of your world and not look foolish while doing it.

Familiarity breeds apathy. If you saw someone driving a car down the street, what would you think? What do you think about someone using a smartphone to take a picture of themselves? What is your opinion on indoor plumbing? I don't know about you, but for me, the response would be something along the lines of "meh". Ask the same thing to someone who has never seen those things, and the response will be vastly different.

You could exploit that very same principle. Do your characters know enough about their world to be apathetic towards the fantastic elements? Do they even care? If they care, is just mild curiosity or their interest is bordering in obsession?

The answer you give will show you the way to dealing with exposition in dialogue. For example, if one of your characters doesn't care about the things that happen around the world, would they know who Shanti is? Would they know what is the Covenant? Would they know the UN is involved? Would they even know the people with superpowers are actually wearing costumes and doing heroic/dastardly deeds? If the answer is 'no', you could have a good and easy way to deliver a bit of information.

"Shanti is only the greatest hero this world has ever known. I can't believe you don't know that, dude. Do you live under a rock or something?

That's another thing, it is better to deliver exposition through action and dialogue than through description alone. And don't think the third-person limited POV makes it harder to deliver the exposition; internal monologues aren't that good. I mean, unless you're a Hollywood Schizophrenic, who is going to listen to your beautiful explanation on the laws and customs of costumed heroes?

Although, tropes are not bad and you can make that work. What if one of your characters likes talks to himself/herself? Maybe he or she needs to make an important decision so they find a mirror and start talking to themselves, delivering another bit of exposition along the way.

"Should I join the Covenant? If I do I'd have to fight the bad guys under the banner of the United Nations. What do you think?" She let out a sigh when the cat gave her a confused look. "I know you can't really talk. Pretending you can helps me think, okay? Please don't judge me."

Finally, there's the approach of treating the fantastic elements of your world like something relatively normal. What this means is that you don't necessarily have to explain every little detail of your world. Mentioning a random quirk of your world doesn't mean you have to explain it right away. If you infer the nature of the thing that is being mentioned (Is it good or bad? Is it safe or harmful? Can it be eaten?), then you can deliver the explanation bit by bit over a long period of time.

For example, in A Song of Ice and Fire, we're introduced to the Others and Wights in the very first chapter (prologue), but at that point we still don't understand what they really are, how they work, what they want, etc. All we know is that they are bad news for anyone unlucky enough to find one. Also, we know that they're not exactly what you'd call 'normal' in our world. So there.

TL;DR: Use dialogue and action to deliver exposition but remember you don't have to explain everything right away and, in some cases, at all.

First off, abandon the idea you have to explain everything. Readers have a unique interaction with exposition. If you force it on them, they'll reject it. If you tease them with it, they'll embrace it. Visual mediums like comics or video games have a much easier time, since a music track or an object in the background can tell a whole story on its own.

In my opinion, the best approach is to give three-quarters of the exposition. You don't have some guy just sit and explain the step by step in how the War of Dogs changed the landscape, or how the continents rest of the backs of nine great beasts with nine names and nine stories, or how Thaddeus stopped an army of ten thousand on his lonesome. You drop hints, you mention stuff obliquely, and you get the reader's attention.

The main character stops by a small dog shrine on the way out of town, a stone block surrounded by a hundred weapons that have rusted to the point of near-unrecognizability, all planted in the ground. He cuts off a bit of bread and a half an apple and puts it on the shrine.

A story progresses, and the main characters reach the literal end of their world, a steep cliff, looking out on void and clouds. With a great, vast creaking, the landscape moves, and a head so large they can only see some of the eye fills the nothingness in front of them - as far left as they can see, as far right, as far up and down. The creature their continent rests on has turned its head, and the main characters take it in stride - surprised or awed, but not shocked.

At a party, someone nudges the main character's arm. "See him? General Thaddeus."

"Am I supposed to know him?"

"He's the smartest man you'll ever meet, and in terms of political power, there isn't a mother in this city that wouldn't bend over backward for him."

"Haha. He has a thing for mothers then?"

Serious: "No. When we were being invaded, six years ago, ten thousand men thirsty for blood, and only conscripts to protect us, he was the one who turned them back."

Hints. Suggestions. Intriguing elements and painted scenes. Let readers fill in the blanks, they'll often do it on their own, or they'll enjoy the process of trying to connect the dots.

Sprinkle little elements like this or little elements throughout. This is easier to do if you're basing your setting on the real world. Mark the stuff that's distinctly different in a way that readers will remember. If you can't find a way to drop something in the middle of conversation between characters, it's very possible it's just not that worth dropping, or it wouldn't be that interesting to your readers.

Well, needed this feed. Great tips. Can't really give any tips on my own with struggling with controlling this.

Great advice here.

The naive character can work well as a reader's way into the story, but be careful of that; it is somewhat overused these days and readers are savvy enough to spot it. If you're going to do that, do it well.

My rule of thumb is to only explain enough to make the current scene make sense. Write it as if the reader knows about the world and are living in it alongside your characters, and only need reminders. Drop hints. Explain where things might be confusing.

Worldbuilding is important for you as a writer, to make sure you know your world. The majority of it probably won't make it into the story explicitly. If you know it well when you're writing, it'll bleed through to your readers fairly naturally. Less is most definitely more.

Very good advice Kess, though word of warning for those who might fall into the same trap as I did. Don't overdo the hints and let them be all your the world building, especially in the first chapter... Well, unless it's a mystery, then that might be an interesting concept, though very hard to pull off without visual media. In my case, instead of explaining the situation to help build the world, I just made a flat one with no impression because I jumped around with several background concepts of my main character instead of sinking the teeth into one or two concepts to help explain out the situation and scene. Though, doesn't help I am working on my first original story(fanfiction writer)with getting a buffer going and the beginning have drove me up the walls. Hence, taking the advice of "write your beginning last" for this rewrite of the arc and see if that helps me out to finally get a focused beginning that works. If it does, then I will have to ensure I have a damn good buffer for my works till I get back to where I can write beginnings easily like in high school.

Thanks for the great advice, everyone. It probably does come down to practice, in the end.

I need to develop a feel for the subtle differences between "this is vague enough to keep me guessing" and "this is so vague that I can't get into the story and I'll stop reading now, kthxbye." I probably do a poor job at distinguishing between the two.

Maybe needers also need to get used to looking for hints they can connect the dots with. Based on some comments, I get the impression they just read over a lot of the subtle little things, maybe not knowing they're there. I'm curious to see if anyone will get an "AHA!" effect after the arc 2 ending reveal. And especially after the arc 3 ending reveal.

I'd say George and Wildbow have pretty much everything I would have said, and said much better (Wildbow, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore)

But I would agree with your last statement, practice. Also, dont be afraid to have a friend read it, give feedback, and if necessary, chuck it all and start again.

... And that is the weirdest compliment I have ever seen given to a writer. Definitely not what I would associate with Wildbow, that's for sure.

/sashays off

lol. Its a quote from Blazing Saddles.

Dang Wildbow that's a great response! I popped in to see how WFG was doing and was all like "yes! a thread about world building!" but there's not much left to add.

I guess because of my cartooning background I see world building in the same light - I cartoon. I add details that are memorable and paint a picture in the reader's mind as best I can so I can leave them daydreaming about it long after they've finished. This is an interactive medium, after all.

And of course, as mentioned above, let the story guide the world building. I would also argue, though, if there is a really juicy detail about the world that is just too damn awesome and you can't stop thinking about it, find a way to plug that in even if it's not super important to the plot. In my experience, it's those almost unnecessary tidbits that readers appreciate and remember. For example, I have an entire chapter dedicated to setting the scene in a catacomb, and when I had my reader survey many people pointed to it as one of their favorite sequences. Also a probably unnecessary sequence of my characters eating a funny alien meal, but everyone seemed to love it. Sometimes it's worth pausing the plot for a beat or two so you can spend some time just living in the world and with the characters. It makes it that much more painful when you destroy them all. :)

I'm in many ways a very green writer (indeed in one sense I'm not a writer at all but a mere user of the medium), but I'll chip in with some thoughts about world building in stories. My stories are a bit of odd duck, in that in many ways the descriptions are supposed to be some of main meat of the stories. The objective is a kind of cut away, like if the action froze in a film and then a humorous narrator explained the odd creature that had appeared like some manner of weird travel log.

My suggestion would be to never try what I am doing because it is a total knife edge. If I remain humourous, get you to chuckle at the narration and are eager to get back to the action/dialog then I win. If I bore you to tears and you wonder why I can't just get back to the good stuff, I've failed in my writing.

Now it isn't as if I give these descriptions to everything, I have to pick my battles, and in the case of my creatures, I kind of have to describe what they look like anyway due to the sheer alienness of some of them.

Of course not spending more than a paragraph on the actual physical description helps. You can get away with almost anything if you can make the reader enjoy it too. Heavy description is an option, though a dangerous one, I believe there is even an academic name for it or something. Thing is though, there is all kinds of things you can do to reduce the burden of writing. A familiar setting to the average reader can greatly reduce some of the things you need to explain or show.

Something worth being aware of is your descriptive strengths and weaknesses, you will more than likely be better at describing some things than other things, you could for example be able to describe breathtaking scenery in a similarly breathtaking fashion, but draw a blank when it comes to neat descriptions of characters and their mannerisms. I feel that playing to your strengths is very important, it isn't that you should just let your weaknesses rot, but there isn't much virtue in wrestling with them and getting nowhere. Write a story that takes advantage of your descriptive strengths, if you have a talent for word sculpting mountains, sculpt those mountains and don't set your story in a series of dark rooms that can't be described as much other than dark and gloomy.

For reference I'm not so good at backgrounds. ;.;

Anyway I am not terribly good at explaining things, but there are my thoughts, messy as they are. If I am saying something stupid it is either actually stupid or I messed up what I meant to say.

From what I remember reading what I have, you actually did a fair job in the prologue on this topic. <spoiler>the healer who walked from town to town being warshipped as a goddess wherever she went<end of spoiler> that was a really interesting idea for me.

World building is about coming up with interesting ideas which your readers wants to read about in detail. If the idea isn't interesting, then why would I want to read about it's details? It's the hardest part because this is where you have to actually come up with inspired ideas to write about.

Forget the idea that you have to explain every detail. You only want to explain things which you've caught the readers interest with. If the reader doesn't care about a description, then you aren't doing your job as a writer. Every paragraph is an idea which is designed to inspire interest from the reader, and the descriptions are only offered about what the reader wants to know about because you've inspired that interest in them.

Character interactions are part of world building, and they need to be interesting. Maybe one character is a hot head who's always ready to knock even his own team mates heads off. Maybe you have a girl who despite her own weakness, always is the first to jump head first into danger because its the right thing to do.

As far as the world around you goes, its the same idea again, come up with concepts in the world that readers want to read about. Maybe one country supports slavery and is actively conquering its neighbors for slaves. Maybe there are really oppressive laws in another country against women which the people hate, but the government is supporting.

Onto battle descriptions, once again think about interesting effects. This is one of the areas which almost every writer sucks at. Wildblow is above average at it, but not perfect <spoiler>in worm he has the girl using a bee to sting some guys eyeball, in pact he has monsters which can only be killed using some ritualistic contraption.<end of spoiler> If it's just some guy swinging around a pipe for 10 minutes, I don't wanna hear about it, if it's him shoving it through a guys eyeball in a fit of rage, then yea I wanna hear that.

Where I see your story going is jumping from one interesting hero idea to another in their natural habitats. Maybe your heroes travel to the jungles of Africa to fight a witch doctor who's been turning the locals into an army of zombies. Maybe they travel into the depths of the ocean to fight a giant mutated squid with a human face.