Conveying Worldbuilding Without Exposition

One of the hardest parts of writing speculative fiction is presenting readers with a world that’s interesting and different from our own in a way that’s both immersive and understandable at the same time.

Thankfully, there are a few techniques that can help you present worldbuilding information to your readers in a natural way, as well as many tricks to tweaking the presentation until it’s just right.

Four basic techniques:

1. The ignorant character. 

By introducing a character who doesn’t know about the aspects of the world building you’re trying to convey, you can let the ignorant character voice the questions the reader naturally wants to ask. Traditionally, this is seen when the protagonist or (another character) is brought into a new world, society, organization. In cases where that’s the natural outcome of the plot, and the character has a purpose in the story outside of simply asking questions, it can be pulled off just fine. But there’s another aspect to this which writers don’t often consider:

Every character is your ignorant character.

In a realistic world, no person knows everything. Someone will be behind on the news. Someone won’t know all the facts. Many, many someones won’t have studied a common part of their society simply because they aren’t a large part of that fraction or don’t have the time for it.

Instead of inserting an ignorant character and creating a stiff and annoying piece of expository dialogue, find the character already existing in the story who doesn’t know about the thing being learned.

2. Conflicting opinions.

A fantastic way to convey detailed world building concepts is to have characters with conflicting viewpoints discuss or argue about them. Unless you’re working with a brainwashed society, every character should hold their own set of religious, political, and social beliefs.

Examples of this kind of dialogue:

  • “The goddess Irelle would never ask for such a sacrifice! That’s a blasphemous addition to the sacred texts that only a damned cultist would propose.”
  • “The new lamps in the cockpit might give off a funny light, but they’re entirely recyclable! Think of all the dumps we wouldn’t need back on Earth if everyone would just switch over. If we’re ever going to successfully repopulate the planet, we need to stop polluting it further!”
  • “This is a peaceful country, yes, but one build on blood and stolen land! If you left your worthless barn more often, you would see that. The rest of the empire is not as placated as you think.”

And as a nice bonus, the reader gets to learn something about the characters beliefs, how they communicate, and how open-minded (or stubborn) they are.

3. Historically and culturally significant places and objects.

Characters bringing up worldbuilding topics out of the blue can feel forced and disruptive, but giving them a reason to talk about a specific topic helps soften the blow. Strategically places buildings and objects can ease the conversation into historical, religious, scientific, or political discussions. Things like:

  • Religion: Temples, holy books, idols, imagery, religious leaders out for a walk, worshipers praying or singing.
  • History: Monuments, statues, ancient buildings, historical artifacts (likely replicas), culturally significant designs that arose from mythology, historical fiction novels.
  • Science: New inventions being installed or tested out, academic buildings, seminar announcements, advertisements, hospitals.
  • Politics: Propaganda, reminders to vote, new laws being put into practice, angry citizens, protests, war preparations.

(Note that many of these things could also be applied to magic systems!)

4. Ignore explanations entirely.

Sometimes the best way to convey how a world works is just to dive straight in. Let the reader learn about the world by watching the main character interact with it.

This method is also a great way to start out writing your first draft, because there will always be time to adjust and add in stronger explanations for things in later drafts.

Alternately, you could go for the opposite first draft method, and write exposition for everything during your first draft, and then cut it down the the bare necessities once you start editing and rewriting.

A long list of things to remember:

– Dialogue is better than internal monologue. Whenever possible, let your characters talk about something instead of thinking it through. This eliminates daunting chunks of text and allows the reader to learn more about the other character(s) in the conversation, and the character’s relationship(s) with each other.

– Sometimes you still need internal monologue. Don’t be afraid to slap in some extra sentences of explanation when the PoV character is in a position where they’d naturally think about such things. You can always take them out if readers say they understood without the addition.

– Not everything must be known upfront. Don’t force any concepts on your reader unless the reader absolutely needs to know in order to understand the current chapter.

– Build your worldbuilding. Each concept and piece of information should build off what you’ve already establish. This means you give the very simplest concepts first, and develop them further as the story progresses.

– Use linguistics in your favor. To help your readers remember new names and terms, try giving related objects, places, ranks, etc, similar sounding words or an otherwise consistent naming scheme.

– Keep the first chapter pure. Little to no exposition should be included in the first chapter, whenever possible. That being said, readers who were immersed in the first chapter and are eagerly starting the second are now much more likely to sit through exposition because they’re already connected with the story and characters.

– Immersion is good. (Drowning is bad.) Set your first chapter somewhere the read gets a decent view of what sort of world this is at its foundation. A lone character walking through the forest could live nearly anywhere, in any era, in any type of world, with any number (or lack) of friends of family. A character and their sibling leaving a steampunk pseudo-Japanese theater pressed up against the same forest says a lot more.

But remember: not everything must be known upfront. Don’t try to introduce so much of the world that it becomes overwhelming.

– Little details say a lot. Things like architecture, curses and slang, styles of dress, typical food, even the objects a normal person carries with them, can all give major hints towards the worldbuilding, and they serve to make the world feel more real and immersive.

– Emotion is everything. How does your character feel about the world?

  • How to they describe the parts of it they love? The parts they hate?
  • What do they find scary about it?
  • Are they intrigued by advances in technology and society, or do they cling to the old ways?
  • Are they attracted to old toppling buildings with historic significance, or to new, beautiful constructs?
  • Do they sneak past the market eagerly searching for imports from distant countries, or do they make a beeline for the family owned business that’s sold homecooked pies on that street corner for seven generations?

– Different genre, different expectations. Every genre has a different ‘norm’ for how much detail (and exposition) is acceptable in the worldbuilding. Hard science fiction and adult fantasy tends to involve huge amounts of lengthy explanations, where as young adult fantasy and soft sci fi are far more immersive, occasionally to such a point that you can get away with underdeveloped worlds. Know what’s expected in your genre (though don’t necessarily feel the need to follow it.)

– Unique isn’t always better. In spec fic there’s a myth the most unique and original worldbuilding will be the most successful. But the truth is that, while you should certainly include original concepts, the more of them you have and the more original they are, the harder it will be to make the reader understand them. Readers will try to relate every piece of worldbuilding to something they already know. If they can’t find anything else similar enough, they’re likely to either never understand it, or contort it to better match something they do understand.

– If your PoV character doesn’t need to know it, neither do the readers. This doesn’t mean you should never include information your PoV character doesn’t need to know, but rather that you shouldn’t try to shove in a detail about the world just because you have it written in your notes. If it’s not necessary and it don’t come up naturally, don’t force it.

– The PoV character is the center of the world. Each character will see the world you created differently. The things they focus on, the opinions they hold about it, and the emotions it makes them feel will all be unique to that character. They aren’t simply a person living in a vast place you know a lot about, but rather a filter through which to put all the worldbuilding information through.

– Critique will save you. Worldbuilding is hard, and it will never be conveyed perfectly the first time. When you let people read your work, be sure to ask them specific questions about the worldbuilding. Having a reader describe your world in their own words will tell you a lot about whether or not you succeeded in immersing them in an understandable world.

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