I'm writing sort of a space-opera and I was wondering what would the best way to explain everything about the world to my readers. The story is kind of a political intrigue, and it would be very easy for the reader to get confused.

In this universe there is quite a lot of propaganda and government disinformation in magazines and such. I'm thinking about placing these in-between my chapters as a way of explaining the setting to the reader. Is it a good idea? And in general how do you explain a made-up setting to the reader?

(also, it's my first post, yay !)

  • 3
    Space opera? Sign me up. But on topic, I do remember a couple of books where the chapters began and ended with illustrations of wanted posters, news articles, and other world related stuff. They were books for like... end-of-elementary-early-middle-schoolers, I'm not sure what you'd call that particular genre. In any case, I liked those pieces of the story. I'm not sure if it's a good idea, but I think it brings depth to a piece to have pieces of the world being shown to the reader, even if they aren't directly referenced in the story. I could see this getting distracting in a novel, though.
    – Ice-9
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 13:03
  • Yeah I'm afraid it will get distracting at some point. To be honest I'm familiar with this technique because I use it a lot in tabletop roleplaying to describe the world to the players. I will ask my proofreaders for feedback to see if it's getting to distracting or if it breaks the pacing.
    – Burnlan
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 13:39
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    Related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/9505/… Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 16:31
  • I am working through similar issues, creating a world makes you want to share it, its hard to pull yourself out of all the things you know about the world so you want to make sure the reader knows those things to...problem is it is a lot of information and generally an info dump prologue is ignored or frowned upon. I am starting to like the idea of using periodic artworks to help facilitate. In the end if people like the book you can publish a companion book "The world of XXX"
    – James
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 14:31

6 Answers 6


Short version: Carefully.

Long Version:

It is definitely true that any kind of fantasy/sci if setting that departs in its construction significantly from the shabby parade of commitment phobic half-truths we call reality will require some explanation to, and understanding from, that most ferociously temperamental creature known as the reader.

The best approach to this whole ugly, messy business is to ignore it as much as possible. Consider, for a moment, the opening of the original Star Wars (the one called A New Hope these days, kids). A large spaceship chases a small spaceship through the inky blackness of the void of space. The large spaceship bears down on its quarry...

Do we need to know much more? Or do we recognize the David and Goliath rematch where Goliath is making all the right moves and David is on the ropes? Do we need to know much more, or care about it, to get right into this story? No, of course not.

A New Hope drip feeds you information as and when you need it to make sense of a character beat or a story moment. The characters and story, told in broad universal strokes, are the focus, the world-info is used to colour the broader themes.

Thankfully the Star Wars saga also gives us a "Things to avoid" in the shape of the opening of The Phantom Menace.

What's happening at the beginning of The Phantom Menace? Something to do with trade delegations, blockades, diplomatic Jedi. It's a mess. The amount of info you need just to parse the dramatic stakes is too large to be comfortably accommodated. The Phantom Menace then goes on to bludgeon us with overegged explanations of stuff we don't really care about for the remaining time it graces the screen.

In summary: concentrate on characters in universally relatable scenarios and then flavour their trials and tribulations with bits and pieces from the wider world. Doing it the other way round is a sure recipe for getting quickly out of your depth.


Re: Deus Ex Machina (see comments)

Essentially what I'm saying is that these universal characters in universal situations are the thing that should be the focus. When Han shot Greedo first (honest) it was not a Deus Ex Machina because twenty minutes ago Ben had labelled Mos Eisley a "wretched hive of scum and villainy". Logically, as Han is the kind of guy to hang out in such a dive, it is unsurprising that his character should indulge in such antisocial antics as a means of survival.

Meanwhile the audience is gently introduced to the idea that Tatooine is one kind of place rather than another. Following a viewing of A New Hope, an audience member could tell you that on Tatooine there are honest moisture farmers trying to eke out a living under the boot of the empire but there is also a space port on the planet called Mos Eisley which has a reputation as not being the most savoury of places.

We also learn that there's a gangster on the world called Jabba, who will dispatch hitmen to deal with smugglers who give them problems... although in the original editions Jabba's character was not fully, heh, fleshed out until Return of the Jedi and then retconned back into the Special Edition of A New Hope.

In any case all world building here serves to flavour the plot and characters. So, once again, the key point is to have great characters involved in easily relatable actions as long as the world still needs explaining. That, of course, is the tricky bit.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. I can definitely agree on Star Wars with you, but I think it also shows my problem. The Phantom Menace opening is confusing because the story is supposed to be based around political intrigue; describing it by ignoring it doesn't give enough information to the viewer. It works really well in the original trilogy because it was more of a simple story and the world didn't really matter, the focus was on the characters and their journey. Also I fear that giving detailled information only when needed could make the reader feel cheated by a deus ex-machina out of nowhere.
    – Burnlan
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 13:47
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    Deus Ex Machina is a symptom of introducing information too late the devil of this one is in the judgement of when something is needed. See Edit Above.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 16:28
  • One of the reasons Star Wars (bugger the ANH nonsense) works so well is because it is structurally a Hero's Journey, lifted directly from Campbell and Hero With a Thousand Faces. Part of the reason the prequel trilogy doesn't work is that it's not based on a similar millennia-old structure. (That, and the crappy dialogue and total lack of characterization. But I digress.) So yes, if your plot works, then your created world will enhance it. If your plot has holes you could fly a star destroyer through, no amount of cool world-building will fix it. Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 16:34
  • One thing to note about Star Wars: There is an opening crawl that serves as a prologue - `It is a period of civil war. [...] Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship' - basically, that is telling, not showing. Apart from that, Star Wars is a great example because the first movie is a very small story with few moving parts - it's a huge universe, but a narrow scope and thus a gentle introduction. Commented May 24, 2014 at 8:22
  • It's an odd thing though, when I was 8/9 years old watching Star Wars for the first time I didn't actually read the crawl I was just bouncing up and down in my seat excited to be seeing Star Wars. I always view the opening crawl info as optional filler, the fact of the crawl happening as an experience is more important, or was to me, than the actual content. It's a sort of meta moment, the crawl just means "Hey gang it's Star Wars time!"
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 11:09

I'm always a bit surprised by this question.

My first impulse is to ask: Don't you read the type of book you want to write?!? You should remember how the world was introduced in those books, and how you reacted to that.

Personally, I never read prologues, interludes and similar detours from the main plot.

My recommendation is:

Just write your story.

Whenever you introduce a new concept, then just explain it then and there. And if your story runs smoothly without all the background of myths and politics and races and foods, then don't explain it at all.


You may be interested in Brandon Sanderson's lecture series on writing long form fantasy and science fiction:


This is an excellent series on the practical craft of writing and particularly about what you asked about, writing about what is alien to the reader.

He talks at one point about the dangers of "Infodump", ie dumping a lot of information on the reader about your "alien" world, particularly at the beginning of the book. His main advice was to ground the reader in the scene by using concrete language and description, while layering abstract information on top. A description of a concrete object can say a lot about the world and the characters. One of his examples was to describe the wall of a city. One character might notice that it was an excellent wall to fend off a siege. This tells us that siege warfare is a reality in this world, and also that the character has a military background, while still keeping us grounded in an image of the physical scene. Every concrete description can have a multiple purpose that tells us something about the alien world. In a very alien world the trick is in keeping an appropriate balance. If you can show everything through the eyes of your characters you will avoid going off into abstract descriptions of things.

It's also worth considering that it may not be necessary for all of the details of your world to actually make it in to the book. Their presence can be felt without an explicit description. That feeling of realness comes from all the things you don't see as much as those you do. Just think about Tolkein's Silmarillion. He had a whole mythical history for Middle Earth that was never published in his lifetime, but the weight of that detail can be felt in his published fiction.


One common way to do this is to have one character that is as new to the environment and knows as little about it as the reader. (I think this is what meer2kat's answer was talking about.) Then as the character learns when s/he needs to know, the readers learn it, too.

For example, if you've read DUNE, consider the part where Paul and mother run away to live among the Fremen. They're a foreign people in an exotic and dangerous place, so at first they ask a lot of questions about how Fremen live and why, but as they learn to understand the Fremen, so do we the readers.

And consider how many movies and first episodes of TV shows begin with the arrival of a new character. They have to get to know the other people, their interrelationships, and the "local rules." As learn them, the audience does, too.

I'm struggling with this exact situation myself, and it's not easy. It's like a tug-of-war between "explain too much and be boring" and "explain too little and be confusing." Usually I err toward less explanation, then I have someone I trust read a passage. If they're confused or have questions, I reconsider what I've written. Good luck to you.

  • Also the Hobbits. Such a role in the literary or tale format is usually described as the ‘mediator’ between the reader and the story. Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 10:56

Unlike @what, I often enjoy the extra material, particularly if you have it set up as a chapter interstitial or a page or two of introductory material before a chapter gets underway. It allows the reader to get another view of the world which could not be presented through the eyes of the characters — what's being discussed on TV, how people in other countries are viewing the events, newspaper editorials, email interchanges, etc. I think in particular the government propaganda could be really fascinating as an interstitial. It's not something you want to stop the actual story for in medias res, but as a "here's what Jack and Sally were talking about earlier" reference, it can be useful.

Write it and ask your betas for feedback. You can't edit a blank page.


A prologue that no one will read? Kidding..

In all seriousness, a technique I often use is pretty simple. I'll grab a young character that's being forced to learn history and have them read short spurts from a book or argue with the teacher to get some basic points across.

Another technique would be to use a character on the run due to their failure to obey the cultural norms/laws as an entry in to the story.

Neither need to have anything to do with the story itself. They're sole purpose is the introduce your world to the reader.

  • 2
    Thanks for the answer ! But I don't really see the difference between a prologue that no one will read and setting up the world with a cahracter that has nothing to do with the story. In both cases it doesn't have anything to do with the story. But I think I can shoehorn some scenes that take place in schools or spend some time describing what the character sees on the news.
    – Burnlan
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 14:42
  • Exactly. I guess the difference to me is that most of the prologues I come across are long detailed histories versus what I do where I just have a short clip detailing what's going on.
    – meer2kat
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 15:07
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    @Burnlan The kind of character meer2kat is referring to is a cabbagehead: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/7857/… Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 16:35
  • 1
    Oh, fancy! Thank you for the insight! I can add that word to my writers toolbox now :)
    – meer2kat
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 16:38

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