I want to write a fantasy novel, but there are a few issues that I have with the way that I should write it. One of my questions lies in the problem of how I, the narrator/book-writer, can inform my readers about my book world without stating it outright.

For instance, if my book people had seven fingers instead of five. How could I explain this without resorting to "Since my people have seven fingers, this is the counting system."?

I would appreciate a variety of storytelling strategies here. One size doesn't fit all.

  • 7
    I agree. This question about the narrative strategies needed to write a story. Hint: most writers describe their fictional world as if it's the normal world and allow the differences to emerge naturally. Readers are, usually, smart enough to work these things out for themselves.
    – a4android
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 0:48
  • How to weave these information into a story actually depends a lot on the chosen perspective and who your narrator is. First person point of view will be very different than third person omniscient. Unfortunately, I'm very bad with perspective, so I don't feel confident enough to give actual advice on this.
    – B Altmann
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 11:04
  • The extra fingers in the extended world of Darkover are rarely referred to and when they are it is usually because the mention serves a purpose. A memorable example of this happened when the bandit Rumal di Scarp captured the wrong man, who looked exactly like the man he wanted to capture, except for the fact that the man had only five fingers on each hand (he was an earth man). The man's rescuers commented that if the bandit had stopped to count the man's fingers, he would have realized the captive had the wrong number and killed him on the spot.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 14:55
  • Look at the opening of the novel "Jewel and Thorn" by Richard Poole. It elegantly explains that the characters are, on average, six inches tall. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:17
  • 3
    Since you asked for other techniques, here's one you may be able to use: illustrations. The cover of "Jewel and Thorn" shows two people with a wagon drawn by a mouse. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:19

7 Answers 7


As the wagon bounced along the rutted road, Prax was objecting to Lis's notion that they should both run away to start a new life in the city.

"I can think of seven reasons that won't work," Prax said, holding up all seven fingers of his right hand.

Curling in his outer thumb, he said, "First, we've never been to the city, and we have no idea if it's actually as exciting as they say."

Folding up his inner thumb, he continued, "Second, neither of us has any Platinum of our own, and I've heard everything in the city costs Platinum."

Finally, he curled in his five fingers, "And reasons three through seven, we have papa, mama, Calli, Adra, and little Gana. We'd be leaving them all alone if we ran off."

  • 7
    This is a great answer! But this text makes it sounds to me like there are six fingers on each hand (one thumb + five fingers) and that Prax held up the thumbs of both his left and right hands, all five fingers on his right hand, and none of the fingers on his left hand. The question said seven fingers on each hand. So I'm wondering if, in this answer, it was intended that Prax has two thumbs on each hand? If so, this could probably be made a little clearer. Or, if this answer is intending to show a six fingered hand, it might help to call that out. Since the question referenced seven fingers.
    – Zach
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:53
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    This is an excellent answer. I would like to point out the principle that it follows, however: show, don't tell. Infodumping is one of those perfect situations to show instead of telling. This answer demonstrates perfectly how to do it, though I might just change the wording to 'all seven fingers' rather than explaining the number of thumbs. As Zach pointed out, that gets confusing. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 19:04
  • 2
    @ThomasMyron Or instead of simplifying the phrasing, you could go with the opposite approach and make it more confusing to justify the exposition: "There are 3 reasons I only replaced 2 of the 4 fingers I lost with prosthetics", Prax said while holding up half the fingers on his left hand. "Wait, what? How many did you used to have?", interrupted Lis. "Six, same as everyone else. The missing fingers are on my right hand".
    – Ray
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 21:32
  • Thank you! I've taken your advice and removed the confusing "left thumb" / "right thumb" phrasing. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 5:05

There are several techniques:

  • Have a narrator voice explicitly stating the relevant differences.
  • Take everything for granted and hint changes indirectly (e.g.: if your aliens have seven fingers describe one "wearing an inordinately expensive ring on his seventh finger")
  • Describe the world giving "hind-reasons" (e.g.: "He looked at the clock's fourteen hours, one for each finger, counting slowly the time remaining before...").
  • Use analogies (e.g.: "the crab was scurrying sideways on his fourteen legs. It looked like two hands united at the wrist with the hind legs shorter as pinkies and the foremost raised like index fingers pointing toward ...").

In general you can either state what relevant or let the reader "discover" differences from descriptions.

  • 3
    GRRM is very fond of option 2. Oh you're confused while reading something? Just roll with it and assume he knows what's up. It'll all make sense in a few pages. Or it won't. Whatever.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 6:16
  • The question has been migrated to Writers.
    – user
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 9:12

The simple answer is that you don't. You don't tell the reader anything that is not needed to support the plot of theme of the story.

There are a lot of people who enjoy world building as a hobby and when they have built a world they want to write a novel set in it as a way of taking people on a guided tour of that world. Their primary interest in the story is to make sure that all the features of the world that they are especially proud of get included in the tour. This is a harmless hobby, but it is not how novels are written.

In a novel, story arc is paramount and story arc consists of a character resolving a conflict between two desires. At its heart is a moral choice (a choice between values) and the working out of the consequences of that choice. The plot of a story exists to bring the character to the place where they are forced to make this difficult choice and to then demonstrate that they have made it and lived with the consequences of it.

The purpose of setting is to provide a stage on which this plot can be acted out, where the incidents and coincidences on which the plot depends can be portrayed convincingly. Thus world building is the servant of setting, which is the servant of plot, which is the servant of story arc/character arc. A novel requires, and should only exhibit, as much world building as is required for the setting to do its job.

That does not mean that there is no room for details like hobbits hairy feet, which play no role in the plot per se, but it does mean that these details should be used sparingly. And don't fall into the trap (which others will inevitably recommend) of working them into the action of a scene. That approach simply detract from the reader's appreciation of the scene, or induces the writer to include an unnecessary scene just to work world building details into it. Both these things bore the reader. They can also be confusing. If a scene sneaks in the fact that one character has seven fingers, it that a feature of the race or is that particular character deformed? If you want to tell readers, for the sake of local color, that your characters have seven fingers, do what Tolkien did and just tell them.

  • 1
    While I wouldn't argue about the points you are making, a novel set in his world as a way of taking people on a tour is exactly what Tolkien did with LoTR. The world itself only existed as a demonstration model of the evolution of languages.
    – Peter Wone
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 9:12
  • 1
    @PeterWone I would argue that that is exactly what Tolkien avoided doing with LOTR. It is, perhaps, exactly what he was doing in The Silmarillion, which nobody but the most ardent fanboy ever reads and which would never have been published at all were it not for the success of LOTR. The world itself may have been created for other purposes than to tell the story of LOTR, but in LOTR is is not used (much) for purposes other than story.
    – user16226
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 12:28
  • In published correspondence Tolkien was quite clear that he used LoTR to further develop the cultures involved, language being an expression of culture in the most literal sense. He was trying to give a sense of the cultures because that is essential to understanding the languages. You are spot on about the Silmarillion but LoTR is also a synthesis and re-expression of extant myth. Nevertheless, LoTR is a tiny blip in timeline and only portrays one moment in time so in that sense I will agree with you that it is more a novel than a development of myth.
    – Peter Wone
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 1:00

The goal is to show, not tell...

With two rings on her middle finger and one on each of the three fingers to each side, Mary wore far more jewelry than tradition required, but the emerald band on her outer thumb and rose crest on her second pinky were both sentimental. She would feel naked without them.

...so try to describe the difference while conveying something else of value to the reader. In this case, I'm showing the reader that Mary has seven fingers while implying to them how important her jewelry (and appearance in general) is to her.


You can also tell about such features by having a walk-on character with a deformity or amputation. I have met at least four people missing one or more fingers, or with a half finger. Check out this link of disabled politicians (in the US, but also elsewhere):


So you can have a bartender, delivery guy, messenger, store clerk, etc missing a finger, and your MC observes that:

Joe thought the worker was holding the hammer oddly, then realized he only had six fingers: The inner thumb was amputated near the bottom knuckle, and he had a weaker grip on it. Probably a work accident, he thought. It wasn't the first person he'd seen that lost a finger or three to a circular saw.

This kind of surprise or shock or 'resolved confusion' is related to conflict, or internal conflict, a puzzle to solve for an observant character. It lets you impart information, show him to be observant and a problem solver, even though the 'problem' has nothing to do with the plot; it is a character trait.

Similar to humor, it can show a character thinks out of the box, is not relentlessly serious, etc. That might not impact directly on the plot, but it can help readers relate better to the character.


Troll mom was pleasantly surpised by a 49-niner party given to her by her husbands, she earned this title by having 7 children with 7 fingers each, perfectly healthy children I must say.

—from one great book that have never been written


All the answers you received are great. From your MC's POV when he first sees someone with seven fingers, you could just say: The Main Character watched the man close the distance between them. When he was close enough, the MC noticed the man's hands. No, not an Earth human but a Tzor alien, the MC realized. Tzors looked like Earth humans and only the 2 extra fingers on each hand showed their true nature. Which, after their planet Tzor was destroyed with a nuclear bomb, made them blend in with humans far easier. The Tzor raised one hand and closed the three middle fingers in the traditional greeting of his people.

See how short this is. But we know several things: that Tzors lost their planet, they look like humans, have seven fingers, live with humans and have a gesture all their own. You don't need to write a whole chapter just to show them and their seven fingers. Narrate the points when the need arises during the novel and let the flow of the story guide you.

Edit: Michael Richardson, you're right. I didn't understand it. My bad. I apologize. But I don't think it's as hard as you say. If the author starts describing the new character like he would describe a normal one, and keep with the details throughout the story, it will appear normal to the readers in the end. Maybe (I'm going to keep Tzor): The MC watched his friend, Tzor, approach. He waved at him in the gesture they had used since they were kids, with the first three fingers closed and the seventh one slightly bent. Tzor would understand it. He was more like a brother to him. They were born on the same day and had lived next to each other all their lives.

Tzor used the same gesture to wave back with not just one, but three arms. The MC grinned. He was relieved to see his seven foot, green haired friend back safe from war and his usual funny self.

Continuing along the same vein through the whole story, won't make the characters sound abnormal with 6 arms and seven fingers.

  • 2
    This can work when you have an "earth-normal" human to compare to. The OP seems to want a new normal, where everyone has 7 fingers, which is more difficult to subtly portray. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:04

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