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In the first chapter of my trilogy's first act introduces the protagonist, other major players in the series and the series' setting. The bulk of my trilogy takes place in a city that has been ravaged a massive explosion and sealed off from the outside world by a shadowy military organisation called S.W.O.R.D, who are dead ringers for Blackwatch from [PROTOTYPE]... if Blackwatch was a peacekeeping organisation that answered to the UN Security Concil, significantly less psychotic and run by card-carrying Laconophiles.

In this chapter, the audience learns that S.W.O.R.D has disabled all forms of wireless communications such as the Internet and cell phones. A large fleet of ships blockades the city's harbour and extends along the surrounding coastline, while a strictly enforced no-fly zone stops civilian aircraft flying over the area, and a massive wall prevents anyone from entering or exiting the city. The first chapter sees the protagonist navigate his way through the city and reveals that vast ramshackle slums have sprung up in the blast's wake where poverty, severe malnutrition and disease are an everyday reality for the city's denizens, in spite of S.W.O.R.D issuing humanitarian aid.

It's revealed that S.W.O.R.D has also established various checkpoints throughout the city and the Krypteia (S.W.O.R.D's intelligence-gathering division, which consists of operatives skilled at hiding within a civilian population) acting as a secret police (who follow the protagonist and his brother over the chapter's tenure).

I want to get all of this across to the audience in the first chapter without informing them in a rushed manner without putting in any effort into how I do it. One of the many reasons I detest The Hunger Games (along with its soulless prose, flat mentally stunted characters, unsubtle social commentary, heavy-handed symbolism and nonsensical worldbuilding) is that Suzanne Collins doesn’t know how to show rather than tell. For example, in the first book's opening chapter, Katniss tells us that District 12 is a shithole rife with poverty and disease in a huge info-dump, yet we never see anything to support this. It gets worse in Catching Fire when we are told that many anti-Capitol riots are taking place across Panem during the book's start, yet we hardly see any of these riots save for one that occurs in District 8.

How can I introduce my reader to my setting in a spontaneous manner without violating "show, don't tell"?

  • I really don't think this has much to do with the act of building the world, so I removed that tag. It seems to me that you're asking about how to show to the reader the world you've already built. If you disagree, feel free to put the tag back in. – a CVn Aug 6 '18 at 12:33
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    Please either add a period after "S.W.O.R.D" or omit the other four. The inconsistent use of periods isn't "clever"; it's annoying. – Monty Harder Aug 6 '18 at 18:04
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    Or, to put it another way, how do I juggle with one hand tied behind my back. Showing and telling are both parts of the storyteller's art and you need both to tell as story. Translate the rule to, don't tell when you should show. But equally, don't show when you should tell. – user16226 Aug 6 '18 at 18:39
  • For future questions; please refrain from linking six different TVTropes articles. Now my sleep deprivation is going to need an extra week to get fixed. – user32223 Aug 6 '18 at 21:37
  • Tangential: While you can use the internet over wireless connections, it definitely is not a form of wireless communication. I certainly used more wired than wireless internet over my lifetime. – celtschk Oct 5 at 9:51
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I think that, especially in a world that is vastly different from our own, you can't COMPLETELY avoid some "telling."

That being said, and as you mentioned, there is a lot of value in "showing." But I would argue that if you try to "show" your reader everything, it might not be incredibly clear.

I would look for stuff that can easily be demonstrated by showing--things your character would pick up on from his or her senses. Things your character sees, hears, smells, feels--its how he interprets the world. I would start by thinking about the sensory input your character would be getting, and the associated emotions.

Maybe your character tries to go a certain way, and finds a new military blockade/checkpoint. Maybe he's surprised, or angry, that all these new restrictions are surfacing (as if it wasn't already restricted enough!!) From discovering one new checkpoint/rule/whatever, you can get a sense that there are a lot of rules being imposed here, and that the people don't like it, and that more and more are added every day.

Don't be afraid to do some telling, but, as you mentioned with your frustrations with hunger games, mention setting details that keep this consistent.

  • Agreed that at some points, you have to outright tell some matters. Being too 'showy' is akin to dancing around a relatively straightforward issue. – Matthew Dave Aug 6 '18 at 12:43
  • yeah. you don't want to info-dump (straight telling) but you don't want to show so much that the reader has to do all the interpreting on their own (straight showing.) Hopefully, OP can find a balance [Through the help of all these answers.] – Sarah Stark Aug 6 '18 at 12:44
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    When he reaches one of the checkpoints and is waiting in line, he can read a large sign erected by SWORD there, pointing out some of the new rules. Showing SWORD telling the populace with such signs isn't the same as telling. – Monty Harder Aug 6 '18 at 18:07
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I could be wrong but if you're going to avoid telling the audience in an aggravating info-dump you can't introduce a rich complex setting in one chapter, you have to bring in specific details when they become relevant to the characters. The city is a mess after a major attack, so where do your characters live? A bombed out apartment building. The city is sealed off, mention the lack of [insert goods here] when the characters need something. They go down to the harbour for a change of scenery, the menace of the navy blockade spoils the mood. Little details, added regularly, build up the setting and give the reader a complete vision of the characters' life and situation, this is a process that can't be rushed.

You should have a list of the details you need in the setting or a clear sketch, if only in your head, of the scene you want to set, check your actual written work against this regularly, it's easy to get off track. You may find that where you went when you do get off on a tangent is better, be aware of that possibility too.

The answers to this question about avoiding info-dumps may also be of use to you.

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Here's one approach:

  • Write a bullet-pointed summary of what should happen in the chapter and everyone who's in it. Tell rather than showing.
  • Repeatedly redraft by reading what you have, visualising what you see, and writing that. You'll find it gradually becomes more shown than told. Why? Because if I ask you to visualise one character being angry with another, or the world they live in having experienced a certain recent history, you can't help but visualise details that would make a reader infer all that.
  • Redraft until it's the right length and no longer bullet-pointed, but make sure each redraft makes points concisely. That way, the detail that gets you to the desired length will lack redundancy, which is another good sign you're showing rather than telling.
  • If you're still not happy with how it's turned out, bullet-point a summary of the latest draft and start the process again from there.
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    Not sure this answers his question. He's mainly after how to establish a built world within a single chapter. Most of this is about chapter outlining and avoiding telling rather than showing. – Matthew Dave Aug 6 '18 at 12:23
  • To add to this: Don't treat the bulletpoints as a huge block to unload all at once. Try to hit a bulletpoint, on average, every 2-3 paragraphs (some might naturally follow on in the same paragraph, some may need more story to set up) So, for example, at one point your character needs to contact someone - and an older character reminisces about how much easier it was before S.W.O.R.D. disabled the internet/cell phones. This conversation might be because they are being held up at a checkpoint. At some point, weaving between the slums that have sprung up, they catch glimpses of the harbour – Chronocidal Aug 6 '18 at 16:04
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1) Have your characters observe or learn about the world, so that the audience can do the same through their eyes. The key is to have it be believable and in character. Harry Potter has zero experience with the world of wizards, which makes him a great for observing and learning. You can also have a character that already knows about the world, but still have it be in character for them to observe what they already know. For example, if you want to describe a beautiful mountain range, you might have a hermit leave his hut in the morning and bask in the wilderness and it would still be in character.

  • A character has just entered the city. Maybe they are from S.W.O.R.D. and got relocated. What do they see, and how do they react?
  • A character finally can't take it anymore. Every beggar and broken window they see throws them into a righteous rage. They decide to change things.

2) Find ways to generate conflict and struggle between your characters and the world. This will drive the plot and keep readers interested.

  • A character needs to contact someone outside the city, but internet and cell services are down. What do they do? Is there someone who can help them in the slums, or do they try to ask for help at one of the checkpoints?
  • A character needs to leave the city, but there is a blockade of ships in the harbor, a wall around the city, and no aircraft can leave. Maybe they even saw an aircraft get shot down. What do they do - dig a tunnel, swim past the ships, sneak onto an approved plane/helicopter/ship?

3) Find ways to have conflict between characters be affected by the environment.

  • A character is being followed by a Krypteia agent through the slums. How do they use the environment to try to get away, hide from, or ambush each other? (The environment includes any people that may be in it.)
  • Throw world-based obstacles at your characters while they try to do things. In this case, maybe riots, looters, muggers, a soup kitchen line, S.W.O.R.D. agents enforcing order, Krypteia, a building dangerously close to collapsing, etc.

These solutions work because they are doing two things at once - building the world, and affecting a character. When you have character being developed and challenged and the plot moving forward at the same time as the world is being built, then you have lots of opportunities to show the world instead of telling about it. Still, make sure it's natural and believable. If there's too much going on, slow down. Depth of detail can be more immersive than breadth; focus on what's important for the characters and the story at that moment. The reader doesn't need to know everything about the world in the first chapter. If you make it enjoyable to learn about the world, then the readers will want to learn more!

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Find ways to weave the actions of the plot into the more specific aspects of the world. In the universe I'm writing, a certain country's noble houses mark their illegitimate children with a corrupted version of the actual house name. Do I ever have to sit the reader down and tell them this?

No, instead I have the main character (an illegitimate daughter) exist while her mother is evidently unmarried and promiscuous, and while her mother is referred to from her POV as 'Marissa Gemfire' (another case of showing rather than telling; her distant relationship is made clear simply by the fact she doesn't think of her as 'mother'/'mum') while the MC is called 'Amerei Gemcutter'.

I trust the reader to notice the discrepancy and conclude that illegitimate children don't get to have a proper noble surname. Another example is 'the Parakosi system' - in this same country, a single city-state called Parakos is democratic. Do I have to sit the reader down and tell them that? No, instead I occasionally have feudal nobles mock 'the Parakosi system' as mob rule, and have the current Parakosi lady allude to being voted in as part of her dialogue.

There are many ways to do it, but it's always better to weave worldbuilding with plot and action rather than sit down and say 'this is how things work, take notes'.

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I find the Hunger Games opening perfect.

When you narrate a story from the perspective of a character, you will often come to points where the character knows a lot. If you wake up and your mom calls you, everything you know about your mother is suddenly accessible in your mind. What she looks like, where she lives, the situation she is in, your relationship to her, etc.

The realistic approach in narration is to simply tell the reader all the important details. That's an infodump, in the same way that your long-term memory does an infodump into your working memory.

I always find it artificial and irritating when authors withhold information that the viewpoint character has. It's like: Doesn't she know where her mom lives?!?

Showing, rather than telling, is for new information that the viewpoint character learns, and the reader along with her, not for remembering. Do not tell the reader what the viewpoint character experiences at the moment, rather let the leader experience it themselves. "Show" it to them. But when the viewpoint character sits in a chair with a telephone in their hand and nothing happens and she thinks about her mother, simply let the reader remember along with the viewpoint character. "Tell" them, in the same way that the character doesn't experience any of this but tells herself.

So it is perfectly fine when Katniss experiences the empty bed and discovers (i.e. is shown) that her sister lies in her mother's bed, but at the same time knows where she is, what her situation is, and what will happen today. There really is no reason to show to the reader in some cumbersome way what the character tells herself in a few words of inner monologue, except adherence to a misunderstood writing principle.

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