Parts of my worldbuilding are critical to the plot. If readers don't understand the world, they won't understand the stakes for the protagonist and the failure conditions.

Edit. Please don't assume this information is communicated as exposition. As I said, it's dramatized. But then again, one can't take endless pages to set up the plot before the plot even starts.

I need to make clear some parts of the world early in book to show what's at stake. The problem is that some readers seem to miss the explanation, which is split into bits and woven in and around dialogue. I dramatized these worldbuilding points, and when that didn't work, I actually summarized them in the protag's internal dialog 'oh, I see, so if I fail x I'm dead'. This technique of seeding bits of telling between the showing is recommended by editors to aid readers comprehension. Flew right past readers.

First example The Federation is a monopolistic oligarchy. If you have 1 groundbreaking innovation, it earns you a monopoly (e.g. if you make steam engines, no one is allowed to make steam engines with those parameters), and you can get Corporate Family status (which grants members legal immunity). If you have 2 such monopolies and over 10 billion market capitalization value, you can ask to join the Council of Primes (a CF leader is called Prime) that rules the Federation. In terms of decision making, it's like monarchy but with a council of variable size instead of 1 person. Much like you can gain CF status, you lose it if you can't guarantee your product (2 strikes and you're out) or if you go bankrupt. My protag is CF and takes a gamble. If they win, they become Prime, if they lose, they lose CF status, lose their legal immunity, and probably everyone will send assassins after them.

Second example In order to practice the magic, you have to become a sociopath. You take a course for it (it's a horrible course). This also generates the inability to grok human facial expressions. I explained this in dialogue to a trainee by illustrating sociopathic behavior (callousness, promiscuity) and then summarized into one sentence in internal monologue at the end of explanation 'this means sociopathy' (used the actual word). Some readers picked up on the inability to recognize expressions but took the sociopathy as a minor inconvenience.

How would you go about presenting/dramatizing this type of information to make sure readers get it and its exact magnitude?

Did you ever experience a similar situation with reader comprehension before, and how/why?

Are my problems because the worldbuilding is simply too complicated? It doesn't feel like rocket science to me. This stuff isn't new, only the way it's combined is. I purposely chosen terms that mean exactly what it says on the tin. The corporate stuff is what you find in cyberpunk, a dystopian extension of consumerism. Where am I going wrong?

I don't think there's a recipe for this situation so any advice, ideas, and life experience are welcome.

3 Answers 3


Suppose we use your example: the MC has a monopoly on steam engines.

As a reader, I don't want to know that the Federation is a monopolistic oligarchy, or that two monopolies and ten billion market capitalization value would grant the possibility of joining the Council.

I want to know that MC is thinking about building airships.

He's really excited about this big idea, and dreams of his family's ships taking over the skies. Lost in his imagination, he doesn't pay enough attention to the steam engines. He's ignoring a backlog of customer complaints. And there was that horrible accident at the factory where Bob lost a hand. And some guy at the local tavern heard from a friend that Joe Bloggs is keeping an eye on MC, waiting for the opportunity to pounce, poach MC's disgruntled workers and take the steam engine monopoly for himself. And if the airship idea falls through - which it will, as MC's best mate reminds him, because MC is always having these weird ideas that go nowhere - then MC will be left with nothing. Nothing but the guards knocking at his door to take him away on a trumped up murder charge - he didn't mean to kill her, honest - that MC has been able to ignore for as long as he's been making steam engines. And now someone has stolen the plans for the airships...

Anyway, you get the point. I have no idea whether anything like this happens in your story. I don't know exactly what you mean when you say you've dramatized these concepts (but I don't think having characters say the technical terms in arguments counts). All I know is what I would want to know as a reader.

Hope that helps!


So it seems to me that your problem has three causes which I’ll address separately.

Firstly, you seem to be falling foul of the show don’t tell rule. Summarising plot points like “oh, I see, so if I fail X I’m dead” is almost the definition of telling instead of showing. This is particularly evident with you bit about the magic course turning you into a sociopath. Instead of just telling your readers the magic users are sociopaths consider having your magic using characters act like sociopaths. And if you want your readers to pick up on it being more than a minor inconvenience, then have it be more than a minor inconvenience to your magic using characters. Having a character go through this process in the narrative and show the marked changes in their behaviour will also show readers this affect much better than just telling them.

(addition for clarification)

Argued dialogue can still be exposition if the argument itself is not what your trying to convey, but what the argument is about is what your trying to convey. E.g. an argument about how becoming a Prime may get the MC killed will demonstrate that the character arguing with the MC cares about them and doesn’t want them to die, as that’s what’s being shown, instead of showing that the MC is willing to take risks for the sake of power, as that’s not being demonstrated its been told to the readers.

So if being a sociopath is why the MC is taking the risk to become a Prime then maybe have him take smaller risks to get little bits of power first and maybe show someone else trying to become a Prime and failing. So you show that he’ll take risks and you show the stakes.

You can still have it mentioned in the arguments to help drive the point home but demonstrating it will have a greater impact.

Now this isn’t to say you can’t ever tell anything, but if you can show it you should probable do so, as it will resonate with readers and be remembered much more often.

Secondly motivations for characters should be emotional, as building an emotional connection with readers is what makes people want to continue reading your story; in order to find out what happens to your characters. Having read your example though I can’t tell what your character’s emotional motivation is. It seems like by becoming a Prime they’ll get more power and influence but why do they want that? Your summarised bit of “oh, I see, so if I fail X I’m dead” tells us what will happen if he fails but if the motivation is, I don’t want to die, he could just not take the gamble. So what bit of your world does your protagonist actually want?

Do they need the legal immunity because a load of dark criminal secrets are about to be revealed and destroy him? Then the readers will learn becoming a Prime gets you legal immunity.

Do they need the power because a rival family is undermining them to make the family destitute but becoming a Prime will make them untouchable? The readers will then remember the power a Prime gets.

Showing which bit of the world is actually part of your character’s emotional motivation will help determine which bits of the world your readers remember most.

The final part is slightly tangential to your question and ties in somewhat with the second bit on motivations.

It also may or may not relate to you specifically but is worth mentioning for others who have similar problems with worldbuilding exposition.

Namely people read stories for the exciting and emotional tales of the characters in them and it’s only after a reader gets emotionally invested in the story that they will then want to read about the world in general. As the author however you’re really interested in the world, you’ve created, in general and it can be easy to write loads of expositional worldbuilding that you find really cool, but that your readers won’t, because they don’t have the emotional investment in it that you do as the author.

This means that sometimes you need to bite the bullet and just cut worldbuilding exposition, or at least reduce it to passing mentions. This can be hard because you’ve put a lot into the worldbuilding and really care about it but for the good of the story it is sometimes necessary.

So ask yourself if the bits of your worldbuilding your readers are having trouble getting are really needed for the story, and if not then consider reducing it to a mere mention or cutting it. Turning it into passing mentions can have the advantage of turning it into a mystery that will intrigue people, so its not all bad. It also can still be used in sequels, prequels or other stories set in the same universe, and having it all planned out makes consistency between works much easier.

Now obviously creating a real and vibrant setting can make a work much more engaging, but its still the characters and the specific story we’re reading that we will really engage with and remember.

I hope this helps, and welcome to the site.

  • Thank you. As I said, I dramatized these points to show what's at stake. They're not in exposition but in argued dialogue. I was hoping that readers will make some connections - for example, sociopaths are attracted to power, and here's this opportunity to become Prime for the sociopathic MC. When that didn't come across for the first betas, I added the one sentence summary in a separate para to snag the attention of those who skim read.
    – geneaux
    Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 17:47
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    @geneaux I've added a bit to the answer to hopefully address your comment. I would also suggest that if you feel people are skim reading your work the solution isn’t to summarise the plot for them but to flesh out the action and dialogue so they don’t want to skim read it.
    – Blazen
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 17:22
  • Can you tell me what makes you think I haven't fleshed out the action and dialogue? My question summarizes a lot of information in a few lines for the purpose of brevity, unlike the novel. My attention to worldbuilding isn't a sign of lack of writing skill, nor a sign of writing lots of exposition.
    – geneaux
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 17:38
  • Thank you, yes, I did first establish the MC as a risk taker. In fact, I also made them self-aware enough to note the risks (this is part of the character but should also point readers that the setting isn't protagonist-centered morality). I also made their internal dialogue come across in a certain way (some readers picked up the cockiness, others the predatory undertone).
    – geneaux
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 17:57
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    The reason I think you haven't fleshed out the action/dialogue is purely that you've said your readers aren't picking up on what your saying. So you either need to say it again or say it in a more explicit, attention grabbing way. Which is what I mean by fleshing it out.
    – Blazen
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 18:17

Both of your examples seem to have the same problem. You expect people to understand something is important before it actually is. You yourself may know what will become important to the plot later but readers have no way to do so. And unfortunately this means that the wonderfully efficient human brain will simply filter out those "not important" details out.

In your example, you want people to understand that failure means death, presumably when the MC makes the decision. However the potential risks only actualize and become important when you have failed or there is imminent risk of failure. Of course they should be important considerations when making the initial decision but in practice human mind sucks at that kind of risk assessment. We can do it when we have to but nobody needs to properly assess risks of a fictional character making fictional decision. So nobody will.

There are basically two solutions here.

You can use another character such as a friend or wife who is concerned about the risk and have an argument or conflict on whether it is worth it. Since that conflict is imminent and the risk of death is relevant to it, the risk will be actual and people will note it.

Or if it fits the story you can simply postpone the point where you make the risk clear to readers until the risk of failure becomes imminent. At that point the risk will be directly relevant to what is going on and people will note it properly. Prior explanation would then work as foreshadowing.

Your second example... Why do you think being a sociopath should be clearly important to people? The world is full of functioning sociopaths and that is what the training presumably is designed to produce. So there is no clear direct practical importance.

By contrast ability to recognize facial expressions is extremely important to normal social interactions. That is why our brains use so much resources to do it.

Same solutions apply. Either show some direct consequence or relevance now or postpone the point where it is clear to readers until it actually matters.

  • Thank you. I set up the CF point in a dialogue where the MC's told how risky it is. It's too late to only give the info when the risk turns into failure (it look deus ex machina).--- Just like the ability to recognize facial expressions, the ability to be interested in social interaction (non-sociopathy) is crucial to social interaction, even more so. Being a functioning sociopath isn't a nice experience, especially if you have to cut out a perfectly-working piece of your soul to do it. Perhaps this point is what people are unfamiliar with when it comes to sociopathy.
    – geneaux
    Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 17:02
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    @geneaux You should give the information before but you should not expect people to get it before it becomes actually relevant. Seriously, even if they got it, you could not trust that they would still remember it when it is relevant. Reader might have spent a year doing something else since he read last chapter. So there is no point in getting comprehension before direct relevance, you will need to explain it again anyway. Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 17:06
  • I did explain it later on too. I am worried about setting up the stakes properly. If I don't capture why this is important, the readers will miss the plot throughline.
    – geneaux
    Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 17:08
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    @geneaux Right but the actual stakes at the beginning is the chance to become the Prime, that is the motivation that moves the story at that point. You do need to set up the cost of failure but it will not come to the forefront of that actual plot until failing becomes active part of the plot in some way. Pushing it before is simply cognitive load distracting the reader from things important now. You still need it as foreshadowing and because some readers will think about it but do not make people think about things they do not need right now. Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 17:38
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    @geneaux Yes, do not worry about it in advance. In general it is hard to prevent such issues in advance and easy to fix them later after they become apparent. It is better to fail with small effort with easy fix than to spend time avoiding failure. Look up "Fail Fast Fail Often" for the reasons. They apply to most projects without precisely defined end product. Also, in this case, do you really want them being able to clearly articulate what plot points will be important later? Being able to recall that such feature was mentioned if you specifically ask would seem a better goal. Commented Mar 20, 2020 at 23:12

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