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I’ve posted several chapters of my in-progress trilogy on several writing critique websites, and while many of my fellow writers have praised my worldbuilding abilities, they have remarked that I always tend to overexplained things with exposition. One described it as if I had this burning desire to get all of the ideas and concepts I’d created out of my mind and onto paper the first chance I got.

For a while, I have been aware of this habit as I’ve tried to rewrite a chapter several times, not only because it spoilt way too many major plot points early into my trilogy’s first book, but it was one long info dump that bored me to tears when writing the damn thing as I despise writing exposition or exposure to it in any medium (a recurring motif that runs throughout this post).

One potential answer to this problem I’m interested in adopting is similar to what the comic book series Watchmen does, which exposits by including text-based excerpts and documents at the end of each issue, exploring essential aspects of the Watchmenverse such as character backstories or geopolitics. Of course, this technique also runs the risk of bored readers skipping past important information and getting confused later on.

Another solution that I’ve seen writers use to get around this problem is explaining important background details in supplemental literature such as guidebooks, comic books, tie-in novels, and novelisations penned by other more competent writers. Many big-name multi-media franchises like Star Wars, Halo or Tolkien’s Legendarium tend to do a lot. The problem with this method is that if a story requires its audience to do an awful lot of homework or take them out of the narrative to understand the plot, that’s a sign of lazy writing.

What would resolve my dilemma?

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Those who build worlds inevitably want to show off their skills. The trick is not to be boring.

One approach that I have tried to use is as follows:

  1. Work out the details of the world building. Write it up separately.
  2. Write a bare-bones story that depends upon that world building but does not include any of the world building.
  3. For each action and interaction, figure out the minimum knowledge the characters and the reader should have to understand the what and why of the story.
  4. Again for each action and interaction, devise a narrative mechanism to sneak that knowledge into the story.

Let me expand on that last point. You could use a "voice of the deity" narration to simply tell the reader what is going on. Or you could use a less exalted third party. I like the idiot sidekick that is trying to be helpful but needs things spelled out; there are all sorts of dialogue and plot tricks that can provide tons of fun. Or perhaps we can introduce an over-zealous bureaucrat that lives to tell people what to. Or a superior that asks "What in the name that is holy were you thinking?", listens impatiently to the excuses, and concludes by saying, "I am truly sorry that I asked." Or how about a Karen-type figure that screeches about rights and wrongs. Or talking heads on cable news. Or posted signs listing the prohibitions about the locale. Or use all of these techniques in combination.

The trick is to distill the world building into specific and narrow incidents. If you have a world that is totally connected and has the capability to supply all material goods at the touch of a button (think Star Trek replicators), perhaps the best way to show that is to take all of that away. Threaten to toss the protagonist out into the wilderness. Give them a day to collect whatever they might need to survive. Make them suffer and cry out their stupidity for not including that which is essential to life but was just part of the background before the exodus.

Look around you to see how people in the here-and-now reality learn about surviving. Ask yourself, where and how do they get their information (and misinformation)? Let your characters (and your readers) learn the same way.

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  • If the narrative is first person, you could just have the protagonist explain what they know to the reader when a concept is introduced, without any mechanism – Matthew Wells Mar 16 at 21:47
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Since you brought it up, Star Wars is one of the most massive EU's ever and approaches the caliber of an entire mythology when compared to most ancient myths. But it started small. Had people not swarmed theaters to see A New Hope (or as it was known on it's opening day Star Wars), it still competently told the story to the extent that you could watch just the one film and be satisfied, even though the dialog clearly and cleverly shows this is a very much lived in world. Much of these details are discussed and mentioned in passing but never exposed upon. Heck, one errant line of dialog would launch the entire prequel trilogy. But for a 25 year gap, nobody new anything about "The Clone Wars" save for Obi-wan and Darth Vader were veterans of the conflict and fought side by side in the war. But there's other bits of dialog that are dropped that show the wider universe beyond the story. Luke makes reference to droid models in the way we would discuss cars makes and models, as well as making causual references to droid mechanics. No where do we know what a "motivator" does, but when a droid "blows" one, everyone reacts to it the same way one would if the engine block fell out of the bottom of a car before it pulled off the used car dealer's lot (Luke loudly announces the problem, Uncle Owen accuses the Jawa of trying to pull a scam, and the Jawa immediately tries to fast talk his way out of a problem like a used car salesman. No one tells us "why a bad motivator is a problem" but they show that it is a problem and alerts the heroes to a fact that we already know... these Jawas are not honest merchants of droids, but are quite shady in their dealings. Hell, we don't even know what the Jawa is saying, but his frantic Jawa noises and gesturing are quite obviously those of a flustered shady business man who is trying to save face.).

All this creates a very "lived in" universe and helps to sell Luke as an everyman hero... there's a great galactic civil war battle going on in orbit and his greatest problems in life at this moment are "shady used droid salesmen" and his parent figure wants him to do chores rather than go hang with his friends... He's not the war hero yet... he's just a ordinary kid with ordinary kid problems. Even his favorite tech toys aren't that impressive to look at... there's lots of angles and odd attachments that are so oddly placed, that the only reason anyone would design a tool like with that thing on it is if that thing being there actually had a functional purpose.

Other examples include the introduction scene of Han Solo, which tells us everything we need to know about this character. From the way he, Luke, and Obi-Wan negtiate passage off the rock, to his shift in personality as soon as the two parties reach the negotiating table. We know that Han's requested fee is extremely high. Luke protests that for that kind of money they could just buy the ship, and Han's counter of "Yeah, and who's gonna fly it, you?" shows that Han is quite the Negotiator, Luke isn't, and Obi-wan understands the situation better than both of them, but isn't letting on. Luke sees the exchange as Han thinking he's swindling the naïve farm boy out of money, while Obi-wan see's the subtext and realizing that Luke and Han aren't negotiating fro the same trade: Luke sees the thing that they need is a fast ship. But Han isn't selling them a ship... he's selling them a pilot of a ship... he's selling himself... Ben realizes Han already tried to bullshit them by trying to pass a unit of measure as a unit of time (12 parsecs) and Luke clearly didn't have issue with this... and was bold enough to ask for a fee that would almost net a new ship just fine.

Obi-wan's able to get everyone to settle down by focusing everyone on the reason they need to make agreements. When Han is asking for 10 thousand, Obi-Wan doesn't try to haggle down, he offers MORE (17 thousand) than what Han felt comfortable taking... but only if he brings his upfront cost down to something that Luke is comfortable with. One line says two things to two different people.

Han hears "Shut the bleep up. I agree with you, but quit scaring the boy by talking like someone who is obviously gonna scam him. I'm old, we're desperate, and I don't have time to play this game all over Mos Eisley."

Luke hears, "Shut the bleep up. I agree with you but we are not in a position to argue. He doesn't know us, or what we're doing and is decent enough not to ask beyond wanting to know how screwed he is if he gets caught with us. We won't find a deal better than that and this mission is so important I'll pay nearly twice what he thinks he's worth so we can actually get to work! We will likely never have a better option if we look for 100 years, and I want to leave this wrenched hive before one of those suns sets."

Again... everyone's motivation is laid bare in a few quick lines of dialog and the audience's own familiarity of what is happening to fill in the gaps. Even the famous "Nerf Herder" line serves as one of these as the joke is that Han is more offended by the very tame insult of "scruffy looking" and Leia's scoffing after he responds tells us Han should have been offended by being called a Nerf Herder. We've never seen a Nerf and have no idea why its unpleasent... but we know a shepard like car of them tells us they're probably herding live stock akin to cattle, sheep, or pigs... neither of which are animals we associate with cleanliness. But the exchange is done with the same tone as an offended reaction to the most mild of a series of insults. Suppose a situation where a white collared man tells a blue collard woman that "She's nothing but a fat, old, whore" to which the woman gasps with genuine hurt and responds, "Why I never! Sir, I will have you know I am 25!"

It again speaks to Han's confidence and calmness under pressure, as he clearly sees Lea is trying to get his Nerf... er... goat, and he's not only recognizing it but countering her by taking offense to the lesser of the insults (yeah, I'm in a line of work that's not much better than herding gross live stock AND I'm one stuck up son of a B... but I am Au Natural, not Scruffy!"

And as the scene plays out, it's clear that the two of them do love one another but are two proud to admit they could fall for people who are so unlike themselves its hard to see what they ever have in common. Even recalling that we don't know about there real relationship, Leia gets back at Han by giving Luke a kiss that is quite risqué for what both believe are platonic friends at this point... let alone biological siblings... Han is clearly shocked and tries to play it cool but Chewie is clearly seconds from laughing his ass off at how Han got served and is only holding back out of his friendship. Meanwhile, Luke's flashes Han a shit eating grin that clearly says he enjoyed the kiss not because it was so rewarding seeing Han lose the argument that badly that he'll yield his time to Han because now he wants to see how deep Han can dig this hole.

All in all, the trick to this kind of world building is to set up only that which the audience wouldn't understand from the context clues. What are Jedi, what's the Force, what's a Death Star... and make only passive reference to more far reaching world building ideas that won't shape this part of the trilogy.

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Readers (as opposed to obsessive fans!) only want to know as much about the world as they absolutely need in order to understand the story --typically, and most naturally, the same things the characters absolutely need to know at any given time. A lot of times this means that only a tiny portion of the worldbuilding you've done makes in into the book (and according to Hemingway's Iceberg Theory, 90% of your worldbuilding should be hidden beneath the surface, just like an iceberg).

However, there are great worldbuilders who have discovered a loophole. Just find a story or plot specifically designed to showcase the aspects of your world you want to highlight. Think of Lord of the Rings. The plot couldn't be simpler --destroy this ring, that everyone wants, in order to save the world. But it can only be destroyed in one, distant, hard to reach location, so the characters have to experience large portions of the world in order to get there. Master of the 5 Magics is another great example. The main character must master five arcane magic systems, against considerable opposition, in order to (once again) save the world. There's a ton of exposition, but all of it is what the character absolutely needs at any given time.

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Here's how I work with worldbuilding (and backstory):

  • Use as little backstory and worldbuilding information as you can get away with
  • Let the story tell you when information is needed
  • Include information implicitly, hidden in plain sight, as a tone or air in the scenes rather than explicitly "on the reader's nose"
  • Save the guide books and other supporting literature for after your books have gained a readership that wants them
  • Keep your information in a safe, ordered place, to know this information is safe even if it's not included in the novel
  • Keep a "darling file" for what you delete, so you can feel safe that it's not lost forever...

Use as LITTLE worldbuilding and backstory information as possible

Never use more backstory or worldbuilding information than needed, than the POV-character knows and would need to think about at any given time.

People are OK with a world that isn't fully explained to them. Almost every given name and every city name in the world has a meaning. But we're OK with Paris or Robert without explanations because we're used to them.

If your characters (and narrator) uses worldbuilding information with the same authority we use Robert and Paris, the reader will recognize that as being part of the world and would not require more explanation than that.

It's a name, it's a flux capacitor, it's a deuteronic frombotzer, no big deal!

Let the story tell you what information is needed and when

Trust the story to reveal when more is needed.

I once wrote a story in deep POV where I was sure the main character's parents would forever go by "mom" and "dad" and I was okay with that. About halfway through the story, the need for their real names did arise anyway, so I could use the first names I've given them. But before that point, I felt it would have been artificial to do so. The needs of the story told me when to use that information.

Another example. Your character's apartment. When they enter it after work, they may not notice things in it at all. However, if someone is coming to visit, anyone from mom to a hot date or friends or whomever, your character might start noticing details (usually in need of fixing, a.k.a. cleaning up...) ;o) Still the story, the character, and the relations inform what information is needed or will be detected by the POV-character.

If you don't need the information to tell the story, does your reader need it to understand your story?

Include backstory and worldbuilding information implicitly

Backstory and worldbuilding information should inform your descriptions of your world and characters implicitly.

Imagine a barn. (Or google up a picture of one). Take a minute or two to describe it.

Have you done that? (Ok, maybe you don't have to, to get my point, but if you want to, go ahead and do it now...)

Now imagine the same barn, but this time someone important (e.g. the narrator's dad) has hanged themselves in the barn (we can't see that from our vantage point). Describe the barn again. Without mentioning the hanging...

Still, any difference?

That difference is how backstory and worldbuilding should be implicitly included in your descriptions. As hints and word choice rather than on-the-nose info neither the character nor the reader needs to "get it".

Hide this information in plain sight...

Guide books, supporting literature

How about guide books and other supporting literature?

I think if it is needed to understand the story, it should be in the story. These books are there for the dedicated fan, and maybe they create a deeper understanding of the story, but I think they should never be required to get the story. Rather, I think part from satisfying a fanbase there are also economic reasons behind their existence.

Keep track of your information

So, what to do with all that worldbuilding and character-building information you've created?

My suggestion is to use a wiki to keep track of all information or any other tool other than the actual manuscript. This way you have it at your fingertips and can use it to get the right "tone" in your scenes, but you know you have it in a safe place, in a good structure so you can keep it there... maybe for the world book you will publish after the novels have become a smash hit? ;o)

When you find something that you need to delete, you can make it easier to do so by keeping a "darling file" where you cut and paste this information... if you should need it in the future...

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