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A horror story I am writing involves the protagonist in another world. It is like an isekai, but it is horror and the protagonist is trying to survive as long as possible.

The main story surrounds the main character exploring weird lands and his interactions with the locals. The other major part is the setting's world-building.

I am trying to write it so that it does not end up with too many information dumps of the history and lore.

How could I write so the reader gets to feel immersed in the world, and not told about it?

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The most effective way to introduce an immersive world is to write your story from the perspective of a character or a narrator that has a solid understanding of the world they occupy.

The world elements they encounter are, from their point of view, ubiquitous and don't require explanation. And, they naturally use them in the proper context. As in:

I unholstered my Garbetta. -> the verb implies the object is a weapon

Ged sailed to Seas Edge -> verb implies Seas Edge is an island

As we build our immersive worlds, if we focus on context and character motivations and reactions, we communicate a large portion of the important details needed to sustain a story.

The first chapter of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman demonstrates this practice -- he never explains what a daemon is and why Lyra's changes but the adults' are all fixed.

Another terrific example, and the best in my opinion, is "Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson. Every page introduces two made-up neologisms that exist in the Leased Territories but have no meaning in our world. He never explains any world element until you are so used to it that you've half guessed what it is from the context and consequences that that tech/object/social structure has had on the story

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    "Every page introduces two made-up neologisms that [..] have no meaning in our world" I suppose it must depend on the audience, but that would kick me out of the immersion every single time.
    – user54131
    Aug 7, 2022 at 13:53
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    @towr, it can have the affect, but it also builds engagement because the reader perversely wants to keep going to find out the specifics of what it means. Its a highly effect method because the story in those pages doesn’t depend understanding the new words — beyond what is available from their context. It keeps the story moving
    – EDL
    Aug 7, 2022 at 14:55
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I always point to original trilogy Star Wars to look at how great world building was done. Without going to a fan wiki or reading any materials not presented in the release of the film, what do you know about "Tosche Station", "Power Converters", or "Nerf"?

And the answer is that Tosche Station is a location near Uncle Owen's farm where the townies go to socialize, power converters are an item that can be bought there that are part of a hobby many in their late teens are into (I always thought they were parts used in land speeders, based on Luke's other lines), and Nerf are an unpleasant herd animal that farmers raise, require a shepherd like "herder" to keep watch over them. None of these things appear in the film proper and we are only led to infer what they are by dialog.

For example, the Nerf Herder is mentioned in a line where Leia, fed up with Han's antics, refers to him as "a stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder." This provides us with some implications that among other things, Nerf Herders are not looked upon fondly in society as the first three adjectives are used to describe similarly undesirable traits.

Han's response of "Who's scruffy-looking?!" and Leia's further exacerbation tells us that Han's response shows that Han admits to being stuck-up, half-witted, and a nerf herder, but takes umbrage at her insulting his physical appearance, quite possibly the weakest insult of the three we know. This leads us to our conclusion that "Nerf Herder" is more insulting. Because we know this gag... it's the same as hearing someone yell at a woman "You stupid, fat whore!" to which the woman responds "I am not fat!" The bigger insults in this line are the implication that she's a whore and uneducated... but by focusing on the "fat" insult, not only does it show her priorities, but by not fighting the other two, it almost implies that she sees those as fair insults.

Other lines are that in the original theatrical release, Han mentions Jabba the Hutt long before the character is seen on screen (In the modern update, Jabba is seen in the immediately following scene... which is unneccsary as the dialog is identical). Han's debt to Jabba looms over both "Hope" and "Empire" before Jabba is actually seen in "Return".

Other scenes would be Luke's reaction to seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time. We hear Han talk it up in the Cantina, but Luke's "What a hunk of Junk" tells us that while we are expecting a Ford Mustang, we're looking at a VW Van. A rusted VW van... with a hubcap missing from the driver's side wheel... and cardboard where a rear window should be, held in place by duck tape... and the reason it's there is because the cluster of bumper stickers caused the glass to fall out from the sheer weight. And the engine makes a noise that sounds like it's powered in part or full by 10 hamsters on wheels... and 4 of them are dead. The audience is in awe because it's more space ship than they see... but Luke lives in a world where the fact that the Falcon is space worthy... let alone the fastest ship in the galaxy... is a dubious claim because he's seen better ships and he's a farmboy.

Use dialog and reactions to show us

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    @Stef In the original version, Jabba was planned to appear in Hope and was a human, however the scene was cut as it was a rehash of everything brought up in the Greedo Scene, which showed Han's character far better. It never appeared in the 1977 theatrical release and was only restored (and replaced Jabba the human with the slug using CGI) in the 1997 re-release.
    – hszmv
    Aug 9, 2022 at 17:23
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Make the world-building details part of the plot, solution to the plot, or the survival (physical, professional, mental) of the POV character.

In most cases, you shouldn't put things in the story unless they are essential to the story. (Though an immersive tidbit here and there about your POV character experiencing the world is usually ok.)

One way to weave world-building into the plot is to add characters that are new to the world. In SciFi, this is one common approach (e.g. Clarke's Rama series has characters explore a new and unknown world in the Rama Spaceship, Katniss Everdeen has never been to the Capitol, not to mention never been in a hunger game).

This adds the benefit of the POV character having to examine and understand things. The understanding could come from experimentation, or from posing questions to someone in the know. Or even getting mentored.

And, of course, the POV character can react to the world the way the reader, also not in the know, might have done.

However, at one point (plot point?) or another, you should go from curious interest to vital need. The sooner, the better. The character should need to figure out things about the world to survive, keep their job, or stay sane.

Make the world-building part of the problem and/or solution in the plot and the reader will feel the character's need to figure things out and be right there with them when they do.

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  • +1, that would be my answer, the "stranger in a strange land" needs explanations, out of curiosity, or trying to survive, or not offend people. The clueless waif asking questions like a two year old, led by a friendly but impatient master, partner or love interest.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 27, 2022 at 10:53
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A frame challenge: clashing genres

In a horror story I am writing, it involves the protagonist in another world. It is like an isekai, but it is horror…

I am going to disagree with your genre label – not to 'correct' you, or to pigeonhole your story into some established formula – but to help you decide how to approach it.

Genres are not just a bag of tropes, there are 'rules' to the story-goal itself. The structure, the protagonist's arc, the conflicts and resolutions are going to override any backstory or set-dressing.

As authors we can play with reader expectations (usually at the trope-level, subverting and updating familiar story elements), but we don't get to defy what genres are – we don't get to label our product 'beef Wellington' and then serve fish, readers will flat out correct us and call it fish, at best we'll begrudgingly get "fish Wellington" as some acknowledgement that we dressed up fish to look like the other thing.

The big genres have very different story goals, even when they share tropes, or even when they commit 'trope salad'. Star Wars is structurally a Fantasy story about good and evil wizards, there is not a shred of science and the one technobabble introduced 'midi-clorians' was laughed out of existence.

Sci-fi set dressing on a Fantasy structure feels ultra-fresh until a train wreck of genre clash derails the audience's suspension of disbelief. The villain wizard raising a surprise army of the dead from their graves in the 3rd act of a Fantasy is normal – expected even. But Palpatine raising a zombie fleet of spaceships from … the dirt(?) is too scientifically stupid to suspend disbelief. Fans must go with the Fantasy metaphor (the wizard is so powerful they can alter reality) or the story is just broken since Sci-fi's 'rules' reject such blatant deus ex machina in the 3rd act.

Your story is Dark Fantasy, not Horror.

Genre labels are blurred and subjective. They also drift over time, and are sometimes abused by marketing – no one is going to draw the line in exactly the same place, this includes readers.

Nevertheless, there are differences.

I offer a definition by Lucy Snyder:

Horror is about an intrusion of the frightening and unknown into a mundane, everyday world the reader is familiar with. It doesn’t have to be a present-day world, though; you can easily set a horror novel in a historically-accurate past. The intrusion doesn’t have to be supernatural (a deranged serial killer will do just fine) though it often is.

Dark fantasies have an established setting that is fantastic or otherworldly. Such a fantastic setting can range from the overt sword and sorcery of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga to the subtle magic of many of Ray Bradbury’s tales to the action-comedy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you start out in a world where vampires or ghosts or magic are treated as a “normal” occurance by the characters, it’s a fantasy world.

She goes on to describe differences in the protagonist: Dark Fantasy has heroes, Horror has victims.

What she calls 'plot' I would call 'story-goal'. She says Dark Fantasy is a roller coaster adventure where the hero gains and loses ground, while Horror is a steadily diminishing world where the protagonist loses hope.

These are clashing story-goals, one is an empowering adventure, the other is a steady loss of agency. They both might have monsters but monsters ultimately mean different things in each story.

Fantasy has lore, Horror is left unexplained

For a hero to win sometimes, you'll need multiple monsters, some stronger than others – that is the start of lore. Now the monsters have a hierarchy among themselves, and it's easy to see how a hero will need to navigate this world.

As writers we will worldbuild so the lore isn't just info dumps before battles – that means travel to exotic lands that are warped by the influence of specific evils. The interesting bits will be in finding the weaknesses and how these evil factions can be turned against each other.

A Fantasy story structure emerges when we plot how to move the protagonist through the world, encountering obstacles and resolving conflict. The story will be episodic, with a longer arc teasing for a 'boss battle' at the climax. Victories may be dystopian, pyrrhic, or otherwise morally compromising, but there are victories.

In Horror, you only need one monster (one type of monster) and it is always overpowered compared to the protagonist, unfairly overpowered. The protagonist is then diminished over time – they are isolated, injured, gas-lit, betrayed. They miss the obvious signs to get the heck out, and ignore blatant omens that would have saved them.

Since the victim's dwindling status becomes the barometer of story progress, every 'win' is actually losing ground. The monster stops attacking because it ate someone, or they find a place that is safe for now by sealing off their only exit. The monster tends to become abstract, even metaphorical, never revealed in full – Horror is not really about punching Dracula in the face so the less corporeal (rigidly defined) the threat the more tense and suspenseful the emotions.

The Horror structure removes hope. Whether it goes all the way to the protagonist's death is more about tone and characterization – survival doesn't make it not Horror.

Mutually exclusive…?

Tropes will be shared since Dark Fantasy and Horror will share similar morally-framed set-ups, but the pay-offs of each are vastly different. In Dark Fantasy we want an anti-hero kicking demon butt to the curb. In horror it's better to preserve some mystery while we watch the protagonist fall apart.

You might look up some HP Lovecraft – famous for his unspecific 'cosmic' horror – also wrote Dark Fantasy in which his recurring hero Randolph Carter travels to dream worlds populated with ghouls and monsters and gods and etc. The structures are very Fantasy, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is the most novel-like, but even the short stories are ridiculously lore-heavy as if that was the whole point.

I think you will be able to have horror moments within Dark Fantasy, choosing what to illuminate as necessary, but you can't get around having a hero in a fantastical world at the core of your story.

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Opinions, when details become redundant, opinions fill the gap. Opinions need details and details must have an opinion.

As well, to leave the narration of incidents and have the protagonists think more, realize more and have self talk can do that for you as it should.

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