Creating a world

Question: My problem is that I am not sure how to introduce my world and it's various ways of life. I don't want to be too wordy or long but there are some things that the reader should know. Should I just describe everything in the beginning or unfold it bit by bit? If I should unfold it, how?


Answer: Definitely bit by bit. You're not writing a history or geography textbook. You're writing a novel. Even J.R.R. Tolkein, probably the greatest pioneer of worldbuilding, knew enough to put most of the information about Middle Earth into appendices.

I would also suggest you allow the information to unfold naturally, as it's needed and as the reader follows the characters along their journey.

For instance, the lifestyles of the people should be apparent from the characters' activities. If you have a scene that takes place in a castle, you can "set the stage" with a few details about the building and its occupants so that the reader can picture them better. If the hero sharpens his prized sword before battle, you can give a couple of details that explain why the sword is special. But try not to go on for more than a paragraph or two.

Sometimes you can give exposition through dialogue. For instance, you can have a character who doesn't know much about the world (maybe because he's foreign or uneducated) be told some important facts from someone more learned, or read them in a document, etc. You can create suspense by having him discover certain facts about the world's history slowly over the course of the story.

Bear in mind that even dialogue will slow the story, so you might want to intersperse expository conversations among action scenes.

I'd also suggest you take a look at some of your favorite fantasy or science fiction books. Notice how other writers introduce facts about the world until they have built up a rich portrait.

(But stay away from Moby Dick. It's a great book, but Melville broke all the rules by inserting an encyclopedia on whaling part-way through.)

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