After covering ways to tell people about your world without . . . well, telling people directly about your world with infodumps . .. . I wanted to focus on a few of my favorite ways to communicate about your worlds.
It is of course important to communicate your world to people. You don’t want to spray information around like a firehose of worldbuilding, but also you can easily leave people in the dark about how your setting functions.
Various books and films over time made me realize how the struggle not to drown our readers in information can also turn into the reverse – we don’t explain everything. We don’t want to infodump so we don’t think about how we have to inform our readers or players. We think readers or players “get” our world somehow.
But without some guidance, the reader or player or whatever eventually wonders “what the hell is going on?” Now if they signed on to be confused, fine, but in most cases you’re going to have to let them in on how your world functions somehow.
Just . . . without letting on you’re explaining things. Let’s face it, story flow aside, sometimes you have to figure out how to let people in on what’s going on and how the world looks.
Fortunately, there’s several ways you can do it.
There are certain moments that give us a chance to let people in on how the world works. Its’ not an infodump or an instruction manual, but just those moments where a reader or a player can suddenly go “aha,” that’s how it works. They might not even realize they learned something, but they know in one way or another.
The moment someone has to fix a broken device tells people how it works.
The moment someone gets married tells you about traditions.
A character’s perspective lets them understand something through their eyes – in an empathetic way.
There’s all these little moments that we can let people in on our world.
What I recommend doing is as a worldbuilder, when creating your book or game or film, look for these moments. These moments give you an opportunity to gauge how much your audience should know – and see where you can tell them.
I find that finding these moments, as you mature as a worldbuilder and creator, becomes more and more instinctive. You develop a sense of intimacy with both your work and your reader and can “hook them up” so the people perusing your work can “get” the world.
In turn, as you do this you can create them as well, without forcing them.
Let’s take a look at the ways to tell people about your world.
I look for what I call “narrative moments.” These are the little moments that let people in on what’s going on. It can be as mysterious as an oddly colored sunset hinting at pollution or as obvious as a newscast that tells what’s going on. These are the moments where your reader or player (hopefully subtly) gets an idea of “whats’ up”
These moments may not necessarily have to be in the story, but can be crafted if you have to leave a few clues. These are little extras, easter eggs hidden in plain site, to help the audience out when needed.
Good narrative moments are everywhere, really. I find that as you improve you need to create them less- and notice them more.
For worldbuilders, it’s a great blessing to discover your cast has what I call a Narrative Character or characters.
A Narrative Character is a character whose experiences can help the reader better understand the world. It may be someone new to a setting who learns (and thus readers learn with them) or someone knowledgeable who explains things to others (and in turn, instructs the reader). In their dialogue and communication, even internal dialogue, the reader can learn about the world as that learning is part of the story.
It doesn’t have to be an explanation – their feelings, emotions, reactions, and so on can tell a great deal about a story. The thrill of having what seems to be a boring meal lets your audience grasp the level of a food crisis. Scars from a disease tell your audience just how awful that plague is. An incoherent angry rant can reveal all sorts of thing – as can a cool, internal monologue.
If a character has many of these, then you have a good narrative character.
Narrative characters can easily be overdone or done wrong; they can become tour guides, mary sues/gary stus, or dull hangers-on there merely to tell the story. Narrative characters should be characters. Wether you find a good narrative character or create one, make sure they’re characters first.
Needless to say, I like to find a pre-existing character and use their experience to illustrate important points.
Of course if you have a first-person narrative, then you already have a potential narrative character. Otherwise I like to keep an idea of who can be a narrative character and switch perspectives now and then.
One of the best ways to communicate how things work in your world is to ensure that you write elements that are very visceral in the proper levels of details and address them properly. People get stuff “from the gut,” common and human (or human-like happenings) like:
Now these elements are likely to pop up in your stories. These elements are also likely to be illustrative of how your world works and how your characters and your culture work. Showing a complicated marital ritual (or even a memory of how one went) can show a culture is highly organized. Characters playing a popular game tells people the game is popular.
If you’re careful, tiny sentences, little moments, and many things that just happen to be in your stories can communicate the world to your readers. This is probably the most invisible way of doing things – and the way least likely to make the reader feel lectured too.
It also works well with nonverbal or limited verbal/explanatory descriptions.
I hope these methods help you out – they’re ones that have helped me. Just be aware of them, create them if you must, and hone your abilities so they flow naturally in your works. Done right, your audience knows enough and doesn’t know they know.
Which is just where you want them, totally adsorbed in your world without knowing how you helped them.