News flash: Camp NaNoWriMo is starting in April! Since I would like to have a post next week on pre-writing and survival tips, I’m going to combine the last two installments of this world building series into one, a ‘mega-post,’ if you will. Savvy?
Today’s post is titled World Building Tips and Tricks: Writing Without the Info-dump. As an added bonus, I’m throwing in the iceberg principle and the three onlys, no extra charge!
Note: Today’s post specifically focuses on gracefully incorporating your world into your story, or writing your world. If you’re interested in the pre-writing aspects of it, please read the previous installments in the series: 2 Essential World Building Questions, World Building Magic, and World Builder’s Disease.
The Iceberg Principal
So you’ve just spent a few days to a month planning out your world. Now you get to incorporate everything you wrote into your story, right?
Wrong. Oh, so wrong.
Like an iceberg, only a small fraction of what you know about your world should make it into your writing. The rest should hide beneath the surface in support.
Most writers and sites I’ve visited suggest that 90% of your world-building will not make it into your book. Of course, that’s an arbitrary number, and if you can get by with a more balanced ratio, I say go for it. The one caveat is to err on the side of less world-building. Do not overload your readers with histories and descriptions. In this respect, less is more.
The Three “Only’s”
While doing research for this post, I came across a lot of maxims, rules, and tips for writing your world without going overboard. I’ve managed to distill them down into three “only” statements that I’m going to call the three “only’s” of world-building.
Your World is only a backdrop for your story.
Story and character always come first. As cool as your world might be, it’s how your plot combines with your characters to form a story that will keep your readers coming back for more. Think of H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu mythos is so well-crafted and fantastic that many writers write in it to this day. However, readers critique Lovecraft’s writing for being dull, plot-less, and totally lacking in character development or even description. Today, such writing would never make it into print.
Give Details Only On a Need-to-know Basis
The benefits of doing this are two-fold. First, it makes it incredibly difficult to info-dump. Second, spoon-feeding your readers only enough info for the plot to make sense keeps them interested, forces them to develop theories about what is going on, and makes them want to know more.
In other words, it keeps them reading. Which is a the ultimate goal, no?
But how much is enough?
Less than you think. Many novice writers overestimate the amount of info their readers need to understand the plot. Readers can sense this, and it annoys them. Remember: your readers are smarter than you think. It’s a good idea to have a trusted beta-reader check this.
Deliver info only in scenes.
Never ever have an entire section where nothing happens except world-building. This is called telling at best and info-dumping at worst. It’s boring, and it won’t engage your reader. Don’t trust that your reader will slog through ten, five, even one page of info-dumping to get to your hook. Your hook should be as close to the beginning as possible.
But they need to know this to understand the story! – No, they don’t. Need-to-know basis, remember?
It is ok to explain/tell necessary details. It’s not always possible to show everything, and sometimes we must do so for the sake of pacing. Just keep it short, a paragraph or less.
Allow yourself to info-dump in your first draft
This way, all the info-dumping is in one spot (usually at the beginning), and can be easily chopped off to find the true start of your story (the point where things actually start to happen.)
During revision, go through and circle or highlight all the facts in the info-dumping section. Decide Which ones can be cut out, which ones need to be known right away, and which ones can wait until the middle of the story.
Remember: uncertainty makes your audience want to read more.
Next time you read a good book, a book that was so interesting you couldn’t put it down, take a moment to examine what makes it such a page-turner. I’m going to bet that a big part of it is that the author rationed information, made you want to learn more. Try to emulate this author’s technique in your own writing.
Use a reader surrogate
Reader surrogates are characters that represent the reader’s viewpoint. They often have little to no knowledge of the world they’ve entered – meaning there’s an excuse for more seasoned characters to explain things to them. This is for the reader’s benefit, of course. A few famous reader surrogate characters are the title character in Harry Potter, any of the Doctor’s companions in Doctor Who, and Watson in any Sherlock Holmes story.
A couple caveats: reader surrogates are more common in YA literature, and are more accepted there. The use of reader surrogates in adult literature is less accepted, mostly because reader surrogates tend to be flat and boring compared to other characters.
Because of this, I suggest that if you use a reader surrogate, you keep them as a secondary character, rather than your MC.
Metaphors, similes, and insults
“You’re as money-grubbing as a casmaridian!”
I just made that sentence up, but it does give us a plethora of information. Not only do we learn that the character the insult is directed at is frugal, but that there’s a race of beings called casmaridians, and they’re (at least regarded to be) very miserly.
The same technique can be used with similes and metaphors.
Create a new scene to impart a piece of necessary information
If there’s a fact that is absolutely necessary to your story, but you need more than a paragraph to explain it, consider writing a new scene specifically to introduce that piece of information.
And last, but not least…
If you can’t seem to fit a piece of world building in gracefully, try cutting it out entirely.
Is it really necessary to the story? What’s the worst that would happen if you took it out? If the answers are no and not much, just cut it out. Many writing problems can be instantly solved with the delete key, and your story will be all the better for it.
What are your techniques for world-building without info-dumping? Let me know in the comments! If you liked this post and want to learn more about world-building, check out the previous posts in this series, 2 Essential World Building Questions, World Building Magic, and (The Dreaded) World Builder’s Disease. Don’t forget to join us next week for our post on preparing for Camp NaNoWriMo!