Exposition Through Narrative: a guide to natural worldbuilding, Part 1
How much should I say? What does the reader need to know before continuing? Should I write a whole prologue to explain this enormous and overly complex system I’ve created? Oh, sweet vengeful gods, why is my first chapter ten thousand words long and I haven’t even introduced the protagonist yet?
If you’re asking questions like that, then you have it all back to front. When you write a story, as the name implies, you write a story. If you’re putting the worldbuilding before the story, then you’re not writing a story, you’re writing a system. That’s not a story. A story is a story. That’s a tautology.
So let’s reset our priorities and focus on the story.
Without a doubt, the easiest way to write a story is to set it on Earth. No explanations needed, no funny business describing the length of your elves’ ears and how that is used to establish an elf hierarchy, no pages of exposition describing each and every number that you randomly slapped onto a table (and I will get to this in a later part, don’t you worry). Just simple, to-the-point characters and plot.
But that’s boring. We like our elf-ear supremacy. So how do we go about writing elf racism (or any other worldbuilding element, for that matter) without boring our readers?
Introducing: Progressive Exposition—a term I made up but a concept which I 100% stole from better writers.
In this three part series I’ll be explaining the Progressive Exposition method and how it can help you write better, fluid exposition that won’t put your readers to sleep.
There are many ways to write good exposition that isn’t too intrusive that work rather well outside of fantasy and science fiction. However, many of these examples get really bloated and strange when we start to apply them to SFF. Bear with me, please. Explaining this will take a long time.
For example, we can explain the history of the Goblin-droid Kingdom and how the Dwarves and Goblins worked in harmony to build a technologically advanced civilisation, only for the Goblins to betray the Dwarves by using the robots to slaughter them, but then the robots gained sentience and killed all the Goblins then stole their faces and now pretend to be Goblins.
Okay. Er, what’s going on here? That’s a pretty whacky, um, history. Maybe I should explain that in a bit more detail. Only, if I did that, my readers might fall asleep half way through. Or be horrified by the Goblin face stealing and stop reading. It’s hard to say!
But let’s compare that to describing, say, the history of New York. And I quote from Wikipedia:
New York City traces its origins to a trading post founded on the southern tip of Manhattan Island by Dutch colonists in approximately 1624. The settlement was named New Amsterdam in 1626 and was chartered as a city in 1653. The city came under English control in 1664 and was renamed New York after King Charles II of England granted the lands to his brother, the Duke of York.
See, it’s easy to explain. The terminology is common to us and anything we don’t know is one Google search away. As such, as a writer you can skim over so many of the details and get straight to the point.
Let’s try a fantasy equivalent again to really nail this point down.
The Corland Duchet traces its origins to a hevlexa mine founded on the southern tip of the Exeros continent by Wolkani colonists in approximately 624 MAE. The settlement was named New Maevon in 626 and was decreed a duchet in 653. The duchet came under Ziel control in 664 and was renamed the Corland Duchet after Primax Unsweer IV of Ziel granted the lands to his talla, the Orcasax of Corland.
Okay… that’s going to take a liiiitle bit of time to get through. I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at: as we draw further away from reality, explaining things whose only incarnation exists within the author’s skull is extremely difficult. Details cannot be Google searched because they exist entirely within the author’s head. Every detail that’s brought up will need some level of explanation, direct from the author, or else there’s no point bringing it up other than to grin smugly down at your confused readers.
Herein lies the key: time. We need to take time to explain these details. But if we stopped to explain every one of these details, it would take ages. But if we don’t explain it, the reader will be confused!
Remember, we are writing fiction, not film. We can’t show the fantasy clothes and the fantasy magic and the fantasy buildings on the audience’s not-so-fantasy television. We have to describe each and every one of those things. That takes time! We need to reduce that time so we can get right back to the story. After all, that’s what your readers are here for: a story. Or maybe they ARE here for a detailed history of elf racism. Who knows?
The easy solution is to cut all the good stuff, but then we won’t be able to create a rich and vibrant world that our readers might enjoy. So how do we describe our wonderful world without boring the readers?
Here’s my way.
Narrative AND exposition???
Your character, Expo, is casting a spell. It’s the first chapter. You have to explain how magic works! You decide to show it by having the spell-casting process play out one step at a time: Expo draws out a magic circle, speaks an incantation, there’s a bright light, and… poof! It fizzles out. It turns out Expo slightly misdrew one of the glyphs in the magic circle. Expo grabs his hair and lets out a string of curses.
Process, action, stakes, explanation. Attitude, struggle, wants, needs. In one short scene, we’ve described both the character and the magic system. Your readers didn’t only have magic explained to them, they saw it (or at least, a failed attempt at it). And in doing so, the scene remains engaging. Instead of just plainly showing the magic, devoid of all context, we got to experience it through the perspective of a character.
But most importantly, we also learned about a character. We got to understand them and their motivations. We got to see who they are and their relation to magic. This is vital; without a character to latch onto, most readers will put your story down within the first chapter, if not the first sentence! Without a character, there is no story. Without a story, there is no story. And now we’re back to tautologies.
Okay, we have the character and the worldbuilding, but what about the actual story? Well, now that we’ve set ourselves up, we just keep adding!
After Expo messes up his magic circle, you introduce a kind teacher who’s helping him with his extra lessons. This teacher tells Expo that if he can’t get this magic circle right in a week, he’s going to fail the magic exam! He already failed last year and had to repeat, but if he does so again he’ll be expelled.
Now we have a scene. Now we have stakes. Now we have a reason to keep on reading. Will Expo pass his exams? Will he cheat? Does he even want to be at this school? What is this magic school? Why teach students magic in the first place instead of having, say, sorcerers hording all that knowledge for themselves?
See how one thing leads to another? See how those questions can be answered one at a time? See how, slowly, we’re building a world?
Instead of going back into infodump mode, let’s continue with the trend we started earlier and try to answer some of these questions in a scene. I’m thinking, Expo goes to class and he gets bullied by a bunch of noble kids, who think he’s going to get expelled. In fact, they hope he gets expelled. Yeah, that should do it. Great story, guys! Pat yourself on the back.
But wait. We’re rushing a bit. Let’s step back a little and deconstruct these things so that we can understand why something like that would work. We have three things that need to be explored: the world, the characters, and the plot. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll only focus on Expo and none of the supporting characters.
- Magic is taught in school
- Nobles have greater access to magic
- Society is stratified around magical ability.
- Expo is a commoner
- Expo is bad at magic
- Expo wants to prove his worth
- Expo wants nobles to respect commoners
- Expo opposes the way society functions
Exposition as plot: the path of progression!
The idea is simple: take a plot point, use it to build the world. Okay, it’s not that simple. There’s a trick to it. You need to make sure that the plot DELIVERS the worldbuilding.
So let’s construct a scene which can do this. In each of these dot points, I’ll use brackets to explain which of my earlier items will be addressed.
- Expo goes back to his first class (exploring the school)
- He’s upset (wants to get better at magic)
- Sits down with friends who are all commoners (societal division part 1)
- From the other side of the room, a bunch of nobles make fun of him and hope he fails (societal division part 2)
- Expo says he’ll prove he can be just as good as magic at them. (What Expo wants)
- Nobles laugh at him.
- Expo vows he'll prove he can be stronger than them! Then they'll have to stop laughing at commoners! (Stakes, opposed to order)
- A noble blasts him with a non-violent spell which Expo can't defend against. Forced to sit down and lick his wounds. (He's weak)
- His friends doubt that. Explain that nobles are born with strong magic, whereas the magic in commoners’ blood is too thin. (Further explain societal divisions)
- Friends say they should keep their heads down (more details on commoners’ place within society)
- Teacher arrives, class goes silent.
- Gives lesson on how to cast a certain spell (more explanations of magic) (also, remember Chekhov’s Gun! This spell can come up later as a plot point. Don’t let good material go to waste.)
- Teacher shows favouritism to nobles (shows how the world is unfair)
See what we did? We created a scene which doesn’t ONLY tell you about the characters and story, but also gives us a heap of context about the world. The trick is that we have to think about the scene not only as a way of exploring the plot, or setting up stakes, or describing character, but also as a way to explore ONE—I repeat, ONE—worldbuilding element at a time.
It doesn’t have to be one worldbuilding element per chapter, it just needs to be chunked up enough and hidden in the plot in such a way that it doesn’t feel like we’re dropping a bucket of information on the readers’ heads. In fact, you can even chunk things down into multiple explanations spread out over the course of the story. This is what we did when explaining the societal divisions between nobles and commoners.
In other words, we don’t tell them about the liches just yet. That’s for a later part of this guide! What we do instead is focus on a specific element or two and structure our scene in such a way that it allows us to tell those few details and ONLY those few details.
If we ramble on for paragraphs and paragraphs, we quickly overload the reader and it gets frustrating, fast. Like this, we can break up all of these worldbuilding elements into neat packages that we can sprinkle throughout the story.
Unfortunately, there’s no 100% easy way to do this since a lot of it is very intuitive, but I’ve tried to break this down into a few somewhat easy-to-follow steps:
- Break down all the things you want to discuss into individual components. Write them down as dot point if you have to.
- Find the connective tissue between these dot points. This is the hardest part. Try to think of each of these plot points a little more loosely. They’re not sequential events that must logically follow, but rather they’re more like Play Doh that you can mould to your liking. Remember, this is YOUR story; you can change it all you want.
- Mash a couple together based upon how well they connect. There’s no real reason or rhyme to this, just find some things that work well together.
- Based upon how they connect, a scene should start to form. This can be literally anything. Just make sure it fits with the overall narrative of the story. Again, there’s no correct way to do this.
- Bridge the gaps between scenes. You can do this by either slotting more of your dot points from step 1 in between, cutting out redundant scenes, or creating a new scene that can help you get from A to B.
Amongst all of our dot points, we decide to mash two together:
- Necromancer’s / undead are a blight upon the world (helps to set up a later plot point)
- Expo wants to be the world’s greatest
pirate ninjanecro hunter.
Got it! Let’s introduce a necro hunter. What about that kind teacher who was helping Expo in the first scene? Awesome. The teacher can help give some exposition.
- Expo is sitting down with teacher.
- Teacher thinks Expo’s dream of becoming a necro hunter might end here.
- During discussion, we bring up the fact that the teacher was an old necro hunter. In fact, she was one of the best.
- Expo looks up to teacher!
But I digress. Your points are extremely relevant, and is quite useful for setting up the world and setting at large.
Zearth Wrote: The fun part when I worldbuild my setting is that I completely disregard explaining the worldbuild altogether. The reader doesn't need to know that the city the twins are in is the capital and the all so important places in The Principality of Veia. All they need to know is that they're on the run, and that they need to get somewhere safe first. Then the worldbuilding can be leaked here and there. The capital being mentioned, the black armoured men, how the air churn when they use their powers. Such things can be shown and not told, and they add to the overall worldbuilding.
Actually, that can be a good way to handle worldbuilding as well. It reminds me of Gene Wolfe's worldbuilding in The Book of the New Sun. Basically, he'd have scenes where things are just happening and he never really explains why. Like, he gives you a bunch of hints that could foreshadow events, if you were really paying attention, but the explanations are so threadbare.
I'd give an example but it doesn't look like there are any spoiler tags for the forum, so I don't think that's a good idea haha.
Granted, that's a completely different kind of worldbuilding and really tricky to pull off. It's a different kind of storytelling altogether, actually. I have no idea how anyone would pull that off.
Zearth Wrote: All they need to know is that they're on the run, and that they need to get somewhere safe first. Then the worldbuilding can be leaked here and there.I do something similar. If they encounter something that they understand and the reader doesn't, then it's a case of the narration very briefly giving the essential details before continuing. I try to slide this in before any action so not to slow it down, and try to keep it under maybe three-four sentences at the longest. I agree with OP though, like one new thing a chapter would really be enough. Pacing is so important.
However, doing it this way can lead to the story being told quite slowly, because there needs to be a certain level of understanding with the reader before big stuff can begin in a way they can grasp. That's the real challenge I think, trying to keep things going while not overloading the reader.
Quote:The Corland Duchet traces its origins to a hevlexa mine founded on the southern tip of the Exeros continent by Wolkani colonists in approximately 624 MAE. The settlement was named New Maevon in 626 and was decreed a duchet in 653. The duchet came under Ziel control in 664 and was renamed the Corland Duchet after Primax Unsweer IV of Ziel granted the lands to his talla, the Orcasax of Corland.I can't count how many times I've seen paragraphs like this. They make me frustrated, and want to drop the story right then and there. Being overloaded with 10 or 20 new made-up terms, words, locations, names, factions, rulers, history, geography etc. is frustrating, like I'm studying for a test (about something I barely care about). Usually I just skim over it and drop a comment saying "bro, this was too much, I got overloaded by it, it was annoying and unpleasant". Less is more, usually. Only breadcrumbs are enough in most cases!
P.S. Even if I COULD google those terms, I wouldn't be willing to. Too much effort, and against my principles. If I have to cross-reference something, or go back to an older chapter to check, you've already lost me as a reader, and it's too late.
I really struggled with that, because my world has a load of things I wanted the reader to know and see and sure enough I had info dumps in the first draft. This one seems to work pretty good, judging by the beta readers and reviews on here so far. And it kinda went along the same points listed up above: The Mc goes to listen to an asparagus telling stories, he sucks and gets everything wrong, she tries to correct it as she did so often to revel in the attention, it goes wrong, she gets shot down and starts doubting her place in life.
So I have a location that tells you things abotu the world, characters, backstory that relates to the MC and the MC has a lear goal and gets her push to start her journey. Although, my grand plan for introduction also contains the prologue to give the reader a familiar human POV that sets up a few things before throwing them straight in the deep end with Sylph, a dragon.
It is like an elaborate puzzle that juggles everything at once and, in my opinion, is the most fun in writing.
Ararara Wrote: I love this guide, thanks so much. One of the best ones I've seen in a while, with great examples!
Hey, thanks for the kind words. I wanted to put out this guide because I keep seeing the same mistakes being made all over this site, even from authors who've been writing for a while now. Exposition dumps might be okay here, but a lot of authors tend to forget that Royal Road is a microcosm in a vast and varying media environment.
Ararara Wrote: Usually I just skim over it and drop a comment saying "bro, this was too much, I got overloaded by it, it was annoying and unpleasant".
A lot of the time, if you're seriously asking whether something can be removed from your story, the answer is almost always yes. This exact response is how many people feel when reading details that don't need to be there. Like, if you they can skip over something and lose nothing, then why was it even in there?
Angaramwrites Wrote: I really struggled with that, because my world has a load of things I wanted the reader to know and see and sure enough I had info dumps in the first draft. This one seems to work pretty good, judging by the beta readers and reviews on here so far.
Be careful with this. Readers on Royal Road tend to be a lot more open to weirdness and poor writing in general because everything is free. The thing is, info dumping in chapter one will get you dinged anywhere else. Try putting that up on Amazon and, guaranteed, you'll get a negative review because of too much info dumping. Same thing with spelling errors. The easiest way to get a negative review on a book is by asking someone to give you money but refusing to fix obvious spelling / grammatical errors. People will be rightfully pissed off at that.
In other words, if you want to get better at writing and you're putting your stuff up on places like RR where the readership is a lot more tolerant, you need to keep your sensors on high alert. If someone reviews your book and gives you a 4 for grammar, that may mean your book is not publishable quality.
But, I'm making a heap of assumptions here.
I actually read over your chapter one to see how you were doing worldbuilding in there. It's a good opening, and your prose is gorgeous. However, it's one of the issues with trying to focus heavily on worldbuilding: sometimes the plot can exist to serve the worldbuilding and nothing else, and that brings the story to a crawl. In those situation, I would actually prefer a brief info dump over weaving exposition into the plot just so that we can get on with it. I'll be discussing this in part 3 because it's a bit of a caveat that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, though, it's a really interesting opening. Sylph is a very interesting and complex character, and I love that.
Writing is hard and there is always more to learn
Fully agree on the grammar though. Unless I am getting solid five stars for Grammar, it is still not good enough. But I recently figured out one of my problems with that. I keep using German comma rules for splitting main sentences and inserting restrictive sentences. Which is right in German... But I am writing in English and the rules are stricter for that.
I feel a little bit better, though, over the fact that:
- it shows the reader the agency head's views of what superheroes should be,
- shows the protagonist to be extremely knowledgeable and interested in superheroes,
- shows the protagonist to, if not outright question authority, then at least to feel the need to spread the not-officially-approved true history, and,
- to totally have a crush on the trainee he's telling this to, but too awkward to do anything other than try to impress her with intellect
God, worldbuilding is hard.
Well, thanks for the explanation. I need to read more tutorials on here, as well as Hello Future Me and Terrible Writing Advice.
When are we gonna see the continuing adventures of Expo, The Necron Hunter and his battles against the Necron King, his long lost brother Sition?
TienSwitch Wrote: Reading this made me momentarily self-conscious that the first episode of the series I'm currently writing literally has the head of a superhero agency explain the city's superhero-related history to a group of trainees in a 3-4 paragraph infodump :( . And that's followed by the protagonist (a trainee) quickly telling another trainee of parts that first person forgot.
Three to four paragraphs isn't that bad. Where it gets aggregious is when you have entire pages worth of infodumping. Besides, telling exposition through dialog I find is always more palatable than flat infodumping. At least you get some characterisation along with it, so it's hitting two birds with one stone.
TienSwitch Wrote: God, I have the fifth episode of my series where I've written 1,700 words of two characters on the team explaining to a third the history of the alien race living in a compound in a city as they walk there to visit someone. And yet, the dialogue there serves the dual purpose of also foreshadowing that that third team member is hiding something about their backstory.
My advice would be to cut it down to the bare minimum then explain the rest as it comes up. For example, you ever seen in cop shows where they'll chase down the perp then sit them down and question them? Why not try something like that. Then the "perp" could explain that he just takes orders from "The Boss". You can still fit the foreshadowing in there, depending on how the scene plays out.
TienSwitch Wrote: When are we gonna see the continuing adventures of Expo, The Necron Hunter and his battles against the Necron King, his long lost brother Sition?
Spoilers, dude! Come on!
Should be a couple of days.