When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.
-God Entity (Futurama)
One of the biggest mistakes in worldbuilding is letting people see the edges. The goal of worldbuilding is to create a believable world, and leaving obvious clues that your secondary world is just something you made up is a cardinal sin. A reader should feel a sense that they are a quiet observer of events taking place in a real world that might actually exist somewhere, or some-when, even when they really know it’s just fiction. They’re willing participants in the deception. They are reading your book entirely FOR this deception. It’s your duty to help them maintain that illusion.
To work your worldbuilding in seamlessly, remember these key points:
Your Characters Live in This World
When you watch a movie, do you want to see the main character stop, turn toward the camera, and explain some small fact about the local geography, cuisine, or politics? (I’m going to assume you said ‘no’; and if you said ‘yes’ I’m just going to assume you’re being contrarian) Then why would you inflict that same tedium and break in pacing on a reader? Sure, a reader has more time, but that time should be spent on the story. These characters live in this world, and you should approach dialogue and in-POV narration with this in mind.
Now anyone who is reading blogs about writing has surely heard “show, don’t tell,” by now. If you haven’t, buy a parrot, teach it that phrase, and you can skip half the writing advice you’ll ever read. It is a truism, and while it applies in general terms, it’s not some third rail to avoid at all costs. There are two times when it makes sense to “tell” a reader things:
- In the first person, at any time when the protagonist would want to bring it up. If it is present tense, it would be when they are thinking about whatever topic is at hand. If it is past tense, then whatever they as storyteller would see fit to include in their story.
- In a third person close point of view, it would be appropriate when a character has to learn, ponder, or evaluate. Following someone’s thought process is a fine example of when telling can work. In the heat of battle, a soldier is unlikely to see a pennant and engage in a mental exercise in heraldry and feudal politics. But later on, that same soldier as a prisoner of war might sit in a cell and ponder the politics that led to a betrayal on the battlefield that led to his predicament.
In dialogue, don’t have characters tell each other things they already know. People rarely give all the necessary facts they do know when talking to one another. People are lazy. People are in a hurry. It’s why we have contractions and make liberal use of them. If someone went off on a boring tangent, they would get interrupted more often than not. Speaking of long, boring tangents, don’t use soliloquy unless you are intentionally going for a Shakespearean feel (either parody or a period piece). Sane people just don’t do that. It’s just a cheap, ham-fisted way to have a character explain himself to the audience.
History Is Non-Fiction
Not all history is boring. Well-written histories can be both engaging and fascinating looks into our own past. Part of the appeal is knowing that these were real people, places, and events (as best historians can determine). It’s nice for your secondary world to have a history; it lends depth and gravitas to a world.But allude to it. Pick pieces out for people to mention. Insert casual references to ruined cities, forgotten gods, and ancient races if you like. But don’t let your fictional work turn into an attempt to write in-world non-fiction. “Why not?” you ask.
- People have to care about a world to care about its history. People will read Middle Earth history because they are invested in Middle Earth. It is a world built well enough (and has been helped by movie exposure) that people want to know more about it. People read about Actual Earth history because they were born and raised on Earth. While you can hope that someday your world(s) will be so popular, don’t start out assuming that people want back story on your setting.
- It’s neither plot nor characterization. Those are the two elements that warrant space of their own, with setting best mixed in an around them like mortar to fix them in place. You don’t want large sections of a brick wall comprised of just mortar, and you don’t want large sections of narration comprised of just worldbuilding.
- Readers are going to skim it. It’s a dirty little secret, but many readers pay less attention to large, dialogue-free sections. If what’s going on isn’t riveting, or if someone isn’t talking, you’re apt to lose some portion of your readership’s attention.
- And no, the above point does not mean you should put large blocks of history into your dialogue. A snippet here or there is fine, where it feels natural in the conversation, but long boring lectures on history (or any other aspect of your setting) are just as boring in between quotes.
How do you handle history, then? Lightly.
In-dialogue is still the best way, but you can mix in subtle bits here and there in the narration as well. Consider the following examples:
“Careful where you step. The Kneshians knew how to build as good a bridge as any, but there hasn’t been one here in centuries to look after it.”
It’s relevant to a situation at hand. The speaker asserts his expertise (something many experts enjoy doing) while at the same time shooting down a potential counter-argument (“This is Kneshian-built, it can bear our pack mules’ weight and ours all at once.”). But it also hints at the entirely-fictitious Kneshi people, tells you that they were renoun builders, and that they’ve been gone from this area for centuries (whether through migration or extinction, you can’t tell from this one snippet). Later on, when someone mentions a Kneshi structure, your reader can recall: “Oh, Gort the Trail-Boss said that the Kneshians made solid bridges, this building is probably pretty sturdy, too.”
From the mountain’s summit, they could see the entire Wahsann Valley. In Inchak times, there was a metropolis along the River Ganli’s southern bank. Now the old fortress lay in ruins, the defensive walls a crumbling reminder of a border that once was. Now the only remnant of the once-bustling pride of Inchak were a cluster of homes and shops in what was once the king’s tournament grounds.
Sure, it conveys some information, but it’s dry and sterile, and not something a first-time visitor to the site would think at all. Someone looking on the valley for the first time would have no basis for such intimate knowledge. Someone who knew it well would have little cause to delve into a history lesson upon seeing it again. Keep a POV character in mind when describing a scene, and think how they would perceive it.
History needs a lens through which to view it. Choose the one that fits your story.
Words Mean Things, Part 1: Gibberish
Odds are, if you do enough worldbuilding, you’re going to end up needing to invent words. People and places get names all the time, but when you conjure up a new thing it needs a name, too. You can choose anything you like, but bear in mind that you’re going to need your reader to learn this word – these words – without becoming overwhelmed.
What are the pitfalls?
- More than a mouthful – It’s understandable not to want words that sound like real, Earth-sounding words from one language or another. But you can overdo it. Sallbandais, yllwixhtal, uugok, and pippikinbugok all sound really exotic, and you’re not going to be accused of coping from anyone else. But those names are a mouthful, and a mind full. Readers are unlikely to be able to pronounce them they way you imagined, and they’re going to have a hard time keeping them straight.
- Apostrophe apocalypse – Not a lot of languages make extensive use of the apostrophe. It’s common in contractions and possessives in English, but if you add it to words and names, it ensures that you’re not copying from existing words. But the usage is usually redundant. All it does is break up a word, and few readers are going to use it as a glottal stop which would actually matter in the pronunciation.
- Just too many – Every time you add a made-up word, you’re asking the reader to process one more bit of new information, not of story, but of vocabulary. Here and there, a new word is fine, but you don’t want reading your story to be a chore.
What’s the key to giving your readers new words for a new world? How can you show readers something new, while not burying them in confusing sentences like “The snorgles came upon our sadh’snaar, and neither the Tuunwaald nor our j’kanvarku would avail us.” ?
- New portmanteaus – If you have a weapon that is a shield with a sharpened edge, consider just calling it a bladeshield. If a dish consists of a thick broth of golden sheep’s milk with chunks of dragon’s blood, maybe just call it dragon chowder.
- Keep using them – Don’t bring up a new word, then ignore it for half the book. Worse yet, don’t drop it in after so long an absence and expect readers to remember the meaning. Use the word where appropriate, and try to keep it in context enough times that you can reinforce its meaning.
- Short and simple – Two syllables, maybe three, are all you should really be inflicting on readers. If occasion demands one longer, either make sure it’s a portmanteau, self-explanatory, or at least an isolated incident.
You can’t tell a story if the readers are more worried about figuring out how you’re trying to tell it.
Words Mean Things, Part 2: Anachronisms
Whether the past, present, future, or some reasonable approximation of one of these times, you have to keep your story consistent with the time you’re representing. Castles and tournaments, starships and androids, or malt shops and bowler hats, you place your story in an era. You owe it to your reader to keep them there. However, there are some areas where historical (or futuristic) accuracy is vital, and others where you can bend the rules a little.
Hard and Fast (definitely follow these):
- Technological consistency – It’s fine for your setting to have a technology level different from Earth’s history. You can have a society that learned genetic engineering before nuclear fission. What you can’t do is flub how technology works. Knights shouldn’t be wearing titanium armor without giving an in-story reason. You shouldn’t have people taking vaccines in a future world where infectious disease has been wiped out. Vikings shouldn’t carry katanas.
- Societal norms – The Victorian Era was very formal. Suitors wouldn’t show up to court a girl in work clothes, and if he did, it would have been scandalous. Public displays of affection would have been almost nil. If you are writing about the 1920’s in the US, remember Prohibition. Just bear in mind the place and time, and learn how the people there expected one another to behave. It’s fine to have outcasts, rebels, and misfits (they’re great protagonists), but be sure they are treated as such and feel the pressure of their failure to follow local customs.
- Speech (Part I) – You don’t need to be a historian to write dialogue (though it would help). You’re writing in modern language for modern readers. It’s fine to use modern speech patterns, and not try to write medieval conversations straight out of Chaucer. The pitfall is modern slang. A good rule of thumb is to research the etymology of the terms you use, and make sure they’re at least in the ballpark (an idiom from the middle 20th Century) of the time you’re writing in. Nothing will snap a reader out of your world faster than a knight who starts a sentence with “Dude, …”
- Social justice – Societies have had their ups and downs in the treatment of racial and gender groups, not to mention people who differ on opinions of religion, politics, or sexuality. Unless your work is specifically about one or more of these topics, it is acceptable to gloss over them and have more modern, socially accepted norms in place of those of the times. Of course, you can always do this explicitly as part of your worldbuilding, but this covers the case where you just want a background for your world, not new elements being introduced.
- Speech (Part II) – As mentioned above, you don’t have to write like Chaucer just because you’re writing about castles and knights. Some of the more flavorful turns of phrase can add a sense of time to your writing, but at the same time, might be just as jarring to modern ears as putting modern words into the mouths of olden-times characters. You need to strike a balance between “Ye poxed and goatish leper!” and “Yo, Sir Galahad, why you gettin’ all up in my face?” Somewhere you can find a time-neutral, modern tone. “Stand aside, scoundrel, or prepare to defend yourself.”
This above all: to thine own self be true.
Polonius, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3
You can take this in a different direction and say “to thine own worldbuilding be true.” Once you add something to your world, it’s there. Readers see it, imagine it, assimilate it. You’ve created a fact for them, and you’re duty bound to treat it as such. If your horse-like creatures are called droons in chapter 1, they’d better still be droons chapter 25. You can’t change your mind and switch it to draums unless you go back and edit the earlier references to match, and you can’t let slip a typo calling them drons. The first will make the reader wonder what you’re talking about, the second will make them wonder which spelling is the right one. A typo of a “real” word is a writing foul. A typo if a conjured word that you’ve made part of your world is doubly bad.
You should also remain true to your map. If you have extensive traveling, make sure that you check directions, distances, and relative locations. Don’t have your protagonist travel from A to B on horseback in a week, but from B to A on foot in a day. Don’t let a mountain always be “due north” as your story travels east to west. A reader should have some idea of these facts from the text, but it should always agree perfectly with the map (whether you include one in the book or not) … (but you should include a map for an adventure story).
Your first draft is bound to have errors in consistency. This is why you should always edit your own work first, even if you’re sending it to a professional. Editors are readers, too. Despite an in depth knowledge of grammar and an eye for misspelled words, your editor isn’t going to know your worldbuilding going in. Don’t burden them with trying to figure out whether it should be droon or dron.
I agree that great chunks of history shouldn't be shoveled into a story, but I think it helps to write the history anyway, and social analysis on a casual level, perhaps as a "visitor's account." (Even if you don't have visitors.) It sets the stage in your mind and alerts you to when a mention of the historical background might be appropriate. You have to ask yourself: This is the social and historical context of my characters. When would it be natural for them to react to it? When would it be natural for them to mention it in speech? What symbolic value might it have for them? Only at those times will your "history" break the surface, so to speak. To give an example, I'm working on something with an elven-like race that is matrilinial and thus indifferent to the paternity of children and very relaxed about casual romantic affairs. None of my characters is going to declare flat out that "These weird people don't care if they sleep around after marriage. They trace descent through the mother, and you always know who the mother of a child is." This is something all the characters already know, even if they are from a different people. But the consequences of this social arrangement will shape the society that they're dealing with.