World Building Wednesday: For Your Eyes Only

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Last week I wrote the following:

One interesting thing about game books is that they tend to have areas meant to be read by all the players involved, while certain materials are meant for the Game Master’s eyes only. This might be the best tool in the RPG designer toolkit for world building as far as the speculative fiction writer is concerned. Remember that the bulk of the data you create in the process of world building is background material, that is, only meant for your eyes only. It puts you in the mindset that some information is meant for your readers while the rest is only useful to you. So putting an asterisk on this information allows you to avoid spilling the beans too early and trains you in careful art of info dump avoidance.

But where do you draw the line between what the reader should know and what is meant for your eyes only?

The first thing is to set the line between what the reader needs to know and what you want to tell them.

Aren’t they the same thing?


It is only natural that after countless hours figuring out the in and outs of the worlds magic system, politics, history and culture that you want to share all that world building goodness with the reader.


That is what professionals and angry readers call infodumping:

Infodumping is a type of Exposition that is particularly long or wordy. Although it can be done in a way that is unobtrusive or entertaining, most infodumps are obvious, intrusive, patronizing, and sometimes downright boring. Specifically, if the premise of your story is laughably ridiculous, an infodump will call attention to the fact. The absolute worst is the gratuitous infodump, which painfully restates that which has already been adequately shown, just to make the reader suffer. For these reasons, ‘infodump’ is often used as a pejorative.

A short explanation into why you should not dump reams of background information on the page. You may have spent countless hours on wikipedia researching modern missile technology, but putting all on the page will take the thrill out of your techno-thriller. Instead, less is more: a paragraph versus a page, a sentence versus a paragraph. Getting it right means delivering enough information to keep the reader informed but without derailing the action.

Now, some exposition is needed, you can’t assume that the reader of the page is also has time-traveling mind reading powers. Exposition, like everything else on the page should move the story forward, not stop it in it’s tracks.

The question still remains, how do you calibrate your exposition?

Depends on the approach. Some authors have made an art of the infodump through clever use of phrase, humor or delivery by an interesting character. Most simply parcel out the information on a need to know basis so as to spoil any surprises, while at the same time creating enough foreshadowing for later events. Others add glossaries or short explanations at the end of the book. And still others weave the world building into the story so that uncovering how the magic works moves the story forward.

Whichever method you use the final arbiter will be your editor/beta readers. They will read what is on the page without the world building baggage that you as the author bring to it.



2 comments on “World Building Wednesday: For Your Eyes Only

  1. Great point. I love to world build…sometimes too much. But I hate infodump as a reader. So I’m still working on how much info to share. Sometimes, I think I might be to stingy with the info because I worry about infodump.


    • I would say that between 70% to 90% of world building never makes it to the page. It is stuff you need to know but that is not necessary for the narrative itself. I like to spread it out in bits and pieces over the story.


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