Friday, August 1, 2014

Where is the best place to put worldbuilding exposition in my story?

One useful definition of "worldbuilding" is the construction of a sense of world on the page. I like to use this definition because I feel that the word "setting" fails to capture the active process that authors engage in. In order to build a sense of world, we have to use several tools - implying world in the actions and judgments of characters, for example, or in their dialogue. Of course, the most obvious and straightforward (if not complete) way to accomplish worldbuilding is through descriptive exposition in the story text.

I am going to call this descriptive exposition rather than "infodumping" because in my view, the latter is simply the former done badly. We definitely want to avoid "infodumping," yet descriptive exposition is quite critical to the success of our worldbuilding.

I've written before about how to get this exposition done with as much finesse as possible, but this summer I had a different aspect of exposition brought to my attention:

When is the best time to include worldbuilding information?

As finely wrought as any verbal carrier of worldbuilding information is, it won't work well if it's stuck in the wrong place. As a general rule, the beginning of a story is better for exposition than the end, and high action or high tension spots are not good for it. There are possible exceptions, of course, such as whenever a new environment is introduced, and the author must take some time to establish the parameters of that environment.

But the general principle is quite a strong one. I'll give you an example. I was working on revisions of my novel, For Love, For Power, and my agent suggested that I should put in a bit more explanation of the Varin pantheon. I therefore had to go back and try to figure out what might be the best place to add in this information. Two possibilities suggested themselves: one in Chapter 3, where my MC Tagaret went to visit a chapel that had been converted into a concert hall, and another in Chapter 15, where Tagaret went to visit someone's home for the first time. I was intrigued by the idea of putting the description in Chapter 15, using statues of deities in the home both to elaborate the pantheon and to demonstrate the host's desire to hide his affiliations with musicians by publicly displaying an icon of a non-musical deity.


Though the idea of using statues for multiple story purposes was more interesting than simply sticking them in the converted church, it really didn't fit. By that time in the story, there was just way too much going on. My protagonist had just come under threat, and had no room in his thinking for noticing anything like a statue. It would have been irrelevant to him, and therefore he would not notice it at all. Making him do so would have been entirely unnatural.

So I went back to Chapter 3, and sprinkled the information in carefully. I started by establishing an overall paradigm for the deities by referring to them as the Holy Celestial Family (which gives readers a sort of filing cabinet to store forthcoming information on the pantheon's members). Then I had Tagaret discover one deity on the way in, and once he was there, explore different areas of the chapel as the action progressed, so he could encounter different deities in each place but eventually cover all the critical pantheon members.

The whole experience got me to thinking about information distribution through a story. I think of it a bit like a river (this one is from Wikipedia):
 At the start of the story, the pace is the most relaxed. This does not mean the pace is slow! However, this means that there is more room to examine the environments that surround your characters. As the story goes along, the river narrows and its pace quickens. This allows much less room for exposition, and even new environments are best confined to only the most optimally relevant information. Action, and escalation of stakes, act like a block put into the river (as in the picture below of a wall contributing to the creation of a surfable wave in a Czech river).

So this means that you should avoid putting exposition in anywhere that action must occur. Keep it to a minimum in critical set pieces where the reader's attention needs to be on events and how they are occurring. If there is some piece of information about the environment which readers must critically receive in order for the set piece to work, put it in earlier: have them discover the environment in some way before the set piece fully takes off, or seed the information into the narrative even earlier.

It's something to think about.



  1. Thanks for discussing this, as this is a topic that comes up a lot in writer's forums. It's something I'm definitely working on as I try to nudge my manuscript towards submission-ready status.

  2. I'm currently battling this in my revision of my sci-fi. Not an easy task. This helps. =)

    1. I'm glad. I hope your revisions go well!

  3. When will we see For love, for power?

    Every time you mention how you use something, I want to go read it - and then remember I can't.

    Things take what they take - I've been working on Pride's Children most of the time since 2000 (with some time out to write a full-length play), and I am finally hoping to publish Book 1 in October (if everything works out) - so I'm not one in a position to push, but I'm really looking forward to it.

    1. Alicia, I appreciate you asking, and I'm glad you're looking forward to it! It's on submission at the moment, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be snapped up. Believe me, as soon as I know, you'll know. :)

    2. Good - do consider self-publishing. Then I could have it TOMORROW (approx).

      If offered a contract, PLEASE read very, very carefully. Consult YOUR OWN attorney. Do math. Then do as you please - but agents are not lawyers (most of them, anyway), and cannot legally provide advice about contracts. A bunch of blogs written by lawyers analyze general contract terms.

    3. The market is certainly interesting right now. We'll see what happens.