(Mostly) Unobtrusive Worldbuilding
Infodumps are boring. Yet without them, how do you explain why your protagonist’s magic powers are so important? How do you explain why that particular monster is going to be a big problem, or why it’s really bad that console is flashing red? Does the reader just guess?
Twelve different authors will give you twelve different types of advice. My advice? It’s worth about as much as any of theirs, but here it is anyway. Below, I’ll lay out some ways I like to deliver information to readers, though I make no claims this is the only way. It’s just my style.
(Note: This blog post originally appeared on Scifi and Scary).
Build Your World Through Action
This is my personal favorite. A common piece of advice is that every scene you write should serve multiple purposes: building your characters, building your world, and advancing your plot. This is true of action scenes as well. Below is a scene I just wrote.
The roar of alien bombers streaking overhead sent Fours diving behind a burned out robot tank. He clutched his bolt-action rifle as soldiers shouting warnings and questions, but no orders. His own orders flashed inside his eyes — “444, advance and fire at will” — and as much as Fours hated following orders from their robot overlords, the pressure in his head left him no choice.
Fours sprinted from bolthole to bolthole as flashes of green laser fire sliced through thick smoke. He fired back but rarely looked where he was shooting, even as the screams of those who did filled the air. Fours fired his rifle and ran between firing positions, and that was it.
That was why he was still alive.
In the scene above, I wanted to tell you a number of things about my science fiction world:
- Humans are at war with aliens, and the aliens have superior weaponry (lasers!)
- Despite using bolt-action rifles, we have the ability to project orders inside a soldier’s eyes. So something is preventing us from using our technology, at least for warfare.
- Robots are commanding human soldiers.
- If we don’t follow the orders delivered by the robots, they hurt us until they do.
- Robots can not only project orders in front of our eyes, meaning we’re now cyborgs, but they can also punish us if we disobey those orders. Meaning we’re now slaves.
If I were to deliver this in a more standard infodump, it might go something like this.
The roar of alien bombers streaking overhead sent Fours diving behind a burned out robot tank, clutching his bolt-action rifle. He didn’t listen for orders. They had moved past those years ago, when the robot overlords installed brain chips in everyone and took over all military operations.
They had been at war with the aliens for five years, stuck working with obsolete weapons since the aliens proved they could remotely blow up anything with a battery, yet their robot overlords refused to surrender. The brainchip inside Fours’ head allowed those overlords to display orders in front of his eyes, and if he disobeyed, they could hurt him until he stopped.
Fours always did what the robots said, but only the minimum. Other soldiers died following their orders, bravely, but Fours wouldn’t do that. He had lived long enough to know better.
While both of these scenes convey information, I prefer the former. The first scene delivers the information I want to convey without slowing the action down—showing, not telling—and it moves. It lets my reader fill in details of the world as Fours takes action and his story progresses. The second scene? It stops dead the moment you read the second sentence.
Yet what about the details I left out of my first scene? The fact that the aliens can blow up anything with a battery? The fact that the war has lasted five years? Aren’t those missing?
They are, sure, but those details aren’t important. Not in this scene. All we need to know is humanity is outgunned, we’ve been at war with aliens for years, and Fours is a veteran soldier. If that’s clear to the reader, and if the story is moving, why bog your reader down with the rest?
One thing authors tend to learn, after they’ve been writing for some time, is that readers don’t need to get every detail “right” … or even get every detail at all. If you keep a story moving and keep your reader entertained, they’ll stick with you. If your reader gets a small detail wrong or even misses one entirely, it won’t stop them from enjoying your story. A huge infodump might.
I’ll mention the alien ability to blow up batteries later, of course. My hope is that my reader will connect this new detail to the old one (obsolete equipment) in a “Eureka!” moment. Letting readers figure things out themselves, rather than telling them, often makes details stick.
Build Your World Through Dialogue
This is a great technique for natural worldbuilding, so long as you avoid the dreaded “As you know, Bob”. That means characters should never tell other characters things they obviously already know, something readers pick up on every time. For example, don’t do this:
|“Hello, Bob! I’ve just driven here in my car, which, as you know, is a four-wheeled vehicle powered by internal combustion engine.”|
Let’s go back to the world we just created, with human soldiers commanded by robots fighting aliens. The battle has concluded and humanity has survived. I want to continue to build the world of my story, but do it through dialogue, and in a way that’s believable to my readers.
The group of twenty soldiers fresh from the clone tanks milled by the landed shuttle. As Fours approached, they fell into a clumsy formation. As a unit, men and women, they saluted.
Fours saluted back. Then he dropped his hand, unslung his rifle, and raised it high.
“This is a bolt-action rifle, nublets! It uses dumb bullets, and it doesn’t aim itself! You aim it, you shoot it, and you load it! You start training with them first thing tomorrow!”
They all stared at him with wide eyes, as if he was making a joke. He wasn’t joking.
“Everything you learned in the clone tanks? It’s bullshit! The aliens can detonate anything with a battery, so tanks, planes, powered armor? That crap will get you killed!”
A number of them paled, and Fours knew how that felt. He remembered the pit opening in his stomach, the taste of desperation, and ignored it. He didn’t comfort them because he needed them to understand how dangerous technology was down here.
If they remembered, some of them might survive.
Fours lowered his rifle. “Questions?” He hated questions. They made him lie to good kids.
A soldier raised her hand, and her number flashed across Four’s eyes. “521?”
“Sir,” 521 said, with a face just like 522 and 528, “how are we supposed to fight without tech? How do we defeat an army that has better weapons and more bodies?”
“We fight smart, 521.” Another lie. “We fight like our ancestors fought, in the trenches, shoulder to shoulder. We let them come to us and we cut them down.”
“But what if they overrun us, sir?”
“They haven’t overrun us yet.” Because the overlords kept sending new shuttles full of clones, of course. “Trust the overlords, listen to orders, and we’ll win.” That was the lie he hated the most.
After a moment, another of the Fives raised her hand.
“Sir, is it true the aliens are ten feet tall?”
“Not even close.” Fours almost smiled. “They’re six at most, with two arms and two legs, and bleed like the rest of us. They die. I’ve killed them.” A small bit of truth.
624 raised his hand. “What about the alien hive? We know where it is now, right?” So he’d heard about that operation. “If we get inside and set explosives, won’t the aliens pull back?”
“It would,” Fours said, “if we somehow got past their security robots, which actually are ten feet tall. And if we opened their blast doors, which requires battery-powered hacking consoles. Remember what happens to batteries down here, boys and girls?”
I’m cutting the scene here, but I could easily go on for much longer, with the nublets asking Fours more questions. The nublets have no way of knowing the reality on the ground, and are the perfect place for me to sneak in worldbuilding without it being obvious. In this scene:
- I’ve revealed the aliens are humanoid, about are six feet tall, and vulnerable to conventional weaponry.
- I’ve revealed the aliens have security robots guarding their hive, which are much more dangerous, but those robots don’t fight on the front lines.
- I’ve revealed that every human on the front line, just like Fours, is an expendable clone, and robots are cloning humans at a significant pace. They don’t even get names!
- I’ve revealed that the robots cloning humans (wherever they’re doing that) don’t have accurate information about the battle on the ground, since Fours has to explain to the nublets about exploding batteries. So the cloning robots are in the dark.
- I’ve revealed the aliens have a hive that, if blown up, will cause the aliens to pull back … which means I’ve just foreshadowed my protagonist’s ultimate goal into dialogue.
- I’ve continued to build Fours’ character by showing how he hates lying, yet still does it, because he believes that’s how he can keep new clones alive.
Build Your World Through Infodumps
Seriously! If the information is critical to the scene, and short, and you can’t easily deliver it via action or dialogue – don’t. Don’t do backflips trying to fit in a simple detail when you can just tell the reader what’s going on. Sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to tell, not show.
A sentence or paragraph of worldbuilding, interspersed with action and dialogue, is fine. Two is fine. Three is pushing it, and if you find yourself writing more than that, delete it all and deliver critical details only. But don’t be afraid to dump a little info here and there.
Below is a straight up infodump.
|Fours knelt in front of the anonymizer, blinking through stubborn tears. He saw every nublet’s bloody features, every last clone he’d let die. He couldn’t fight with those memories tearing at him, but he could erase them. This anonymizer would do that. Erase all memory of the ambush.|
There it is, simply stated. Four has something that’s called an anonymizer, and it erases memories, and he uses it when he gets too worn down to fight. I just told you that. Why?
In this case, I’ve probably decided it would take too long to deliver this fact though action or dialogue, or I want this scene to build on that fact. Could Fours and another clone compare anonymizer experiences? Could he tell that clone how guilty he feels about the ambush?
Sure, I could do that. But maybe I’m already planning to introduce another, more important conflict or plot element. Maybe that takes precedence over a simple detail like “What is an anonymizer?” Often readers will happily absorb short, small details, and move right on.
As an author, I’d simply suggest you not grow so reliant on stating facts that your book becomes a history of your world, or a textbook. Keep your story moving. Make it feel real.
Leave the paragraphs upon paragraphs of scene freezing world details in your own notes, for your own private reference. Don’t spill it all over your pages, no matter how fascinating you think it is. Write the tip of the metaphorical iceberg and trust your reader to fill in the rest.
Your readers will fill in all the details. They’re smart like that. And even if they get a minor detail wrong, here or there, they won’t enjoy your story any less.