Interweaving Plot and Worldbuilding? Don’t Get Too Comfortable

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July 2020 Fiction

I am setting a story in a future Earth, in a North America that has more or less completed a transition into a post-climate change society. I’ve developed this world as much as I can, but I also don’t want to overwhelm the reader with minutia. How do you establish a distinctly different world, without dragging down the story – making it different, but keeping it interesting. Any ideas on this?

— from the NaNoWriMo forums

Comfort is boring. Different is interesting. So, much to our characters’ dismay, we can weave exposition into stories by prying them out of their normal routines and into the consequences of discomfort, inconvenience, or danger.

Let’s say MC (Main Character) is on a quest. After arriving in a foreign land, his first practical action is to buy a better coat, and marvel at its comfort. In spite of being thinner, the native wool actually feels warmer. His friend enjoys a told-you-so moment.

The scene in which they react to cold gives us worldbuilding, plot, and character development.

As a child, the MC had heard stories of the Icetooth Mountains. A sign for tourists points them out, but he’s disappointed that a thick blanket of clouds hides their famous jagged peaks. And here’s a curious thing: the sign called them the King Summoner Mountains.

He scoffs at this. King Summoner was a fool. His friend nervously reserves comment.

This gives readers a little geography, a dash of history, and a hint of the MC’s opinions … and what does the friend know that MC doesn’t?

Trudging through the snow takes longer than expected. “You should see this place in winter,” grumbles the friend. “Except that you can’t. I wouldn’t be caught dead above ground after autumn.” Ironic grin. “Actually, dead is the only way anyone’s caught above ground in the dark season. See how the market stalls are all closed? They’re still recovering from the blizzard of ’23. Now hurry up, we’re late.”

This continues the pattern. Instead of dumping exposition on readers like heavy snow, we’re sprinkling bits of history, character development, tone as the plot advances.

Since they’re late, the hotel has closed its door for the night. The MC’s fingers are numb as he tries to work door latch and get them into the town’s only hotel. But it’s tricky, meant to keep out thieves. He fumbles for a while, cursing in his native language.

This event gives us further evidence that he’s out of his element. For worldbuilding, we’re reinforcing the chilly climate and hinting at a crime problem.

Notice how this works both ways. Inclement weather isn’t just a worldbuilding detail. It gave them more problems by making them late. Worldbuilding that causes problems, or at least discomfort, reinforces itself.

Before leaving home, MC had high hopes about their quest. But now, huddled by the fire after a day under an oppressive, slate-gray sky, his mind turns to a less ambitious plan. Maybe his grandfather was right about this quest. Establishing the climate, developing the character’s history, showing us how he things, and changing the plot.

Notice how I never told you this was city on the edge of a frozen wasteland? I didn’t have to. You saw it through the MC’s only remaining eye.