An Argument Against Heavy-handed Worldbuilding

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September 2020 Fiction

I have a lot of mythology and history I want to thread through my story but I’m worried it’s going to be overly ‘telling’ or heavy handed. Advice for avoiding this? Or advice for if it is either of those things, making it work?

— from the NaNoWriMo forums

Introducing your fictional world to readers while advancing the plot requires them to absorb many new ideas, especially in the beginning. But raw description drags stories to a halt.

One of my favorite approaches is to show a world through characters’ eyes as they deal with something unexpected. An offshoot of that is the exposition argument. This conveys worldbuilding through characters’ discussions. The key to this is making them disagree, because having two people contradict each other explains the world from their points of view. And if you do it right, you can give readers more than just exposition.

For example, I could write:

Gwen and Sven lived in Arcology Epsilon, which used sophisticated robots for most of their labor. But some models were acting weird. Sven didn’t think it was a problem. Gwen decided to investigate.

It’s punchy and concise, but doesn’t allow readers to enter the world. Here’s another try:

“Works is great. I could watch the robots do it all day,” said Sven.

“When’s the last time you really watched them?” Gwen asked. “Like that blue one over there. Why is it going in circles?”

“Eh, maybe it’s a software bug. Not my problem,” Sven replied.

Gwen chewed her lip. “I’m going to check it out.”

“Not now. You’ll spoil the pattern they have going. Wait thirty minutes for them to start recharging.”

Gwen looked surprised. “So fast? Wow. But … I wish they hadn’t taken the old models away. We needed more time to test. Arcology Delta took a full year —”

“That’s why I like living in Arcology Epsilon. We move fast.” Sven yawned, preventing him from seeing Gwen roll her eyes.

Sven closed his eyes. Gwen wondered if he was sleeping. As quietly as she could, she stood and, when Sven didn’t react, walked towards the blue robot.

By the time she realized her mistake, it was too late.

Here we have robots, new models’ strange behavior, multiple cities, a dash of history, one lazy character, one curious character. It’s shown, not told, because we lead readers through the scene one step at a time.

This technique works well in small or medium doses, and ends strongest when a character decides to take action. By the time Gwen advances the plot (and walks into a trap), the reader’s along for the ride. Too much dialogue and readers may get bored. Get in, explore the world issue, and move on. The more characters disagree, the more readers see different sides of the world without feeling the author’s heavy hand.