Why sprinkling in your world-building doesn’t work
We all know the dreaded info-dump is bad, but the prescribed remedy of sprinkling it in is incomplete. Just chopping info-dumps into smaller pieces isn’t really that sneaky. The savvy reader will still sense that something isn’t right. You can’t sprinkle world-building randomly into your story. This is like tossing skittles on top of your tiramisu. This method doesn’t solve the real problem.
Let’s look at an example, here the author has forced the main character to walk alongside a mural painted on a temple wall as an excuse to describe the entire Pantheon.
I held my lantern up to see the mural. All twelve of the main gods gathered at a table. Lunae, goddess of love and the night sky leaned suggestively toward Solari, the war god, who gorged himself on human flesh… (I’ll spare you the nine other gods) …At the end of the table stood Yullena the Huntress, defender of just causes, and my patron.”
As you can see, this large paragraph of text has no impact on the character. It’s just an info-dump.
In the first rewrite, she switched to having the main character walk through the temple yard, have small interactions with the pilgrims, and think about which of the gods she believed deserved their devotions. This broke up the info-dump into smaller pieces and placed it throughout some character building mini-scenes. In other words, she sprinkled it in.
Better, but not great. Why?
The setting didn’t affect the character.
Using active settings is a commonly given piece of writing advice. Most people think it means rewriting static description using action verbs.
The trees were tall becomes The trees loomed over us.
But active setting runs deeper. Active settings become characters in their own right. They are more than a static background. They affect the characters who inhabit them, shaping them and changing the outcome of the story.
Test for active setting: If this story happened in another world, what would change?
In the above example, the entirety of the story was a soldier who disobeyed an immoral order and was now on her way to face her commanding officer.
This story could happen in a multitude of settings. Nothing in the world-building affected the character. For all the effort the author put into creating the world, the lack of meaningful impact on the story reduced it to a generic backdrop.
My advice- show the reader how the setting affects the character.
My rewrite (In this scene the main character is at the temple ready to receive her fate.)
The Captain signed what could only be my death warrant. Behind her, Yullena’s great statue watched us with her unblinking gaze. The goddess of just causes would know why I acted as I did. My patron’s eye never closes.
I opened myself to Her presence and drew from Her strength. Insubordination had only one sentence. I straightened my spine. Yullena will be the first to greet me on the other side.
In this example, the world-building affects the character. We see her drawing from her beliefs and changing her behavior as a result. There is also the extra layer of irony with a Captain in the goddess’s army sentencing a foot soldier to death for engaging in a just cause. Here the world-building affects the story. The politics of religion becomes a central theme. This is the difference between an active setting and one that is just a meaningless backdrop.
Active settings are particularly important in the fantasy genre. If your world-building isn’t impacting the story, then why is it there? What is it about this setting that is critical to the story you want to tell? Identify what your world-building must portray. What themes does it represent? What does it symbolize? And for fantasy writers, why is this setting more effective at demonstrating those themes than a non-fantasy setting? (Yes, dragons are cool, but what function are they serving in the story?) Now incorporate those themes into your characters’ journeys.
Setting must be more than a generic backdrop. People are molded by their environment. They are the culmination of their experiences. Worlds create characters. The two must be integrated. Your job as the author is to show the reader how those two connect.
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