What’s the first thing you think when you read “world-building”? It might be “Fantasy”; it might be “J.R.R. Tolkien”; it might be “Oh no, endless exposition!”
The first time I heard readers saying they didn’t enjoy world-building, I was surprised. Eventually, I realized that they thought of world-building as an annoying break from the action of a novel in order to explain how something works in-universe.
But this isn’t all world-building has to be. With some practice, the in-universe details can be explained to the reader in a way that not only engages them, but truly entices them.
Many authors spend countless hours figuring out the world of their novel for a deeper understanding that is separate from what will appear in the actual text.
The trick is to make sure that any of this “research” that makes its way into the book has a purpose. If you’re going to explain the currency exchange of the kingdom, or dive into the creation myth of the pantheon of gods, it should come in handy to the reader later.
A good rule of thumb for world-building is that if you explain something in depth, that means it’s going to come back in an important way. For example, if you’re going to have your main character brew a potion and explain the brewing process, not only should the potions come in handy, but the brewing process should too. Maybe you explain the rules when your main character has time to create a potion with the correct ingredients, but then they have to make a potion when they’re in a rush. Because we have already been told the rules of potion making, we understand what your character is doing as they improvise.
It’s not that you can’t explain anything that doesn’t come in handy later, but if you do, it should serve another purpose alongside world-building, like characterization or setting, and be done with a light touch.
Putting Together the Puzzle
When my readers read my short story collections, Tales of Mundane Magic, I picture them putting together a puzzle, where the finished picture is the books’ shared universe, and world-building is how I provide the puzzle’s pieces.
For example, ghosts are real in the world of Tales of Mundane Magic, but instead of explaining about them all at once, the ‘picture’ of the rules of ghosts come together slowly, as the reader needs to understand more about them for story purposes.
In the very first story, I reveal that ghosts exist.
As snowflakes danced down from thick clouds, Ziggy the ghost dog had his fun trying to catch them on his tongue.
In the next, I provide information on how ghosts are created.
Bridget finally looked over and made eye contact with her great grandma[‘s ghost]. “They expected you to move on,” she whispered. “What unfinished business could you have? You lived over a century!”
In a later story, I add that in this modern world that exists hand in hand with the supernatural, buildings are protected against ghosts and other spirits.
[A poltergeist] was impossible, given that the entire school was warded with charms to prevent any dangerous creatures from being able to enter the school, and spiritual energy inspections were done every quarter.
Why would protections be necessary? Well, we find out in the next book.
Electricity started sparking around her, a sign of the ghost’s pain and anger. [Gertie] pounded the floor as Bartholomew screamed in anguish[…]Cardboard boxes were overturned, a lamp with a glass shade was shattered[…]
There’s more that my readers might wonder about ghosts, but I’m not going to tell them all at once. By leaving it open ended, not only can I reveal the mysteries one at a time, but I can add more to the rules of ghosts without breaking any previous ones.
Select Your Strategy
An author has many approaches they can use to get information across to their readers, whether that’s for world-building or anything else.
First, you can “tell” them, via exposition. This is especially handy for short stories, when there isn’t a lot of “real estate”, so to speak, to explain things.
[Bridget’s] left eye had been ruined in an accident many years ago, but because of this, it was imbued with magic, allowing her to see many things that normal eyes shouldn’t.
Two characters can discuss the rules of the world, or one can explain it to the other. From “Grave Peril: A Novel of the Dresden Files”, the main character (a professional Wizard) and his friend discuss, wouldn’t you know it, the rules of (their universe’s) ghosts.
“Michael,” I cried. “She’s still here. The ghost, she’s reaching here from the Nevernever.”
[…]Michael swore. “Harry, we have to step over.”
[…]“No way. This is a big spook, Michael. I’m not going to go onto her home ground[…]”
Additionally, something can just happen in the action of the scene, and that piece gets added to the reader’s puzzle without a lengthy explanation. This is where one could reveal the currency of the land, without taking time to explain it.
“Six silver pieces,” the healer said, holding the medicine hostage.
“Six-?” Borden riffled through his coinpurse. Did he have enough? He pulled out as many copper coins as he could, dropping them on the table so carelessly that they rolled. He found one silver triangle, stamped with the Goddess’ image, and rubbed it between his fingers before placing it next to them.
“It’s all I have…” he groaned. “Please…my mother needs that potion.”
World-building adds harmony to the music of a story, but with too much, it can be overpowering. Take time to figure out which in-universe details are important for the reader to know, and place them carefully. Be creative in how you convey information to the reader, keep the action moving, and before you know it, your readers will be craving to return to your world.
About the Author
Shaina Krevat’s other job is a Software Engineer at Google, because she’s moved and no longer works at YouTube. She’s been writing novels since she was thirteen years old, although they have significantly improved in quality since then.
When she’s not scribbling notes and outlines about the magical world of Tales of Mundane Magic, she can be found putting together LEGO sets, drinking lots of tea, and taking too many pictures of her amazing dog Atlas.
She lives in Kirkland with Atlas and her partner James, where they work on their respective creative endeavors and try to keep up with too many TV shows.
About Tales of Mundane Magic: Volume 3
Gertie and Bridget have a mission.
After sorting through the odds and ends they found at a yard sale, they’ve found a buyer for an unusual statue. The only problem is the buyer is on the other side of the country.
With no alternative methods available, Gertie, Bridget, and their friends hop in a purple minivan and set off across Crescyth. Of course, any road trip has it’s problems, but between a chaotic gas station stop, a dangerously malfunctioning zoo, and an enigmatic campsite encounter, Gertie and Bridget are starting to think they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
And, of course, there’s the little matter of actually delivering the highly sought after package into the right hands.
It’s just supposed to be a routine road trip, but of course, adventures are never as mundane as they first appear.