How to introduce a world that isn't earth.

Damian

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Hi guys,

My question is if I wanted to talk about a world which isn't based around earth would it be better to spend time describing the world in detail at the beginning or to break it down into chunks which I would describe at key points in the story?
 

Ihe

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The latter, but not in chunks. Chunky description is usually not a good idea. And info-dumps at the start of a story can kill it before it has time to take off.
 

Steve Harrison

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You need to balance what the reader needs to know at that particular point with the danger of becoming bogged down in too much detail. I would be less likely to be expansive at the beginning of a story - unless crucial, of course - but I find breaking off to explain something in depth later on can be a good pacing tool.

If not sure, I usually write several versions and pick the one that feels right.

Another way is to write it all out and go back later for 'hindsight' line by line check to pluck out the bits the reader doesn't need to know at that time.

Trial and error, in other words!
 

sknox

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It would be better to tell a story.

Concentrate on your characters, on what they are trying to do in your opening scene. Your readers aren't going to care a fig about your world until you make them care about people and plot.

Consider: how much introducing of the world did Tolkien provide in The Hobbit? To give but one example.
 

Phyrebrat

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My opinion is that world building is for the author and the only details the reader needs are the ones pertinent to the story.

Knowing your playworld is enough I think . It will inform your writing and you can drip feed any specifics here and there as needed.

pH
 

Cathbad

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My opinion is that world building is for the author and the only details the reader needs are the ones pertinent to the story.

Knowing your playworld is enough I think . It will inform your writing and you can drip feed any specifics here and there as needed.

pH
Agreed. The author should know his world well, and how things work in it. The reader only needs to know things relevant to the current story.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Consider: how much introducing of the world did Tolkien provide in The Hobbit? To give but one example.
Actually, quite a lot. For instance he spends about a page near the beginning of the book telling us what a hobbit is and a bit of Bilbo's family history. And besides that, he's not writing about a world that isn't Earth. It's Earth in a far, far distant era of the past. Which means there are a lot of things he doesn't need to explain. The animals, the plants, the foods ... usually, he needs only to identify them and readers require no explanations.

But I think that if the setting of a story is not Earth the author should establish that pretty early, if at all possible. How awkward it would be to discover two or three chapters in that it was another world or planet (unless the author had a particular, and particularly good, reason for keeping it a secret). But there are countless different and quick ways to do that, like unfamiliar-sounding names of the people or important places. Or a glance at the sky showing extra suns or moons. A glimpse of a calendar where the the months of the year are unfamiliar or the length of a week is different.

Handled well, small clues can suggest a great deal that readers can figure out for themselves, so the author doesn't have to explain those things for them.

But that presumes a world that is still fairly Earth-like. Because the more exotic the setting—the flora, the fauna, the human or humanoid inhabitants, the weather and terrain, perhaps even the physics—the more that things like politics and wars and unknown magics and religions (previously unknown to the reader, that is) figure in the plot, the more and sooner the author is going to have to do some explaining. Though it need not always come in chunky and clunky info dumps. In fact, the sooner the writer starts dribbling in important bits of information, the less will have to be delivered all at once in a lump when it can no longer be avoided. Nor need longer explanations, if needed, necessarily be boring. In the right hands, they can be quite entertaining.
 

The Big Peat

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By and large, the two best times to explain something are

A) Shortly after the reader wants to know what something is
B) Shortly before you say something that will make no sense without the explanation

And of the two, A is generally more interesting to readers, so when you can turn B into A, all the better.

Which means that the less explanation you do at the start, generally, the better. Of course, you might have to do some if you world is very alien, but that's often best done with just a couple of sentences to make it clear its different and filling in why its different later.

You don't have to do it that way. There's some famous stories that give some fairly detailed explanations up front. Sometimes it's quite iconic. But I think the above works more often than these exceptions.

So all in all, having gone the long pretty way here, broken up into chunks throughout the story is usually better.
 

Venusian Broon

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My opinion is that world building is for the author and the only details the reader needs are the ones pertinent to the story.

Knowing your playworld is enough I think . It will inform your writing and you can drip feed any specifics here and there as needed.

pH
Yes and then sometimes no, I get your point, but that's for some styles. Iain M. Bank's Culture and SF novels are chock full of 'world building' that are almost like lectures on the universe and would get shot down here, I heavily suspect.

Yet somehow it works. The point being, is it interesting enough to give the reader a lecture on something about the world? And is the reader is expecting it and actually, from my reading, wanting to read it. In the case of the best-selling Banks works, the answers are, I think, all yes.

Teresa also points out about the Hobbit, but also LoTR has the same sort of infodumps occurring. (Actually they were my favourite chapters!)

TL;DR

It depends.

Advice, best just to write it the way you think works, leave it, then getting a good set of Beta readers to advise if it's too much or alright as part of their analysis. If you're getting consistent feedback that 'this section is irrelevant' or 'too much' then you can always just cut it down significantly or out.
 

Phyrebrat

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I agree to a certain extent, too @Venusian Broon but the hobbit and LOTR are not examples of current fantasy styles (are they? You know how thinly read I am in that genre).

I think the current trend is to be a bit more brutal, but again, like has been said, style and genre influence this greatly.

For example, I’ve not touched ASOIAF but just looking at them on the shelves makes me think they’re chock full of exposition and world building. (?)
 

The Big Peat

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I think there's still space for books that go heavy on the exposition and make a virtue of it; I think you can see some of it in Brandon Sanderson's stories when it comes to the magic, to pick the biggest most obvious fantasy example of it I could. Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files start with a fairly lengthy set-up too iirc.

Its not as in vogue as it was but its definitely still an option.
 

Venusian Broon

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I have read ASOIAF and yep, it's got a lot of wandering about, on many levels. But as I said, it's interesting enough (and his writing makes up for meandering plots, but that's IMHO). When you look at the real fan(atics!) of these books they are massive about the worldbuilding, they adore it.

But the more I think about it, the more current examples I can probably pull in. I'm more up to speed on Space Opera and that is, per my definition, a mixture of fantasy and SF and yep, authors in this genre generally can't help but pull you into a comforting little stop where something interesting is explained. Well, usually...it's subjective how comforting this is of course. ;)

It's one of those writerly things. i.e "Beginners - DON'T DO THIS". Because beginners may write four pages on the technical aspects of the door in the spaceship. Which is fair enough, we don't want four pages on electro-mechanical locks. But once you're past this, it can be used, probably sparingly, for effect if that's your style.
 

Phyrebrat

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Yeah I think that’s the thing; if it’s presented in an interesting way I can read pages of world stuff and be hooked. If E M Forster wrote fantasy I’d love it! He made me fall in love with Florence because of its depiction in A Room With a View whereas Thomas-misery-guts-Hardy makes me want to poach my eyeballs and serve my sclera as an amuse bouche. :D

pH
 

The Big Peat

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When you look at the real fan(atics!) of these books they are massive about the worldbuilding, they adore it.
I think there's a case for saying that the worldbuilding is the biggest single thing in deciding which works are really popular and which ones are stupendously popular with a ton of fanatic fans. The worldbuilding often seems to be the thing that the fanatics latch on to.
 

Steve Harrison

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The key, in my opinion, is when in two (or multiple) minds, don't discount anything without trying it, which is my standard approach to all writing issues. It's much easier to see why something does or doesn't work when it's there on the page.

I am constantly uncertain, so my writing progresses slowly, but my theory is that the best writers are those who make the most mistakes. Which means I must be on my way to greatness... :)
 

Teresa Edgerton

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It's much easier to see why something does or doesn't work when it's there on the page.
Absolutely. Which is why you should not be too quick to discount things because you hadn't planned them, but also why you shouldn't grow too attached to things because you have planned them. Things often look very different once they are actually on the page.

Another thing that has occurred to me, advice about keeping everything as lean as possible may be based on advice by pulp writers—writers who had to get a book out in a matter of weeks, and whose publishers were very conscious of the cost of paper and ink—which has been handed down ever since as though it were holy writ, but that might not be entirely appropriate for the 21st century.

The most popular writers these days do generally spend a lot of words describing their worlds, though some of them may do it so slyly and cleverly their readers may not even notice how much description and exposition they are soaking up along with the action and dialogue.
 

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