I’m continuing my way through the Dresden Files series, and I was noticing something in Jim Butcher’s writing style that I really appreciate, and that got me thinking about other book series as well. That idea being, how much do you describe about the world you create for a story?
For the Dresden Files series, the world of the stories might seem easier than some to describe. After all, as an urban fantasy, it’s set in modern times, in a real place. Then again, I’ve never been to some of the places in Chicago that are mentioned in the books — in fact, besides driving around it once, the longest I’ve been in Chicago was a long weekend, over a decade ago. So, in describing these new-to-me places, what does Jim Butcher do that I appreciate? In an example from the book Small Favors, the characters go to an aquarium to hold a meeting with some monsters. Instead of spending much of any time describing what the aquarium looks like, Butcher lays out the reasons why it is a good spot for the character’s meet-up (despite all appearances to the contrary). With how these details are described, you get an idea for why the aquarium was picked, not what the aquarium looks like. And there isn’t a reason to describe what it looks like — most readers will have a solid idea of this already, so there’s no need to describe the outside as you drive up, because it doesn’t matter for what’s happening in the scene. Even though Butcher used an aquarium that actually exists in Chicago, it doesn’t matter if my mind’s picture of it isn’t exactly right. In fact, this covers for him in case he ends up not having every detail right in his description, because someone would likely complain if he got something wrong. And if someone knows the location well enough to catch that, they don’t need a picture of it painted for them anyway.
So, what was done differently overall in this series that sets it apart from a lot of others? In short, it doesn’t infodump — I’ve read most of the books in the series, and I still haven’t run into any long scenes of world-building; nor have there been any grand, overarching segments describing every piece of magic, lore, and landscape that’s going to be important later. There are a number of reasons why it’s good to avoid this as a writer. An example of infodump occurs in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One — the author spends most of the first three chapters world-building. He goes through a ton of 80s references and nuggets of information about the characters, their society, and their world that go on and on forever. There are a couple of issues with this; one is that it ends up telegraphing a ton of things. For most of these instances in Ready Player One, it wasn’t so much a Chekhov’s gun as it was a Chekhov’s machine gun, with the way everything was jammed into those first few chapters. It’s also frustrating because it ends up meaning that not much happens in a story full of infodump. Ready Player One is one of the few non-fantasy examples of this — authors of epic fantasy are often the worst offenders of using infodump or overly detailed description. George R.R. Martin is a bad one for this, tending to include too many details that don’t advance the plot. It also happens in Lord of the Rings (yes, I went there), in which things are described to a level well beyond what the reader wants or needs.
The question is, then, how do you balance it so that you aren’t pulling a fast one, but not putting in so much detail that it stops your story in its tracks and gets people to put down the book? I enjoy Dune quite well, for example, but I have trouble getting through it, especially early on, as Frank Herbert spends so much time developing his world, all the politics, and all the other different facets of the series. For that reason, I don’t read it in book form; I listen to it on audiobook, because that’s how I can make it through those opening chapters. But instead of just talking about how some books get it wrong, how about some ways you can do better than the big names I’ve mentioned who don’t always do it right?
(If you aren’t a writer, just think about who might do these things from the stories you’ve read or watched.)
First, I think it’s good to ask yourself as a writer/creator, does the reader/viewer need to know this? You put time and effort into coming up with all the details for your world. That is awesome, but some of those details are only meant for you. When you crest a hill and look down on the plains of Fargath, you don’t need to tell everyone about the river in it, unless the river is really important and unique. I already know what a plain looks like, so I don’t need to know the basics. The example below about the plains of Fargath is what you want to avoid:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down on the plains of Fargath. Before them stretched miles of open grasslands that were turning golden in the autumn sun. Off in the distance, you could see a stream with a couple of trees standing next to it, but beyond that and a few small rolling hills, there was nothing for the eye to see. You turned to look at your traveling companions. They turned to look at you, sweat beading on their brows after a long days’ work. The horses looked tired, and didn’t appear to want to continue.
Let’s break that down. First, what I’ve described is a pretty standard plain. It’s actually a pretty boring plain. We probably already know I’ve been traveling all day, so it’s obvious that everyone is going to be pretty tired. The only useful pieces of information in the paragraph above might be that it’s autumn and that the area is called the plains of Fargath. It could be cut down to something like the following:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they look down into the plains of Fargath. The autumn air did nothing to stop the heat, but had already begun to turn the grass a golden color.
Two sentences — that’s all you need to describe what took way longer before. Now imagine traveling all the way to Mordor describing everything like the first example.
Next, unique is cool. In the example of the plains of Fargath, what sort of detail could be unique?
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down into the plains of Fargath. The autumn air did nothing to stop the heat, but had already begun to turn the grass a golden color. Off in the distance, you could see the head of the giant. The thirty-foot-tall stone head was clearly broken off from a giant statue, but none was to be seen.
Okay, that’s pretty cool. A thirty foot tall stone head, clearly broken off from a statue — how did that get there? It’s a detail that is probably going to be important, and that is definitely unique. Maybe they just camp by the stone head for the night and something happens there — even if it’s just an important conversation, now people are going to remember the plains of Fargath. But look at that compared to the first paragraph. It’s more interesting, because heads of statues lying on the ground are interesting. It’s still shorter, and the reader isn’t getting bored, because thirty-foot-tall stone head.
That’s one way to keep things more interesting — another would be to describe the function of the place or the reasoning for going to this place as you travel. This is what Harry Dresden did in Small Favors when going to the aquarium. He said it was off of peak season. So we now know to imagine the aquarium as being pretty empty. He talked about how unless people can see something, they don’t really know what happened or think that it happened the way it did, hence meeting indoors. We now have a clear purpose and functionality for picking the location of the aquarium. How would that work in an example that isn’t written by a prolific author?
No one went to the plains of Fargath for anything more than a novelty visit to the thirty-foot-tall head of a statue. It would be a quiet location for planning to be completed, and a place for plans to be set in motion for getting back the kingdom.
That’s really short, but again, without going into great detail about the plains of Fargath, we now have an idea of what the place is like. It’s quiet, it’s empty, there’s nothing there. We also know why we’re going there — probably something the reader would know already by that point, but a nice thing to clarify form time to time. We also know that this is going to be their base of operations. That tells us a lot about the place and why they are going there instead of just what the place looks like. Using this method also cuts down on a planning session ahead of time. It literally cut two scenes way down, potentially. It also has a sense of action to it that you lose in just a purely descriptive scene. Sure, there are plenty of ways to make description more active, but generally that adds to the length of the description. See the plains of Fargath example below:
As your band of weary travelers crested the final hill, they looked down on the plains of Fargath. Before them stretched miles of open grasslands that were turning golden in the autumn sun. The grass twitched in a breeze that barely cooled anyone. Off in the distance, you could see a stream babbling slowly across the plain with a couple of trees standing next to it, but beyond that and a few small rolling hills, there was nothing for the eye to see. You dropped out of your saddle and looked at your traveling companions. They turned to look at you, sweat beading on their brows after a long days work. The horses hung their heads and didn’t appear to want to continue.
It’s a little bit longer, and while we now have sense of motion with the grass twitching in the breeze, cresting the hill, the stream babbling, and the sweat beading, it’s still pretty much a long descriptive paragraph. If you felt like my two sentences above about reasoning weren’t enough, we can even add a little of the detail back in while keeping it very short:
No one went to the plains of Fargath for anything more than a novelty visit to the thirty-foot-tall head of a statue. Even fewer people came to see the statue as the autumn days grew shorter. It would be a quiet location for planning to be completed and plans to be set in motion for getting back the kingdom.
Now we know the season and also sets up more why the plains of Fargath will be empty. It’s probably not needed to add that, but maybe the shortening days will matter to the plot later, or that will be a trial they have to overcome. It only adds in a sentence, and not a long sentence at that.
The final way to make interesting world-building is on-demand world building. This basically means that you only add a detail to the world when you need it. Patrick Rothfuss does this in The Kingkiller Chronicle series. His narrator, Kvothe, only tells the parts of the world that are interesting to him, and only when they are relevant to the story. That does mean that information is sometimes sprung on you, but not often, and as a writer, that would be something to try to avoid if the piece of information is important for a later plot twist. What Kvothe does is about the opposite from what Wade Watts does in Ready Player One. In both cases, you’re dealing with a narrator who is the star of their own story, but Wade Watts gives you all the information to start, whereas Kvothe sprinkles in what is important where it’s needed. In Ready Player One, however, I don’t know that it could have been information dumped a ton better. As I said above, it was a Chekhov’s machine gun in that information dumping, so how do you avoid springing a surprise on the reader with that? It could have been cut down some, as there was a plethora of information and details given that weren’t needed, and that likely would have been the best solution.
With on-demand world building, it’s something that you just don’t have to use in writing or in shows or movies. I’m actually doing that with season two of Dungeons and Flagons (Found Here) where the players are helping me create the town of Bresson on the fly as well as NPCs. As a Dungeon Master, this can be a little bit scary to do, but it’s also a lot of fun, they are giving me the cast and location for this adventure, and I get to see the places that are interesting to the players and really get to be along for the ride with them. All of the suggestions above are great ideas for pulling into your RPG as well. Giving information on demand, or keeping descriptions short for a theater-of-the-mind game, or even just describing why a place is a good spot for the characters to go can all make for an interesting story.
What are some of the best and worst books that you’ve read or movies or shows you’ve watched in terms of world-building and information dumping? Is there someone who really stands out to you as being a great world-builder?
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