Worldbuilding and Infodumping
October 24, 2012
I swear you could teach a class using Game of Thrones as an example of how to do pretty much everything right. I’m going to be using examples from it again. Thank you, George R.R. Martin.
Fantasy and sci-fi authors spend a lot of time building their universes. That was an understatement, but you get the idea. I personally have pages upon pages upon pages written about the trade, political, and casual relations between all of the cities in my fantasy, even more written on racial history. Immortal blood angel queens, dryad superhighways, nymph pseudo-goddesses–and I think I’ve done less worldbuilding in total than most fantasy writers.
Point is, we do all this work, and we’re tempted to dump it all on the readers, which is the worst possible thing we could do.
Infodumping is when the author dumps pages full of description or monologue of a character reciting the delicate, well-crafted histories s/he worked so hard on. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for most: readers hate this. We love strong worldbuilding, but we hate it when it’s all dumped on us at once if it’s not an absolute pleasure to read.
General fiction writers do tons of research and 99% of it doesn’t show in the book. Fantasy and sci-fi writers do tons of worldbuilding (and research as well) and some are pretty darn determined to jam all of it into their books. Maybe that’s why small, self-contained fantasies are so rare while epic, sprawling trilogies and thirty-book series are so prominent.
While it can be tempting, I say leave out the infodumping (obviously) and let it dribble in in small doses. In Game of Thrones, there’s almost no infodumping, and I think the most I’ve seen so far is a paragraph–and that was in the context of a character’s thoughts. Martin tells the story using terms as if they were already familiar to the readers, and though it’s confusing at first, when you catch on, it’s brilliant–and as the saying goes, it’s better to have a confused reader than a bored one (ideally neither, though). Martin doesn’t need to explain Valyrian steel. The characters just say, “Sharp as Valyrian steel” so much that it just sinks in: Valyrian steel is really freaking sharp. The Starks and the Lannisters really hate each other, too. Martin doesn’t describe their thousand-year feud and all the names of the kings who came before the current generation. I don’t care either. The readers don’t care. We care what’s going on with Ned and Arya and Jon Snow and Tyrion, not what happened with their great grandparents.
This is essentially a matter of showing versus telling, and I know some people who are ready to launch nukes the next time they hear that advice, so I’ll refrain from saying it again.
There are other ways than Martin’s to fill the reader in on what’s going on, and they all boil down to that certain piece of advice that I won’t repeat. Small does of info at a time is one–maybe a sentence to three of worldbuilding per page, and only when it fits. Don’t tell us about the Evil Overlord’s ancestors when the Hero of Prophecy is trying to romance his love interest unless the Evil Overlord’s ancestors have something to do with romancing love interests.
So that I don’t repeat myself any more, I’ll cut it off here.
Writing prompt: write a completely new fantasy world, design the races, the astronomy, the shape of the continents, the wars, the politics, the ecology, and everything within one hour. Then write a short fantasy story based on that world without infodumping.