So you’ve put together this lovely, complex, detailed world.
How do you convey it all to the reader, without infodumping?
The first part of the answer, of course, is that you let go of the notion that you can explain it all. Just as with research in a historical or hard science fiction novel, you’ve got to recognize that you may have come up with more fillips and flourishes than are actually relevant to the story. Ideas routinely beget more ideas, and however shiny may be, they probably don’t all belong in the book.
But exercising restraint on what you try to communicate to your readers doesn’t save you from having to communicate some of it. So how do you do that?
Once upon a time you were allowed to use infodumps to accomplish this, lecturing your reader either through an “as you know, Bob” conversation (where one character tells another about stuff they both already know), or through a wodge of expository narration — and you can still get away with that in some contexts, depending on your audience, your genre, your point of view, and so forth. I will happily read Neal Stephenson lecturing me on damn near anything, just because he’s so entertaining in how he does it, and for Tom Clancy’s readers, lovingly detailed description of technology is half of why they showed up for the book.
Most of the time, though, you have to be more subtle. You salt your worldbuilding details through the text rather than delivering it in lumps, in a technique Jo Walton has termed incluing: “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”
One way to think about this is to look at how setting information appears in stories that take place right here in the real world, in the present day. If I describe a character typing on a computer, I might say “her fingers flew over the keys;” I wouldn’t tell the reader that each key was marked with a letter of the alphabet, and by pressing them she could input text to the device. If she’s driving somewhere, I’ll say she started the car and pulled out onto the road; I won’t go through every step of opening the door, sitting down, closing the door, putting the key in the ignition to start the gasoline-powered motor, etc.
In other words, you don’t have to explain how a thing works, or all the steps in the process, when the important part is the end result. If I tell you that my heroine plucked the strings of her terna and sang softly, you’ll figure out that it’s a stringed musical instrument; if I tell you she got in her fessti and flew to the hospital, you’ll guess a fessti is some kind of airborne vehicle.
This works . . . in moderation. We’ve all probably had the experience of reading something, or even ending up in a real-life situation, where we felt utterly adrift in a sea of strange terms and concepts nobody bothered to explain. Kate Elliott has said that you can show someone doing a familiar thing in a familiar context, someone doing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar context, or someone doing an unfamiliar thing in a familiar context, but not someone doing an unfamiliar thing in an unfamiliar context: they need something recognizable to hold onto. It isn’t just a matter of keeping the reader oriented; you can also use the known elements to contextualize the unknown ones, which helps you make their significance clear.
Contextualization partly happens on the level of prose. It’s such a small thing, but paying attention to how you structure your sentences can help orient the reader — and can mean the difference between exposition that feels clunky and exposition that slips seamlessly into the reader’s brain.
The clunky approach puts a neon sign on a new piece of information, often in ways that feel like they’re breaking point of view. Some of the key markers to watch out for are phrases like “which was” or “called X” or “known as Y” — e.g. “a six-stringed instrument called a terna” or “the type of vehicle known as a fessti.” If your viewpoint character plays the terna or flies a fessti regularly, they wouldn’t think in those distancing terms. (This is closely related to the more general prose advice to avoid distancing language unless you have reason to need it, replacing “I felt my head spin” with “My head spun.”) Every time I hit a phrase like that, I feel as if the author is waving a flag saying “pay attention; I’m about to teach you a thing!”
You can still teach the reader what they need to know; the trick is doing it gracefully. Rather than saying “I picked up my xat, which was a kind of sword, and strapped it to my hip, then glared at my brother,” say “I picked up my xat and strapped it onto my hip, then rested my hand on its hilt as I glared at my brother.” Hip + hilt means your reader is now envisioning a sword. If you want to reinforce that, find a nearby sentence in which to refer to the sword your protagonist is wearing. Using synonyms in close proximity provides buttressing information; so does working objects into the staging and action of a scene.
The benefit of this isn’t merely that you smooth out the road bumps of exposition. It also usually produces a richer final result. Telling me that ishua is a kind of rice wine gives me a fact: ishua is rice wine. But if your protagonist takes a sip of ishua and then grimaces because Paugir thinks he can get away with buying inferior rice for his mash and then covering the flaw by flavoring it with cinnamon, I’ve learned that ishua is rice wine, it sometimes comes in flavors, Paugir is a cheapskate, and your protagonist is a bit of snob about her wine.
Does this take more time and effort? Yes. Novels these days are longer for a whole host of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve largely eschewed the straightforward infodump in favor of incluing, where your sentences have to bear the weight not only of simple exposition but also characterization and ancillary worldbuilding and good prose, too. All that stuff takes more wordage.
But this is only part of the story (literally and figuratively). Contextualization of the type I just described works great for physical objects and other relatively simple things. Abstract concepts and complex ideas aren’t so easily conveyed with a sentence or two. When the next theory post rolls around in May, I’ll return to this topic and dig into the ways you can structure your scenes and your plot to let you integrate your worldbuilding into them.