U is for Unseen

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!



 We’ve all heard show, don’t tell so many times that we nod outwardly, giving it a mental pass because we think we understand: don’t tell me the moon is shining, give me the glint of light on broken glass, yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it. Having thus acknowledged that we know what we’re supposed to do, we proceed to wander into the middle of our story and dump a fantastic amount of world-building exposition on our readers, so that they emerge dazed, blinking, and possibly looking back in the book to remember all those words we made up.

While this is clearly a terrible plan, we feel like we’re in a bind – especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction, where it can be absolutely imperative to establish the setting in order for anything to make sense. What would Left Hand of Darkness have been, after all, if Le Guin hadn’t talked about kemmer? What about Dune, and the Bene Gesserit? It was absolutely imperative to know these things, and so we did. World-building, you say. Exposition.

Only, world-building does not necessitate exposition. Instead, it tempts us mightily. We know we wrote this absolutely freaking fantastic political system with seven distinct branches of government, each aligning with a patron saint and championed by masked gangs of … Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty great. You’re all fired up. You want to share. Unfortunately, it comes out sounding something like this:

Jim awoke, and brushed the woven fabric back from his matching sleep clothing. It was time for him to engage in his ritualized face washing before eating the morning sandwich of eggs and preserved meat, because soon the long line of cars would begin to wind its way down the pavement rivers into the cluster of glass-and-steel edifices that…

And really, just…what. What you’re actually going to need to convey that information is something about how Jim related to the morning process. Did he follow it properly because he is a well-mannered gentleman who always eats a balanced breakfast, or is he going to skip breakfast because he just wants to watch the world burn? Is his car different from any of the others? How does he feel about that?

It’s obvious when it relates to our culture, and becomes outstandingly difficult when we’re writing an alternate world. We throw around italicized terms, lobbing them into conversation without giving the slightest thought to conversational cohesiveness – and where this can actually be forgiven by the reader if it imparts information that’s needed in the scene, it’s often an attempt to slip world-building in around the edges, where its information-dump qualities are suddenly glaringly obvious. And how do I know this, you ask? Because I do it all the time. And then I have to try to edit it out, and find some other place for the information, and I lose time in edits that could have been spent finding a better way to word the dramatic speech (my characters are usually more eloquent than I am).

Don’t be me. Learn from my mistakes.

If you want to world-build, that’s great! It’s good for your world to have an internal consistency, so you don’t end up with, as Jacqueline Carey once said, “Faramir, Boromir, and Steve.” Write prayers and map cities if you wish! And if you like to make your world up as you go, rock on and just keep track of what needs to be tied up later or foreshadowed earlier.

But here’s the trick: world-building is better seen than heard, and in general, a piece of world-building information should be shown only in one of three scenarios:

  1. That piece of information is needed to interpret what’s going on. For instance, Steve is kneeling and putting his forehead to the ground because he’s at a religious service, not because he got tired and wanted to take a face-first nap
  2. The piece of information is BOTH going to be needed later (Steve worships in a splinter sect of the main religion and is therefore on a lot of people’s bad side) and is ALSO relevant in the scene at hand (Steve is going to be late for work, but his religion means a lot to him)
  3. This piece of information is either completely new to Steve (his sect was founded by an alien) or something he’s simply never paid much attention to before (he’d have known about the alien if he’d paid attention in his version of Sunday School) – either way, it changes Steve’s outlook on life

And the rest of it, unfortunately, probably needs to be left out. Sad as it is, unless that wonderful seven-branch political system has a bearing on the plot, devoting pages to it is going to, at best, confuse your readers. So remember: U is for all of the Unseen parts of world-building, subtly informing our work as we wind through the plot, but that may or may not need to filter to the surface in any given scene. Steve’s best friend might still be wearing the friendship bracelet she got from Jim eight years ago, but unless it impacts how quickly she and Steve can disarm the bomb, probably best not to dwell on it.

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