Information overload: World building on a need-to-know basis

worldIt’s hard being a supremely omniscient creator god.  Builder of worlds, master of destinies, arbiter of the fates…whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of work.  It’s even harder to distill the majesty of your intricate, expansive domain into a couple of paragraphs scattered throughout a novel, because nothing ever seems to really get to the heart of your magnificent world and all the little clockwork gears that make it so endlessly fascinating.

World building is the biggest challenge that any author of speculative fiction can face.  How do you craft a universe that’s utterly unique and yet completely plausible and realistic?  How do you weave your history and your technology, your magic and your science into the daily lives of your characters without being super obvious about it?  There are two ways to go, and in my opinion, both have their merits.

There’s spinach in this and you can’t even tell

The vegetables-in-the-smoothie approach is a favorite with moms of picky eaters, and for good reason.  Slipping in clues here and there with an occasional flashback or a legend told by the fireside is an excellent way to get those details into your story without slapping down ten pages out of a history textbook.  Many readers prefer a gentle introduction to the quirks and rules of a new society, explored over a couple hundred pages in a meandering, by-product sort of way, tucked here and there into the sweeter bits of action, romance, and heartache.

Your focus in a vegetable smoothie story is probably going to be much more on the plot and the characters, not necessarily the world they inhabit.  This works wonderfully for stories where your society is based on standard, established fantasy tropes: a pre-industrial, European-inspired quasi-medieval word – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It works…if you’ve got a plot worth sticking around for, and you add enough spice and context to your society that it’s intriguing enough to follow.  It takes the burden off of the author to be stunningly original (which is really, really hard) and it puts readers in a familiar comfort zone so they can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Eat your broccoli, damn it, or you’ll get no dessert

Then there’s me.  And a lot of books that were written before 1900, before the in medias res came into fashion.  We will flash-bang you with names and dates and places and geography in the first fifty pages, and demand you keep it all straight for the next six hundred pages, referencing ancient, historical bits and pieces that your glazed-over eyes failed to take in seventeen chapters ago.  The benefits of this approach are a) it’s all in one place, and you know you can turn back to page 15 to re-read the bulk of everything you need to know without flipping through the whole novel, and b) it frees up the rest of the book for battles and betrayals and all that good stuff.  Once you get your world’s rules out of the way, your plot can operate in a society that might be too complex to explain otherwise.

But you do run the risk of turning off your readers.  Not everyone reads those history textbooks for fun on a Saturday night, and there’s a significant possibility that they will put the book down and walk away.  Clean-your-plate authors are stubborn, and usually they don’t care.  This is the story they want to tell, and they only want readers who will put in the effort.  And they tend not to attract huge audiences, although they do get some very dedicated fans.

The key, of course, is a blend of the two.  Put the necessary amount of set-up in chapter one, but then move to the slow drip.  Readers like to be given adequate context without being overloaded with the lineage of the main character’s great-great-great grandfather before even getting to the opening scene.  It takes practice, especially for clean-your-plate authors.

I tend to write it all out in my first expository screed and then cut and paste bits and pieces into other areas later, based on how my story evolves and what my reader needs to know at any given point.  You should have seen how heavy-handed the first draft of The Last Death was.  Literally seven pages of solid history before you even met Tev.

Some would argue that there’s still too much unnecessary background crammed in to the first chapter, but I don’t sugar-coat my Brussels sprouts.  A little caramelization might not go amiss, maybe, but you know you’re getting your greens when you pick up one of my books, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which approach do you favor?  How have your readers reacted to your methods?