Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Exposition

In storytelling, exposition has two meanings. The first is the opening portion of your plot arc. That is, where your story begins. The second is the one I want to touch on today.

The second use of exposition is the information needed for a story to make sense. That second part covers a lot of ground. It includes character backstories, worldbuilding, societal rules, legal definitions and a host of other things that vary from story to story. Exposition is important because it’s what makes characters, plots and settings work properly. It’s all the information going on behind the scenes that helps a story progress logically.

The big problem with exposition is that while your characters might know it, your readers might not. You don’t need to explain your own childhood to yourself, but for some stories, not knowing a character’s history causes bumps in the road. How do you get exposition out of the way?

Explain it. I know it seems obvious and you’re probably about to shout ‘INFO DUMP’ at me but hold on a second. Yes, info dumps are a way of getting information on the page. Arguably both sci-fi and fantasy are awful at this because then tend to rely heavily on worldbuilding, so there’s always a lot of information. It’s a common trope to have a prologue which details the history of the world, or of a particular set of characters, or that recounts some prophecy or the other.

However, you can reasonably explain information that’s relevant to the story by having your characters discuss it, or by having them realize what they’ve believed or known about that information is wrong. When using the dialogue option, you can offer back-and-forth questions to cover the usual who, what, why, when and how as needed. By having an internal realization, you make the exposition an active part of the story, rendering it a vital part of that character’s arc.

Imply it. Just as you’re not likely to think about your entire history without something that triggers a recollection, your characters likely won’t either. They may however, reference their personal histories when interacting with other characters.

An example of this is when dealing with a character that’s been disgraced for some reason. They may refer to a particular portion of time as ‘before’. Those characters that don’t know what happened can then ask ‘before what’ which gives you an opportunity to either relate it, or to tease it out a bit at a time. A bonus to this one: you give your readers more of a reason to invest in a character.

Similarly, when dealing with world or event information, your characters aren’t likely to have textbook perfect recollection of every single event. Could they possibly give you a good summary of what happened in the last war? Maybe, if they paid attention and had the chance and ability to learn about what happened. Or, maybe they know more about what sort of plants are likely to react with negative magical affects than they know about relations between differing duchies.

Exposition in storytelling is a necessary and vital part of understanding the story, but delivering that information shouldn’t get in the way of the story itself. When and where possible, use it to deepen a conflict: think about if your rival characters get into arguments about who’s right about the environmental risks of paper straws. Also consider your characters and their history. It may take time for your characters to open up and explain, letting you drop little hints and hooks through their actions and reactions.  

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Flora

I covered creating and managing fictional animals in another post, but today we’re discussing plants. There’s a huge amount to cover when it comes to plants, but this is just a basic overview if you’re looking too add in some foliage to your world. The good news is, plants bring in a whole world of information on their own.

It’s likely you’ve heard that there’s a flower language. This doesn’t just apply to which flowers are appropriate to send your sister for her birthday however, this covers almost every plant known to man. Four leaf clovers bring luck, oregano symbolizes joy and of course, roses indicate love.

Plants also exist in every environment. Before you scream there’s no plants in Antarctica, there are in fact Antarctic hair grasses, many mosses and lichens and even fungi. Plants are everywhere, so consider what sort of environment they exist in. Desert plants need to conserve water. Fruit-bearing plants need a way to either protect their seeds, or to aid in seed dispersal.

Like with animals, when creating a plant, consider a few things:

  • Where does it grow?
  • How does it spread new plants?
  • How would it defend itself from being eaten?

These three things make it easy to start on plants, and help cover the basics. When covering where it grows, consider threats to its water supply such as drought, or even over saturation. Nutrient poor soil choices will also tend to make for more stubborn plants who grow slower. And plants that need to protect their roots from things like burrowing animals might have poisonous roots, but edible berries and leaves.

Keep in mind that some plants are well known for helping with common ailments. Medicinal herbs are easy to find, but unless you know what you’re doing, that can same herb can turn from on-hand remedy to poisonous with little warning.

You don’t need to look hard for plants with magical properties either. Dandelions are supposed to grant wishes when you blow on them, and St. John’s Wort will fend off evil spirits. Superstitions can show you where common plants might have an additional property.

Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Worldbuilding Introduction

Originally posted Jun 10, 2019. Updated as of Feb 21, 2020. 

I realized when I was going back through my posts and organizing for my next worldbuilding post that one of the things I hadn’t done was include a list of covered topics. You can now find that below the original post.


Worldbuilding is a huge part of writing genres like fantasy and science fiction. It’s also a large part of games, both tabletop and video. Whether it’s a sprawling other-worldly planet like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, or something as simple as a hidden layer of magic in a real city, worldbuilding is the key to your fictional setting.

If you ask ‘what is worldbuilding’ the answer is pretty simple and straightforward. Worldbuilding is building any fictional setting regardless of size. That makes it a core component of fantasy and sci-fi. It pops up plenty in other genres too, usually in smaller doses.

Depending on how deep you go, worldbuilding can be expansive and large enough to cover entire tomes on its own. How much you need can be dependent on both how much you want to explore your world, and the requirements of your story. Aside from what the world looks like physically, there are also cultural aspects to consider and cover. Daily life is another aspect that can be affected–your characters won’t have to run an errand specifically to get gas if they’re traveling around by horse, but they will have a lot more daily chore requirements.

Because of the amount that can go into worldbuilding, I’m kicking off an ongoing series. Today I’m starting by looking at the different ways of building a world.

There are a lot of ways of building a world. Random Generation is one way and can be useful to provide a basic structure. Generators can be found for everything from city layouts to political maps. Although this takes out a lot of the work of coming up with names and the picky details, it is random so it can and will contradict itself in some places, which is something to be on the lookout for. If continuity isn’t a concern but time is, random generation is extremely useful.

Questionnaires are another method. The internet is full of question lists to help you figure out what your world is doing and give you an idea of things you may have overlooked. These can get extremely detailed and are really thought provoking in some cases (have you ever thought about what happens to the waste your fictional people produce?), but answering those questions can also be time consuming, both on writing the answers down and on researching examples to see how it works in the real-world. If you need fully-customized answers and have the time to make sure everything works nicely together, this is a fantastic method for building a detailed world.

Expansion is my favorite method, and sort of a middle-ground between generation and questionnaires. By starting with one level (be that a kingdom or a tiny shop somewhere) and building on the general idea, you end up ‘nesting’ locations. The tiny shop is located in this little town, which is located in this region, which is part of this kingdom and so on and so forth. Name each level as you go through it (Sam’s Shop of Contraband Sales for example), and work out the general idea of what it’s for and what it does before moving up or down the level as needed. This gives you a general overview of the world as a whole. It’s less time-consuming than questionnaires while maintaining continuity, but it’s not as detailed.

Of course, there’s also nothing to stop you from blending all three methods together. If you need an idea to start, a randomly generated town or city can give you a good base for expansion. If you have a general overview of the world but need more details, filling out a questionnaire or two is a good way to go.

Worldbuilding Topics

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Worldbuilding: Technology

When you think of technology in a fictional world, your first thought might go to science-fiction. That’s not wrong, as science-fiction is dominated by computers, AI and faster-than-light travel. That’s not all technology is however. By definition, technology is the use of science to create equipment and machines for practical use.

Every tool is an example of technology. A hammer and nail can be used to join wood pieces together, creating a practical means of building a house. Similarly, the wheel creates practical transportation, both of people and goods.

That means that even in fantasy, where everything a computer can do could instead be done by use of a spell, you have to consider what sort of technology would be available. One of the big fantasy tropes is using a medieval, renaissance-like setting. That means farmers, knights, castles built of stone and a lot of hand-labor.

Even here, technology exists. Your farmers will be applying basic science to get plants to grow by turning their soil, watering their crops and yes, training horses to haul their carts. Knights need someone to teach them the fine points of swordplay, but they also need a smith to make their weapons and armor. That castle probably uses masonry, which leads into chisels, stone saws and mortar.

That’s at the base end of the spectrum. There is technology, but it is simple and doesn’t require an advanced understanding of how to work the equipment. At the other end we get into advanced technology.

Keep in mind that advanced technology doesn’t necessarily mean every character needs an engineering degree. Rather, it means that the technology has been built up and improved upon.

Take for instance glass. Organic glass such as volcanic obsidian has been used in tools such as knives and early spears. Once it was discovered that melting silica could create glass, the uses for glass began to spread. Early uses included glass beads and decorative murals. Today, we know that although silica produces a brittle glass, we can add ingredients such as magnesium, aluminium and iron to produce stronger types of glass for a wide variety of uses including windows, touch screens, eye wear and sculptures.

When building technology for your world, consider a few simple questions:

  • What purpose does it serve?
  • How can it be built upon?
  • What needs to be built first in order to make this a practical solution?

 

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Worldbuilding: Culture Introduction

Now that you’ve got a world and maybe even a city or two to populate your world, you might need to think about culture. In very broad terms, culture is the customs, arts and intellectual achievements of a given region. Culture is in itself, a broad term because of how much in encompasses. Although culture is has an extensive reach and is deeply engrained in society, society only dictates the people and hierarches of those living in a particular area. Culture dictates the beliefs, cuisine, art and morals of that same group.

One form culture takes is that of customs. These might be the customs of social behaviors such as etiquette or manners. Custom also includes tradition, such a how you celebrate a holiday or even just a birthday. Here in the US, we tip servers and bartenders, it’s expected and often when it’s not done waitstaff will grump about being stiffed–largely because it’s so ingrained in our culture their wages are  based on getting those tips. Over in England, tipping isn’t done.  It’s one social custom that changes between culture, and there are plenty of other examples as well. Handshakes, greetings, even terms of endearment vary across cultures.

Another place form of culture is in the arts. Not only is this in paintings, sculpture and literature, but also in the music and performing arts such as dance and theatre. Music is an exceptional case for this. Latin music uses a variety of percussion instruments such as bongos, the guiro, and pandeiro among others alongside string instruments similar to guitars, which create lively beats. Heading into music from China and Japan, we find more string and wind instruments such as the dizi, erhu, shakuhachi, and the taiko drum, resulting in more somber and calming music. Both types of music are beautiful, but very different from one another.

The final place for culture I’d like to mention is in intellectual achievement. This doesn’t mean in how smart a culture is. This applies to the beliefs, laws and morals they hold to be true. That leaves a lot of room for variation, and a lot of conflict between cultures and nations.

Also keep in mind that culture is a learned thing. Most cultural behaviors are taught to us by our peers. These aren’t just the manners we learn from parents like please and thank you, but the jokes we learn from our friends we wouldn’t share in front of our grandparents.