Episode 3: How to Show Your Worldbuilding


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Episode 3: How to show worldbuilding Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 1, Episode 3: How to show your worldbuilding.

As always, here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Jen, who says: I’ve done a whole lot of really great worldbuilding for my story. I have this amazing setting, but I can’t find ways to get it into my story without just telling the reader about it, and I know it’s not working. What can I do to get it in there more naturally?

Okay, this is a great question. Jen’s hit a problem that’s so common it’s got a shorthand—when we hit those paragraphs that are just the author telling you stuff they want you to know about the world, we call them “As you know, Bob” infodumps. The classic is one nuclear scientist telling another—highly expert—nuclear scientist, that if they’re not careful, this reactor will blow up. They both  already know this, we hope, but they need the reader or viewer to know it as well, so they go with this clumsy fact-sharing narration.

Here’s a more subtle example:

“As you know, Bob, we have now been at war for seventeen years, and it’s taken a toll on all our families, as well as our ability to import particular types of food. Remember how we used to have fresh fruit? The enemy’s naval blockades have made that impossible.”

Did you just cringe? I did just saying it. But we’ve all been there, either as a reader or a writer—there are always things that are different or specific about the world we’re in for this story, whether it’s a town in England that’s been hit by the closure of a local factory that employed half the locals, or a fantasy world where a naval blockade has in fact deprived its residents of the fresh fruit they used to enjoy.

The reader needs to know this stuff—we need to show them what’s different about our world, but the truth is that we don’t think or speak about this stuff very often, so there’s no reason our characters should. Nobody gets on their commuter train every morning and thinks: “Once upon a time this would have been a steam train, but these days modern technology had advanced.” So why should our characters?

So how do we show our reader what’s different about our world? The answer is: It’s all in what our point of view character notices, and what they take for granted.

In the last episode, I talked about knowing what’s different about your world. This week, we’re thinking about how your character describes it all. Do these things seem normal to our narrator? Or is something different or out of place?

Think about my opening example – a city that’s been at war for seventeen years, and has naval blockades preventing imports. Is it more interesting for one character to tell another this already-known fact, or narrate it to us for no particular reason, or is it richer for them to see fresh fruit on sale at inflated prices, or see a scuffle over some at the marketplace as they pass by? Could they see soldiers in uniform on every corner and note they’re there, but find them unremarkable, showing us that a military presence is totally normal for them?

This works no matter what kind of setting you’re writing in.

If we’re at a high school in a contemporary novel, the character might be the first one into the classroom on a winter morning, and they shove open the jammed door with one shoulder, then walk over to kick the heater to get it started, all without breaking off their conversation with a friend. We know from the way they do these things that they’re nothing out of the ordinary. That tells us the classroom and the school aren’t in great shape, but our protagonist is used to it. If our protagonist swiped a personal ID to enter a high tech science lab and logged into a waiting computer without breaking off conversation, we’d know that their school was well funded and in good shape, and that this was normal to them. If they do it with a frisson of excitement, then that might tell us they’re a science geek, or if they do it with a sense of worry they’ll get it wrong, perhaps we know they’ve transferred from somewhere that isn’t like this at all?

As you can see, as well as telling us a lot about the world, this approach tells us a lot about the character at the same time, and that means the reader’s going to be much more engaged. And this works in all kinds of stories. Here are some more examples:

In a contemporary novel, a character arrives at a high school and witnesses a bullying incident—it depresses them, but they don’t intervene. They note the victim of the incident is a new kid wearing the latest fashion, and briefly reflect without telling us why that this was a dumb thing to do.

From this, we know the bullying isn’t an unusual event, that there are social inequalities at this school, that our narrator is an empathetic person, but that either they’re not prepared to get involved, or they’ve learned better. We might read on to find out more.

In an historical novel, our character’s family is in the middle of their morning routine. Our protagonist is a girl, and she’s helping her brothers prepare to leave for work. Watching what each of them does, we’ll learn about the gender roles in the family (and therefore the world), what kind of work is available, where this family sits in the class system, and a bunch of smaller, incidental things—the kinds of clothes they wear, the food they have, and so on.

As your character is interacting with each aspect of their world, ask yourself:

  • What’s normal about this for my character?
  • What’s unusual?
  • How are they responding to any injustices or big events?
  • If there’s a resource gap, where do they sit? How do they feel about it?

Of course, sometimes you just have to deliver the information and there’s no way around it—in Aurora Rising, which I wrote with Jay Kristoff, we gave our protagonist a device called a uniglass (which is basically a fancy futuristic iPad with a personality) and let her look things up—we included the encyclopedia entries in the book as sections between chapters. But we did a couple of things to help this work. First, we gave her a specific reason to be looking things up at that moment, rather than just dumping in info we needed the reader to know. And second, we gave her uniglass a name and a personality, and made those entries funny and entertaining, so they didn’t feel like a textbook.

But you can be sure we also used a lot of the technique I’ve been talking about as well, particularly when we’re in the point of view of a couple of the alien characters. We can teach you a lot about them by letting you observe what they notice, what they take for granted, and what seems strange to them.

So, to come back to where we began and recap those rules: you can show your worldbuilding by thinking about what your character notices, and what they take for granted—and this will also tell us a lot about your character.

Your reader will be patient about learning this stuff from you, don’t worry. As long as they feel like you know what you’re doing, they’re okay to wait.

Here’s an exercise: Write a paragraph in which a character arrives at school or work. Know one thing that’s different or specific about this place, and show it in your paragraph, without simply telling us what it is.

Next week, I’ll be answering a question about where to end a chapter.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. All this is particularly helpful around launch—especially subscribing—it pleases the algorithms, and introduces the podcast to new readers.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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