5 Ways to Build a Detailed World Without Boring Your Readers

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Photo by InterdimensionalGuardians. Interesting.

Photo by InterdimensionalGuardians. Interesting.

It’s the year 2053. Earth has made first contact with an extraterrestrial race; socialist aliens who reproduce asexually. You, now a literary giant, are tasked with adapting a sample of Earth literature for the aliens to enjoy. The book is Pride and Prejudice.

You open your well-worn copy to that famous first sentence, It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife…and you break down in tears, realizing this tale of class and marriage will mean absolutely nothing to your audience.

Universal truth, your foot!

Yet this is the challenge science fiction and fantasy writers face every day.

We create whole new worlds to house our stories, then find ourselves struggling to keep up the pace while stopping the action every few paragraphs for a history lesson.

But we don’t have to! With a few tricks of Show, Don’t Tell, we can show our readers a lot about our world without slipping into exposition. The close-up details of our heroes’ personal lives can reveal the big picture of the world they live in.

Like so:

1. Your protagonist’s job

…and the jobs of the people he knows say a lot about your world. If they’re all farmers, your readers see an agrarian community. Make him a moisture farmer in a desert, shopping for robots, and he’s Luke Skywalker. Or make him a starship repairman or a dragon breeder. Whatever the occupation, in one conversation with buddies at the pub about how hard work has been this week and what the government is up to, you can cover:

  • The major industries of your world
  • Who controls them / has the power
  • The biggest problems with society

More useful tools along these lines:

  • Living quarters (cave, tent, cryotube, barracks, fortress?)
  • School/studies (from a blacksmith’s apprenticeship to a mind control science project)
  • News reports (from the town crier announcing the war to a psychic message about falling nanobot stock prices)

2. Your protagonist’s relationships

How was he raised? Does he live with the wife and kids? The wives and kid? Seven generations of his family? Coworkers, classmates, cellmates, refugees? No one at all? This all reveals:

  • The society in your world
  • The structure of the family
  • Barriers between the classes

3. Your protagonist’s traditions

Does he pray before he eats? Does he have to slay a beast to be acknowledged a man? When he attends a funeral, is he watching a body buried, burned, scattered, eaten, or recycled? Do they even have funerals? This reveals:

  • Religion – who they worship, where they came from, where they go when they die
  • History – holidays can be used to reenact important points in history

Traditions can include:

  • Daily rituals: getting up, going to sleep, eating
  • Life events: birth, coming-of-age, marriage, parenthood, funerals
  • Holidays: festivals and fasts

*Pro tip: A liturgy, specifically words sung or recited at any of these events, can be an especially handy way to sneak in detail.

4. Your protagonist’s speech

Language, slang, shop talk, and industry buzzwords are all great tools to both plant clues and add personality to your world. For instance, your can make up your own:

  • Terms of endearment or insult (honey, jerk)
  • Titles (husband, wife, king, priest)
  • Curse words (…)
  • Greetings (hello, hi, good day, hey y’all, yo)

5. Use the appendices, Luke!

Your readers will usually be able to interpret casual references to foreign concepts by the context. But to include more detail, you can always add appendices at the back of the book. Tolkien and Herbert, renowned for their world-building in Lord of the Rings and Dune, both did it. Use footnotes to lead readers to things like:

  • Glossary of terms
  • Translations of foreign words
  • Maps
  • Summary of religion and history

What are some of your ideas for showing your world to readers? Tell me in the comments!

Thanks to Sky for suggesting this topic! If you have a writing question you want answered, leave it in the Suggestion Box!

little green men

Great show-don’t-tell world-building tips for sci-fi/fantasy writers.

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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35 Comments

  1. LOVE writing, but lately need something to ‘kick-start my engine’. Appreciate all advise, suggestions, criticisms I read from you and will continue to do so.

  2. Thanks for these tips. Like many (most?) writers I have trouble finding the balance between enough detail and purple prose. This article helped clarify some of those lines for me. Thank you!

  3. I’ve found errands and stray thoughts are a great way to flesh out a verse. Things like a character thinking ‘Poor bastard, ‘least boss didn’t have her hauling stone when she fucked up,’ or having them swearing about their landlady not calling the exorcist to take care of the poltergeist in the laundry room do a really great job of establishing setting. The trick’s just to weave it into the story as it goes on, not info-dump.

  4. Good stuff but the fact that the protagonist is refered to automatically as a “he” is disturbing…

    • I so agree. The protagonist can be a woman, living with a husband (or wife), or that male protagonist might be living with a husband – a sci-fi society does not have to be a patriarchal mess like ours.

      • Hi Oxana! The husband-and-wife/wives example above is just that; an example. If I included ALL the protagonist possibilities in this post it would be as long as a novel! Also, see above for my explanation of English pronouns. Thanks for taking the time to share your opinion. : )

    • Hi, Lunerian. While some languages have different words for male, female, and neuter pronouns, English uses “he” for both male and neuter pronouns (“it” is too dehumanizing to use in this context). Therefore “he” can refer to both male and female protagonists. It is much less clunky than using “he or she” and less confusing than using “they.” It’s amazing how much of political correctness would be unnecessary with a little more linguistic education!

      If it still bothers you, I should point out that I, a woman, wrote this post.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      • Hm. As a reader, I’m perfectly aware that “he” is “supposed” to be both male and female at times, but overuse of the male pronoun rankles me too. I’m actually delighted when a writing guide alternates between both right away; “Does he want to farm melons? Would she like to command a starship? Remember to…etc”. Using both often feels more inclusive to all readers, no matter the sex/gender of the guide’s author. That’s my tiny two cents at least.

        • Thanks, Sanbai. It’s good to hear your perspective! I don’t always use strictly “he” pronouns in cases like these, but more and more I’ve been feeling particularly defensive of a language I’m afraid in many ways is dying (you probably know what I mean: Orwell touched on it in 1984). I’m surprised and troubled to see that my choice of words has caused such distress! Please know that my intentions were in defense of the language, and not in attack of any gender.

      • The word “he” has not been the gender neutral pronoun in English for many years now.

        I make this statement as a university professor with a Ph.D. in both English and linguistics.

        While the tradition of free speech means you have the right to claim otherwise in your blog, just as you have the right to claim that “tapioca” is the word we use to refer to wood after it has been burned and to claim that “ash” refers exclusively to a type of dessert, your claim remains incorrect nevertheless.

        English now uses “he” only for the male. “He” has not been what you call a ‘neuter pronoun’ for more than a decade now.

        I’m afraid you’re behind the times, Ms. Orgres.

        • Aha! You, Bill, have probably brought up the most important point in this conversation so far – which is that the language has changed. And it is constantly changing.

          What we must not forget is that we have the power to change it; to make it more efficient, more descriptive, more clear if we possibly can. We need not always move with the current, jumping off bridges with the crowd, and using “literally” to mean “figuratively” just because everyone else is doing it.

          But perhaps you’re right, and a gender-neutral “he” is not worth fighting for at all. Why?

          Normally when we say something “hasn’t been done that way for years,” it’s because something better has come along. We don’t use VHS tapes anymore because DVDs, Blue Rays, and streaming are better. But no better word has come up to replace the neuter/neutral “he.” A neuter “he” is grammatically correct – but placing all political correctness aside, it does still have one flaw: it is ambiguous. How will I know whether the writer meant a male “he” or a neutral “he”?

          So here’s what I propose: an entirely new word.

          While it’s not relevant to the blog post above – as it would be simple to make the post politically correct (though no clearer) by exchanging every other “he” for a “she” – the problem does frequently pop up elsewhere. Should we say “he or she”? Too clunky. “It”? Too dehumanizing. “They”? Grammarians cringe! “One”? Too formal! “S/he”? But what if this person of unknown gender is the object, not the subject of a sentence? Must we resort to “her/m”?

          Though in the academic world it’s perfectly acceptable to use “one,” because most of your writing probably is formal, I’m sure you’re still familiar with the problem outside those circles. Other types of professional writers face it daily.

          We need a new word! A word to fill the hole of gender-neutral pronoun, just as “y’all” fills the hole of second person plural (but hopefully with something that’s still acceptable outside the southern U.S.). Something intuitive. Something efficient. Perhaps you and I can put our heads together and come up with something?

          I’d love your input on this. Perhaps you’d like to contribute your thoughts to a separate blog post?

          • Stephanie, don’t let these ranting politically correct bigots get to you. You write how you feel comfortable writing, and stand by your own style. The only way freedom of thought and freedom of expression is going to survive the toxic Newspeak being forcibly foisted on us by these sanctimonious moral crusaders, is to stand up for our right to express ourselves the way we choose.

            If they don’t like the way you write your blog or your books, they don’t have to read them. That is the only valid response worth giving these people – don’t like it, don’t read it. There’s no point arguing with them, because they are absolutely convinced that their way is the right way and the only way, and all else is unenlightened oppressive “patriarchy”; an attitude which is the very definition of bigotry (a word they themselves love to use to belittle their opponents.)

            So don’t change your writing style just because of a few self-righteous whiners, Stephanie. I very much enjoyed reading your post, as much for your tips on world-building technique as for your relaxed and natural writing style, unfettered by the clumsy concessions to political correctness that afflicts so many writers these days.

          • Thank you so much, Mystikan. You’re right, of course. Nothing will convince them. But it’s obvious from Bill’s rather ungracious tone that he wasn’t expecting a courteous response, and I was curious to see his reaction if I turned the other cheek. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of these people have bothered to return to read my responses. Ah, well. It’s all just shouting in the dark, isn’t it?

            I don’t intend to edit this blog post. But I do really feel the need for a new word. My day job requires me to conform to some political correctness, and I’d like a way around using “he or she” or “they,” which is what I usually resort to. (It’s funny that while all of these commentators were concerned about he being “offensive,” none of them mentioned the legitimate concern of the word’s clarity.)

            Anyway, thanks again for coming to my defense.

          • It is increasingly common to use they as a singular. there are many options in use. http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/tag/genderqueer/

            So far as building a world, by working dialogues without them seeming didactic is a stronger angle than an lexicon at the back.

          • Definitely best to work new words in dialogue, but a lexicon is a helpful supplementary guide. Some things are hard to define by context alone.

  5. What about the protagonist’s world views, good versus evil, dark versus light, fair versus unjust. History may colour those views but that doesn’t stop them being applied to an imaginary world?

    • Great points, Brian! They’d make great additions under “traditions” as part of religion. Though I suppose some of that could apply to government and law, also. For instance, how certain crimes are punished, and whether the protagonist thinks it is right or not. Nice – thanks so much for commenting!

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  7. I am so sorry about your last name.

  8. I love this article. I will be referring to it often as I work on my children’s sci-fi novel. Thank you!

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  10. I love this list. I personally find relationships to be an endless source of ideas/material. An entire story can be just about a relationship, so whenever I’m stuck..I definitely use that to push things forward.

    I just discovered this site. I’ll be back 🙂

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