How to Worldbuild (Without Info-dumping)

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So fun fact: worldbuilding is frequently my biggest struggle, particularly in early drafts. Which is really too bad because I love writing books that require a ton of it, so it’s really no surprise that I tend to get lots of worldbuilding notes from CPs, betas and later readers late in the revision process.

Good news is even though I have to work extra hard to get it right, I actually love worldbuilding. But boy, it can be a major challenge sometimes, especially when it comes to figuring out how to balance building a world without burying readers in a world information avalanche.

So how do you worldbuild without info-dumping? The key, for me at least, is to think of worldbuilding as layered. Some layers may include:

  • Architecture/physical setting
  • Weather
  • Language
  • Clothing/style
  • Food
  • Names/locations
  • History
  • Laws/Government
  • Technology
  • Traditions
  • Cultural mannerisms

And so on, but you get the idea.

As I go through my WIP during revision rounds I try to focus on one layer at a time, or a couple related layers at a time. This can be as simple as going through and paying attention to what everyone is wearing and making adjustments as necessary, while ignoring the rest of the story. And doing the same for food. And dropping a tidbit of history here and a mannerism there.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your world shouldn’t be built all at once. Worldbuilding is a gradual, ongoing process—it’s an offhanded comment about a failed historical ruler, a city named after a victorious battle, a particular style of dress, your MC’s favorite dessert, and whether it’s frigid and snowy or hot and arid.

Secondly, any information you give should be woven in organically and make sense in context. It’s unlikely that in the middle of a war, your MC is going to think about formal menswear (unless everyone is wearing formal menswear to war, which I suppose isn’t out of the question hypothetically speaking), but if your MC goes to a wedding it’d make sense to think about what people are wearing. Similarly, we don’t need a full accounting of your world’s history from inception to present day—instead, it can be really effective to give snippets here and there as they become relevant. 

Think of worldbuilding elements as spices. A pinch here and there as you go along to add layers to your world and make it vivid and engaging is what you should be aiming for—but a mountain of salt on your first page is too much too fast.

Have you tried worldbuilding in layers?

Twitter-sized bites: 
Writer @Ava_Jae says, "worldbuilding is a gradual, ongoing process." What do you think? (Click to tweet
How do you worldbuild without burying readers in information? @Ava_Jae says it's all about layers. (Click to tweet)


Christina Im said...

I think there are some really valuable points about worldbuilding here, and I share your struggle of loving to write worldbuilding-heavy books when I'm not so good with worldbuilding and setting. I especially love your spices analogy; I'd never thought of it that way before, but it makes so much sense! Thanks so much for these tips, Ava.

Jen Donohue said...

I read this post earlier, then had to think about it and come back.

The Dreaded Info-dump is something I feel like I face pretty often. How much information to trust the reader with? How much detail/worldbuilding/OMG INFORMATION can I cram into this sentence or paragraph or page? Drafting, for me, is for cutting a lot of dumpy stuff out, but the stuff that remains....well, spices is a good metaphor. Sometimes, I kind of think of it as stringing beads (which maybe makes it seem too simplistic?"

Ava Jae said...

You're so welcome, Christina! Worldbuilding can be tricky, but I think it's a fun challenge. And I find that the more CPs and what not challenge me to answer questions about the world, the more I get to know the culture and setting and the more real it becomes, which is pretty awesome to see happen. :)

Ava Jae said...

Yeah, infodumping is a common problem, particularly in worldbuilding-heavy books. For me I almost always have to add stuff after my first draft, so I'm always nervous about adding too much (especially at once!)—it takes a careful balance that can sometimes be hard to get right without outside feedback.

I like the stringing beads metaphor too. I tend to think of worldbuilding as less linear, but that's mostly because it's not a linear process when I do it. It could totally be a linear process for you, though. Everyone is different! :)

VictoriaGrace Howell said...

I've found that world-building happens very organically at least for me. Before I write a book I get a basic idea of the world then as I revise it I learn more and more. Info-dumps are a big roadblock, but they can be overcome when one drops little bit about the world. And when you do it that way it builds intrigue for the reader as they want to know more and more about this new world. ^ ^

Aimee Hyndman said...

Great post! You can never have too much advice on world building. I actually just started a video series on world building. Its one of those things I've always really enjoyed, despite its difficulty. When I was younger I went to a creative writing camp called Shared Worlds which focused on fantasy writing. We built our own worlds in groups there. I credit that camp with teaching me most of what I know about the process!
It is quite the beast though. No matter how many times you do it, it never stops being a monster. I'm discovering that in the midst of editing right now. Hope your editing is going smoothly :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Aimee! There are so many aspects related to worldbuilding, you really could go on for quite a while about it. I also agree that you learn something new about it (and face new challenges) all the time! Every situation presents different difficulties and it can be tough, but also a really fun challenge. :)

I finished my most recent round of revisions, but hopefully I'll have notes back soonish so I'll be able to start again! Good luck with your editing!

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