Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Backgrounding Your World Through Point of View

By Juliette Wade, @JulietteWade 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Even though we've spent so much time and effort on our worlds, the last thing we want if for it to read like we spent all this time and effort on our worlds. We want them to feel seamless, natural, as if they were real places. We want readers to see the people in the world. To help us do that, please enjoy this Golden Oldie from Juliette Wade today. She's probably one of the best at backgrounding worldbuilding details I know, with tips and examples on how to slip your world into your story so readers absorb it all in without realizing it.

Juliette hosts the Dive into Worldbuilding show on Google Hangouts, where she uses her academic expertise in anthropology and linguistics to take discussions of worldbuilding topics beyond the default. Her short fiction explores language and culture issues across the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy&Science Fiction, and Analog magazines.

If you're a fan of worldbuilding and want to take your skills further, you can also become a part of the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop. Join Juliette's Patreon and get brainstorming prompts, research links, exclusive peeks into research topics, or even get Juliette to help you with your work directly. https://www.patreon.com/JulietteWade. If you're interested in learning how linguistics can enhance your fiction writing, Juliette has an on-demand lesson called The Power of Words, now up at The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Google+ | Goodreads

Take it away, Juliette...

Since Janice started the house analogy, I thought I'd continue it just a little bit. You've spent all this time building foundations, walls, rooms, etc. - but the funny thing is, when things start happening in that house you don't want people to be noticing the house. They're looking for a story.

So the question then becomes, how do you keep your fantastic house from distracting people from the story they really want?

Here are some things to consider:

1. Resist the instinct to explain (describe the house). 

Explaining means you're stopping out of the main thrust of your story to speak to the reader as an author and let them know "this is how it works." If you generally use a third person omniscient narrator, it may be easier to do this without actually having it feel strange. But if you're in a close narrator like a third person limited, or first person present tense, stopping out of the action for a paragraph, even a sentence, can be very distracting. Pure explanation will tend to stick out like a sore thumb, so only do it if you absolutely have to.

2. Be careful if you find yourself putting world information into dialogue. 

It can be done successfully, but stay away from "As you know Bob," dialogue, where one person explains something to someone else who can't help but know the information already. Like saying, "As you know, Bob, this space station orbits around planet Zobob." Readers see right through this. This isn't to say that you can't put very obvious information about location into dialogue - but there has to be a good reason. One good reason might be conflict between characters. There's a great example of this in Mary Pope Osborne's book, Dinosaurs Before Dark.
"Help! A monster!" said Annie.

"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."
These are the first two lines of the book! And already she's told you that Jack and Annie live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. But she didn't explain it. Neither did she have Jack say, "As you know, Annie, we live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." She did something much more clever, which Janice and I like to call backgrounding. The information sneaks in, in this example, because of Jack's sarcasm. The point of what he's saying isn't where they live - it's his message of "you've got to be kidding," which he has phrased in terms of a sarcastic attack on her claim.

3. Try to present world information in tiny pieces that you sneak into your story. 

Very often, you can contribute to the ongoing drive and conflict in a story using the main point of a sentence, and then use the back door of that same sentence to sneak in information. Not a lot, mind you - just a piece here, a piece there. Here's an example of how Rick Riordan does it in The Lightning Thief:
"Like at my fifth-grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon."
I love this example. At this point Percy's told you he's a troubled kid going to boarding school, but not much about his history. Now he starts telling you some of the reasons he's been in trouble. Take a look at the phrase Riordan slips in there: "my fifth-grade school." This single phrase presupposes that such a school exists, i.e. Percy could not use the phrase if he had not had a school that lasted only for fifth grade. Therefore, though it's hidden inside a sentence that centers on "I had this accident...", suddenly we know by implication that Percy's trouble isn't recent, and that he has a history of changing schools. Not surprisingly, later in the same paragraph we find "my fourth-grade school." Riordan can later build on this concept of Percy's itinerant schooling without ever having explained it outright.

And here's another excellent example from Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker:
"Ejii fought against her surety that this time the world really was ending, that the Sahara Desert was finally finishing what it had started, swallowing up the rest of what was there."
The main point of this sentence is that Ejii is fighting the certainty of an idea - similarly to the first Riordan example above, making a statement about the mental state or judgments of the main character. The idea itself has at least two critical worldbuilding phrases in it. The first one, "this time the world really was ending," implies that there was a last time when everyone thought the world was going to end - critical history for this book, but information which (if Okorafor explained it) would detract from the action of Ejii reacting to an earthquake. The second phrase is "the Sahara Desert," which unequivocally locates Ejii and her story in Africa.

And last, but not least,

4. Try not to remark on the presence of a thing, person, or practice in your world, but instead on what it means. 

If you say "we never wear shoes here," you're describing a rule that isn't supposed to be brought to someone's direct attention. So try instead to say something like, "I can't believe she was wearing shoes – and at a party, too!" Bring judgment into it. That will increase the sense that what you're describing is normal to the person experiencing it.


  1. Great post. I did all the wrong things in the first round of my historical YA MS. I didn't realize I was "teaching" and storytelling at the same time!

  2. This reminds me of your post on description, Juliette, except that here we're taking the opposite approach. Description through facts, but exposition through judgement.

  3. Thanks, Janice, for posting this excellent piece by Juliette. This is valuable information and you've driven the point home beautifully, Juliette. Thanks!

  4. Thanks Janice and Juliette. Your examples of how to weave in the description from actual stories is so helpful.

  5. I am an idiot. :(

    I was actually refering to this post by Josi Kilpack, and I meant to say that I found the similarity both interesting and enlightening.

    Apologies to both Juliette and Josi for mixing them up.

    The next time someone tells me not to name two protags with the same first letter, I will listen.

    And I will also not stay up so late.

  6. LOL no worries. I'm willing to bet Juliette has a post about description, too.

  7. I'm really glad to have the opportunity to post here. And atsiko, since you've been visiting my blog also I'm sure you've heard something like this from me before, lol. I'm glad you folks are finding it useful.

  8. Janice and Juliette, thank you both, so very much! Thank you, thank you! You have no idea how much you've helped me through this post

  9. Juliette, your comment about bringing judgment into it sounds like a sure way to make the information both subtle and insightful.

    Janice, I love your analogy of not wanting people to say what a great house, but what great people. That is exactly what I want my world building to achieve.

  10. Sound advice. That must be what I was doing right with the snippet of dialogue about my protag's hair. I used the comment to not just tell the reader what color it was but also to hint about his age and how he feels about getting older. At least that's what I intended. I just hope my readers agree.

    It's hard to keep those intrusive explanations out. I just have to keep asking myself, "Would my character really think/say that? Or would that be something so familiar, they wouldn't pay attention to it?"