Way With Worlds: The Drought

Desert Drought Tree

(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

I’ve spent plenty of time here talking about how to avoid over-communicating your world. There’s a good reason for this, which any gamer or reader or viewer knows – a giant infodump is distracting and reminds one they’re experiencing fiction. You can build a great world, but when you step out from behind the curtain to overexplain it, people become disengaged.

If you’re a person who peruses media, then you’ve also experienced the reverse of the infodump; people who don’t describe their world enough. As distracting as infodumps are, at least something is there to grasp, even if there’s so much you can’t get your hands around it. When there’s not enough information on what’s going on in the world, readers or players are just lost.

You can drown in too much information, or have such a drought of knowledge your interest withers and dies.

As of this writing, I feel like I’ve seen less well-explained worldbuilding in media over the years. Less attempts to bring me into the world, less attempts to connect or engage. I start craving a good infodump because at least I know something is there before I get overwhelmed and my eyes glaze over.

Why? Well let’s explore the reasons people might not explain their world enough.

Here’s what I’ve found.

Familiar Song And Dance

Sometimes you don’t provide your readers or players much world detail as your world has familiar elements you figure they’d know. People should get how magic works, how finance works, why knights hunt dragons, why aliens conquer earth, and so on. You hold back explaining your world as the components of it seem obvious.

Or really, you’re not explaining things because they’re tropes. This is a double danger for any worldbuilder.

First, you go out of the way not to explain things, include proper narrative characters, or whatever. Because your world is supposedly made of familiar enough things, you assume you don’t have to find ways to let your audience in on how it runs. You avoid – or even remove – narrative moments, descriptions, and so on.

This approach assumes way too much about your audience. You assume your audience understands and thinks in the tropes you’re using, an unfounded leap of faith. You also assume that your audience realizes you are working with very standard ideas, but are not communicating that fact. The audience needs something to grasp, even if it leads them to realize you’re working with standard ideas.

Second, and perhaps more important, if your work consists of so many tropes you expect people to understand them easily, you should question the validity of your own work. Frankensteining a world together out of assumptions and overused ideas has its own problems, as I’ve discussed perviously. Your lack of communication may be the least of your problems.

“People Know My World”

If you are fortunate, you’ve written about your setting for some time and produced many works. In turn, you feel you have to explain less for your audience. You readers or players have been with you all along, and should know what’s going on – or they can catch up.

This assumes too much of your audience. It assumes they remember al the vital detail, it assumes they read or played all your previous work, and it assumes you told them enough in the first place. All of these are assumptions – and we know how that old saying goes . . . *

Finding when to communicate important worldbuilding elements in a game or tale – again – is a bit of a challenge. But then again that’s part of creating media. You have to ask at what points do you refresh, renew, explain, the rules and principles and places.

Something I’ve advised people over the years is to make sure every distinct work is comprehendible by people who haven’t read or played the previous ones. Not perfect, not catching people up on six books of detail, just enough to be understood. People can usually fill in the blanks given enough information.

How you do that? Well, that depends on your work and you. But remember – think of he new people.

The Story Is The Thing!

Trying to “get to the story” and streamline a work is something I see now and then (and often goes hand in hand with using too many tropes). One is trying to get to the action without having enough explanation of why it happens or whats going on. The story, people often think, will let people “get it.”

Except it usually won’t.

Good writing, good game creation, good narration can accomplish a lot to keep readers/players informed. You can do a lot with action, reaction, and happenings to help people see how the world works. It is not always enough to help people understand.

I usually find people fall into this trap when they move to fast and don’t think about the audience.

A good antidote to this is to remember that even in our real world we often have to explain things to people. When your tale or game lacks people even giving each other the basic details, you have a problem.

A specific warning if you find yourself taking the “fast-and-they’ll-get-it” approach is in order. If you’re moving so fast in telling your tale, you may also miss the flaws in the tale and in the world. If you’re not taking moments to making sure people understand things, then you’re not thinking of our world, and you might not see problems . . .

“I’m Being Mysterious!”

Sometimes we go out of our way to obscure the world and how it works. We want to create a sense of mystery, of the unknown, we wan’t people to think. When they experience this mystery, they’re intrigued and interested.

Keeping mystery is a great thing. Its important. It avoids infodumps (useless you have to resort to the Giant Explanation At The End). I’m all for it.

But just not telling people things isn’t part of mystery. If people have nothing to hold on to, then they are just going to be bored or confused. It’s a rare creator that can maintain interest in the light of complete confusion.

In this case, once again, try and empathize with your audience. What would they experience reading your story or playing your game?

Also remember you don’t have to tell them true things. Part of mystery is concealment . . .

“I Don’t Have Time For Detail!”

Then you’re not being a writer.

“I Don’t Know These Details!”

Then you’re not being a writer or a worldbuilder.

Good writing, good world-building and world-exploring, means having the right amount of detail for your readers to understand and enjoy your story. Anything else diminishes what you do.

Look for these traps and make sure you don’t fall into them.


– Steven Savage
* If you haven’t – When you assume, you make an Ass out of U and Me.