On world building and how to avoid the “info-dump”

Hello gentle reader,

It’s Friday, let’s talk about writing and Fantasy, shall we?

Before I started querying my novel The Last Queen, I researched agents and the reasons why they reject A LOT of High/Epic Fantasy manuscripts. Most of the time, their verdict is: too much info-dump in the first pages. It means that instead of artfully weaving the secondary world into the story, the writer buries the reader under a heap of information. Agents and readers? They don’t like it, especially if your novel is intended for young adults.

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We are bored.

So today, I’d like to help you avoid painful rejections or reviews by sharing a few tips on world building and how to eliminate the dreaded “info-dump” in 3 steps…

Step 1: Recognizing the “info-dump”

Let’s say you’ve been told your novel is “plagued by info-dump”. It’s not nice to hear, but we’re here to learn and make our stories better, aren’t we? So how do you recognize the signs of “info-dumping”? You ask yourself the following questions:

–          Does your Epic Fantasy novel include long descriptive passages where absolutely nothing happens and whose sole purpose is, well, to describe stuff?

–          Do your characters have conversations about things they already know? Is the sole purpose of these conversations to give information to the reader?

–          Do you explain your world to the reader instead of showing it to him?

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, then you’re guilty of info-dumping. But fear not, gentle reader! You can FIX THAT.

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I don’t see how this situation can be fixed.

Step 2: Fixing the “info-dump” problem

The key here is to avoid the aforementioned issues by making your world building integral to the plot and having it emerge as the story unfolds. Your readers need to be slowly immersed into the world you created, not banged on the head with it. How do you do that?

–          You focus on the plot and the action. Instead of spending a chapter describing the Big Castle, you have your Hero escape from said castle and, as he is being chased by the Bad Guys, you include a few details that give the reader an idea of the setting, through the MC’s eyes.

–          As a result, you can’t describe everything. Because you only include the few details that your hero sees as he runs through the corridors of the castle, you can’t tell the reader about all the castle’s turrets and secret passageways. And it’s fine! Because even with only the few details you give him, your reader will be able to imagine the rest. Trust him.

But as you delete all the info-dump and replace it with a few chosen details, how do you know what to focus on?

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I’m listening.

Step 3: Focusing on the details that matter

So you’re building your secondary world by showing it as the story unfolds, awesome! But what to focus on? You focus on the details that matter for the specific scene/action you’re writing. And there’s so much to choose from, it’s easy to find something that will be a nice touch of world building in your scene without appearing to be world building to the reader. Here is what you can mention in passing and that will help you build your world:

–          Natural elements: flora and fauna, rocks and animals, bugs and creatures…

–          Political elements

–          Cultural elements: religion, mythology, language

–          Historical and geographical elements

–          And if all else fails, as we say in England, mention the weather.

Hoping this helps, feel free to leave me your comments and questions below! (This blog post was sponsored by A Series of Unfortunate Events. Or not.)

And if you want to find out more about this topic, here are a few useful links:

Juliet Marillier talks about creating Fantasy Worlds…

World Building: In the Beginning… by Raewyn Hewitt

How to Dump Info without Info-dumping– Writing Lessons from Inception by Shallee McArthur

World-Building 201: How to eliminate the info-dump by Hayley E Lavik

9 thoughts on “On world building and how to avoid the “info-dump”

  1. Tremendously helpful. It confirms an instinct I had (to avoid the dump) without having named it myself. Well done.

  2. I just wrote a world-building guestpost for Kristina Perez and wish I’d read this and the articles you mention at the bottom. Ah, well–can’t read *everything,* I suppose. 🙂

    I definitely had info-dumps when I started out, but then I swung the other way and wayyy under-described. I think I’m finally starting to hit a balance.

  3. “It’s Friday, let’s talk about writing and Fantasy, shall we?” Ah my favourite way to start a post and getting the writing New Year started.

    I think the info dump is one of the hardest things for fantasy writers to get right – so I’m not surprised it’s one of the problems agents repping this area identify. Great advice! (And thanks for the shout out!)

  4. Hey EM. Great info even for us non world builders. I have the infamous info dump when it comes to back story. There is stuff I think the reader needs to know to fully understand the character. I need a better way to do it through out the story. Not all up front.

  5. EM Castellan says:

    It’s hard, but once you get the right balance, it’s great to hear from your CPs you’ve avoided the info-dump 🙂 Happy Writing!

  6. K.D. WIlliams says:

    Wow! Thank you so much.

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