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.


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.


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?


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

What is “strong writing” ?

One of the most common reasons for agents and publishers to reject a manuscript is « weak writing ». Rather than listing here what makes your writing weak, I’d like to offer a few pointers to help you make your writing strong – or stronger. I will use The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as an example, since I think most of you have either read the book or seen the movie based on it.

What you need to work on to make your writing “strong”:

1-      The plot

In real life, things rarely go according to plan. Then why should they in books? Your Main Character needs to start out with a plan (for the day, for the year or in life). Then everything needs to go awry.

 In The Hunger Games, Katniss is constantly faced with the unexpected. She goes to the Reaping thinking she or Gale will be picked. It’s Prim who is chosen. She enters the arena thinking she’ll have to count only on herself to survive. Then she finds an ally in Peeta.

2-      The characters

The world cannot revolve around your Main Character. In some stories, the characters seem to exist for the sole purpose of helping the MC or making her miserable. When you’re told you need to “flesh out” your characters, it means you have to make them unique, but it also means you have to give them their own story, their own plan, their own desires, their own AGENDA that will have nothing to do with the MC.

In The Hunger Games, Effie has her own agenda (get promoted to a better district, have a good career) and it so happens that the best course of events for her is if Katniss wins the Games. So she helps Katniss along the way. But if you look at the story from her point of view, Katniss is a means to an end (at least at the beginning).

3-      The pace

Strong writing means no dull moments. It doesn’t mean you have to write an action-packed story in the strictest sense of the word, but it does mean things need to happen in every chapter, and there needs to be a “hanger” at the end of each chapter that will keep your reader reading.

In The Hunger Games, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger. If you write romance,  your “hanger” doesn’t have to be your MC waking up to “a wall of fire descending on” her, but it has to be something that makes the reader turn the page.

4-      High stakes

Having high stakes in your story means that your MC needs to be faced with hard decisions. Your reader needs to wonder what the outcome of the situation will be. Your reader needs to care about your MC making the right decision.

In The Hunger Games, the stakes cannot be higher since every decision Katniss is faced with means life or death for her or someone else. But a love triangle can constitute high stakes too. What works well in The Hunger Games is that Katniss choosing between Gale and Peeta is a very complicated decision, given the circumstances and who they are.

5-      Style

To avoid a so-called “awkward writing”, you may choose to write short, to-the-point sentences.

In The Hunger Games, Collins’ style is simple and it works. Each sentence is carefully worded, with judiciously chosen images. Example: “Behind Peeta, Cato slashes his way through the bush.” That’s 9 words. Yet we get a clear sense of the scene.

6-      World building / Descriptions

When your writing is strong, your reader doesn’t notice when you include world building or descriptions in your story.

By the end of The Hunger Games, the reader has a clear idea of what Katniss, District 12, the Capitol or the Games Arena look like, yet it’s hard to remember exactly when Collins described them. She intertwined the descriptions with her story.

7-      Depth

Strong writing is a tool to make your reader think. You read The Hunger Games for the story, the characters, the suspense. But the reason why so many readers enjoyed it so much is that it tackles important themes. It questions reality TV, freedom and the things we take for granted in our Western societies.

8-      Grammar, spelling and punctuation

No strong writing without them!


So strong writing makes effortless reading. Your readers shouldn’t be able to see through your writing devices. They should be able to believe in, and care about, your characters so much that when the Gamemakers announce that “both tributes from the same district will be declared winners if they are the last two alive”, they call out Peeta’s name at the same time Katniss does.

Do you agree? What makes “strong writing” according to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!

ROW80 Check-In 9 – Prologues: How and why to write one

Hello gentle readers and fellow writers,

Last week I came across an interesting post on the MythicScribes forum. It is a great forum for fantasy writers and a member called Lunaairis posted his thoughts on prologues on August 17th 2012.

Usually, writers are advised to avoid including prologues at the beginning of their novels. Prologues should be banned because they most likely are 1) unnecessary lengthy narrative of back story, 2) boring scene-setting that can be cut without harming the plot, 3) information that should be your chapter One, 4) something that readers don’t read anyway.

However many published Epic Fantasy books do start with a prologue and Lunaairis explains in his post when and how this is acceptable:

“I was looking at a post about prologues and I couldn’t help but think that there seems to be something wrong with people’s reactions to them. I for one like prologues as they can set the tone for the rest of the story; When they are prologues and not just masses of text. After reading Farlander (by Col Buchanan) I have realized what makes a prologue good, and why more fantasy stories need them.

1) A prologue should be like the story you will tell but in miniature, it should be no longer then your longest chapter and should never be split into parts (I’ve seen this done and it’s just horrendous). That said you should always leave the prologue to be the last thing you write. A prologue is so much like a door hinge I can’t even begin to explain. It is best used with the idea to gather readers; it’s a chapter the average man/woman or child can read at a book store to get a feel for the authors writing without going into the main story. It is what an author should use for getting the reader from the real world to their fictional world. Again like a door hinge it keeps the book open for the public eye to grab a glimpse.

2) The author can also use the prologue to slip in information that the other characters in the novel might already know (if it is important to the story). You wouldn’t want to write a chapter about a city falling to pieces, only for it to have no purpose for the rest of the story, waste-of-space much? (…) Don’t allow prologues to become information dumps, remember you are trying to get the average reader into your story, don’t bombard them with names that won’t or can’t be explained till 2-3 chapters in.

3) Prologues, after keeping in mind that they should not be long, they should also not be short. A prologue consisting of 1-4 paragraphs is rather useless; all the information presented could be bleed into the speech of some of the characters. Removing the need for the prologue all together. If there are only 1-4 paragraphs it’s likely that you just wrote an information dump and should delete it anyways.

4) There should be a story going on in your prologue, a beginning and an end. Introduce a key character in your story, Maybe a villain? The main character? A magic object? Something that has reason to exist, and has wants and needs. Present them a challenge; it could be a rival, a theft (the theft of a person’s life, an object, a person or a way of thinking) or maybe the end of a cycle. (…) Remember when coming up with the challenge, it may be a good idea to take the main problem of you fiction but show it on a miniature scale. If your story is about racism show a glimpse of the racism here.

5) Now show off the character or object’s skills by somehow getting them though the situation. This is a great way to get your reader interested in the character or object they are going to follow for the rest of the book. It’s time to show their talents, as this character or object may not be the only main character or object of the novel but is the one that pulls the story along, and likely won’t be showing up again for a few chapters.

6) Never talk history in the prologue; write as it happens. Do you remember sitting in those boring history classes with your unexciting history teacher? Thank god I loved history and never had a crappy history teacher. But I know other people who have and I also know they don’t like to read about it in their fiction, so keep it out of there! There is a time and a place to talk about the last great war between the Jubjubwicks and the Didolgigs but the prologue is not the place to be talking politics from a second source.”

So what do you think? Do you agree with Lunaairis? Have you included a prologue in your novel? If yes, what is it like? Or are you against prologues? Let me know in the comment section!

Finally, my update: I have had a good writing week after a very lazy summer on the writing front. I haven’t worked on my WIP, but I have written a short story, worked on my query letter and devised a new editing plan for my WIP. Next week I’m planning on diving back into editing…

How are you fellow ROWers doing?  Here is the Linky to the list of participants.

Happy writing!

Openings : how not to start your novel

A few tips I picked up along the way on how not to mess up your novel from the start… or on how to hook your reader with your first paragraph.

What you shouldn’t start your novel with:

–          The weather report: “It was warm and cloudy with a chance of scattered showers on the day Harry and Sally met.” Just start with Harry meeting Sally and include the weather later.

–          A dream: “… And then Sally woke up.” Let us start with something actually happening, shall we?

–          Your main character waking up and proceeding to having a normal day: “It was a day like any other day and Sally woke up, got out of bed, hopped in the shower and got dressed like she did every day. Little did she know that it was the day her life was going to change…” Just fast forward to the actual life-changing event.

–          A description of your novel’s setting: “Once upon a time, in a land where there were deep forests, green pastures and mirror-like lakes…” Action must come first, THEN the setting and world-building.

–          A page-long dialogue: “You’re joking”, Sally said. “No, I’m not,” Harry replied. “It is true, I swear. Just ask Marny.” “I don’t believe you,” Sally retorted. “I wish you did,” Harry insisted.” Meanwhile, the reader has no clue what’s going on and doesn’t really care.

–          Your main character running: “Sally was running through the woods and she could hear the beast not far behind her.” Sure, it is an in medias res situation. But it has been done so many times before and you can be much more original.

–          A sex scene: “Sally screamed with pleasure and collapsed on Harry’s muscular body.” Unless you’re writing erotica or romance, this is to be avoided on your first page.

–          A prologue that gives away the ending: “Sally was running through the woods, knowing she had no way of escaping Harry’s murderous intent. Yet when they had met six months before, she would have never guessed their relationship would end like this.” The fact that Twilight has such a prologue doesn’t mean you have to do it too.

What you should start your novel with:

–          A catchy first sentence : “Most people would probably call me a ghost. I am, after all, dead. But it wasn’t so long ago I was alive, you see. I was just 18. I had my whole life in front of me.” Remember Me by Christopher Pike.

–          An In Medias Res (“in the middle of things”) situation: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

What you could start your novel with:

–          Your main character waking up and everything is different: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

–          A meaningful prologue: “A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s foreward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.” Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

–          One sentence from a dialogue followed by some narration: “I SEE …” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.” Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.

So how does your novel start? Have you avoided all the above pitfalls ? Do you think these ‘rules’ for opening are worth following? Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts!