World-building 107: Imaginary Historians

Posted on Sunday, November 9th, 2014 at 22:48

Welcome to the last post on World-building for authors and referees in this series. If you’ve followed along you have now got a fully formed world, replete with details. You know lots about the people, geography and ecology of your world, but now comes the hardest part… attempting to use all that information to enrich your stories and games.

First we begin with how the history of your world affects your characters.

A historian

Actual results may vary

Chroniclers, Historians, & Story-tellers

From the moment a people distinguish themselves from their neighbors they gain a sense of their own history. I wrote about History as part of the Culture in the last post, but when people discuss their history it is never the exact truth.

Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Our beliefs shape the way we process facts, which in turn shape our beliefs. It can be profoundly difficult to incorporate and internalize any idea that, though proven, we do not agree with. This should be as true of your characters as anyone else.

Julius Caesar’s statue

Julius Caesar, who wasn’t born by Caesarian section… But did write a mean autobiography

There is an old (and presumably quite rusty by now) saw that history is written by the winners, and it is worth bearing in mind that few people ever think of themselves as ‘Evil’ or their actions as unjustified. That said, history is not written by the winners, but rather by the survivors. A defeated people will have a very different idea what happened than the winners, and their ideas, in time, may be incorporated back into the history that is generally accepted. A character from a defeated race will have motives that extend from that history, perhaps as simple as direct revenge, but perhaps something far subtler.

This means that it is always important to understand the source of your history, and what their motivation for chronicling was. We know a lot about Julius Ceasar because he was a shameless self-publicist and wrote about his many adventures. A character may only understand his own family history when he has found details that their greatest forebear was not quite the hero the family believes.

Zen and the Art of Exposition

Exposition is how a writer gives the reader information about the world, the plot and the characters of a story (and Refs do the same in games).
Exposition is, at its most basic, just a section of description, dialogue, flashback, or narrative that carries this extra information.

Exposition is fairly essential to the plot, and helps the reader understand the setting and characters better, but it is rarely exciting, and usually slows the pace of the story while things are explained. Because of this exposition can be demonised by some critics, who will claim that good literature has no exposition (it usually does, but hidden away).

Another problem is that science-fiction, fantasy and horror all deal with thoughts and concepts that the reader is unfamiliar with, where as most ‘literature’ side-steps this problem by using the real world as its backdrop. You won’t read a character explaining how their mobile telephone works in any novel written after 1992, but you would in 1960s sci-fi. Likewise you won’t read too many descriptions of calculating machines or electronic brains after 1970, but in the 1940s it was a common conversation. Although techno-thrillers have similar issues with their technology.

A sketch of siege engines.

These are actually both Mangonels, but the one on the left is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a traction trebuchet, or Onager…

Fantasy authors have similar problems, while they don’t feel a need to explain: Orc, Goblin or Elf, they may need to explain why the Coenobites of the White Fox, or the Disciples of the Left Pillar, are to be feared. You might have to explain the difference between a mangonel and a trebuchet, or why the hero’s blade is described as a sword, a scimitar and a falchion. At one time these historical items were well understood, but today they are lumped under the titles of ancient weapons, and a fantasy author may feel compelled to include a description, or a conversation that explains this.

So exposition has to happen, the question is how obvious do you make it?


Infodumps are the most obvious way to convey huge blocks of exposition. Infodumps are usually done in description, or more rarely narrative, and just put the information into the text.

Road sign : no info dumping

Tipping however is fine…

Most critics, writers and readers agree that the Infodump is a terrible way to write. Just dropping a few hundred words of description may rapidly expose the setting to the reader, it may let them know exactly what is going on, but it often reads like a dry encyclopaedia entry, rather than a part of a story.

In fact, the worst Infodump fantasy writers will often resort to is a glossary that explains all the words they are using. More than one fantasy novel has this fault, including terms the author has used as aspects of their world-building that must be explained to the reader for the actual text to make sense, when it could have been handled in the text. This is always compounded when an author doesn’t bother doing their research properly, if you are writing about medieval weapons in a fantasy world make sure you know the difference between a falchion, a trebuchet, a bokken, and a bodkin, most of your readers will.

In RPGs the Referee will often break out sheets, or source books, to share this sort of information with the players (more than one role playing game has a glossary and in them it is okay, but not a story). They might just explain the situation in a ‘Word-of-God’ narration, in the same way as they would describe the 10×10 room beyond the recently kicked-open door.

These methods are okay, occasionally. Small factoids can be passed to the reader (or player) in these ways, but they are generally to be avoided, for larger exposition, unless the pace requires some sort of break, or slowdown (and critical explanation) before a third act finale.

It is possible to put Infodumps into the story in ways that don’t break the flow, extracts from texts from that universe can be quoted, or characters can overhear a children’s TV show about the subject, but even at their best these techniques are more suited to certain readers, and hence genres, than others. A hard science-fiction story is an acceptable place for a character to read an extract from a science journal, hard fantasy is the place to have a bard sing the history of his Lord’s family by way of introduction, the readers expect some details like this, and will actually be disappointed if you don’t at least try to explain some of the details of your world in this way. Use it sparingly though, I’d suggest that only information you can’t work out any other way of including should be infodumped this way.

As you know…

Boromir meme

although Tolkein’s dialogue gets close…

Slightly better is the conversational exposition that occurs in the character’s dialogue. Although here too you will find there are terrible abusers of the practice. The most famously cliched examples occur in science-fiction where a professor will turn to his laboratory partner and explain, to a man as informed as himself, the experiment they are conducting together.

You can improve this further if the person being explained to has actually got no knowledge of the experiment, which can lead to the situation where a reporter (or an idiot who doesn’t seem to get any explanation more complex than ‘a swirly thing in space’) is thrown into the mix to ask questions and draw out the exposition of the theory, technology or whatever.

This sort of conversational exposition can be done in a variety of different ways, some more natural than other others.

  • “As you know, Bob…” — Huge didactic Infodump, without any real world sense, between two equally well informed characters.
  • “What is it, Doc?” — a questioning reporter or common man/woman asks what is going on (also called educating the idiot).
  • “I say Holmes!” — a Watson type character will comment on the plot to draw exposition from another character, only occasionally do they resort to a direct question.
  • “Your father, the King” — information known to everyone is slipped occasionally into conversation. This can be done well, but usually leads to clunky dialogue.
  • “Much, must you learn,” — a character’s mentor is always allowed to tell them something, and done correctly it need to be terrible dialogue.
  • “Got any eights?” — exposition can occur while the characters are engaged in something else, like a game of cards or discussing their day.
  • “Damn it, John!” — an argument is a great conversational way of bringing out information and opinions about aspects of the world. It can (and should) take place between two equally well informed characters, to help build the tension and explain the plot.


Batman has a Flashback

Some heroes flashback a little more often than others…

Flashbacks are a pretty standard way of explaining things to the reader (or less so those pesky PCs). They allow the writer to go back and fill in the blanks that they left earlier. It is quite a common device for including those bits of background detail, at just the moment they are needed.

Flashbacks can explain what characters are doing, why they are doing it, how they learned to do it, and who or where they learned it from.

Flashbacks can work great for exposition, bringing historical aspects of the setting out, but they can be terrible if overused. Flashbacks used to reveal crucial information are a terrible way to write detective novels, but work well in some thrillers and romances.

Flashbacks work well for revealing particular details about the backstory, easily allowing the writer to spread a little info, but they can just lead to a thinly disguised Infodump if the Flashback is just occurring in the character’s mind rather than the Narrative as a whole. This is why Flashbacks  often work better in visual media, such as comic books, movies and TV shows.

In RPGs (well certainly in T13) flashbacks can be used by the PCs to allow purchasing useful descendants and proficiencies, in a similar way to how it is used in film, for example explaining how a certain bride character might suddenly know how to do the one-inch punch to escape from being buried alive.

Backstory revelations

Vader sets up the prequels.

Can you think of line that changes the dynamic between two characters more than this? Or is a stronger excuse for flimsy prequels?

Backstory is of course the whole point of world-building, but when backstory reveals itself through the narrative, this is a unique form of exposition called the revelation.

These sorts of revelations can change the whole tone of a story, causing characters to question themselves and everything about the world. They can single handedly set up sequels or prequels (often they are the opening of a sequel).

This sort of revelation is only possible if you have a strong narrative. It works in Star Wars, because Luke does not know much, not about the history of the Empire, or about his father’s fate. Everyone kept him in the dark, or lied to him, or he would have had the clues to put this together himself.


Sherlock finds a clue.

Sometimes in RPGs you actually have to do this…

Incluing is simply scattering clues into the dialogue, description and narrative. Sometimes known as “show-don’t-tell”, rather than actually explaining things, the author (or Ref) will scatter little clues into the text, which should allow a reader (or player) to work out what is going on. The embedded clues never result in the action slowing down into full exposition, which can be a very good thing.

Incluing is not really just about throwing clues at the readers or players. Although that can do some good in RPGs from time to time. It is best used to hint and reveal aspects of the world that are important to the plot. Used correctly this can mean that you don’t have to explain anything, the readers (or players) will get the world without ever being told anything.

Incluing is an ideal practice, but really complex high-concept science-fiction can be completely incomprehensible without a hint of exposition somewhere, so you have to judge your readers very carefully to decide what they need spoon-feeding and what they can work out for themselves.

Ways and methods of incluing:

  • Descriptive clues— adjectives that only make sense through the premises of the setting can work with descriptions. If the world has had a Great War between two super-powers then using the names of those sides and their weapons, can shine a light on that war.
  • Idiom— if someone yells out ‘By the Ffarn’s black heart!’ in a moment of stress, we know not to expect tea and cake when they meet the Ffarn later.
  • Place names — Places reflect the people and the events that happen there, and while someone may do something to change the name of a place, some people (usually the Elves) will remember the old name.
  • Poems and Songs — Legends and myths are sung by bards and told by sages, these characters can be essential to exposition, but in fantasy a least they can be incluing.
  • Jokes — Jokes can be a good way of exposing a clue. Since a joke pokes fun at something, it can reveal even as it entertains.

What to reveal

This is the key factor of exposition and fundamentally of world-building. You may have written a four hundred page setting bible, filled with detailed explanations of every aspect of the world, but you are unlikely to get away with including it along with the story. You have to be selective.

Think about the details that support the story you are telling. If you have a story that revolves around the two great houses of the Kingdom then you’ll have to explain at least some of the family histories, and the history of the kingdom. If one of the characters is a wizard then you can reveal a little about how his magic works. And that’s where you stop. All the rest, all the work you’ve done on that world, save it for the sequel. It’s okay to hint at its existence, that builds depth into the world, but don’t explain it if you can help it.

Great A'Tuin by Paul Kirby

Even though Great A’Tuin is not mentioned in every Discworld book, it is always there holding the world up.

It may seem a bit odd that, having put so much work into building the world, you aren’t using it, but actually you are. All those details exist, they hold up the world, when you come close in the story to those points, they are shown, but otherwise they are invisible structures in the world.

If you want to show that interesting idea that you had, then make it part of the story, or at least an essential part of a sub-plot. This applies to role playing games too, if you want to explore something about the world then write an adventure that explores it more directly, don’t include it in an unrelated story, or your players may suddenly run off to explore the new shiny.

You can mention and hint at these things, have a character talk about a herald from a third house, perhaps have a Shambling Vox go by the protagonist in the street, but there is no need to explain the special foot technique of the sword-master of the third house, or describe the complex life-cycle of the Vox and the interactions or differences between the Spinning, Standing, Strolling and Shambling varieties. Mention, but do not explain.

World built

So that’s it. At least for this series of posts.
If you liked these posts and they were helpful to you, let me know.
If you disagreed with something drop a comment and start a conversation.
If you’d like more details let me know and maybe I’ll go on to write a 201 series that will cover some topics like magic, religion, or languages in more depth, until then, I’ve got worlds to build…

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