One of the biggest problems with worldbuilding is the urge to reveal everything at once, especially in a completely fictional world. The problem with this is it can lead to long paragraphs, or even entire chapters, of just telling. As we’ve discussed in previous articles telling isn’t always bad but it’s at its best when it advances the story forward quickly. Large chunks of exposition about the world the story is set in often don’t, amazing and complex as our world is sometimes we have to learn to paint with broad strokes and fill the rest of it in as we go.
Perhaps imagine it like a camera shot swooping in from above, we can see the city around us and get an impression but it focuses in on the action that’s happening in that moment. We may give a vague description of the city being large, densely, populated, and full of high-rises but when we focus in the on action the setting the characters are in can then tell us more about the place while moving the story forward, as we looked at previously. This can help us ease a reader into a world without overloading them with information.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have more description of the world when we introduce a world, this is a stylistic choice, but when we do that we still have to keep it streamlined. We may begin with a description of how much the character loves the city they live in but do we need to give the reader a history lesson at the same time or can this information wait until later? Too much digression and the reader is liable to lose track of the story, too much emphasis on the history of a place at the beginning may give the impression the story is about the history not the present. Once again, if we’re telling a story that blends the history with the present we might want to use this technique but if we’re not the reader might wonder why they had to wade through all that information at the beginning.
It’s also important to consider, whichever type of description we use, do we really need it? Do we need the history? Do we need an overview of the city? Is this the right moment for any of this information? Some types of beginning bear more information better than others. For instance, a quick action heavy opening can become bogged down and slow with large sections of information. In the midst of action the information seems unnecessary because the focus if on what is happening in the moment. Whereas an opening where the main character is looking out at the city and daydreaming about how they want their life to go could bear more information. Perhaps they live in a rundown part of the city and aspire to those shiny high-rises on the horizon, the story might be about them achieving that dream and discovering the shine is a façade and it’s not as perfect as they thought.
If we weave an engaging story the reader will be happy to follow our characters around and slowly build up a picture of the world they live in. Just with any other element of storytelling we don’t have to reveal everything in one go because developing the world is part of developing the story, as the story expands so does the reader’s understanding of the world.