August 2022: Introducing Your Setting

So, you’ve put together your setting. You’ve assembled your institutions, defined your classes, and figured out how they relate to each other. You’ve got yourself a religion (or multiple religions), an economic system, and even a military structure. You have, by every definition, put together a three-dimensional, internally consistent, and functioning fictional society.

Only one problem.

How do you introduce that society to your audience?

If there is one thing never to forget about worldbuilding, it’s that fictional societies are built not only to exist, but to be conveyed to an audience. A setting is ultimately just that, a backdrop for a story – and no matter how richly detailed it is, a setting will be of little use unless its attributes and artistry and all of its myriad details can be conveyed effectively to an audience, while still keeping their attention.

This last part is something to keep in mind, especially if you want to avoid what is probably the most common and most obvious pitfall that a lot of worldbuilders fall prey to when they try to tell their story to an audience: that of deferring their narrative for an infodump.

It isn’t hard to understand why this happens. Worldbuilders, as a rule, like the settings they build. They’re proud of the work they’ve put into it, filled to bursting with all the clever details that serve as the fruits of their labours, and they’re just as excited to share that work with their audience, so they can get the “payoff” of having other people impressed with all of that hard work too. In addition, they also want to make sure that the audience fully understands the story they’re about to be told, which is something that requires that story to be placed into the context of the setting. Given such factors, it’s all too easy for a worldbuilder to be convinced that the best way to open their story is with as much information about the setting as possible, so that the audience can both marvel the beautiful result of a long process of construction, and so they can “fully appreciate” the opening beats of the story by understanding the significance of every proper noun in it.

But this is a terrible mistake. The audience is not the worldbuilder. Where the worldbuilder might be heavily invested in their setting and all the work they’ve put into it, the audience has been given no impetus to do so. The worldbuilder has a deep-seated and overpowering desire to speak of the places and histories and gods and heroes they’ve crafted from their mind, because they are showing off the fruits of their labour. But an audience has no such connection with the work, and without receiving a way to create one, all they’ll see or hear are a string of nonsensical proper nouns and the names of people they really have no reason to care about – and if the worldbuilder is unable to make them care about those names in one way or another, they will flow over the the audience’s heads like water over a bed of smooth pebbles.

There’s two reasons why that’s terrible from the perspective of a worldbuilder. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, that means all of that exposition serves no purpose, as the audience has no reason to engage with, or remember it. Secondly, and perhaps even worse, it encourages the audience to do something else. Nobody likes having their time and effort wasted, and an audience who is immediately confronted with a whole lot of information without any reason to consider that information meaningful or relevant is going to quickly decide to go off and do something else. All of the worldbuilder’s work is forgotten and ignored, and the audience misses out on what might well have been a perfectly engaging story, hidden behind the procession of places, people, and things which the audience has no reason yet to be invested in.

What this means is that ultimately, you want to carefully control the rate at which you reveal the aspects and details of your setting to your audience. At the most tightly-controlled, this principle means focusing on the characters, their interactions, and their motivations to emotionally invest the audience in the most “human” (and therefore, theoretically the most relatable) aspects of your work, while only offering setting exposition when it is necessary to contextualise something one of those characters says, does, or thinks.

Adhering strictly to that sort of guideline will give you the biggest chance of keeping your audience’s attention, but when it comes to stories set in an interesting and detailed fictional world, it’s also the equivalent of eating instant noodles day in and day out. It will keep your story alive, but it won’t make it anything special, and it won’t allow the audience to engage with your painstakingly built fictional society once they are able to become emotionally invested in the story that takes place in that setting. Thus, it becomes important to work your setting into the story. This can be a delicate and difficult balance. Let in too little detail, and the audience will have too little to fully appreciate the unique nature and dynamics of your setting. Too much, and you run the risk of disengaging them from the story itself. Although this becomes a lot more difficult when the audience is already invested in the story, it can still happen. Sunk cost fallacy can only keep players going so far before they give up.

There are, however, some tools which might help to make maintaining this balance a lot easier.

One of the easiest and most versatile is suspense.

As I’ve mentioned before, narrative suspense exists in the space between the instant when a question is posed to the audience and the answer is provided. This can be done as a tool to introduce aspects of a setting in a relatively unobtrusive manner. To use an example from my own Dragoon Saga: in the Infinite Sea, amongst a certain religious group, the dead are burned instead of buried. There’s a somewhat complex theological reason for this, one which I eventually want to explain to my audience. Yet if I were to do that right off the bat, I’d almost certainly lose their attention. So instead, I simply offhandedly mention that bodies are burned on pyres. I change colloquialisms and other figures of speech accordingly. “Dead and buried” becomes “ashes in the wind”. “Cradle to the grave” becomes “crib to the pyre”. This does two things. It establishes that this world is not our world, and it poses a question to the audience: why are the dead burned in pyres instead of disposed of in some other way? Now they are engaged in the worldbuilding, and when I eventually discuss that broader theological reason for it, the audience will be paying attention, because that explanation will offer the answer to this latent question. While the force of the suspense generated by this sort of low-stakes worldbuilding mystery is relatively mild, it doesn’t have to be all that strong. You want the audience’s interest, not necessarily their undivided focus.

Another helpful principle is to confine worldbuilding exposition to what is immediately observable and within the experience of the characters you are introducing. That way, the audience can be assured that what you’re talking about is something which might be imminently applicable to the story you are telling. If the action of the story is taking place in a given town, or region, or near a certain landmark, then you could get away with expositing about the aspects of that town, or region, or given landmark. Better yet, you can have the characters exposit that worldbuilding through their interactions with each other. Since what they’re talking about is a place they already have some experience in, there’s less of a chance the resulting expositional dialogue will sound out-of-place or disjointed.

Up until now, I’ve mostly been talking with the assumption that the world you’ve built is intended to be the backdrop of a fixed narrative: something with predetermined characters and a known beginning and end – but not all settings are for such stories. There are, after all, other fictional worlds which are intended not for the worldbuilder to tell their own story in, but for others to tell their stories using the setting as a ready-made backdrop. In the case of things such as the settings for open-world games (digital or tabletop), using the storytelling tools intended for a fixed narrative may not be entirely ideal. In such a case, the worldbuilder introduces the world not to facilitate the telling of their own story, but to explain the setting so that other people – perhaps complete strangers – how to use that setting to tell their own stories.

But that doesn’t mean the creator of such a work (like, for example, a setting-book for a tabletop roleplaying game) doesn’t have their own options.

For example, just because a setting’s primary purpose is to allow other people to tell their stories in it doesn’t mean the authors of that setting can’t write their own stories to facilitate that process. Indeed, a lot of setting concepts become a lot easier to explain through the “demonstration” of a short story telling the audience how that concept functions within the mechanics of the setting itself. This is why I suspect a lot of TTRPG rulebooks now have short narrative segments. This serves three purposes: it holds the audience’s attention through the expedient of a dramatic narrative, it explains the aspects of the setting in doing so, and it also provides an example as to how the audience might use that particular aspect of the setting in their own stories.

Another thing you can do is make your worldbuilding exposition mechanically relevant, if you’re writing a setting for a game with combat, for example. If the audience are told that a given enemy has a certain weakness, or that a certain sort of character will react to a certain argument better than others through worldbuilding exposition, and these effects are borne out mechanically (in terms of stat bonuses, extra damage, modifiers to dice rolls and so on), then the audience will learn to pay attention to such exposition in future, in the knowledge that it might help them overcome the mechanical challenges ahead. This is also a way of establishing and building suspense, with the question being “when will this knowledge be useful”, and the answer providing itself in the mechanics.

As usual, this list is not an exhaustive one. I’m sure there are other techniques which other writers could give you. These are just some of the ones which have worked the best for me, as someone who primarily writes interactive fiction. There will certainly be edge cases where some or most of these techniques won’t be as helpful, but I suspect that at least one might prove useful in introducing your own settings to audiences regardless of the medium or genre.

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