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Ask an Editor: Setting Up Your Worldbuilding

When your story has an intricate setting to introduce—whether because it's a fantasy world with a lot of important pieces to set up, or because it's set in a time/place where the history is important to the present, etc.—it can be very difficult to incorporate that into the first few chapters without stalling out your pacing with too much info-dump-y exposition.

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where we end up having to cut the first chapter entirely, or completely rework the beginning, because the story has gotten lost in the worldbuilding. Here are a few things to remember when revising the opening of your story:

1.) You don’t have to tell me everything at once. You have an entire book to explore your cool world and setting. That’s plenty of space to show me how it works and to play with all your fun, cool elements. Don’t try to cram everything into the first couple of chapters.

2.) Don’t tell me, show me. If you do have some cool, unique feature or element of your world that you think will draw readers in, make it an organic part of the opening scene. Don’t just list a lot of cool stuff, or spend paragraphs and paragraphs (or even pages and pages), describing and explaining things. Instead, show the reader how cool this element is by including it in an active scene.

3.) Let your character be your guide. When trying to decide what to include in the opening scene think about what your character would notice and focus on, and only include those details. A tourist might be overawed by the towering castles in front of them, but a thief would be focused on the people, the guards, the security measures, and the escape routes. Imagine that it’s a TV show or a movie and the description is your camera, showing us what your character sees.

4.) Focus on the extraordinary. Pick the key details and differences. Most people don’t actually notice things that they pass every day, not unless something is different or strange or out of place. So, if your character is in a familiar environment, focus on the new and the different, and let them figure out why that is weird and why the fact that it’s different is important.

5.) Just tell me what the character is doing and what can go wrong. If you need to introduce a complicated element, like a magic system or high-tech machinery, or a complicated plan involving skills that might be out of the ordinary, the temptation is often to stop the plot and explain how everything works in detail. But, most of the time, the reader doesn’t really need to know how it works the first time they see it. What the reader needs to know is what the character is trying to do, so we can get anticipation and forward momentum, and then you can build tension by establishing the consequences should something go wrong. Sure, eventually, we’re probably going to want to dive deeper into the how and why, but that’s for later on once we are already invested in your characters and their world.

If you are worried that your worldbuilding might be bogging down your opening chapters, make sure that your character is front and center, making decisions and doing something to make The reader fall in love with them. Then, once we are safely hooked, you can slow down a little and start unfolding all the wonderful, complex elements of your world.

Any questions about worldbuilding, or about writing in general? Let us know in the comments!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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