In his ‘Eight Rules for Writing Fiction‘, Kurt Vonnegut suggests that the author ‘[s]tart as close to the end as possible’ so as to ‘[u]se the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.’ This is excellent advice, especially in today’s impatient, hectic, content-saturated world. However, a good story also requires worldbuilding, especially for period pieces or speculative fiction.
Inevitably, we’ll need some exposition. Introducing exposition in an engaging way is not my strong suit, but I’ve learned a lot from watching Esteemed Coauthor work his sneaky infodump magic. Here’s some of his techniques:
Exposition driven by conflict
When characters have differing views on some external crisis, they’ll want to bring facts into their arguments (perhaps along with the relevant string of insults). This is a great way to have your characters discuss known facts without resorting to an ‘As You Know, Bob‘ speech. For example, your characters might have different ideas about how to cope with a sudden dragon invasion. As they argue, they’ll hash out facts (or rumors) about draconic strengths and weaknesses, what threats the dragons pose, and so on during a high-stakes exchange with natural dramatic tension. This also allows characters to correct in-universe misconceptions, misinformation, and unreliable narration on the fly.
Exposition to children
While this approach runs a high risk of sounding contrived, it can also be a useful way to reveal character attitudes as well as information. Another benefit is that it forces the more knowledgeable character to break down complex topics (about which the audience may have little background) to a beginner level. This works best if there is an event or action to which the child is responding– for example, asking why an adult is yelling at the TV, or why there are a bunch of people blocking the road with protest signs.
Which information your knowledgeable character sees as important, and how they choose to convey those details, says as much about them and their attitudes than it does about the issue at hand. If you have a highly biased character (beyond the usually degree that any human is biased), you may also need to introduce external facts to support or dispute their point of view.
Dialogue tags and description
Judicious use of specific nouns and description can do a lot to build up the concrete details of your setting. . Using specifics as the characters interact with their world will give an incredible amount of information about the tools, technology level, clothing, landscape, weather, food, animals, and social norms. Saying someone ‘ate a snack’ doesn’t tell you much; saying someone ‘shoved an escamole taco into her mouth’ or ‘nursed a glass of off-brand grape soda’ gives you not just a more specific image of the character (how they’re eating, their mood) but also grounds them in a specific geography, culture, and social class.
Quick internal monologues
While long internal monologues about the world can quickly evolve into an ‘As You Know Bob’ speech in another form. But we all have immediate responses to current events, and to the smaller-scale conflicts inherent in our environment. Giving us quick insights into those responses combines character insight with facts about their world. For example, a character who is waiting to dock her spaceship might think ‘traffic around Lysithea has been bonkers ever since MiningCorp set up shop’. Now we know not only our location, but that there’s a mining company (with a specific name) inconveniencing our character, and that she’s impatient and possibly displeased with this development.
Worldbuilding is a complex process, and you’ll probably end up mixing these techniques with a lot of exposition. This should help you build a complex, immersive world for your audience without interrupting the flow of your story.