S. Andrew Swann is the pen name of Steven Swiniarski. He’s married and lives in the Greater Cleveland area where he has lived all of his adult life. He has a background in mechanical engineering and -besides writing- works as a Database Manager for one of the largest private child services agencies in the Cleveland area. He has published 23 novels over the past 18 years, which include science fiction, fantasy and horror. His latest SF novel, released by DAW Books this February, is Messiah, the final volume in his epic space opera, the Apotheosis Trilogy. (See our review.)
This month I’ve wrapped up my Moreau/Confederacy universe with Messiah, the final book in the Apotheosis Trilogy. And while I’ve expounded at length on the elements of world-building before, I thought this might be the time and place to expound on how to go about inserting that world building into a story. Here are six techniques to bear in mind when trying to get that intricately-crafted universe down on the page.
- Coloring Outside The Lines
This is second nature to many high fantasy authors, and they have the prologues to prove it. The principle is simple. The author should know much more about the workings and history of the world than ever appears on the page. Of course, the operative phrase there is “more than appears on the page.” If you dump everything into the story (say, in a prologue that covers the birth of the universe to the conception of your main character) you’re probably* doing it wrong. The point is to have the reader’s view into the story focused on where all the outlines are solidly colored in. The reader feels that the world spills off the page in every color of the rainbow, and as long as the focus is tight on the story, the reader will never see the scribbling outside their view into the story. And that prologue, it’s great that you know all that, now you can probably cut it and have the reader pick the necessary details out of context.
Of course I cheated a bit (as does every author with a long running series) because there were seven books set in this universe before Apotheosis started. However in terms of the current trilogy, all those books can be thought of as the equivalent of that fantasy prologue- it’s all stuff that I know as a writer and informs the world, adding depth outside what’s actually on the page, but it’s not stuff I need to force the reader through before this particular story starts. (i.e. the Silmarillion to my Lord of the Rings.)
- Blipvert Your World
“The door dilated,” is one of the most famous pithy examples of world building in the SF cannon. (Props to Heinlein for that.) And the idea behind that type of construction is one of the more potent tools at the author’s disposal to get across to the reader- and often as important, remind the reader- that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. Like the above, the principle is simply stated; in the space of a sentence, describe some familiar action or concept, and through the description or word choice, make sure that a single major difference between the story’s world and the reader’s is communicated. If it’s the right word or description, the author can communicate much more than a single sentence’s worth about the nature of the story’s world. The place names on Bakunin that mention all flavors of anti-statist philosophers, the term “moreau” for my non-human protagonist, Nickolai’s repeatedly calling humans “Fallen,” simply naming one of the major powers the Eridani Caliphate implies a whole social history that I often merely allude to. Also naming humanity’s first interstellar conflict with an alien species the “Genocide War” not only implies something of the brutality of a conflict that never explicitly appears on stage, but leads up to a major plot engine of the whole trilogy.
- Keeping pace with the story
Basically, the rule of thumb above is that if a bit of exposition is short enough, the reader will absorb it seamlessly with the narrative. A single loaded word can go and salt your world building in the midst of a full-blown action scene without disrupting the flow of the scene. But a more leisurely paced scene can accept a sentence or two without straining, and- once you get a feel for it- you can use these expository nuggets to actually manipulate the pacing of the scene. A big chunk of exposition can be used to give the reader a breather after a particularly intense scene, or bits of world building can alternate with action to moderate the pacing of a scene. In Heretics, when Toni goes out in the scout to intercept the ship coming out of the wormhole, the direct action of the scene alternates with world building details that slow down the action and help to ratchet up the tension. The first Terminator movie gives a pure example of using exposition as a tool for pacing. Almost all the back-story is salted into a monologue during a chase scene, the action pulls the audience through the expository bits, and the exposition gives a tension-filled rhythm to the scene.
- Making the reader beg for it
You need a massive info dump, no way around it. How do you get it all across to the reader without the thousand words of back story slapping the reader in the face like a dead fish and dragging the whole story to a stop? You tease the reader. You make them want it, and want it badly. You drop hints at a bigger and wider story, a wider universe that’s affecting the story. The hints become hooks pulling the reader forward. Through Apotheosis I consistently drop little nuggets referring to Mosassa’s past and a centuries’ long history relating him and the trilogy’s antagonist, Adam. Enough of these show up and are so tightly integrated into the plot, that by the time I hit the long extended flashbacks detailing not only Mosassa’s history, but also including long stretches of information about the history of the Confederacy universe, the reader is fully invested in the infodump. The same is true of Nickolai’s backstory and religion. I hint at both heavily, but I don’t go into full detail until long after the reader cares about him as a character. The TV show Lost was masterful in using this technique, and too many imitators try and fail because the writers miss the whole point of the exercise: you really need to know what you’re hinting at beforehand.
- Damn it, it’s relevant
The reader will accept a large chunk of world building exposition if it is immediately relevant to the scene being portrayed. And relevant here doesn’t mean some “deeper” understanding of the world or a character. Relevant means that it is impossible to understand the action of the scene without the information. In Prophets, Mallory’s first scene ends with a large chunk of exposition that’s required to know the relationship between the Vatican and the Eridani Caliphate, and it’s not simple background, because Mallory is being brought in as a covert agent whose job happens to occur exactly where that rubber meets that particular road. In Heretics I also go into detail about the old wormhole network that peppers the central systems of human space, but only after we meet Toni Valentine, whose job when we meet her is manning an orbital platform over one of those wormholes, right before that wormhole becomes another major plot point.
- Protagonists need exposition too
The bad way begins, “As you know, Jim.” However, when you start, “You don’t have any idea what you’re dealing with here. . .” It’s much easier to salt the exposition into the story naturally in a dramatized scene. This can use any sort of classroom setting, military or intelligence briefing, or research assignment where the characters have their own motivations and reasons to get at the information the author is trying to get across to the reader. There are too many scenes like this in Apotheosis to list; Mallory’s scene I referred to above begins with him teaching a bunch of undergraduates and incidentally presenting a major element of foreshadowing cleverly disguised as a scene establishing the character.
There are endless other ways to slip world building into a story, but one overriding principle does apply. The ease with which the reader receives the details about the world is directly proportional to how many other things the passage is trying to accomplish at the same time. The world building can set the physical scene (describing the inner workings of artificial gravity on a tach ship), show the inner workings of a character (the religious beliefs of a non-human), drive the plot (explaining why the Caliphate having advanced tach drives is a bad thing), or foreshadow future action (where did the Dolbrians go?). In the whole of Apotheosis barely two or three pages go by without some world building aside, and every bit of it helps serve some other purpose at the same time.
Has this whetted your appetite? Want to know more? Do you want to win a signed set of the Apotheosis Trilogy?
Steven will be monitoring this post today and tomorrow, so just leave a question or comment below. Be sure to include your email address in the comment form! (Your email address will not be displayed nor will it be shared.) Two winners will be chosen when the giveaway period ends on Wednesday, February 16th,
20102011 (11:00 PM U.S Eastern time). Each winner will receive the three books of the Apotheosis Trilogy signed by the author.– Editor