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[GUEST POST] S. Andrew Swann on 6 Important Techniques for World Building (+ Giveaway!)

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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, 2010 2011 (11:00 PM U.S Eastern time). Each winner will receive the three books of the Apotheosis Trilogy signed by the author.

– Editor

60 Comments on [GUEST POST] S. Andrew Swann on 6 Important Techniques for World Building (+ Giveaway!)

  1. I always seem to err on the side of Info dumps/prologue myself.  As you point out, should be able to smooth the pace out a bit more and eliminate the need of a prologue.  At least I hope I can πŸ™‚

  2. Excellent post.  When having a new series within a wider universe, as the Apotheosis trilogy is part of a wider set of books, how do you make sure you’re giving enough informaiton to a new reader who may not have read, or even have access to, the previous works?

  3. Very interesting article, and I’m definitely interested in this series now–I’ll have to check out the earlier books, too!

  4. This is one of the major advantages of the novel form.  Given the legnth, the author has room to defer bits of the background until after the reader starts to care about the information.  It’s a lot easer to do that in a long form than, say, a 3000-word short story.

  5. Paulke: It takes a lot of effort to gain enough editorial distance to judge.  I have three things I do.  First, I alsways assume I overexplain things in the first draft.  Second, I try to have a beta reader or three who can review it without having the rest fresh in their mind.  Third, when I recap I either make it as short as possible, or go all in on a new scene that– if I do it right– should be just as interesting to people who already know what I’m recapping.  (The first chapters of both Heretics and Messiah are examples of the “whole hog” example.)

  6. Scalzi & Haldeman are also great examples of smooth infodumpers.  I already have Messiah though.  Can I have Forests of the Night if I win?  πŸ™‚  Forests of the Night cover

  7. As a reader I never really realized all the details were world building, or I guess I just really didn’t understand the world building process.  I just sort of absorbed them with out really knowing I was.

    Recently though the writing process has really started to fascinate me so I have been reading a lot about it, and most recently I have discovered quite a few articles on the world building process.  I appreciate the way you broke this down in the article talking about the different ways the world is layered for the reader.  Thanks for providing some insight in the process.

  8. Tam: Let’s talk if you win πŸ˜‰

    CRAusmus: I’m glad you enjoyed it.  It’s written about a fair bit in SF/Fantasy, but it really is applicable to fiction in general.  There are a lot of Thriller & Espinoge writers (for instance) that could learn a fair bit from (good) SF/F about how to layer in unfamiliar detail in an unobtrusive manner.

  9. Sounds like a great trilogy. The cover art is impressive as well. I’m looking forward to reading them.

  10. Brilliant Article! One of the reasons I’m such a great fan of certain Sci-Fi and Fantasy series is the way the Author teases and leads up to the “massive info dump”. I usually can’t wait to get that glimpse behind the curtain of the world I’m imagining in my head.

  11. I want to win a signed set of the Apotheosis Trilogy! πŸ™‚

  12. Excellent information, especially for aspring and current writers. And I think the diversity and cohesiveness of the world you’ve built, from “Forests of Night” all the way to “Messiah” is phenomenal. Hopefully I get to win the signed set! I’ve been an admirer for quite awhile. Keep writing.

  13. Robert: I like the cover myself. Stephan Martiniere does a kick-ass job.

    MTisler: Exactly the reader response I’m aiming for πŸ™‚

    Sonja: Good luck

    AsheHunt: That diversity is in large part due to the brainstorm I had halfway into writing Hostile Takeover, to connect the history to the Moreau novels.  That was a most fruitful decision, especially now that with Apotheosis all the themse in both prior trilogies come to a head.


  14. “Prophets” has been on my Wishlist on Amazon for several months now.  What do you think is the most important element of world building in a space opera?  It seems to me that not only does the future technology have to be fully developed, but you also need to worry about politics, economics, society developments, and history.  

  15. Thanks for insight into your process.  Every since I first read Dune as a child I’ve been drawn to SF/F and especially enjoy the comfort of place/history that a good author swaddles his story with.

    The trilogy sounds like a great read.

  16. Dave the Grizzled // February 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm //

    In creating a world, I really liked what Simmons did in Ilium and Olympus.

    Other great world creators are Martin and Tolkein in fantasy, and Orson Scott Card with the Ender series.  I also enjoy the worlds of Dune and the I, Robot series. Finally, we all must pay homage to the the Foundation Epic.

    However, two great horror writers should be considered in world creation. I felt that Brian Lumley did a fantastic job in the Necropscope series (so many to  read!) and one of my favorites, H. P. Lovecraft.

    I think that HPL never started out to create a world, but he did, and then invited others to contriubte to his world.

    I enjoyed the author’s input on how he does the job. It must be remembered that great writing is great work!

  17. A few years ago, I saw one of Steven’s books in a bookstore (Uncle Hugo’s, as it so happens). Since I already had my limit of books, I demurred on picking it up as well, and never got around to trying his work.

    Based on the conversations on SF Signal podcasts and posts like this, I should correct that imbalance in the force.

  18. Nick Sharps // February 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm //

    I read the review for Messiah earlier and it definitely piqued my interest. I prefer military sci-fi to space opera but this series sounds like it has a good deal of action as well as plot and character depth. I’m very interested in reading this series. 

  19. Aaron: The most important element probably depends on the work in question.  Just contrasting Hostile Takeover with Apotheosis, one was much more weighted toward the Political hierarchy, while the other was much more toward the Theological, just based on the thematic and plot elements of the books.  Something by another author is going to have another emphasis.  So, the answer really is, what’s important to the story you’re telling?

    Pvax:  Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you get a chance to read them.

    Dave: Great examples, I’m partial to Dan Simmons myself.

    Paul: Come to the Dark Side. . .

    Nick: While Apotheosis & Hostile Takeover aren’t military SF per se, there is certainly a fair amount of people shooting and stuff blowing up in spectacular fashion.  Enough so that at cons, about half the time, I get dragged on to at least one military SF panel.

  20. This morning I read the review of Messiah and I instantly knew that I had to read the trilogy. An AI with a god complex? That’s definetely my kind of book πŸ™‚

    My question is: should I read the earlier books set in this Universe before reading Prophets/Heretics/Messiah?


  21. Odo: I worked hard to keep each series independent of the others, so you can work your way backwards if you want to.  Any backstory you need to keep track of what’s happening in Apotheosis is in Apotheosis.  This is one of the benefits of having a bunch of stories in the same universe, but separated by a couple of centuries.

    I will say that the feedback from fans of the earlier books do seem to appreciate the points of continuity.

  22. Christopher Green // February 15, 2011 at 5:33 pm //

    Looks like a cool series of books. Put me down as interested. Thanks.

  23. Here’s hoping you like them.

  24. Do you find setting out your universe is easier as a time line, paragraph form, or some other type?

  25. I absolutley love these covers.  Who is/are the artist/s?

  26. Greg: I keep all sorts of notes.  With this series I have maps, lists of planets, and of course timelines.  The timelines aren’t just important for worldbuilding, they were absoluly essential to keeping the plot of the story straight– I’m coordinating action across multiple POVs and multiple light-years, where travel and communication times are major plot elements.

    Sensawunda: The guy’s name is Stephan Martiniere, and like I said, he’s a kick-ass cover artist.  Here’s his website.

  27. These do look like they would be fun to read and I do love a good space opera!  And I’m glad to hear that it is not necessary to read the earlier series- not that I’m opposed to that or anything.  I mean, come on- tigers with guns!  Who can resist?   Would you recommend I get the e-book versions or the paper versions?

  28. Buy both πŸ™‚

    But really paper or e-book is a personal choice, I get royalties either way (as long as it isn’t a pirated copy), so whichever one you enjoy reading more.


  29. Hey- I noticed you are from Cleveland and an engineer.  Did you go to Case by any chance?

  30. @Paul: Fwiw, I had a paper copy version (review copy sent from publisher) but bought the Amazon Kindle eBook version anyway just so I’d have it with me wherever I went.  That’s how much I wanted to keep it near me.

  31. Mark Szwarcberg // February 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm //

    I haven’t read any of your work yet but am definately adding this trilogy to my must read list. Just for curiousity’s sake who are some of the author’s that have had an influence on your writing…I noticed you mention Dan Simmons  …

  32. Mark: No  my engineering background is @ CSU.  Though Case shows up a lot more in my fiction, guess it’s a more interesting campus.

    Mark S: I don’t know if Mr. Simmons counts as an influence, simply because I picked him up after I’d hatched as a professional writer.  The people who shaped the malleable clay of my proto-writing self were folks like Niven, Heinlein, Poul Anderson.  We also throw in Mack Reynolds, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson for the Illuminatus! Trilogy, some H.P. Lovecraft and Steven King.  Along with a lot of trashy paperbacks I bought at the drugstore, back when it wasn’t just bestsellers.  (Really odball thrillers with borderline sf premises, like an IRA bombing attempt on the channel tunnel written in the late 70s, or a kid with down’s syndrome being given some sort of medicine making him hyper-smart and somehow able to influence the presidential race, weird craplike that.)

  33. ‘Oddball borderline sf thrillers’ sounds like good future mind-melding post.

    Huh, I figured Swann’s influences would be Akira and The Thundercats…


  34. daren davey // February 15, 2011 at 10:09 pm //

    This looks like a great series, and I love the cover art! It would be so cool to have a signed set! I hope you pick me!

  35. I hate infodumping with a passion, ao I’m happy to hear you actively think about how to circumvent that issue.

  36. All of my novels have additional files that the reader never sees. They include extensive character profiles, historical and physical background of that little corner of the multiverse.

    As my work on the story progresses, I am constantly adding to these files and when the time comes for submission, I share them with my editor.  There is a lot of background information that never makes it into the primary novel, but may become part of another tale, later on.

  37. I love your Wolfbreed books.  Do you plan on writing more in that world?

  38. Dino Mascolo // February 16, 2011 at 1:08 am //

    Thanks for the insight on worldbuilding. I’m definately going to read this series eventually, since I’m a big fan of SF Signal, and John highly reccomends it. Just last night I was searching sites for the first book. I’m curious why they are only available in paperback?

  39. Filippo Bia // February 16, 2011 at 2:11 am //

    Seduced by the review of John, hope to get the books. Long live scifi…


  40. I will review this books on my homepage, if I win. πŸ™‚

  41. @tam – ‘Oddball borderline sf thrillers’ sounds like good future mind-melding post.

    Excellent idea. You listening, John?



  42. Tam: Well I have had some anime influence.  Just not on this particular series.  The first book, Forests of the Night, was released as a pair of light novels in Japan with a bunch of cool manga-esque illustrations.  If someone was going to adapt this, anime would probably be the way to go.

    Daren: Good luck

    SaraC: There are infodumps, and there are infodumps.  I suspect what you hate is the dump of info that serves no other purpose.  One good example (which I didn’t go into, because I’m not a humor writer) is the infodump played for comedy.  If you look at some of the world-building in some of Stross, or Prachett, or the Illuminatus! Trilogy, you’ll see that it’s often straight relating of facts that if it wasn’t hilariously satirical would be dry as dust and just as tasty.

    Antony: I’ve gotten a really thick file on the Moreau/Confederacy universe, but I don’t show it to anyone else.  I have a rule— anything that doesn’t make it into print is optional.  I think I’ve retroconned my personal notes with every single book.

    NicA: I have possible ideas for at least two sequels, but Spectra begged off buying them right now, so they’re on the back burner as I work on other projects.

    Dino: I happen to mostly publish mass-market originals, which also happens to be DAW’s bread-and-butter.  It’s one of the reason’s I’ve flown under so many people’s radar.

    Filippo:  The genre is dead, long live the genre! (Now there’s a title for a pretentious blog post.)

    Stefan: Good luck yourself. (Though feel free to go ahead even if you don’t πŸ™‚ )

  43. Great article, I love looking behind the scenes as it were and giving the worlds I read about a good kick to see if they make sense. I am also becoming more and more aware of how novels, tv shows and films are put together with an understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

    For me the 1st item listed is the most important, there is nothing better than exploring a new setting and getting that feeling that its ‘real’. There is nothing worse for me than finding my ability to suspend disbelief is being attacked because the author simply couldn’t be bothered to think their ideas through.

    In scifi this really applies to the technologies… I am currently reading Amortals by Matt Forbeck and its blatently obvious that he has given a lot of thought to what his ‘amortal’ technology will mean and how its shaped the society and characters of the world they inhabit. Ok there are a couple of little gaps that are bugging me (although they may well be explained later in the novel) but I feel comfortable enough to let them slide because afterall it is fiction and he has done the work i feel required to earn my confidence as a reader that I am exploring an interesting thought concept turned into a novel. I am also excited because its an Angry Robot publication and they have a habbit of giving us lots of goodies at the end of the novel… hopefully Mike will talk about his wider thoughts.


  44. My favorite aspect of these books so far is that the “on s#!t” moments hit with a dreadful impact, and the protagonists have to act quickly. So many SF scenes lately hang on pauses and hesitation for dramatic effect that they slip into the implausible. Cannot wait to read this one.

  45. Michael Habif // February 16, 2011 at 7:13 am //

    Im now going to read this series no matter what but I’d enjoy much more if it were free

    – Michael

  46. Stephen Rider // February 16, 2011 at 9:26 am //

    Looks like a really neat series, I’m going to have to check this out, one way or another.

  47. dawn the glass beadmaker // February 16, 2011 at 10:03 am //

    oooh…this sounds like a great read. I’m wishlisting it now. I love good space opera in well built universes πŸ™‚

  48. Chris Angelucci // February 16, 2011 at 10:46 am //

    Excellent advice. Thanks for bringing this author to our attention. I would love to read his work.


  49. Andy W: That’s one of the more dangerous world building pitfalls out there, putting elements into the story that are self-contradictory.  It’s easy to fall so much in love with a premise that you’re oblivious to the fact that it doesn’t work with what’s already there (My fave example is having famine or other scarcity-induced problems in a society energy-rich enough to have high-powered laser/blaster/beam weapons.)

    Jeff: That’s me being impatient to get to the good stuff πŸ™‚

    Michael, Stephen, Dawn, Chris: thanks for stopping by and thanks for the nice comments.

  50. Matt Caulder // February 16, 2011 at 11:26 am //

    I’m going to buy these books anyway, so it would be nice to win them

  51. Yeah I get that one, I can think of half a dozen novels where you look at the technology and then look at the problems the novel resolves around and can’t understand why those problems exist… but I also like it when authors tackle such issues and put enough effort into creating a situation where they make sense…. Often just a couple of sentences is enough to square the circle, and that can also make a great plot hook to explore the issue.

  52. Raymond Smith // February 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm //

    All very interesting please enter me I am currently reading some Terry Brooks books would enjoy comparing these to them. Thank you ps.. it is 2011 hope you know 8)

  53. Raymond Smith // February 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm //

    Interesting article I am currently reading some Terry Brooks books would enjoy reading these and doing a comparison. Thank you.

  54. Thanks for the helpful breakdown of how you put the world-building into your novels.


    On the subject of the files you keep — the character profiles and historical background — do you ever need to refer to that when you’re dealing with a copyedit? As in, “No, we have to stet this because of X, Y, and Z?” Or do you go the other way around and change some of your notes based on comments from your editor or copyeditor?

  55. D’oh!  Yes — 2011.   Color me silly.  Fixing now.

  56. I’ve read the first two books so far.  One of the things about the world building that really appeals to me is how the interstellar nations have clear, identifiable roots in Earth cultures.

  57. Joerg Grau // February 16, 2011 at 8:35 pm //

    It makes you want to slap your forehead when you hear so succinctly explained, what so many books/articles/workshops try to explain.

    Of course it is a lot easier to understand it then it is to put it into practise.

    The power of the “blipvert your world” is not an easy thing to learn.  I loved the books in the series I have read so far (all the Moreau books and half of the hostile takeover trilogy, the Apotheosis Trilogy is next) and realize how cleverly you have used that specific technique from the very beginning.


    Thanks for sharing this insight!




  58. Matt: Thanks for supporting your friendly neighborhood sf author.
    Andy: Just look at Star Trek, how many plots would be rendered moot if everyone just worked out the implications of the transporter?  You don’t need photon torpedoes, just teleport a large mass in front of a ship going at any reasonable velocity. . .

    Erin: it depends on the edit.  Most of the time my copyedits haven’t changed significant bits of the history or background.  If they do, it’s usually a misunderstanding.  (Such as when I got Hostile Takeover back and they’d merged the Terran Council with the Terran Executive Command. . .  that was a big oops.)

    Raymond: That would certianly be an interesting comparison πŸ™‚

    Chris: It’s always annoyed me when I’ve seen SF set a few centuries in the future and it seems to have no historical continuity with the present day.  I set my novel roughly 500 years from now, and it stands to reason that the current world will have as much influence on that one as the world of 1500 has on ours.

    Joerg: Glad you found it enlightening.  A lot of this has been just me figuring out how to pound it into my own head so I have some clue what exactly I’m trying to do.  

  59. Very interesting post and perfectly timed. I have been trying to figure out how to help my neice with her writing. This hit a number of the concepts I wanted to communicate. Thank you.


  60. Until you pointed things out in your examples, I did not even think about how subtle the world-building process can be. I guess I am too involved with the story to pay attention how they are sprinkled around. Thanks!

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