Handling Exposition Without Infodumping

A friend and I recently chatted about the challenge of writing a new world without giving people a lexicon up front. There are some people who love the shit out of a good infodump, but they are not terribly common. My friend was asking me this because they thought I’d done some fairly epic world building in the Blade of Glass series, but didn’t think it felt like I’d given them a private wiki.

My advice on this comes in three parts.

  1. Leverage the familiar.
  2. Give information as and when a character would experience it, and leverage this to create anticipation.
  3. Pretend like the reader already knows everything anyway.

Let’s start with something … familiar.

The Familiar

There’s a scene in Nights Favor that’s a semi-riff from a police procedural. Our hero is in a police interrogation room, double mirror and all. This scene leads to a pretty epic shootout involving another werewolf and our hero is trying to save a) himself and b) cops while this happens.

We’ve all seen a million police procedurals and could finger-paint the interior of an interrogation room without ever seeing one. I don’t have to do any worldbuilding at all for this scene to exist in your mind rent-free. It’s already familiar to you.

Let’s choose a harder example. In Blade of Glass, the Feybrind (one of the three main races) can’t speak. They use sign language. I don’t have to explain what sign language is to you or how it works. What I’ve done is create a non-verbal race and leverage something you already know, and now that’s taken root in your mind.

There are other examples you can use for familiarity. If you want elves and orcs in your world, go with God: that’s familiar enough that you don’t need to explain very much. The excellent The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French does this well; his heroes are orcs, and so he doesn’t need to tell you what an orc is. All he has to do is tell you how his orcs are different; you’ve already got the rest before you even open the book.

Okay: so we know what the familiar is like. How does a character experience things and why is that important for worldbuilding?

As and When

I read a story a while ago where the main character was an orphan, they were a secret agent, they were based in another country, they’d had a traumatic vehicle accident, and they were unlucky in love. The bad part of this is that it all arrived in the same paragraph.

The problem with this approach is it’s not how people interact with the world (usually). People don’t sit there with all those things going on in their head in a single moment. We (mostly) experience things in a linear manner as and when they’re important to us.

Now, let’s use a scene from Blade of Glass to describe how we do this and create anticipation for what’s to come. Here is a flashback scene where Geneve meets her tree, and Israel.

“This is your tree.” The big man stood beside the sapling, hand on the slender trunk, and looked down on Geneve. The timbre of his voice was chocolate rich, which she knew because she’d talked to him before, but this time it held something deeper, more insistent. This tree was important.

Geneve looked about the field. It lay inside tall stone walls that protected everything inside. The ground was turned earth, tended with exquisite care. She’d noticed that as the big man led Geneve down broad, worn steps to the flat ground. Her tree sat with hundreds of others in the field. They were well-spaced, so the sun’s light could reach them all. Some were broken, as if by lightning, but no charring marked the wood. Other slots where trees should be were empty, the earth turned and ready for planting.

The big man had brought her here through a keep. Outside was nothing but rolling grassland. The keep stood on a small hillock. It was visible for klicks in every direction. The stone was white, without the staining she’d expect of marble left to the elements. This structure shone like new.

She couldn’t remember from where she’d come, or what she was doing, but her clothes smelled bad and had rips. Her hands were smudged with old dirt. Geneve couldn’t remember if the rest of her was dirty.

It was the not knowing that was bad, not being dirty. She was certain she’d been dirty a lot, and never died from it. But everything prior to the cart ride here was gone from her life and reaching for the memories brought nothing. No pain or discomfort, just an absence of anything.

The tree looked like it might fill a part of that gap. Geneve put her hands on hips. “So?”

The big man’s face cracked, the stern facade allowing the smallest glimmer of a smile through. He fingered his necklace, a small stone crystal set in a length of silver chain. “So, you will break it one day.”

“Why would I break my own tree?” Geneve took a cautious step forward, because she didn’t know the big man at all. He was impressive in the way a huge rock might be if it could talk, all bedecked in gleaming steel armor, a golden sun on his breastplate. A black sash carrying the weight of three gold bars crossed his heart. A sword was scabbarded at his waist but worn in a rear-draw style. Geneve knew the blade was glass without knowing how she knew. She’d seen it, perhaps, before her memory was gone. Geneve felt like there should be blood on his armor, but it was clean like it’d been freshly forged.

She put her hands on the tree’s young bark. It was smooth, without the knots and whirls time would bring. It was younger than her, and she didn’t want to break it.

“The tree grows as you grow. When you’re ready to live here forever you will come to this field. You’ll break this with your bare hands.” He crouched before her. “All Knights do.”

Geneve bunched her hands into tiny fists. “I don’t think I can do that.” She glanced at the tree again, as if seeking moral support. “I don’t think I want to.”

“It’s just a tree.”

“It didn’t do anything to me.”

He laughed, stood, and gestured with a sweep of his arm. “These trees mark time. In ten years, you’ll undergo the Trials. Your tree will be strong and wide.”

“What about your tree?”

He raised an eyebrow. “My tree isn’t here. I was a Novice at a different Tresward.”

“I mean, did you break it?”

“That seems a curious question.” He frowned, like he felt he’d explained this part already. “I’m a Knight. I passed my Trials.”

“So many things could happen to a tree.” She frowned right back at him, this strange, large man, with his armor, sword, and glittering necklace. “Lightning. A fire. Thieves and bandits.” She rubbed her arms, which goose-bumped in memory. It wasn’t chilly inside the keep, but outside the touch of the southern winds brought cold. Geneve didn’t know why she wore only a shift without winter warms to keep her soul inside her body. “Thieves steal wood all the time.”

The big man nodded, rolling the jewel at his neck between large, strong fingers. “No lightning strikes here. The Three,” he held a palm to the heavens, where the moons would shine in the night, “keep it safe. To set fire to a tree, a villain would need to get past a fearsome collection of fighters sworn to protect them.”

“It could still happen.”

“It could.” He nodded. “Do you know why we need people like you?”

Geneve bit her lip. She was tiny compared to him. Five years old, skinny, knock-kneed, uncertain, and hungry. “I’m not like you at all.”

“That’s right. We need all the difference we can find. The Vhemin roam, hunting people. The Feybrind hide in their forests and ice plains, ignoring us. Royalty wants control of everything, including the fires of desire inside people’s hearts.”

She thought about that. Vhemin seemed an old threat, well-used in her hearing. She’d never seen one and didn’t think they were real. Feybrind were amazing, and she’d known one, but couldn’t remember when, or how. If she was amazing like them, she might take herself away, too. “I don’t know what that means.”

“Difference left us. We need to remember it for ourselves.” The big man spoke like he was reciting something he’d heard from someone else. “The Tresward hold the Light for our allies and against our enemies.”

“How do you hold light?”

“With your heart.” The big man offered her another smile. “Are you hungry?”

Geneve nodded so much she thought her head might pop off. “I haven’t eaten in…” Her voice faded away, remembering—grr!—she couldn’t remember. “I think it’s been a long time.”

“Do you remember who I am?” At her head-shake, he crouched again, taking off his gauntlet. Underneath was a hand like any other man’s. Callused, a little paler than the dark honey-brown of his face. Strong, though. She could see how a hand like that could hold up the very world. He held it out to her.

She took it in her small one as best she could, wrapping her hand around two of his fingers. “Hello. I’m Geneve.”

“Hello, Geneve. I’m Israel.”

Blade of Glass, Chapter One

Despite being cleverly called Chapter One, this is actually the second chapter after The Prisoner. Now, let’s see what we learned that this tree was important, it was inside a cool fort, they’re are monsters called Vhemin, and that Israel is cool. We also learn what Geneve was like as a kid (skinny, knock-kneed), and that Feybrind (ref: above) are awesome. There are Tresward, and something called the Light.

All of this is experiential, as the character is following this train of thought. There’s more to come, though. Exactly what are the Vhemin? Why does this fort exist? Does Israel have a job other than being a cool dude? What becomes of Geneve after Chapter One? How does the Light work? Are the Tresward for good or ill?

We don’t learn those things yet because they haven’t experientially happened to Geneve, but we’ve build expectation they’ll be answered, which drives anticipation of the next worldbuild components.

There’s one other element we can use to create a richer world. It’s a cheap trick, but like all cheap tricks, it often works when nothing else does. Like, when you just haven’t had the runway to tell the reader what they need to know.

The Reader Knows It

I mean, they don’t, but let’s pretend.

In Chromed: Upgrade (that link should take you to where you can get it free) the first chapter is a kick-ass scene in a cyberpunk bar. During this scene, one of our main heroes, Mason, uses something called a lattice.

Now, it would be a total dick move as an author for me, during the scene where the lattice is being awesome, to press pause and explain what a lattice is. But if I’ve done my job right in the scene, you can work it out. It’s intrinsic to Mason, and the person he’s in a tussle with gets it, too.

If I pretend you know it… well, you don’t, but you might feel like you do, and within just a few more pages, you will definitely grok it.

Now, you can’t do this with everything. I read a Charlie Strauss novel that did this with, like, everything, and I felt like I’d been concussed by the end of the first chapter. But you can do it with a few things, and before you know it, the lie becomes truth, and the reader knows it.

Never go off the grid. That was the rule. It kept Mason alive. If you had to, make sure you had a weapon and backup. Apsel’s reach stopped where link coverage ebbed away to a gritty residue.

Mason had a weapon, but backup was a long ride away. You’re fifty percent there. Stop complaining. Get inside.

Seconds was the kind of bar nobody would go twice. An old chipped door, the auto sensor broken, the sliders sticky with beer or blood. Mason shouldered it aside. The interior felt warm. Humidity stuck like a bad odor to the air. In its better days, it would have hosted over a hundred, the pump and beat of music making their own statement.

Today, fewer than a dozen people were nursing drinks, telling themselves the usual lies. He eyed a woman by the bar, working what magic she had left on a john, her use-by date well passed. The john looked no better, a long, stringy guy with fewer teeth than he’d been born with.

Neither were worth credits or paperwork.

He wasn’t here for hookers or their clients. Mason was here for the promise of a lead. Most people would call it a rumor, but he’d spent enough time off-grid to know where truth lay among the grime.

Mason’s optics scanned the bar, picking out the mods. Seconds wasn’t the kind of place you went into blind. His first pass gave him nothing to cry about. Bionics done on the cheap, a knife where a laser would be best, out of fashion chrome making the wrong kind of statement. Nothing here was mil-spec.

Green neon flickered behind the bar, as tired and listless as the patrons. The bartender watched him, one chromed arm working a dirty rag over a dirtier surface. His eyes were underlined with a smatter of hanzi, the logograms giving off a soft phosphor blue bioluminescence. A couple of teenage ganguro girls were making out in a dark corner, the pastel of their eyeliner garish with the green from the bar. Mason’s audio brought him the whisper of their bright clothes as they rubbed against each other.

Carter said this was the place. Someone had come in here, dropped credits into the old terminal on the back wall, and made a play to buy company assets. Mason brushed rain from his jacket, then made his way to the bar. His tailored clothes said cash and syndicate. No one got in his way.

Not yet.

Mason’s overlay highlighted the bartender. No ID. No link. His optics showed a ghost who worked down here because up there was impossible. An illegal, like all the rest.

“Hey.” Mason put a grainy photograph on the bar. A side shot of a man, orange mirror sunglasses on, greasy hair over a face gone soft and ugly. Carter had uplifted it from the terminal. “Know this guy? He’s a buyer.”

The bartender didn’t look at the photo, his gaze touching the bottles stacked up in front of the flickering neon. The dirty rag paused. “I never heard of that mix. Been making drinks a long time now.”

Mason tapped his finger on the photo. “It’s a popular drink. Exactly the thing you’d get in this part of town.”

The bartender shrugged. “Drink like that, might be expensive.” The rag resumed motion, his chromed arm picking up the green light and pushing it around the bar top after the rag.

Mason saw the hanzi under the bartender’s left eye flicker, the glow stuttering. He pressed greasy notes down on the bar next to the photo. “I understand. Maintenance. Got to keep the kitchen in working order.”

“Exactly.” The rag stopped moving again. Mason caught a reflection in the chromed arm as a man walked in from the street. A sharp gust of night air followed him in, the faintest hint of sewage mixing with the acrid scent of rain. The bartender nodded to the newcomer. “It’s killer out there.” The photo and the money vanished, whisked away by the bartender as if they’d never been. He moved further down the bar, filling a cocktail shaker with dirty ice.

The newcomer sat next to Mason, a hint of Davidoff cologne washing off him. “Mind if I sit here?”

“It’s a free country.” Mason didn’t turn, taking in the expensive suit cuffs out of the corner of his eye. Tailored sleeves went with the cuffs. Might be an exec out for some fun at the people’s expense.

Might be syndicate trouble.

“That’s the biggest lie I’ve heard this week.” The man shook water from his coat, throwing the heavy jacket over a vacant barstool. “Hasn’t been free since they invented the credit card.”

“You don’t seem to be suffering.”

The man gave a quick laugh. “Business is good. What can I say?”

The bartender pushed a tumbler in front of Mason, the ice nestled in around a rich amber liquid. Algae in the drink sparked a bright pink, flecks of light flashing in amongst the amber and ice. “Your drink.”

Mason nodded his thanks, taking a sip. The liquor was rougher than he’d expected. He coughed. “Christ.” He saw a splash of white as he set it down. A scrap of paper was stuck to the bottom of the glass. A note for my eyes only. Money spoke a universal language.

The man next to him gestured to the bartender. “Whatever he’s having.”

“You really don’t want to do that.” Mason grimaced. “Last time I order the house specialty, that’s for sure.”

“I can handle it.” The man counted notes on the bar. “These throwbacks need to get linked. I hate cash. It’s too dirty.”

“At least it’s quiet.” Mason took another swallow, then glanced at the stranger’s tailored cuffs. He looked back down into his drink, reading the address written on the note. “It’s probably as good a place to die as any.”

A heartbeat of silence followed as pressure built in the air. Mason felt his lattice react, its prediction routines making his hands grab the bar’s edge, heaving him over the top. A blast wave hit, tossing him against the wall. Mason’s perception of time slowed as overtime flowed over him.

The fibers in his jacket stiffened to take the impact. Glass and liquor rained on Mason from the shattered bottles above the bar. His optics flickered as they adjusted contrast, first to the flash of light then the dancing shadows. A single neon filament above Mason stuttered out the last of its life in refracted green before the bar went dark.

“I’m glad you appreciate your situation.” The man’s voice came from the other side of the bar. “No offense. Like I said, business is good.”

“None taken.” Mason planted his feet against the bar, bracing himself in the narrow space. He pulled his Tenko-Senshin sidearm from under his jacket, the whine of the weapon soft in the darkness. The nose of the weapon tracked the man’s footsteps as if it had a mind of its own. “Reed Interactive?”

“Good guess, but no. Metatech. Apsel?”

“Yeah.” Mason listened for movement. Careful. Metatech means mil-spec bionics. Keep him talking. “What are they like?”

“Metatech?” The man paused. “They sure as shit provide better backup than Apsel Federate.”

Mason’s smile glinted in the darkness. “What makes you think I need backup?”

The man laughed as he made for the door. No hurry in it, like he did this kind of thing on a daily. “Buddy? You look fucked to me.” 

The door squealed a complaint as it opened, followed by a distinctive thud as Mason’s opponent tossed in a grenade. Get up, Mason. Move!

Mason rolled over the bar. He hit the kitchen door as the grenade exploded, throwing him into a stove so grimy it looked like a movie prop. He fell hard, then pushed himself upright. His optics flickered in the darkness — goddamn EMP — then switched to thermal, the intense bright square of the Tenko-Senshin’s energy pack outlined against the blue-black of the floor. Mason felt the cool calm of the hard link as his palm gripped it.

Only an amateur would rely on an EMP grenade against a syndicate asset. Top-shelf bionics barely noticed. An amateur, or someone who really does have backup. You got what you came for. Time to go.

“Mason?” The link flickered into life, Carter inside his head. Her deep, husky voice was tinged with a hint of concern.

“Now’s not a good time, Carter.” Mason went back to the kitchen door. A couple of tables burned, shedding sooty smoke. The heat from the flames scorched the center of his vision with white, so he switched back to visual light. “I’m busy.”

“That’s what I’m calling about.” She paused. “Don’t go out the front.”

“You checking up on me?” Mason looked through the door’s cracked window. The jumble of wreckage was unrecognizable. A mess of plastic and wood veneer nestled atop bodies. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“They used energy weapons. The signature is quite clear from sat telemetry.”

“Plasma?” 

“Looks like.”

“Jesus. You get cancer from those things.” Mason pushed the snout of the Tenko-Senshin ahead of him.

“No.” Carter sounded annoyed. “You get burning from those things. The fire would kill you, and you would hurt the entire time you were dying. You were lucky. And careless.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re not going to be alive long enough to get cancer.”

“Like I said, now’s not a good time. You can list my failings later.”

“Why not just go out the back?”

“Two reasons. First, they’ll be expecting that.” Mason stepped through the kitchen door, his feet crunching on broken glass.

“The second reason?”

“The bartender gave me an address. He’s in here somewhere.” Mason paused. “What, no snappy comeback?”

“It’ll be expensive.” Carter sounded doubtful.

“Put it on my tab. Did I miss a budget cuts memo?”

“I’ll call a medivac.” The link went dead.

Mason stepped over a body flung from the center of the plasma strike. He looked at it as he passed. Not this one. The radius of damage was from Mason’s spot at the bar. His overlay plotted a line on Mason’s optics, showing the point of origin.

A booth, no different from the rest. No sign of the ganguro girls who’d been there, the booth black and empty. A fluorescent light stuttered to life, then went dark as sprinklers kicked in. Muddy water trickled from the ceiling for a moment before dying out. Loose drips of dark water stuck to the ceiling nozzles.

Mason found the bartender sprawled backward against a broken table. His chrome arm was gone, the stump smooth and pale. Cheap work. No anchoring. Or maybe the guy didn’t want to get that close to the metal. Mason scanned as he knelt. His HUD told the violent story of the bartender’s injuries. Burns. Lacerations and bruising. “Hey.”

The bartender coughed, the sound ragged and wet. “I tried to … doesn’t matter. Did you get the address?”

“I got it.” Mason nodded to the door. “It’ll keep a few minutes longer.”

The bartender grabbed Mason’s arm. “You don’t understand. They’re killing us.”

“Killing you?”

“The rain. Your buyer. That’s what’s for sale. Don’t you know?” He coughed again. 

Mason stood. “Who was it?”

“What?”

“Who did you lose to the rain?”

The bartender looked at him, firelight playing across his features. The blue had faded from the hanzi, leaving gray marks like scars. “My brother.”

Mason nodded. “Try not to move. A medivac’s coming.”

“I can’t afford that.” The man’s eyes turned pleading. “Just leave me here. I’ll be okay.”

Mason looked at the Tenko-Senshin, the weapon’s hum a gentle touch in his hand. He moved toward the door. Before he stepped into the street, he glanced back. “It’s on the house.”

“Which house?” The bartender slumped back. “Who’m I gonna owe for this?”

Mason didn’t reply as he walked outside into the hissing rain, the door yawning behind him.

Chromed Upgrade, Chapter Zero (“Off Grid”)

There we have it. My three rules to delivering worldbuilding without infodumping.

And if you want to know how Mason got a Tenko-Senshin, well, that’ll take a few more chapters.


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