Writing Excuses 10.20: How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia?

You’ve done piles of world building. How do you convey this world to reader without infodumping? We talk about the different skill levels involved, and then the techniques that you’ll be using as you get better and better at what is probably the most critical skill unique to genre fiction writers.


This week’s exercise: Take a spec gee-whiz, and have something go wrong with it. Write a scene in which the main character must deal with the problem. Communicate each of the following:

  1. How it works
  2. What it looks like
  3. The main character’s relationship to it

The Autumn Republic, by Brian McClellan

11 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.20: How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia?”

  1. There’s still the same issue as last week, with the link to the episode showing up on the main page but not on this one (on FF and IE, at least).

  2. Another example of show, don’t tell from Breaking Bad is when Skyler tells Walt, “That’s not the card we use” conveying how the Whites are in dire financial straits.

  3. Loved the talk about levels of info-dumping integration (or “Heinleining,” as I was taught). Such a framework is great for getting my thinking away from feeling dejected because my integration isn’t as good as X, and towards what steps I can aim for to eventually get me to X.

    Also, this might be a decent world-building diagnostic tool: if there’s no way to communicate the information except by lvl 1 info dumping (as opposed to those things that can be conveyed at higher levels but for which lvl 1 is most expiditious), then that’s a sign that the world building thingy isn’t actually important/properly developed.

  4. @Howard: I’ve only read the first book of the Poweder Mage trilogy and was already a little concerned about certain aspects not getting clearer definitions. (SPOILERBRACKETS! The archaic spellcasters who make Privileged look like ants are kinda …deific, in book 1, to the point of making me wonder why they aren’t the dominant spellslingers in that world, for instance ENDSPOILERBRACKETS!) The fact that he actually has that sort of thing planned out soothes those concerns. I’m looking forward to getting the rest of the series.

    @J T There are a couple of exceptions to your suggestion that the need for an infodump could be seen as a suggestion that your info is not relevant to the story, but it is generally a good idea. Ancillary Justice is, in its entirety, an excellent example of where infodumps are useful. Over the course of the book, you could probably have figured out that Breq (aka Justice of Toren One Esk) is…honestly I don’t think we have a word for it – human who was given cybernetic implants, mind wiped and implanted with an AI to be used as both an interactive terminal and a soldier. However, given the number of oddities in that setting (a race that doesn’t bother with gender distinctions, that creates these …ancillaries, since the in-world term is the only brief method of describing them, and in general having technologies that are so far beyond ours that they are hard to define except in general terms, plus the way the character is written (as One Esk, a single paragraph can contain information from several of her bodies – even One Esk is, as I recall, 20 physical people or so)…point is, not infodumping a few of the basics to give us a leg to stand on would make the book so dense as to be nigh incomprehensible. (Even with that, I still found it a bit tough to follow at times)

  5. @Rashkavar, my point was more for something that could never be conveyed to the reader except through a level 1 infodump, rather than for things for which a level 1 infodump is most expeditious or clear. For example, if the atmosphere in your fantasy novel has higher levels of oxygen than earth, how would a character ever interact with it in a way that would convey that information to the reader? If the character can’t interact with it to convey it to the reader, how will they interact with it to make it relevant to the story or plot?

    What’s the difference between a setting that has gravity like our world and a setting that has invisible angels pushing everything to the ground if the character doesn’t interact with those angels?

  6. Hey guys, I continue to love the podcast, but it doesn’t seem to love me. More specifically, it doesn’t love my podcast app (the official Apple one). For the past several episode, the app has been crashing–even crashing my entire phone–apparently randomly while I listen to Writing Excuses. I know it’s this podcast because I listen to a lot of different ones and the problem only ever occurs with Writing Excuses. It’s been happening since the cover image changed. I can listen in the browser for now, but that’s kind of annoying. I hope you can figure out a fix for this.

  7. Just imagine, if you sprinkle clues and foreshadowing into the conflicts and other character-building exercises, your reader may not even notice that they already know all about the geewhiz thingamabob before your hero wields it in the climactic fight… and the darn thing coughs and sputters because your son misaligned the magnets? Without an infodump, not even a “As you know, Bob,” you still heinleined that information out there for the reader! Yes, that’s the elusive skill of transparent worldbuilding that the fearsome foursome dissect in today’s podcast.

    If you prefer a texty version, try reading the transcript! Words, suitable to excite the model-1 optic nerve, right over here:


    Also available in the archives.

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