Writing Excuses 14.9: Showing Off
Key Points: Showing off awesome worldbuilding and podcasting skills? No, just how to make infodumps interesting. As you may recall… How do you let characters explain the world without it being a boring infodump? Let the character interact with the information, give it emotional weight. Beware of “As you know, Bob,” but an argument let’s you slip in lots of information about characters and whatever they are arguing about. Use “Bob, you idiot!” Giving directions also can help. Humor makes the moments of worldbuilding go down easier, too. Sex positions, mixing sex scenes and exposition, might work for you. Convincing someone who has given up lets you summarize everything that has happened, and what we need to do. Ephemera! Establishing shot, relationship shot, insets, pictures! Worldbuilding that is important impacts the story, so the impact gets mentioned in the story. Maps and grand poems. People in a bar talking about what they watched or did last night can tell you what’s important in this culture. Newspaper clippings, broadcast transcripts, a character overhearing a snippet of a news clip… all good ways to let the reader know “Today, the ocean is boiling.” Consider when to deploy ephemera and what effect you want it to have on the reader. Watch for the gorilla in the phone booth.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Nine.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Showing Off.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We are going to show off our awesome worldbuilding skills for you…
[Brandon] And our awesome podcasting skills.
[Howard] That is not what you told me we were going to do. Now I’m nervous.
[Mary Robinette] As you know, Brandon…
[Dan] He would’ve dressed totally differently.
[Brandon] As I know, we’re going to talk about infodumps, but we’re going to make the infodumps interesting. Basically, this whole podcast is 14 seasons of infodumps.
[Howard] As you may recall, we’ve been talking about worldbuilding all year.
[Brandon] Yes, we have, Howard, and did you know…
[Brandon] All right. So. My first question for you guys is how do you make characters who know a lot about the world talk about the world without it being an infodump, or without it being boring?
[Mary Robinette] So, I had to deal with this a lot in Calculating Stars because I have this mathematician pilot astronaut, and there’s oh, the amount of information that you need to… No, I didn’t really think about it when I’m like, “I’m going to write hard science fiction.” Huh.
[Brandon] You’re going to not just write hard science fiction. You’re going to mix it with alternate history.
[Brandon] Which are the two most research heavy sub genres of sci-fi fantasy.
[Mary Robinette] It was a good choice there. Also, I’m going to make my main character a mathematician, and Jewish. None of which I am. So… But what I did was very much what I talked about last month, which was the interacting and having emotional weight to the information that the character is conveying. So, if I need you to know how to fly an airplane, when I… And I want you to know this airplane is a really cool airplane, then I have her walk in and go, “Oh, who has the T35 and how do I become their best friend?” That immediately tells you that this is interesting. Then, she can start to list all the things about it. What I’m doing for the reader is I am completely infodumping all of this information, and I’m tying it to emotion. So it is using POV…
[Mary Robinette] But it is very specifically about that interaction with the thing and masking it as an emotional state, rather than a “Please, here’s my knowledge.”
[Brandon] Well, and you say as an emotional state. A lot of the ways that this has been done historically, and it still works very well, but it’s where the cliché “As you know, Bob,” came from, is to have two characters have an argument or discussion about the thing. Saying, “I like this sort of gun,” and the other character says, “Oh, those guns are crap. I like these sorts of guns.” Suddenly, you’ve got an argument and you’re getting information about both characters, their preferences, and the guns.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Brandon] It’s a great way to go about it. How do you do it without it sounding like, “As you know, Bob,” that sort of thing?
[Dan] Well, the reason that the argument works well is because it isn’t “As you know, Bob,” it’s “Bob, you idiot.”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] Then they’re not telling each other things they already know. That’s when it really is awful.
[Howard] I did almost that exact… I mean, it wasn’t guns, they were talking about the floating cities in the… One of the places. It ends with a joke. It’s very much an introduction of characters. There’s a ring of giant floating cities going all the way around the planet. “I grew up on Venus, I’ve seen floating cities before.” “Okay, but the bartender… He makes these drinks inside other drinks.” “Depth charges. I’ve had those before, too.” Then they look out the window and everything is gone. “Where are all the cities?” “Where are we going to get drinks?” It’s just a brief moment of insight. I now know that Jengisha is, one, from Venus, where there are floating cities, but I needed to introduce… This is the first time we’ve been to this place in the book, and I’m showing the reader what isn’t there. So I have to describe what was there, in order to then have it be gone. [https://www.schlockmercenary.com/2018-07-29]
[Mary Robinette] Oh, giving directions is actually a great way to do that.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like, “Oh, you drive down the road where the old school used to be…”
[Brandon] I just realized something. That is that we always joke that Howard cheats because he has pictures for his worldbuilding. But he cheats twice, because he also has jokes to make us laugh in between the moments of worldbuilding. You’re just a cheaty cheater.
[Howard] I am a cheating cheater, and I could talk about how the humor lowers your defenses and allows me to slip information in there. But that’s… That goes beyond cheating and into evil.
[Mary Robinette] I’m not going to say that the number of sex scenes in Calculating Stars are there because I have a ton of exposition that I needed to get across, but…
[Brandon] Sex positions.
[Dan] Call it what it is.
[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly what it is.
[Howard] I am so glad I didn’t try to make that joke.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. All right.
[Mary Robinette] There’s multiple layers of that joke. We’re just going to move on there.
[Brandon] How do you make your worldbuilding interesting?
[Mary Robinette] Sex position. So, here’s an example of something that you should not do. I read… As research, I read Mars, a Technical Tale by Wernher von Braun, which is labeled as a novel, and it is von Braun… He’s the father of modern rocketry. It was him saying, “Let me tell you how we could do a Mars mission.” It was his idea to get the American public… Or just get the public excited about the idea of Mars. There is a chapter in there in which we literally have the professor says, “Let me tell you about Mars, the professor began his exposition.” That’s an actual sentence.
[Mary Robinette] Then, the next line is, “Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.” It is a chapter of as-you-know fact dump. There is no… Oh, it’s… There’s charts and graphs. It is worth picking up just so you can go…
[Dan] To see how not to do it?
[Mary Robinette] It’s really… Oh… It’s very, very useful for reference, and it is really challenging as a novel.
[Brandon] One of the best plot recaps I’ve ever read is in A Night of Blacker Darkness.
[Brandon] Which is a lengthy plot recap so that we can get caught up to remem… Getting it straightened out what the characters need to do, what they have already done, and what their goals are. It is the facts conversation. Tell us about this, Dan.
[Dan] The facts… Well, A Night of Blacker Darkness was me trying to write a farce, which I learned is so much easier to do on stage, which is why I eventually went back and did it on stage. But one of the problems with farce is that it is very information dense at a very fast pace. So I got halfway through the book and realized that a lot of the writing group had either missed important details or had forgotten them because 900 other important details had happened. So let’s take a minute and get on the same page and make sure we know what’s going on, all done as a conversation between the characters. One of them has decided it’s not worth carrying on and wants to give up, and the other two are trying to convince him, no, we can still win. That gives them an excuse to run down all of the plot points that have happened.
[Brandon] Now, what makes this scene really work is the fact that I came out of it understanding, but the facts are all really complex and funny. So how did you not lose us in the thing that was supposed to reorient us as you were making jokes about how convoluted the plot was?
[Dan] Um. I numbered all of the facts, and that’s why it’s called the facts conversation. If you talk to people who’ve read the book, almost everyone this is their favorite chapter. What I did was I knew that there were three, maybe four, very important facts. They were really driving all the action. But numbering, I think at final count it was 17 or 18 total facts, made you think that there was a lot more going on than there really was. So you’re kind of in the middle of this whirlwind and they always refer to the facts by number rather than what they are, except for the four important ones.
[Dan] So you know, “Oh, okay. Running away to Rome, so that we don’t get murdered by a vampire…” That’s fact whatever it was. That one they will say both the number and the title. The rest of them are all just numbers.
[Mary Robinette] That’s very clever. I mean, that’s a really common stage technique which you are transposing directly to the page.
[Brandon] And then back to the stage.
[Mary Robinette] Very nice.
[Dan] That’s why it was so much better on stage.
[Brandon] It occurs to me that you probably repeated the four important facts a number of times?
[Dan] A lot of times.
[Brandon] Where the other ones were only one-offs.
[Dan] Yeah. There’s a lot of times in the conversation where they’ll say, “Which brings us back to fact four, blah blah blah. There is a vampire trying to kill us,” whatever it is. So that hammers home the important stuff and lets you have the joy of being confused by the unimportant stuff.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week.
[Howard] It’s not a book. It is not a YouTube University, but he calls it Shadiversity, s_h_a_d_i_versity. This is a guy who, Shad is his name, vidcast… Deconstructs scenes, ideas, technologies, things from fantasy and science fiction pop culture, and talks about the historical underpinnings, why they’re getting it wrong, why they’re getting it right. I mean, one of them is this thing that we keep calling a tabard. It’s actually a monastic scapular. Tabards didn’t look anything like this. He’s got an episode called Best Medieval Weapons to Use against Elves.
[Howard] Then a follow-up episode, An Even Better Way to Fight Elves. What he’s doing is digging into actual historical combat, warfare, construction, whatever, and layering the pop culture we consume over that. It is fascinating and educational. You can find it on YouTube. Shadiversity, or you just Google Shadiversity and you’ll be there.
[Brandon] So we’re getting back to how to show off your worldbuilding in ways other than viewpoint. Because we covered viewpoint really well last month. For the last part of the podcast, let’s dig into ephemera. Nonnarrative parts of the story. How do you use this, Howard? Let’s talk about pictures.
[Howard] Um. Okay. The… There’s several kinds of pictures categorically in Schlock Mercenary. One of them is the establishing shot, where I tell you… The narrator will tell you where we are. You know what the name of this spaceship is, but we will have… Often have an external shot that shows you what this spaceship looks like. Or it’s a city. Or it’s a landscape, whatever. There are then relationship shots where I’m showing you where the characters are standing in relationship to each other and what is in the room with them. Are there props? Are there things that are going to be important? Then there are the panels that I call insets where I’m just zooming in on faces and showing reactions. I’ve talked about comic syntax in other podcasts. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, that’s going to give you more information than I can ever give you. When there is a critical story piece, I always make sure that it is showing up in an establishing shot, and then within the same page, within the same week of scripts, it’s going to show up in one of the relationship pictures. It’s going to be mentioned in the dialogue, so that we know that this is a thing that we are going to come back to.
[Brandon] Are there ever things that you rely exclusively on the pictures for with the worldbuilding? Or do you always use a footnote… Always is probably too strong a term, but…
[Brandon] Is it a rule of thumb that you’re going to… You said you mention it in dialogue?
[Howard] Mentioning it in dialogue… If it’s a piece of worldbuilding that is important, it’s probably impacting the story in some way. So what is going to get mentioned in story is the impact. There are places where I can do things with pictures that… Obviously, you can do this with prose. There’s a scene in which… It is a scene between person A and person B, Kevin and Jengisha. Ellen, whose husband is the other Kevin, the time clone, who is dead, is in the very background. She is being pulled out of the room by two of her friends. She has an expression on her face that looks bewildered and sad. It is one shot. I knew when I was putting it in there that I needed it because I’m going to show her having a conversation with the cloning tank where her husband is going to be coming back. But I have to have people know that there’s this relationship. I got mail from people who were like, “Oh, my gosh. That thing you did, that little tiny half a square inch of panel, I got the feels from that.” These are the sorts of places where a comic, I can put things in. It’s not explicitly worded, it’s easy to miss. With prose, I feel like it’s harder to hide those things because the words are all usually read in order. Does that make sense?
[Brandon] Yeah. This is kind of hard for me, because I know my books are going to end up in audio books, but I love ephemera, and worldbuilding through them.
[Howard] Sticking them in the middle of paragraphs?
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, usually it’s on an opposite page. I’m talking like the maps.
[Howard] Oh, them. Okay.
[Brandon] The maps from [garbled lights].
[Dan] Like the grand poems.
[Brandon] Yeah, the poems. The poems will get read.
[Dan] Things like that.
[Brandon] But the maps, for instance. There’s like seven, eight maps in Way of Kings. What we do is have a big, gorgeous painted map, and then we have the survey map that says at the bottom, created by His Majesty’s Royal Surveyors. Then we have a map scrawled on the back of a turtle shell sort of thing that somebody has been using to get around the camp. We have like all of these different maps that I put into the book to kind of show different ways that people are orienting themselves.
[Howard] So the Planet Mercenary sourcebook is a 250,000 word ephemera.
[Howard] With an unreliable narrator.
[Dan] Sold separately.
[Dan] In the Mirador series, I… One of the basic worldbuilding premises was this is a world where e-sports have replaced regular sports. I never wanted to, and never did in the series, come out and say, “E-sports have replaced regular sports.” But instead, we just have… They fill the same role. People in a bar all talking about the videogame they all watched on TV last night. Things like that. When the second book came out, I had a chance to do a bunch of ephemera. I had logo drawn up for the main team, I had a bracket of the tournament of all the players that we posted online, and things like that. Which all helped everyone to get into this mindset of oh, this game is important, and everyone’s excited about it.
[Mary Robinette] I used newspaper clippings at the head of the chapters in Calculating Stars. That is a… That’s a very useful thing. Because…
[Howard] Chapter headings?
[Mary Robinette] Chapter headings, the ephemera that shows up at the top, which is a newspaper article or a transcript from a radio play. But I’m going to say that you can actually use that technique without having to go to that… Of the newspaper clipping or the television or something else. You can use that to get your worldbuilding across without actually having to have chapter headings. Because you can do that same thing by having it be something that a character overhears. Having a little bit of a news clip playing in the background can allow you to just have an announcer literally tell you, “And right now, the ocean is boiling.” You can do that. It’s effective. You don’t want to… Like any technique, you don’t want it to be one note and that’s the only thing that you use, but it’s really useful.
[Brandon] Can I say, I really like your news reporter voice?
[Brandon] For when you read those books? There are different ones. But you got that sort of…
[Mary Robinette] Ladies and gentlemen…
[Brandon] Yes. It’s that. You know… It’s that.
[Dan] Yes. Ladies and gentlemen. These marshmallows…
[Dan] Are delicious.
[Howard] Not actually her voice, but…
[Mary Robinette] But it does tell you things. That’s… That is actually a thing that we do have to navigate when I’m doing audiobooks, is if I just do a straight read of that and have that in the same voice as Elma, as the rest of the narration. You have to come up with something that’s going to distinguish the two.
[Brandon] Right. It just… It sounds like it’s coming from the old radio broadcasts that people would do. It is very distinct. You know exactly what it is right away.
[Mary Robinette] March third, 1952.
[Dan] Pertinent to this conversation, I just sold a historical thriller. A Cold War book that I talked about a couple of times. I just sold that to Audible. It’s going to be an Audible Original. I had created essentially as ephemera a bunch of codes. It’s about a photographer in 1961. So there are number codes and there are replacement codes and there are ciphers and there are all these things all over the book. After we sold it, the editor and I looked at it and realized most of these aren’t even going to function properly in audio. So we had to really rethink. We’re still figuring out exactly how we’re going to convey all that stuff that was invented as ephemera and ended up being important to the plot, and now we’re… Now we’re in a hole.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. The… We can… You and I can talk about that later, because there are in fact ways to handle that, because I’ve had to deal with that. I actually had that problem in Fated Sky, because there’s big chunks of code.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah. I’m… This is off on a tangent, but I have, at the beginning of a chapter in one of my books, something that just looks nice on the page, that is just a bunch of… A random string of letters because it’s… A character who went through a period of pseudo-madness, and this is their scrawlings, right? The reader just read all those letters, and the audiobook listeners came to me and said, “That chapter. It was just going on and on and on…”
[Brandon] “With the letters.” So these are things to be aware of.
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Often… This is actually getting into something that I… That is completely pertinent to the kind of infodumping that you do and the kind of ephemera that you create. That’s when you deploy it and what effect are you trying to have on the reader? So with something like that, what you’re trying to convey to the reader is that there was something not right going on with this character’s head. That there were all of these things. So there are other ways to do that vocally, but you do have to shift when you go to the different medium. One of the things that I will see early career writers do, and sometimes in published work, is that the infodump just comes in the wrong place. They aren’t thinking about the effect of the information on the reader.
[Mary Robinette] There only thinking about this is information.
[Brandon] Yeah. I often use the phrase gorilla in a phone booth… Which… There are times in your story where something’s going to be really interesting to the character. You often in the podcast use the puppet metaphor. What the puppet is looking at, the character looks at. You have the puppet look at something cool, but then you start giving us an infodump on something else. We’re going to say, “Nononono. You turned our attention toward something cool. You can’t infodump me right then.” But you could infodump me a little bit later on, once our mind can come back to this sort of thing.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Exactly.
[Howard] Years ago, David Kellett did… I think this was for the podcast that he did with Scott Kurtz… And impersonation of a New York taxi driver doing the audiobook version of Garfield. Saying, “Oh, you guys. This last panel, he’s sitting in the pan of lasagna. Sitting in a pan of lasagna.” I was rolling, because I know that the Schlock Mercenary audiobook is really just never going to get made, but that problem, bouncing off of that problem, at that level when you’ve got the ephemera which are… on one level, what you would call ephemera is 90% of my product. The translation into audio means it would have to be completely rewritten.
[Brandon] We’re going to have to stop here. Mary Robinette, you have our homework.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So for your homework, I actually want you to write some ephemera for your world. Write a transcript of a news program or a newspaper article… Some ephemera that fits into your world. Have it be about a fact that you’ve been struggling to get in there that you want people to know. Then try, because it’s ephemera, see how concise you can make it. So you’re only allowed one paragraph. No more than 75 words.
[Brandon] And, like, we are only allowed 15 minutes that became 22…
[Brandon] You are out of excuses. Go write.