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Old 02-28-2016, 02:57 AM   #1
Semigloss
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Worldbuilding without wasting time

I'm trying to write a story set in a prison in a dystopian near-future. I naturally start the story with brief description of the dystopia and my main character's experience with the justice system. This is all very rushed because I don't want to dwell upon these details, but I also can't see a way to skip this completely. The world of the story needs to be explained, and I can't find any other way to explain it.

Beta readers have correctly informed me that the beginning of the story is no place for an infodump. No matter how concise I am and no matter how I try to spice it up with police raids and legal drama, the reader is always going to recognize it as tedious bookkeeping that I'm just using to set the stage before the real story begins. I just don't know how to tell the story without somehow explaining why these things are happening.

I heavily favor explaining things through dialog between characters. That way I can build character and make an infodump feel like it is advancing the story. By focusing the story on a newcomer to the prison there are plentiful excuses for explaining things in conversation, but that won't work for the basic knowledge that every character must have just for living in the world.

I have been working on ways to make the initial infodump feel like part of the story. I can go through a day in my character's life before he is arrested. The events of that day should easily illustrate the world. Unfortunately there are two problems with that approach.

It's not so easy to add more story to the beginning of a story. When the hero is arrested his life from before the arrest is cut off from his life after. Any characters I introduce become irrelevant as soon as the setting switches to the prison. Whatever story I seem to be telling would have to be abandoned as soon as he is arrested, and that sort of aborted plot is terribly unsatisfying and feels like a waste of time.

Another problem is that if I go into detail about the events leading up to his arrest, then I'd need to do far more worldbuilding than I want. Following the character around for a day outside of the prison will surely reveal many more details of the world than I would otherwise need the reader to know, and that's not going to be useful for telling the story that I'm really trying to tell.

In short, I feel I need an infodump at the beginning of the story, but such a thing is intolerable no matter how short. My every attempt to disguise the infodump as part of the story just makes the infodump longer, more elaborate, and more detailed, without actually solving the problem.

I can solve the immediate problem just by moving the infodump to somewhere in the middle of the story. This saves the start of the story from being an infodump, but that will replace the reader's boredom with confusion and it is not clear where the infodump would fit comfortably in the story if not the beginning.

One final option I have to consider is just eliminating the infodump by eliminating the info. Perhaps I am underestimating the cleverness of the readers when I think these things need to be explained. Even so, I can't bring myself to write things into my story when I don't see how the reader could understand them. Even though I know that every word is precious, the temptation to waste a few in explanation is irresistible.
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Old 02-28-2016, 03:10 AM   #2
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Trust your readers. Just tell the story. If the readers need to know something, tell them when they need to know it and not before. If your very first paragraph is not entertaining or engaging, I'm not going to be worrying about your second paragraph; I'm not going to be reading it.

Good luck.
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Old 02-28-2016, 03:40 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SamScribble View Post
Trust your readers. Just tell the story. If the readers need to know something, tell them when they need to know it and not before. If your very first paragraph is not entertaining or engaging, I'm not going to be worrying about your second paragraph; I'm not going to be reading it.

Good luck.
Sound advice. Never let your cleverness get in the way of your story.
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Old 02-28-2016, 08:23 AM   #4
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It is said by some that you should start your story in the middle. You have ask yourself what the story really is. Most readers will pick up on the setting/world situation from brief scene setting and dialog. Early info dumps almost always turn the reader off. If you start in the prison or with the arrest, the reader will be curious; how did the character end up in prison, why did he/she get arrested etc.
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Old 02-28-2016, 01:17 PM   #5
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Jesus, Semigloss - why do I get the feeling so many times with this kind of question, that either the 'questioner' is actually an automated computer program trying to be a better program, or someone trying to develop a computerised writing program?

I'd have to endorse SamScribble's advice. That is, if you really are a real person...

'tedious bookkeeping...' is for accountants and bookkeepers, not writers. And then 'infodump...' Are you serious? Have you been reading someone's modern idea about how to write?? Complete with all these labels and buzz-words?

And then, also -

'I naturally start the story with brief description of the dystopia...'

Why, why do you 'naturally start with?' It isn't natural at all. Most dramatic writers will start with some poignant small detail - not a lengthy description - or even some action from which the readers will at some point realise there IS dystopia going on, for instance, if that's what you want to achieve as the background environment.

Readers generally fill in all the spaces and create a whole world filled with small details - around the key elements writers set out: 'do electric sheep dream?' Four words - dystopian, mysterious, intriguing, and they provide this vast avenue, and this movement, into wherever the story is headed.

Look for really really REALLY important key elements that YOU WANT to convey into the reader's head; and then from then on let them do all the rest as far as the physical environment in which the story is happening is concerned.
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Old 02-28-2016, 01:28 PM   #6
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And another thing is I personally don't think every word is precious. No no no.

The movie Titanic is one of those extreme examples of, for instance, how Hollywood functions.

We are all reliably informed that the pitch that got the movie through the gatekeepers of the production houses so that this massive budget was committed (I don't happen to like the movie at all, but anyway...!) was this:

Big money producer (aka, your reader; impatient, no time, and more or less fairly thick):

"So what's it about? Make it so's I understand and hurry up I'm an important and busy guy."

"Big ship..."

"Okay."

"Lot's of people..."

"Yep."

"Ship sinks..."

Oh, yeah -" (Raises eyebrow).

"People drown."

"E-ar-aw! Great! What else?"

"That's it."

"That's it?"

"Yep."

"Yargh! Gre-e-ate! We'll do that!"
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Old 02-28-2016, 05:04 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
I can't bring myself to write things into my story when I don't see how the reader could understand them. Even though I know that every word is precious, the temptation to waste a few in explanation is irresistible.
Go watch a couple of Tarantino movies and start again.

Or watch any of hundreds of movies that open with some kind of big action sequence. The audience may have no idea why the action is happening. They just trust that someone is going to backfill the details later.

Remember the beginning of the original Star Wars. One sentence of dialogue set the scene for the entire Star Wars universe:

"You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor."

That's it. It's all you needed to know just then.
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Old 02-28-2016, 06:19 PM   #8
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Or just do it as Prologue that they can skip over if they choose. They can always go back and read it at their leisure or if they find themselves confused. I have several books I did that with, I haven't gotten any complaints. They read it or they don't. And by making it a Prologue, it is separate from the rest of the story.
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Old 02-28-2016, 08:40 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by shutterpsb View Post
It is said by some that you should start your story in the middle.
I can see the wisdom of that. The point is to cut out the tedious build-up toward the action, but that leaves the question of how one finds the middle of the story. I'm beginning to think that I'm starting my story too late rather than too early. The fact that there are questions I feel the need to answer before my story proceeds is a sure sign that interesting stuff happened before the point at which I started writing.

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Originally Posted by shutterpsb View Post
Most readers will pick up on the setting/world situation from brief scene setting and dialog.
They can only do that if the story gives them the necessary clues. I don't think the story I've written can do that, but I should be able to write another story that can give the necessary clues. I'll make my current story into part 2 and write a part 1 that sets things up.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Desiremakesmeweak View Post
Have you been reading someone's modern idea about how to write?
I certainly have! In addition to reading many great articles about writing on literotica.com, here are some articles that I found elsewhere about worldbuilding:

7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding

25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding

Quote:
Originally Posted by Desiremakesmeweak View Post
Why, why do you 'naturally start with?' It isn't natural at all.
I meant that writing is naturally suited to being a means of communication and thus the natural way to write is the one that communicates most obviously and clearly. Of course, I'm not aiming for obviousness or clarity; I'm aiming for entertainment, so I have no intention of doing the natural thing.

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Originally Posted by Desiremakesmeweak View Post
And another thing is I personally don't think every word is precious. No no no.
I don't mean to suggest that readers are impatient or thick. We just can't expect readers to understand the whole value of the story while in the middle of reading it. The author knows that the story will be worth reading from the very beginning because the author knows where the story is going, but the reader can't do that.

In a world overrun by stories that aren't worth reading, it's not fair for us to expect the reader to trust that our stories will be worth reading in the end. Instead we should strive to ensure that every piece of the story is worth reading in itself. Every sentence and every word should have value so we earn the reader's attention every step of the way.

Thanks to everyone for all the inspiring advice. I now have fresh ideas, but also fresh challenges. I will need to do far more detailed worldbuilding than I ever intended on doing; that will be hard but I expect my story will seriously benefit from it.

I also want to work some erotic content into the new first part of my story, but I have no clear ideas about how I might do that. In my original plan the sexy times started for my main character when he found himself in a prison full of naked people. It's hard to retcon sexy stuff into his earlier life without making it look tacked on, and I really want him to be sexually inexperienced when he first arrives in the prison.

I am seriously considering having him watch pornography, thereby emphasizing his sexual inexperience while at the same time involving a sexy element in the story. The challenge is making the pornography relevant to the story so that I can justify describing it in detail. The best I can think to do is to make the pornography an illustration of the dystopian culture in which he lives by showing how their porn is not our porn.
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Old 02-28-2016, 09:28 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SamScribble View Post
Trust your readers. Just tell the story. If the readers need to know something, tell them when they need to know it and not before. If your very first paragraph is not entertaining or engaging, I'm not going to be worrying about your second paragraph; I'm not going to be reading it.

Good luck.
Heartily agree. I hate long-winded initial descriptions. I would prefer that the world evolve over time.
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Old 02-28-2016, 09:52 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
I certainly have! In addition to reading many great articles about writing on literotica.com, here are some articles that I found elsewhere about worldbuilding:

7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding

25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding
Read Scott Erikson, he seems to have disregarded most of those rules and he's a best seller.
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Old 02-28-2016, 10:33 PM   #12
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Best example I ever saw of drawing the viewer into a dystopia was the first Matrix movie. It opens with a fight scene that's only barely humanly possible, a chase scene that's not humanly possible, and that glorious scene at the phone booth that nearly has you shouting "What. The Fuck. Is She DOING?"

But you're hooked. And it takes two thirds of the movie before those first few minutes make sense. But that doesn't matter because it's awesome and you're completely immersed. There's no infodump; it's purely learn as you go, if you can keep up. If there was a dump, the movie would suck.

I'm going to go as far as to say I'm a decent world builder. Look at my https://www.literotica.com/s/the-cap...princess-ch-01 and https://www.literotica.com/s/why-i-love-my-job-ch-01 for example of dystopian world, introduced in dialog and asides. I show, I don't tell. I'm told it works.

Never infodump. Everytime I've seen it done, it's come across as "Look at how cool my world is! Look, it's cool! This is an uber-cool world! It's so cool I got a boner inventing it! Let me tell you ALL the cool parts!" It's like having a dog hump your leg.

The world is only supposed to be a background. It's only there so characters can interact. Only the characters really matter. So if you're drawing attention directly to the world, you've failed.
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Old 02-28-2016, 11:48 PM   #13
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And one further thought:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
The world of the story needs to be explained ....
No it doesn't. If you and your characters tell the story, the world of the story will explain itself. And if you don't believe me, watch Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. I know that it's a movie and not a short story, but exactly the same principles apply.
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Old 02-29-2016, 04:19 AM   #14
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Best example I ever saw of drawing the viewer into a dystopia was the first Matrix movie.
I never noticed how clever that was until now, and I think a comparison makes the problem my story is having more clear.

Suppose that they re-edited The Matrix so the entire opening scene with Trinity is skipped and the movie rushes through Neo's being released from the matrix in an opening montage of fast cuts while Morpheus gives his speech about human batteries in voice-over. All of this is done so that we can get to the scene where Neo is being taken to the oracle within the first five minutes of the movie.

Essentially that's what I've done with my story. I assumed that the start of the story would be boring and rushed through it in fast narration without any detail in the hope that I could get to the real action before the reader got bored. It is very short and not entirely tedious, so I imagine many readers could get through it, but it's still a terribly weak way to start a story.

Now that I've recognized my mistake, I'm faced with the problem of having a story without a beginning. I have to somehow work backward and fill in the details of the beginning of the story, even though I originally decided that it wouldn't be interesting enough to write about it in detail. I need to find the fun in a story that seems boring. Ideally when I want to do is find the sex in a story that seems like it should have no sex.
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Old 02-29-2016, 07:37 AM   #15
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I've not tried building future or alien worlds but I've written some well-received historical pieces and as we know, the past is another world. I've also done some Earth-based SF. I try to accomplish my worldbuilding as subtly as possible.

Some of each type start with an interleaved infodump (mixing background with current dialog+action) or in one case, with a classic SF technique of a short italicized overview of the alien menace. Some of each type start directly with current dialog+action and let the world-info accumulate as the story proceeds. I'll similarly build character descriptions via details and inferences scattered throughout the text.

Think of the story's world as a player; build it as you would develop a character. Time spent here is never wasted.
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Old 02-29-2016, 09:23 AM   #16
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Have you considered an "Introduction" ?
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Old 02-29-2016, 09:32 AM   #17
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Wow, are you on the right site, Semigloss? You know, you can have do overs here...submit it and see what happens...you can always delete it and submit a revision more to your liking.
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Old 02-29-2016, 11:00 AM   #18
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"...their porn is not our porn."

As simple as that. Those six words are leaping out at me.

And what also leaps out at me are all these other words that flow from that six 'simple word statement:

Why? How? When? Where? How? Et cetera. In other words, I want to know more. That's how good stories begin; the reader wants to know more.
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Old 02-29-2016, 12:52 PM   #19
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What little I write and read of future worlds I like to have it dawn on me that it's a future world while I read it, not have the world laid out for me up front.
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Old 02-29-2016, 02:42 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
I'm trying to write a story set in a prison in a dystopian near-future. I naturally start the story with brief description of the dystopia and my main character's experience with the justice system. This is all very rushed because I don't want to dwell upon these details, but I also can't see a way to skip this completely. The world of the story needs to be explained, and I can't find any other way to explain it.
You could try a prologue that gives the information, if you are intent on having this kind of description. If you can keep it short and direct, I doubt it would detract from the story. I've read this in various stories and it doesn't bother me so long as it doesn't drag on.

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Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
I just don't know how to tell the story without somehow explaining why these things are happening.
I think this is a different problem. Explaining why things are happening is not necessarily the same as a world-building infodump. And to jump ahead a little -- I second the idea of trusting your readers. If you give enough information as you go along, people will understand what's going on.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
I heavily favor explaining things through dialog between characters. That way I can build character and make an infodump feel like it is advancing the story. By focusing the story on a newcomer to the prison there are plentiful excuses for explaining things in conversation, but that won't work for the basic knowledge that every character must have just for living in the world.
That's a fine way to do things and I think a lot of authors do that. As for the basic knowledge -- that will come out through the story.

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Originally Posted by Semigloss View Post
In short, I feel I need an infodump at the beginning of the story, but such a thing is intolerable no matter how short. My every attempt to disguise the infodump as part of the story just makes the infodump longer, more elaborate, and more detailed, without actually solving the problem.
Whether you "need" the infodump, no one can really tell you, especially if you're insistent on having it. But one book I point to that builds its world and just takes the reader along is "Neuromancer" by William Gibson. You drop into that world feet first, at a run, and Gibson rarely explains much of anything about anything -- you get it (or don't, I suppose) from context.

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One final option I have to consider is just eliminating the infodump by eliminating the info. Perhaps I am underestimating the cleverness of the readers when I think these things need to be explained. Even so, I can't bring myself to write things into my story when I don't see how the reader could understand them. Even though I know that every word is precious, the temptation to waste a few in explanation is irresistible.
I do think you may at least be overthinking things, as well as underestimating the readers. Just put it down, be clear, and you'll be surprised at how people understand. Science fiction is a good example of this, in the sense that many stories do not explain all of the science, or how it was developed, or why the future developed the way it did from the past, etc.

Every word is not precious. And explaining things, if you feel that's the best way to tell your story, is not wasting words.
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Old 03-01-2016, 12:26 AM   #21
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A personal view on prologues.

The best one I ever saw said something like: This is a prologue. You could read it now, or you could read it later. Or you could just ignore it. In fact, now that I come to think about it, I don't know why I bothered to write it.

From memory, that's as far as I read.
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Old 03-01-2016, 12:50 AM   #22
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There are different kinds of prologues. The ones that give a later scene and then double back in the text to illuminate that prologue often work well enough. That's not a "here's the world we'll be inhabiting" prologue, though.
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Old 03-01-2016, 07:04 PM   #23
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In Fantasy/Sci Fi

The world building IS the story most of the time...

Keep building the world until the very last page.
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Old 03-01-2016, 07:54 PM   #24
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n Fantasy/Sci Fi

The world building IS the story most of the time...

Keep building the world until the very last page.
Indeed. As I said above, treat the world like a character, develop it as a player in the tale, not merely an exotic backdrop or an exercise in creative planetology. Rather like photography, where I approach shooting buildings, rocks, plants, pets etc as personal portraiture, depicting their personality. In words, depict a setting's personality.
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Old 03-01-2016, 08:16 PM   #25
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Common mistake

I am first and foremost, a Fantasy/Sci Fi geek. It is what I grew up reading, and what I still prefer.

That said, there is a tendency here... Many of the authors just use a world to explain a particular kink they want to write about. Ummm... There was this disease, and 99% of the men died, so now all of the men remaining are slaves .... Slobber slobber...

Shockingly bad....
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