Fantasy Worldbuilding, Part II: Weaving It In (The Anti-Info Dump)

One of the first big no-no’s of writing, the villain and plague of darkness that all writers want to avoid … the Info-Dump. *cue Carmina Burana* *or any other dramatic music*

You want to introduce your world. You need to introduce your world and make it compelling enough and special enough that readers will pick it up from amidst the rubble of millions of other torch-bearing, horse-riding, leather-making medieval fantasy worlds. And the worst way to do this is through the Info-Dump.

Good, effective writers will capture the attention of their readers by weaving details of their world into the story’s narrative. And, because we writers live by the principle of show, not tell, I’m going to take one of my absolute favorite YA Fantasy reads and analyze how the author weaves in her worldbuilding into the narrative of her opening scene. Everybody, if you haven’t read it already, you should: I hereby introduce you to SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo. Please note, all quoted text below is the work of Ms. Leigh Bardugo and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Note: Technically, the book starts with a prologue of-sorts from a very minor character, so I’m going to “cheat” a little and start from Chapter 2, when we dive into the actual story from the POV of one of the main characters, Inej.

SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo

Part One: Shadow Business

Chapter 2 – Inej

Kaz Brekker didn’t need a reason. Those were the words whispered on the streets of Ketterdam, in the taverns and coffeehouses, in the dark and bleeding alleys of the pleasure district known as the Barrel.

Wow. What a great opener. The first line immediately hooks you and creates a sense of intrigue. The second line dives into the worldbuilding – but with a purpose. And that is one of the key differentiators between the Info-Dump and good worldbuilding. Bardugo masterfully creates an image of her world with broad brushstrokes and well-chosen diction. We see this is a medieval world, with “taverns” and “coffeehouses,” but we also immediately see the dark underbelly: “in the dark and bleeding alleyways of the pleasure district.” So we have a sense that this story, this world, will not only be focused on a pleasant, fairytale-like world – but rather, a gritty and realistic one.

  • Lesson 1: Weave worldbuilding into the narrative of the story.

The boy they called Dirtyhands didn’t need a reason any more than he needed permission—to break a leg, sever an alliance, or change a man’s fortunes with the turn of a card.

Oftentimes, in novels, we see evidence of the world through the characters themselves. Here, we sense that Kaz Brekker is a dangerous man – the sentence seems to allude to street gangs, and we might even infer that Kaz belongs to a gang or is a gang leader of sorts. Characters and worlds are intricately interwoven; characters are products of the world in which they live. From what Bardugo’s shown us in two lines, I think it’s reasonable to assume that you’re not going to have an educated princess flouncing about the streets of Ketterdam in her tiara.

  • Lesson 2: Weave worldbuilding into the characteristics of the characters themselves.

Of course they were wrong, Inej considered as she crossed the bridge over the black waters of the Beurskanal to the deserted main square that fronted the exchange.

Bardugo inserts another great snippet of the world: bridges, and canals. This is starting to be reminiscent of some European countries – especially if you look at the naming convention of the second location name that pops up in this world: “the Beurskanal.” I’m no linguist, but it sounds vaguely Dutch (warning: my only exposure to the Dutch language comes from a trip I took to the Netherlands in high school).* Additionally, “black waters” further contributes to the darker atmosphere and world that Bardugo tries to create. And, finally, we learn that there is an exchange in this place, which might be common in other fantasy worlds – but the fact that Bardugo chooses to highlight it on her first page means that commerce must be an important aspect to her world (and perhaps her story).

Do you see how so many aspects of her world are being surreptitiously woven into each of her sentences, unbeknownst to the reader? How Bardugo carefully chooses her words to paint the perfect picture of a dark and gritty atmosphere? How she shapes the language and the names to reflect attributes of her world?

A great example of what not to do comes from an earlier draft of my own WIP. My WIP, Blood Heir, is set in a Russia-inspired world, and all of the characters had names inspired by the Russian language. All except for the captain of the guard, whose name was “Sir Gallahad.” I had written the first draft a while ago, and when I dug out this novel and began working on it again, I was like, Oh, God, what were you doing, Amelie? You can’t have a medieval English knight’s name pop up in a Russia-inspired world.

  • Lesson 3: Design your language to reflect the world.

*Note: In reading Bardugo’s interviews, she has indeed confirmed that Amsterdam was the inspiration for Ketterdam. Kudos to Bardugo for helping readers pick this up!

She saw Kaz and the others gathered near the great stone arch that marked the eastern entrance to the Exchange. Three words had been carved into the rock above them: Enjent, Voorhent, Almhent. Industry, Integrity, Prosperity.

In three simple words, Bardugo summarizes the core values of her entire world for us: Industry, Integrity, Prosperity. And she does it in a Dutch-inspired language. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that Bardugo intended for Ketterdam to be a realistic city of commerce and prosperity; of traders and merchants.

She kept close to the shuttered storefronts that lined the square, avoiding the pockets of flickering gaslight cast by the streetlamps.

This is an important snippet that sets us in the appropriate time period. This is a world where there is gas already in streetlamps. That places us in the nineteenth century. This is pretty important, since, in this book, there are pistols, too. It is so important for writers to do their research – in an era of torches and quills, there probably won’t be guns and pistols. Maybe, in your world, guns were invented prior to torches … but you need to make sure you have a good foundation for that, or readers will burn you down. (Just kidding. But they will look for you, and they will find you, and they will kill you.)

Humor aside, note how all of this worldbuilding is occurring while Inej is on the move. We see everything from the POV of the character, through her thoughts and observations, as she continues on her mission. This is so important, and is key to differentiating a beginning writer from a master writer. Bardugo has woven her worldbuilding into her story’s narrative. It would have been very different if she had written Six of Crows like this:

“Ketterdam was a city with taverns and coffeehouses, as well as a pleasure district with dark and bleeding alleys known as the Barrel. Canals ran across the city, black waters churning, surrounding the main square that fronted the exchange. A great stone arch marked the eastern entrance to the Exchange. The Kerch had three core values: Industry, Integrity, and Prosperity. These were the words carved into the stone arch. Streetlamps with gaslight flickered in the evening as Inej headed towards the Exchange.”

Okay, that was a horrible piece of writing by yours truly, but do you see the contrast? I recycled some of Bardugo’s words, so it still sounds good, but if you’d started reading the book with just these lines, it wouldn’t have been as gripping as how Bardugo chose to present it.

  • Lesson 4: Show the time period of your piece – and make sure you do enough research on it.

“Three ships!” Jesper was saying. “The Shu sent them. They were just sitting in First Harbor, cannons out, red flags flying, stuffed to the sails with gold.”

This is a great example of incorporating worldbuilding through dialogue. This snippet of information is crucial to the plot, but it also gives us some color (literally and metaphorically) on the other nation known as the Shu. Jesper and some of the others in the crew continue discussing the Shu ships in a similar fashion, giving us more insight into both the plot and the relationship between the Kerch and the Shu. And, seeing as the world and the plot (and characters, but that’s another blog post) are intricately interwoven and interconnected, it is important to weave both in together.

  • Lesson 5: Build your world through dialogue that serves to advance the plot as well.

Kaz’s eyes found Inej unerringly in the crowd. Ketterdam had been buzzing about the assassination of the ambassador for weeks. It had nearly destroyed Kerch-Zemeni relations and sent the Merchant Council into an uproar. The Zemeni blamed the Kerch. The Kerch suspected the Shu. Kaz didn’t care who was responsible; the murder fascinated him because he couldn’t figure out how it had been accomplished.

I picked this snippet because some readers will say to me, “Wait a minute. Some authors have exposition as well.” Not exactly. The snippet about the assassination might be bordering on the dreaded Info-Dump, but it is not. And that’s because Bardugo weaves it into the thoughts and POV of her characters. We learn about an assassination that has riled up Kerch-Zemeni relations – but she ties this down to Kaz’s interpretation of the event. Everything that we have been shown has been shown through one of the MCs’ POVs.

  • Lesson 6: Exposition must be limited, and must be shown through the MCs’ POV, with direct relevance to the plot and their actions.

Conclusion: Within the first few pages of her novel, Bardugo has set the tone and atmosphere of a dark and gritty world with slick merchants, ruthless gangs, and overarching political tensions that will serve as the backdrop to her plot.

Lessons from Today:

  • Lesson 1: Weave worldbuilding into the narrative of the story.
  • Lesson 2: Weave worldbuilding into the characteristics of the characters themselves.
  • Lesson 3: Design your language to reflect the world.
  • Lesson 4: Show the time period of your piece – and make sure you do enough research on it.
  • Lesson 5: Build your world through dialogue that serves to advance the plot as well.
  • Lesson 6: Exposition must be limited, and must be shown through the MCs’ POV, with direct relevance to the plot and their actions.

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