Firefly Friday – Weaving in World-building Without Infodumping, a writing tip

Still proving popular, so onward we go! This is the 3rd installment in my writing tips series Firefly Friday, where I use excerpts from the very awesome TV show Firefly to illustrate various writing tips. Week One: Writing Lessons from the TV Show Firefly. Week Two: Flip That Cliché.  Today: world-building.

But! OMG, no! *beeep*beeep*beeep* That’s the deadly sound of the infodump truck backing up and dumping a ton of story info into your lovely prose, stopping your story flat and making it all “corpsified and gross” (that’s a Firefly quote for n00bs). That’s how world-building can sometimes come across as, like a huge infodump, literally asking a reader to wait*wait*wait*whileIDumpAllThisStuff*beep*beep*beep.

And before you think only SF/Fantasy writers need to worry about world-building, think again. Anytime you’re describing setting, that’s world-building. Ask yourself – why am I describing it other than to just insert some nice scenery? How does it relate to my POV character? How can I make it do double-duty by setting mood? Does it create any kind of emotion in my character? If it doesn’t, why is the character even noting it? (Caveat: I write in Deep POV, so all narrative is from my POV character’s frame of reference, so anything described has to relate to the character in some way).

I’m also guilty of wanting to insert all the cool historical tidbits I’ve learned during my research. I’ve pulled out whole paragraphs of really cool stuff that just didn’t relate to the plot or the character. *sigh*

So, what to do? There are lots of different ways to go about it, but one way is to make sure that you are making the world-building interesting, by making it relevant to your current plot and helping it move forward. You don’t want your story to stop, or, gasp, go backwards. Make it go forward by making the characters interact with the nugget of world-building. Also, have other things happening to help drive it forward. Make it illustrate character. In other words, make it serve many purposes.

To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from Shindig. These 4 crew members are killing time aboard ship and 3 of them don’t have a long history together (they only met at the beginning of the season and this is the 4th episode). Three others are at, you guessed it, a shindig, a mighty fine one, too. There’s a whole bunch of world-building going on in any episode, so singling this out is sorta strange, but I like how it shows just the tip of the iceberg, but in order to show it, the writers had to do a lot more invention.

In keeping with the Jane Austen-like setting of the ball/shindig, the episode’s writer, Jane Espenson invented a whole card game and set of cards. She apparently made up rules and the set designers came up with an unusual deck of cards. A writer might be tempted to show off all this new-found invention and indulge in showing all of it, the rules, everything. But resist. Moving the plot forward is key. So here, there’s several things going on:

1. They’re playing this card game. But that can get old fast, so…

2. We start to get a little more world-building, but in this instance, not about the cool card game the writer invented, but look what their stakes are for the game. What does that tell you about their world, without hitting you over the head with it? What’s important to them? What a great way to weave in such a detail as that.

3. But then, the game’s interrupted for a new plot development that is part of the series arc of River Tam. She starts acting crazy and it’s not until much later in the series that you understand what she’s doing and why she’s tearing off those labels.

4. You then get to witness more character illustration with Book’s quip about having a few ‘mystery meals’ and then while no one’s watching, you see Jayne stealing some of the winnings.

(If you want to see where ‘corpsified and gross’ comes from, keep watching past the card scene game. The next scene has the line.)

I thought I’d illustrate further with a before and after from my writing. In this excerpt, she’s on Bond Street in 1834 (she’s from our present) and I wanted to describe how different things were around her, but notice how I just describe it without it relating to her except by saying “she looked and saw.” Hopefully I fixed it a little in the next draft. If not, there’s always the next one!

Before:

Everywhere she looked, there were wooden signs advertising everything from shoe repair to cosmetics. A surprising number of them moved too – men wearing sandwich boards ambled the streets. One fellow passed her wearing a tall pasteboard hat that towered over the crowd and said in big letters: “Boots at fourteen shillings a pair, warranted.” No shop name accompanied the ad. Were you supposed to follow him, or stop and ask where?

They passed a stout woman selling oyster pies doing a brisk business from her cart, and another selling apples from a wooden wheelbarrow.

After:

Holy cow, were they much into advertising? Everywhere she looked, wooden signs touted everything from shoe repair to cosmetics. A surprising number of them moved, too — men wearing sandwich boards ambled the streets. One fellow stepped around her wearing a tall hat made of some kind of heavy, stiff paper that towered over the crowd and declared in big letters: “Kid gloves at fourteen shillings a pair, warranted.” No shop name accompanied the ad. Were you supposed to follow him, or stop and ask where?

A stout woman on the left sold oyster pies from her cart. She held one up and barked her price to Isabelle, the hand with the pie following Isabelle as she passed. A man in serious need of a new set of teeth and some manscaping sold apples from a wooden wheelbarrow. A grubby kid sat beside him, munching on the mealy ones, tossing the worms to a dog. She shuddered.

What else do you see in this scene? Do you have other examples of how Firefly does a good job of integrating world-building into the plot?