One of the great challenges of writing speculative fiction is knowing how much of your world to introduce to the reader, and when. Skilled and experienced writers are able to draw in the reader’s attention immediately because they know just how quickly a reader might put the book down and look for something else to do. It’s because of our very fickle brains that I believe you should never start your novel with worldbuilding…no matter how incredible and exciting the world you created may be.
Exposition Dumps Are Boring
Have you ever listened to your history teacher drone on and on and on about historical events that you don’t care about? Have you ever done poorly in a history test because you just were not paying attention to the lecture?
History can be boring. A lot of us are fixated on the “now” and don’t care what some stuffy old man did a hundred years ago. There’s a reason why most people tend to remember only extremely recent or extremely pivotal historical events, and the rest just becomes white noise. If it ‘s not immediately relevant to us, we just don’t care.
So if it’s difficult to get us to care about real life historical events that helped shape the way our society works today, imagine how difficult it will be to get us to care about fictional historical events that never actually happened at all.
There’s an ongoing debate in writing spaces over whether or not you should include a prologue in your novel. I am team prologue, with one caveat: make your prologue have some action. Don’t use it as an opportunity to give us a history lesson on this world you created that we don’t care about yet. That’s the key: yet. We do not have the same love for it that you do yet.
Speaking of which…
You Are Too in Your Head
Having created this world and these characters, they probably mean a lot to you. You’ve spent hours crafting this world and these people who have become real and meaningful to you.
But your reader does not have the same experience. They don’t know these characters or this world yet, and as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need to. If you start your speculative fiction novel with worldbuilding, you are giving the reader a first impression that will, frankly, bore them. It doesn’t bore you because of all the time and effort you’ve spent crafting this marvelous world. But just as you are trapped in your own head, the reader is trapped in theirs.
Collectively, we have the attention span of goldfish, and our instant access to knowledge and stories from all around the world has just caused our patience to diminish that much more. You have to get out of your own head and get into the readers’ if you want to find a way to entice them and get them to keep reading your story, and starting off with a big exposition dump about your world will not get them there.
It’s Your World, and We Don’t Live In It
Similar to my previous point, you are the god of this world you’ve created. You know everything that has happened and will happen, and you know exactly the most pivotal and exciting moments to come.
The reader does not. And because they know they’re the reader who can choose what world they want to delve into at any time, it’s your job as the author to make them choose your world. That’s no easy feat. And you can’t do that if you start us off with your own invented language, the names of mountain ranges and roads, or a multitude of terms and phrases that the reader has no context for yet. It’s your world, but the reader doesn’t live in it, and if you don’t capture their interest within the first few pages (sometimes even sooner than that), they may just put your book down and pick something else.
You’ve got to hook them in, make them want to know all about the mountain ranges, and phrases, and the massive encyclopedia’s worth of lore you’ve probably lovingly prepped for your book.
That’s not to say that worldbuilding isn’t important. It’s crucial. But it also has to be natural, so present it to us in the form of your plot to capture your reader’s attention without overwhelming or boring them away.
It’s Not Worldbuilding That Draws in Readers
Your world is important, but it’s ultimately the backdrop for what is arguably the most important thing: your plot and your characters. You could have the most interesting world ever conceived, but if your story doesn’t live up to expectations, and if your characters are bland and not worth following for hundreds of pages, then all you have is a pretty set piece with no real substance.
Ask yourself what it is that your characters are doing in this world. How does the world affect the obstacles they may come across? Or your characters’ beliefs and behaviors? How can you use the world you’ve constructed to put obstacles in your protagonist’s way?
The world is an important tool, but it’s just that: a tool. You have to use it well, or else this beautiful creation you’ve spent countless hours obsessing over will all be for naught when it comes time to plot out your story and character arcs.