Most of my work takes place in a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.
But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head. Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.
So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups I frequently see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?
The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.
Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:
Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.
A sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.
Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.
That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again?
So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single, a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.
Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.
There’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.
Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.
Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.
Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped, fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.
Now you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.
We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.
For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.
Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.