Here’s something I learned while writing and reading what others had written about creating a fantasy world. None of it has to be explained in one big shot. You don’t have to go into pages long descriptions of the entire world. Part of reading is getting the entire story, and thereby leaving certain things behind the curtain until you’re ready to reveal them completely.
One of the things with fantasy fiction that makes it easier to write in this day and age is that we’ve got a very good idea of what happens in fantasy. You have the basics of magic, people and things. We all know that elves are often described as fair and beautiful in appearance (a description which the author can tweak should they wish to). And even settings shouldn’t need come with a compendium.
A reason for this is because we don’t need to treat readers as stupid. Readers are pretty smart, and often they’ll pick up on things quickly. So when you describe a setting, you don’t need to describe the entire world. An example might be something like how N. K. Jemisin described her world in the 100 Thousand Kingdoms. Never once did she describe everything in one shot. She began with a description of the capital city and the reason for why the main character was there. Then went into story. She described the use of transport from the ground to the towers high above the city later in the book. And she described the politics throughout the book when it needed to be described. In other words, when the time came to explain something to the reader, it was explained. Not before and not after with a “oh, by the way, that thing the main character did two chapters ago; here’s the reason why”.
It becomes even easier when you’re dealing with a world we’re all completely familiar with. Now this obviously depends on region because not everyone is going to know precisely the historical events in the West, or the Middle East, Western Africa, or South East Asia. But again, generally the reader is smart enough to pick up on certain things. The reader can automatically envision the world in their mind with a very short description.
Shani’s eyes fluttered open as she felt herself return to normal. She didn’t feel a weakness anymore as she had when she walked through the gate, but the howling whistle was still there, this time racing past. She looked up to her rescuer, a tall man, human, with dark skin, almost blackish brown, and broad shoulders. He had concern in his eyes as he crouched beside her.
“Where am I?” Shani asked as she tried to get up.
“We’re just outside o’ Carrolton, Arkansas,” the man said aloud. “You almost got hit by a train.”
This short description from my rewrite of Black Mask & Pale Rider details several things in as short a time as possible. First, Shani was injured after walking through a gate, and nearly run over by a train. She’s in the Southern States, and she was rescued by a black man.
With the name of the place, especially Arkansas, one can get the idea of the where in the story very easily. Setting can be continued easily enough. In my rewrite of Black Mask & Pale Rider, I wrote a scene before this one which helped with that.
Pania steered her horse down the wide street as she took in the different shops, the people milling about, the carriages delivering goods or taking people to destinations. She soon found a newspaper barker standing on a street corner and encouraged her horse closer to him.
“Lad,” she called out. The boy looked up and blinked. A woman of Pania’s like had obviously never called upon him before. “How much fer a copy o’ the paper.”
“Five cents,” the boy replied confidently.
“Here,” Pania said as she took a gold coin from her pocket and tossed it to the boy. “This should more ‘n cover it. It’s solid gold, I’d say at least a month’s worth o’ wages fer ye.” She tossed it to the boy and he caught it easily, inspecting it carefully. When he was satisfied, he approached Pania, still in the saddle and handed her a copy of the newspaper, a wide smile on his face. “Thank ye, lad.”
Pania held the paper in one hand as she read the mast head, then the date line. ‘Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1863’ it read. There appeared to be an article about some conflict. She’d have to read more about this.
With those few short paragraphs, and the short conversation, the reader can pick up a lot. The story is in Chicago, it takes place in the mid to late 1800s, which can also be gathered with the description of horse drawn carriages and the fact Pania is riding a horse. And that the Civil War is taking place, not just by the date but with the line “there appeared to be an article about some conflict”.
There’s even easier ways to set the mood for the story, so the reader will know exactly what’s happening.
August 16, 1863, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
It’s simple and quick, and sometimes considered a little lazy, but it works. The reader knows right off the when and where the story takes place. You can continue writing in the basic details. The weather was hot and dry, it was a Sunday, hardly anyone was on the streets. Small details that the reader can pick up on quickly without a multiple page description of what’s going on. You can even describe quickly what the main character is doing at this point with ease.
This was something I did in the original writing of Black Mask & Pale Rider. Gave the date and place, went onto describe it being hot, it was a Sunday so most people would be in church, and then went onto explain why Shani was here. To rob a bank.
Sometimes, when world building, you have to give the details. But those details can wait until the time is right. You don’t have to reveal everything right away. That just detracts from the story itself, and you’re no longer writing about a fantasy adventure, but a handbook for a table top role playing game.
Which could also be kind of fun.