The Problem of Exposition
The objection to exposition is that authors cause a loss of momentum when they stop the story to explain a setting or even a character, then resume on the other side. Authors of older books sometimes wrote pages upon pages of exposition; I usually skip over this. Modern audiences expect a story to keep moving. I’ve had beta-readers give me grief about exposition as short as a four-sentence paragraph. This seems a little harsh to me, and you’ll have to use your own judgment. Whether or not an explanation is too much is a personal choice. Keep in mind when inventing something that requires explanation that many readers will skip these passages, or an editor might strike them entirely.
How is an author to get across needed information? That’s a writing question more than a world building one, but an old standby is the ignorant character who keeps asking what something means only to have another character explain it to them. Overusing this is a poor style choice. The technique is especially prominent in films without a narrator, though some shows use heavy voice overs to explain things. Like it or not, some exposition will always be needed. We just don’t want a death certificate for our stories to have “Death by Exposition” on the cause of death line.
Show vs. Tell
One way around exposition is to reveal world building details as an integral part of a story. For example, my story “The Garden of Taria” exists so I can reveal an aspect of a humanoid species (querra). However, that’s my goal as an author. It’s not a reader-centric goal of a story about characters, which is what we want.
So I created a character, Taria, who seeks refuge from a chaotic world in the ordered sanctuary of her home. The querra keeps invading her house whilst helping himself to her possessions and food. He makes a mess everywhere and doesn’t respect property. All of this is what I wanted to show. Their arguments reveal querran outlook as I’d desired, but this doesn’t come as exposition. It’s dialogue and behavior. Their conflict causes both characters, and maybe the reader, to question human ideas on property, possession, capitalism, and wealth. In other words, I’m showing this world building element, not telling it. The story is about characters and issues, achieved with world building.
And that’s what we want.
We can also include more details in a glossary with each published work. Since perusing it is optional, readers with greater curiosity will do so while those who don’t care are freed from exposition overkill. Tolkien did something similar with The Lord of the Rings, which includes multiple appendices.
A related solution is to create a website all about our world, linking to it from our glossary or even the text of our stories. Each time a new item is mentioned in a tale, the word is a hyperlink to the corresponding page on the website. This is also optional for our readers, who may love being able to do this; they might also be annoyed/distracted by the sight of a hyperlink in a novel unless this sort of thing becomes common.
A website might be overkill unless we’re a successful writer, but it can help invest readers in our world and possibly draw in new ones. The size of the website is up to us. It can just be a few pages or a longer glossary associated with our book’s page. For me, the online version is the master glossary, the one in a book being far shorter and tailored to that story. For examples, you can see mine at Llurien.com.
The Value of Influences
During world building, we can become so focused on inventing something new that we try not to be influenced by anything we’ve seen before. While this is admirable, we can inadvertently deny ourselves something precisely because someone has done it, which means we’re still being influenced. True freedom to invent means not worrying about similarities at all and using every possible good idea, with the caveat that we must avoid copyright infringement.
For example, I avoided inventing an underground species because I figured they’d just be dwarves by another name, because they’d be short. They have to dig most passages and homes, and this will inhibit their vertical growth, or they’ll all have stooped backs. I let myself be influenced in the negative, avoiding something useful until I realized that a dwarf is far more than just height and habitat.
Aspire to create a species that looks and lives however you want them to. If a physical adaptation is based on habitat, this is good. If it makes sense for our forest-dwelling species to have pointed ears and slanted eyes, then so be it, even though elves are like that. Incidentally, pointed ears don’t have a biological basis and don’t improve hearing; such criteria can help us eliminate or add features. When you notice that you want to do something that reminds you of someone else’s creation, question why theirs is like that. If the feature doesn’t make sense, ditch it. The most powerful influences are the ones we don’t even realize we have.