Ever play a game you didn’t know the rules for?
Not fun right? It’s like playing chess without realizing the pawn can move two squares on the first move or understanding the value of the corners in Othello. If you don’t know all the rules, it makes it easier for the other player to surprise you with things you don’t even know about—like a trick combo on the stack in Magic the Gathering.
Usually, those surprises annoy you because it robs you of your chance to win the game. It’s no different when readers enter a speculative world, whether that be fantasy, science fiction, or superhero. This post, in other words, is going to go over how you can best teach your readers the rules to your world so they can feel they understand it and aren’t cheated by any sudden reveals.
The length of time varies from story to story (not writer to writer). Some will demand a ton of information in the first five minutes, others you can delay the process throughout the narrative. Regardless, there are a few stages you’ll want to be thinking about when revealing your world to your readers. The distance of words and minutes between check points may vary, but those points are there never-the-less and it’s good to be aware of them.
The Twig Stage
I can’t remember who said it, which I’m aware is rather unprofessional for a writer to admit instead of conducting the proper research, but I once heard it said that revealing your world is like revealing a huge tree with a camera lens. To begin with, when revealing your world, you begin with the Twig.
A twig is simple in nature. It’s thin and easy to understand. Yet you know that it’s connected to something bigger, a greater tree. This stage is often conducted in the first act of your story. This is where your readers enter the world which you have created and are learn to land on its shores without incident. The goal for you then, as the writer, is to make sure they land safely and are eager to rush in.
Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We first see the twig as the world seen from Vernon Dursley. Vernon is as normal as it gets, just as we are normal (regrettably). He goes about a typical boring workday–all throughout he sees rather strange people doing strange things, wearing strange clothes, and acting strangely peculiar. We as readers (before Harry Potter became a fad) did not know what any of these things meant and questions started brewing. We know now that we saw a glimpse of the wizarding world from the perspective of a muggle. We later see how that twig of a scene relates to the bigger tree which is that world and we’re begging the writer to pull back the lens so we can see the rest of it.
Here, you don’t want to reveal all the rules to your world. In a board game, this is the equivalent to setting up the board. You place the tiles and game pieces, while trusting the instructions to get you going once you start reading the rules. By laying the framework here with a few gestures or curses exclusive to your world, you keep a reader’s interest till he’s ready to begin playing.
The Branch Stage
Pull back the lense a bit, and we begin to see the branch. Now we have a better perspective of the twig we saw before. Now we begin to see how the twig connects to the greater tree and begin getting answers to some of the question that we only focused on the twig. We also begin to see how the other twigs around the branch begin to support the tree as well (remember, even trees need twigs and leaves if they hope to get sunlight).
Going back to the Harry Potter example, following the perculiar day Mr. Dursley had, we focus in on the cat which had been set up earlier while we focused on the twig. Then, suddenly, a strange man emerges and we see that it is a famous person in the right circles, Albus Dumbledore. He begins talking to the cat, who happened to be a lady transformed into a cat, and the two begin talking about all the things we saw while in the twig stage. We begin to understand now why the people were celebrating, an evil lord had been brought down—by a little boy no less, and the Dursley’s family, the Potters, are dead.
Of course, there is still much of the world we don’t understand beyond this scene. But we now begin to get a better understanding of the world we’re getting into. In board gaming, this is where we begin to understand why we set up the board the way we did, why certain pieces go here and what we’re expected to do with them in the following turns of the game to achieve the objective—which we may or may not know about.
Now we begin to pull back the camera more, and we see the bigger thing which the branch is connected to. We see the trunk, the sturdy core of the world and the foundation for everything which we’ve encountered thus far. We are now at the point where we understand the twig at the beginning of the story and we can go back to it later saying “hey, I know why that twig is here, so we can eventually get back to the trunk.”
In Harry Potter, this comes much later in the story. We’re stuck looking at the branch for several chapters as Harry continues his arduous life with the Dursleys. All the same though, we get twig like examples of things happening—like a snake being let loose from the zoo (which is a twig to a whole branch in Book 2) and mailed letters literally flying into people’s faces. This is no longer a twig though, however, because we now know there is a world mixed with ours—the world in which those strange people doing strange things belong. We know enough, because we were on the branch, that those people are reaching back out to Harry—the boy they left behind in the world of the normal. It’s only when we reach the Trunk when the burley half-giant Hagrid barges into the Dursley’s hidey-hole from the letters do we understand what it’s all about with one line: “Yer a wizard Harry.” From there on, Hagrid begins explaining everything we got hinted at in the Branch and the Twig, and now we want to get established in the world we belong.
The Trunk is the point where everything important for the story to go on has been established. We now know wizards exist, we understand what allomancy is, and we know what the crap a half-blood is from Percy Jackson. At this point in Board Game writing, the players should be able to at least play the game on their own with a clear objective in mind. They know if they build X amount of buildings, they win. They know that they can shoot fire from their hands, so never should they have problems getting through a building made of wood.
This doesn’t mean you’ve revealed everything though. No, but the reader now knows the core for how everything works. Which brings us to our next step.
The Tree Stage
For the first novel, we should be able to see the whole tree by the end. Everything that makes that initial twig function and thrive must be explained by this point. The jump from the Trunk Stage to Tree Stage takes the greatest amount of time of all the stages. This is the point where you begin explaining new aspects of the story and repeating the cycle above, revealing twigs to branches to trunk. By the end of the story, the reader should know how all those twigs and branches link to the greater trunk to create the whole of your tree you present in your novel.
In Harry Potter, this done throughout the novel. We see how there are mythic creatures, different classes of magic (transfiguration, potions, charms), broomsticks, Quidditch. We get a vast array of different aspects which all link together at the end (which I won’t spoil here but, if you’re reading this, you likely already know it anyway). It’s by this time the reader should be a master of the tree, and if you did a good enough job the reader should be excited to explore possibilities in your world based around the rules you’ve established.
But there is still one more stage to address before we close out.
The Roots Stage
Every Fantasy writer I know has gone through this struggle. That point where they create way too much and want to include EVERYTHING. You can’t. Straight up. You can’t include everything. This stage, the root stage, is the point you need to go through what you’ve created and confirm what is needed to be in the Tree, and what is a root.
Roots are not seen, but they are foundational to your world. I mentioned in earlier posts the importance of knowing the creation account to your world. This is where that particular element will likely fall (unless that account is relevant to the story at large or for setting up something else through myth.)
It may be possible for roots to poke their heads up at some point in the story. Roots break up from the ground and can even be seen if we pull the camera back enough. For future installments of your story (and possibly, in the creation of future trees) you can incorporate those roots to make the tree seem even more vast and expansive. But this is only after we’ve accepted the Tree (and that being in the first installment of the story).
These steps are not a hard template. Sometimes you’ll show the branch, but then narrow back on the twig. Other times you’ll start with the Trunk and reveal the twigs later down the road. I hope this serves as a good guide line to help give you a framework of the pace at which you reveal all things.
I really like your metaphor of the tree and how you explain each step. There’s a category of worldbuilding I have in my mind that either belongs in the roots or some new category: Often in a sequel, the magic or properties of the world are taken several steps in a new direction for some startling results. This would be like the kandra in Mistborn, or the horcruxes in Harry Potter. Does that make sense? I always wonder whether those come naturally to a writer or whether they have to think long and hard about how to make it work.
It does. Much of the Kandra are revealed in segments. We gets hints of their existence in Book 1, start to get the perspective of the Branch in Book 2, and see all of the trunk Book 3. But there is still a ton I’m sure Sanderson has yet to reveal. As for the second point, I’d assume it would vary in the same way there are plotters and prancers. A prancer will just come up with something, a phrase or a concept, and that’ll become their own personal twig, then they’ll come to learn more about the branch and trunk the more they write the book. A plotter will likely start at the Root or Trunk and build outward. It always varies from writer to writer.