Balance Your Worldbuilding: Tips for chapter 1
Alright fabulous author, you have a sparkly idea. It might be fantasy, it might be sci-fi, but you’ve done a massive amount of worldbuilding and you’ve got to plant your reader firmly inside it in the first chapter. So how do you do that without overwhelming them? After all, your world has oodles of spells, gadgets and gizmos galore. There are spaceships and storms that could make Thor quake—and forty named characters, oh my! Well, from someone who’s made books with sixteen POVs, let me tell you: you don’t explain everything in the first chapter.
I know you want to. I always want to. But you’ll confuse your reader if you do that. You don’t explain the whole magic system, either. Or even all the scenery in your world. Heck, you probably won’t introduce everyone you want to. And you are definitely not going to explain things as well the first time around as you think you did (learn from my mistakes!). So let’s go over the tricks I’ve crafted to introduce readers to as many new terms as possible in those precious opening pages.
In my latest WIP, I smoothly introduced my beta-readers to seventeen new worldbuilding terms in fifteen pages. This is not to say you can only explain approximately one new term per page, but that gives you an idea of total word count versus new terms the reader comfortably learned. When it comes to new terms, you want to spread them out. Don’t introduce four new things in the same paragraph. By the time the reader’s gotten to the last new term in the paragraph, they’ll have forgotten the first worldbuilding term, be it a person’s name or a magical spell. Give readers time to breathe between your vocab lessons. Fill the space between new terms with dialogues, descriptions, or just more about what this new gadget does.
Your reader should get a firm understanding of the new worldbuilding term once you introduce it. You should describe the term’s purpose or how it relates to your characters, because otherwise the reader won’t latch onto your term, let alone remember it for long. To give an example of how this would work, if I brought you in front of a crowd and pointed out one woman, told you her name was Abby, and explained why Abby would be a great person to network with because she could help you climb the corporate ladder, then you would be much more likely to remember Abby’s name than if I introduced you to ten people in that crowd at once and never stopped to explain who did what. Those ten peoples’ names would likely go in one ear and out the other.
What If You Really Want to Introduce Two Terms Close Together?
If you absolutely must introduce two new terms close together, there’s three ways you can make it work. First: the terms are self-explanatory and easy to understand. For instance:
Welcome to Outer Space Greenhouses, located between Jupiter and Mars. We grow space-tomatoes in the astro-farms on local asteroids.
I could easily keep talking about the space-tomatoes or astro-farms on their own, and you wouldn’t have forgotten what either term referred to because their names are self-explanatory given the context. The second option is to rely on terms we’re familiar with from other novels. For instance:
Markus was dressed head to toe in purple robes and golden chains, the status symbol of the Queen’s Eldermage.
We’ve got a good picture of a mage from previous books, and Markus is just a name, so that new term’s easy to digest. Same with Queen – we know how royalty works. Lastly, the final method is to use one word to describe the other in a manner that readers can easily picture, such as:
You could always tell someone’s magic from their eyes. Fire-lords’ irises burned amber bright, whereas earth-lords’ were emerald green.
These two sentences are very easy to read, despite describing a new magic system and two new terms because readers can quickly see parallels. The readers will think “okay, orange eyes for fire peeps, plant-green eyes for earth-magic, makes sense. If water-lords exist in this book, they probably have blue eyes.”
When Worldbuilding Terms Go Wrong
What doesn’t work is when you break any of these rules by using dense custom terms instead. You absolutely can make up worldbuilding terms no one has ever seen before, but if you do, give the reader extra explanations. Otherwise, you’ll lose your reader in their confusion. Let’s change our previous examples a bit to see how this works:
Welcome to Sashi-aa, located between Jupiter and Mars. We grow the finest a’arko on local asteroids.
This example makes it impossible to picture who the speaker is or what they’re growing. We also have less of an understanding if we’re in a building, a spaceship, or if we’re on an asteroid.
Markus was dressed head to toe in purple robes and golden chains, the status symbol of the Queen’s Ultaan.
Here, we’ve lost our immediate sense of what Markus’ job and capabilities are. We need another sentence to explain what an Ultaan is, and we have to take care to explain it thoroughly. Otherwise, if we introduce yet another new term before properly getting the reader used to Ultaan, the reader could get the new terms confused.
You could always tell someone’s magic from their eyes. Lefue’s irises burned amber bright, whereas Terators’ were emerald green.
Finally, in this example, we lose our immediate understanding of what peoples’ magic does and how their eye colors are related to their magic. We have to stop and explain the worldbuilding names to the readers, as well as their individual magic. Worst, the reader might forget these names altogether, especially if they aren’t referenced again until later. Pretty simple, huh?
Cheating With Relationships
I’ve got one last tip for you. If you want to introduce multiple characters in a chapter, keep reminding us of how they know each other (as subtly as possible). Try to focus on showing readers two, max three new characters at a time. After all, will take readers time to get used to their names. In the meantime, if you want to reference yet another side character, try to use relationship terms for them like:
– Her sister
– His mother
– Their servant
– Their queen
– Her lead scientist
– His doctor
This way, readers can get used to this momentarily less important side character without asking “There’s so many names, who’s who?” In my latest WIP’s first chapter, I introduced the fact that the MC had a mom, dad, and sister early on, while only naming the dad and MC. Later, when the mom and sister finally were in the scene, we already knew who they were and some matters about them, which made it very easy to introduce readers to the mom and sister’s names.
Alright, those were my simple tricks to easing a reader into complicated worlds. I hope you found these worldbuilding tips useful, and I’d love to hear your tips on introducing people to your fantasy lands. If you want more tips on writing, check out our blogs on How to Publish Novels VS Short Stories and How to Write Action Scenes.
If you want to keep up with me in real life, though, follow me on Twitter, or check out my partner in crime’s editing service. It’s run by the fabulous Saskia Brakenhoff, who will tell you just how well readers are introduced to your worldbuilding.