Welcome to Part #3 of the Worldbuilding Articles. If you’ve skipped ahead, you have willingly embraced the consequences. Namely, that if I reference those other articles you might have to go back and read them. Me, I’m all about forward momentum. It may not be momentum towards anything good, but I’m definitely going to get somewhere.
So, you have the rules for your fantasy world. Now it’s time to start conveying those rules and other elements onto the page, and thus to your readers. Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to do this all in one giant column at the start of the story. I probably don’t have to tell you that part, but in fact I recommend you sprinkle the worldbuilding throughout as a set of tidbits. A sentence here, a paragraph there. Here, the slowly crumbling keep of the Citadel of Nine Ways, stone sentinel of the largest crossroads in the Old Kingdoms. There, a hilltop shrine to those who fell in the ninth battle of Eisenfluss, with a single monk sweeping the dust and leaves away from it. Between the two, a narrow road cutting through grassy, sunflower-strewn meadows with sparse trees.
You’ll note that neither of these examples actually says to the reader, “Hey, these are elements of the world I’m showing you!” Unless you have an ulterior motive or it’s important to be clear, it’s better to withhold a character’s own thoughts on these things so the reader can just absorb them. These are bits of scenery that your main character and friends will pass by and notice idly. If your characters stop to inspect them further, they’re not scenery anymore, but plot elements. It’s also possible that if you’re a minimalist author, you may choose to cut down on these small strokes in favor of pressing on with the plot. I encourage you to consider what they’re actually doing before you dismiss them entirely, however.
When we as authors call attention to even a very small detail by choosing to include it, this does more than just give the reader something extra to read. The Citadel of Nine Ways is just a ruin, so clearly what importance it had has been lost. After all, it’s a technically sound fortress along a group of major roads. You’d think that’s useful to a group of bandits, right? So clearly there’s not enough trade in this area for it to function that way. The fact that a structure this prominent is completely deserted and in disarray says a lot about the state of the world, or at least this part of it. This isn’t just a random knight’s manor, it’s a citadel. The denotation and connotations of the word suggest a really flipping huge place. Towers, spires, walls thirty feet thick and sixty high, enough space for a small or even a large army inside because how else do you earn a name that portentous? Being empty, it’s either so far out of the way that no King or Duke has a use for it, or none of the powers in the region are great enough to make use of it. You’ve already stated a lot about the world without actually writing any of it.
The shrine and monk actually reinforce the abandonment of the fortress, as well as making their own statements. Is the monk sweeping quickly and messily, or slowly and patiently? Is his focus on the sweeping itself, or the surrounding area? Does he acknowledge the party, make eye contact but otherwise show no recognition, or does he pointedly ignore them? If he’s working fast, this shows he has other things to do. If he pays no attention to his surroundings, it shows a lack of concern. The way he interacts with the party (or doesn’t) says something about him. The simple fact that a monk and a shrine are out in the middle of nowhere, intact, says something not just about this area but the routes leading to it. This way, once your adventurers press on to the Ducal Palace twenty leagues or so down the road, you don’t have to spend as much time establishing the Dukedom isn’t what it used to be. Or perhaps, that it was always a surprisingly awful domain for a noble second in rank only to princes and Kings.
The details you established earlier will also have to constrain the rest of the world and thus the plot in later parts of the story, which will actually be handy since the biggest issue when starting a story is that you can literally write anything. After all, if the Citadel is still abandoned then the Duke can’t truthfully say he’s massing troops near that border to defend against a possible invasion. If that were true, he wouldn’t have completely ignored the giant castle situated along a major road. But, on the other hand, if he’s fabricating the idea of invaders to tighten his hold on a Dukedom that’s starting to have serious doubts about its ruler, then it makes perfect sense. The Citadel and the Shrine now aid the plot and character development in a direct sense, in addition to the job they still do to flesh out the world. But if you want to use this, your worldbuilding should be frequent enough and innocuous enough that your readers don’t instantly become suspicious that you mentioned details about the environment. There’s a difference between offering hints and shoving them into everyone’s collective face.
These principles extend to absolutely everything in the world, because everything is connected. Even those inns and taverns that I warned you not to use immediately will demonstrate something about the part of the world they’re in simply by the nature and behavior of their patrons. And at the most basic level, you shouldn’t expect your readers to care about a world that you’ve done nothing to establish. I’m going back to Tolkien again, because (sound the refrain!) everybody knows his work. The Scouring of the Shire in the final pages of The Return of the King wouldn’t have been effective if Tolkien hadn’t made us care about the Shire in the first place. In the same way, whether you’re threatening the whole world or just one small town, or whatever other stakes you decide to set, you can’t be sure anyone will care if you don’t take at least a few sentences every so often to remind them what that means. Your job is to turn the statistic of damage to the world into actual tragedy.
Or at least sadness. Because the other part of this is knowing when enough is enough.