For this post I’m going to slap my editor’s hat on, adjust it until its angle achieves jauntiness, and talk about the bane of my editorial existence! So many times I begin reading a story, full of hope for what’s to come, only to be met with a wall of bland facts, pale character introductions, narrators who want to introduce me to everyone they’ve ever met before they’ve even introduced themselves, or even…genealogies. As a writer, I completely understand this urge: you love your characters. You’ve spent time creating a world, deciding everything from the color of its sky to what your characters eat for second breakfast—naturally you want to stuff all of this knowledge into your reader’s eyeballs as quickly as possible. Unfortunately this can very easily become an infodump—per TV Tropes: “exposition that is particularly long or wordy”—and speaking as en editor, infodumps are the worst.
In the interest of slaying this monster, I’m going to walk you through the opening pages of Ann Leckie’s Hugo Award-winning Ancillary Justice—which gives the reader the perfect amount of info, without becoming too dumpy.
Think of this like going on a date, or grabbing coffee with a new friend—you give a few details, sure, but you don’t narrate a bullet list of your whole life. When you’re writing, you’re on a date with your reader. Ideally, your story will charm them enough that they lose track of time and hang out with you until you both suddenly realize that the restaurant has closed, all the other diners have left, and an annoyed busboy has to unlock the front door to let you out.
To get a feel for how to include lots of worldbuilding without killing your story’s momentum, let’s look at an example of a great opening. The first four pages of Ancillary Justice introduce us to a mysterious narrator, a harsh world, and two different conflicts right away, all while seeding in enough questions about the book’s world to keep us turning pages. You can read the first chapter over on NPR; below, I’ll pull the text apart (roughly half of NPR’s excerpt) paragraph by paragraph and unpack how and why it works.
Of course, it’s possible this story doesn’t work for you—and that’s fine, because you can still learn a lot from the way Leckie has balanced her worldbuilding with her plot and character development. Let’s dive in!
The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celsius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town.
There are few ways more compelling to open a story than with the words “the body”. It immediately calls up death, violence, horror, grief—it puts the reader on edge before they even know what they’re reading. But Leckie doesn’t stop there, she also lets us know that the body is “naked and facedown” and in snow. She’s just ratcheted up the body’s vulnerability by stripping it, and established that it’s exposed in sub-freezing weather. We still don’t know who this is, or if they’re alive, but we’re already concerned for their welfare—and we’re not even out of the first sentence yet!
Leckie quickly gives us facts—temperature (-15 degrees Celcius), time of day (sunrise), setting (desolate, freaking cold), and then pulls the classic RPG trick of showing us a tavern. Anyone who’s ever read fantasy knows that taverns are where adventures start, and they also imply warmth, relative safety, and human connection. So there’s the promise of help for this frozen person, if they’re still alive.
There was something itchingly familiar about that out-thrown arm, the line from shoulder down to hip. But it was hardly possible I knew this person. I didn’t know anyone here. This was the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it was possible to be. I was only here, on this planet, in this town, because I had urgent business of my own. Bodies in the street were none of my concern.
First, Leckie tightens the focus on the body. Our narrator thinks they know this person, but rather than using the common phrase “achingly” familiar, Leckie says that something is “itchingly” familiar, which unsettles us and gives us a sense of irritation. (If you’re a particularly suggestible reader, it’s even possible you just scratched when you read that.) Here we also get our first mention of “Radchaai”, and the fact that whatever it is, it has an idea about what “civilization” is supposed to look like. Our narrator’s current surroundings do not meet that idea. We also learn that our narrator has “urgent business of my own”—which lets us know that the narrator is preoccupied, but also that even we, the readers, aren’t allowed to know what that business is. Our narrator doesn’t trust us yet.
Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do. Even after all this time it’s still a new thing for me not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next. So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.
Frozen, bruised, and bloody as she was, I knew her. Her name was Seivarden Vendaai, and a long time ago she had been one of my officers, a young lieutenant, eventually promoted to her own command, another ship. I had thought her a thousand years dead, but she was, undeniably, here. I crouched down and felt for a pulse, for the faintest stir of breath.
Why doesn’t the narrator know why they do the things they do? Why are they used to following orders, and how long is “all this time”? But before we can dwell on that moment of oddness, the narrator has turned the body over, recognized her, revealed that both they and the owner of the body served in a military together, revealed the body’s gender (female) and casually stated that while she might be dead now, she should have been dead a thousand years ago. Now we know that we’re dealing with a military veteran, that the military allows women to serve, and that both our narrator and the body are very old—at least by human standards. How is the narrator still alive? Next we learn:
Paragraph breaks can be gimmicky, and can get annoying if overused. (I say that because I tend to overuse them in my own writing.) But note that there wasn’t a paragraph break for the narrator’s “urgent business” or the fact that there are two characters who are over 1,000 years old in this book. The fact the Seivarden Vendaai is alive is the first thing that Leckie has decided to highlight. We’re supposed to care about Seivarden’s life, whether our narrator does or not.
Seivarden Vendaai was no concern of mine anymore, wasn’t my responsibility. And she had never been one of my favorite officers. I had obeyed her orders, of course, and she had never abused any ancillaries, never harmed any of my segments (as the occasional officer did). I had no reason to think badly of her. On the contrary, her manners were those of an educated, well-bred person of good family. Not toward me, of course—I wasn’t a person, I was a piece of equipment, a part of the ship. But I had never particularly cared for her.
Leckie could have dropped us into a flashback here, and given us a full scene between the narrator and Seivarden. Instead we get the sense that our narrator is ticking off facts like a bullet list. Buried in this list is the revelation that our narrator isn’t human. “I wasn’t a person, I was a piece of equipment, a part of the ship.” So is our narrator a sentient robot of some sort? Are we in a world with androids? Leckie could have dwelled on this moment and given us more worldbuilding, but she chooses to move right along with the action.
I rose and went into the tavern. The place was dark, the white of the ice walls long since covered over with grime or worse. The air smelled of alcohol and vomit. A barkeep stood behind a high bench. She was a native—short and fat, pale and wide-eyed. Three patrons sprawled in seats at a dirty table. Despite the cold they wore only trousers and quilted shirts—it was spring in this hemisphere of Nilt and they were enjoying the warm spell. They pretended not to see me, though they had certainly noticed me in the street and knew what motivated my entrance. Likely one or more of them had been involved; Seivarden hadn’t been out there long, or she’d have been dead.
“I’ll rent a sledge,” I said, “and buy a hypothermia kit.”
Behind me one of the patrons chuckled and said, voice mocking, “Aren’t you a tough little girl.”
Finally, we get to go into our tavern! But this is not a place of relief, warmth or comfort after all. The walls themselves are made of ice, and that ice is coated in filth and smells like vomit. The patrons are ignoring our narrator—are we in a “We don’t serve your kind here” situation? But then the narrator addresses them, and the whole scene shifts. This isn’t a fantasy tavern, it’s more like a Western saloon, and our narrator is being mocked by people who seemingly don’t realize she’s not human. Also, the barkeep is a woman, as is Seivarden. So we’ve met two female characters so far, and one at least is being described as a “barkeep” not a wench or a waitress.
I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She out-bulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.
I decided to say nothing. After a couple of seconds she suddenly found something interesting in the tabletop. I could have killed her, right there, without much effort. I found the idea attractive. But right now Seivarden was my first priority. I turned back to the barkeep.
Here, we finally learn that our ideas of gender have been upended. The narrator is referring to everyone as “she”, but doesn’t actually know what gender any of these people are. The Radch don’t regard gender as important—is that part of their idea of “civilization” that was touched on earlier? Our narrator is completely casual about his or her own physical superiority, and even toys with the idea of cold-blooded murder without too much drama. So we learn that casual murder might be fine in this world.
Slouching negligently she said, as though there had been no interruption, “What kind of place you think this is?”
“The kind of place,” I said, still safely in linguistic territory that needed no gender marking, “that will rent me a sledge and sell me a hypothermia kit. How much?”
“Two hundred shen.” At least twice the going rate, I was sure. “For the sledge. Out back. You’ll have to get it yourself. Another hundred for the kit.”
“Complete,” I said. “Not used.”
She pulled one out from under the bench, and the seal looked undamaged. “Your buddy out there had a tab.”
Maybe a lie. Maybe not. Either way the number would be pure fiction. “How much?”
“Three hundred fifty.”
I could find a way to keep avoiding referring to the barkeep’s gender. Or I could guess. It was, at worst, a fifty-fifty chance. “You’re very trusting,” I said, guessing male, “to let such an indigent”—I knew Seivarden was male, that one was easy—“run up such a debt.” The barkeep said nothing. “Six hundred and fifty covers all of it?”
“Yeah,” said the barkeep. “Pretty much.”
“No, all of it. We will agree now. And if anyone comes after me later demanding more, or tries to rob me, they die.”
Silence. Then the sound behind me of someone spitting. “Radchaai scum.”
“I’m not Radchaai.” Which was true. You have to be human to be Radchaai.
“He is,” said the barkeep, with the smallest shrug toward the door. “You don’t have the accent but you stink like Radchaai.”
“That’s the swill you serve your customers.” Hoots from the patrons behind me. I reached into a pocket, pulled out a handful of chits, and tossed them on the bench. “Keep the change.” I turned to leave.
“Your money better be good.”
“Your sledge had better be out back where you said.” And I left.
Our first extensive chunk of dialogue! Honestly, I’d say that this is the one section that bogs down a bit, where Leckie skirts the closest to the dreaded infodump. The reason I think she avoids it is that we learn more about our narrator than, say, the money system in this world. We see that our narrator is savvy enough to know that they’re being cheated, but that they’re naive enough about this culture that gender is a mystery. Despite their superior physical strength, they seem truly concerned about misgendering anyone. Is this because they don’t want to deal with a fight, or because it’s ingrained in them that this is a faux pas? We learn in a throwaway moment that Seivarden is male, and that the narrator knows this, but continues to use the pronouns “she” and “her”—which, given the concern with gender, must mean that this is proper to either Seivarden’s culture, or the narrator’s, or that they are in fact from the same culture. We also learn that whatever the Radchaai are, (a) they’re hated, and (b) this world is far enough away that the patrons can openly insult them without fear. Even more important, we get definitive proof that the narrator isn’t human, and a large hint that the patrons don’t realize that.
The hypothermia kit first. I rolled Seivarden over. Then I tore the seal on the kit, snapped an internal off the card, and pushed it into her bloody, half-frozen mouth. Once the indicator on the card showed green I unfolded the thin wrap, made sure of the charge, wound it around her, and switched it on. Then I went around back for the sledge.
No one was waiting for me, which was fortunate. I didn’t want to leave bodies behind just yet, I hadn’t come here to cause trouble. I towed the sledge around front, loaded Seivarden onto it, and considered taking my outer coat off and laying it on her, but in the end I decided it wouldn’t be that much of an improvement over the hypothermia wrap alone. I powered up the sledge and was off.
In the final piece of this excerpt we get some very simple science. Leckie tells us only what we have to know about the hypothermia kit—there’s a wrap for warmth, and an “indicator” that lights up green, presumably to let you know that your hypothermia victim is still alive. Rather than throwing technobabble at us, Leckie gives us the bare minimum of detail to keep us focused on what she considers most important: Seivarden’s life reading. She also gives us a brief window into our narrator’s personality when we learn that the narrator is self-sacrificing enough to consider giving Seivarden their coat—but also practical enough to keep it. Is this a hint that despite not being human, the narrator can be affected by cold? Exactly what is the narrator? And where are they going on the sledge now that Seivarden has been rescued?
In only a few opening pages, Leckie has woven a ton of information around enough action and suspense to keep us reading. By hooking each piece of information to an action, she’s given us tantalizing hints about the world of this book, but by directing us back to the freezing body, the angry tavern patrons, the tense narrator, she keeps our focus on the human element of the story. She’s also given us a portrait of a non-human protagonist who is willing to put their own “urgent business” on hold to help someone in need. In only four pages, Leckie has already created two opposing cultures, subverted gender expectations, and woven a theme into her work: an obsession with identity.
Most of all (assuming that this opening works for you) she’s written an exciting opening that leaves you asking immediate questions—What comes next? Will Seivarden live? What is the narrator’s business, and why is it urgent? Are they about to get jumped by the tavern keeper?—as well as big picture questions—What is the deal with gender in this society? If the narrator isn’t human, what is he/she/it? Are the Radchaai evil? Because Leckie kept her focus on her characters while implying a large and complicated culture, we’re left hungry for more answers rather than exhausted by too much detail.
What do you think? Do you like the balance Leckie achieves? Are there ways she could have made this opening even more compelling? And what are your favorite instances of infodump-avoidance?