I’d urge anyone who’s looking for an example of how to build a world without describing it to read this classic novel and take notes. I only recently read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a dystopian tale about a group of children in a world where deviations are being bred out of society. It’s not a long novel, at 200 pages, and that’s very much to its credit. Given the vastly different society the characters inhabit, and a world with a widely unexplained history, one of its many merits is a very limited use of exposition.
What to explain, and what not to explain
In the first 50 pages or so of The Chrysalids, there’s almost no backstory regarding the world and its societies. What exposition there is relates to things closer to the narrator’s heart: Thomas explains his father’s ancestrally handed-down religious spirit and his place in their local community. He explains the impact that religion has on their everyday lives, and through that the theories behind Offences and deviations. All things that are relevant to the events of the story.11
As these details are relevant to the rapidly progressing plot, they make sense within the narrative. Other things you might expect a reader to want to know, or you may as a writer want to explain, are left out. This includes what happened to this world, exactly who runs the society, how the local hierarchy works, exactly what technology is available, and how this world fits together geographically. None of this is explicitly discussed because none of it would fit the story’s events.
Yet Wyndham quickly depicts a very particular setting, where you can understand the society’s level of technology and the way their culture works. He gives an impression not an explanation – and it all comes through the experiences of the story.
Story Comes First, Detail Comes Through Story
What you learn of the world in The Chrysalids evolves through the course of its unfolding story. The geography is explored when they think about moving; the deviational creatures are described when they come into contact with the local village; societal roles are shown through the preacher’s interactions with the inspector. Actions, even small actions, stand in place for exposition, and Wyndham does a wonderful job of building a very rich world in such a short space.