You know Epic Fantasy when you see it – they stand out on the bookshelves, even in the theater (those Lord of the Rings run times are no accident). The genre promises a long adventure, colorful characters, and, in the best of cases, a world that essentially is its own kind of character.
Epic Fantasy requires learning – you, the reader, have to understand how the setting works. Is there magic? How does it function? Are there fire-breathing dragons or lighting-spewing ones? Do gods roam the fields among the people?
The writer has a few different ways of communicating this – the easiest being the sledgehammer, where you beat the reader over the head with reams of terminology (the Lazurstone created the Quirky Ezzerpeaks during the fourth Monnet), back-story (Spittleworth’s great grandfather was the second Lord of Crapcastle), and locations (The Archwood lies fifty leagues beyond the Wundergates, and past its trees of terror sit the Blahblah Fens).
This – and I’m talking my opinion here – is about the least effective way to get people to fall in love with a setting. I’ve got enough junk to deal with in a given day, and the last thing I want when sitting down with a new book is to be given endless lists to memorize.
How, then, to get a good world made?
Take Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, for example. The very first one in the series. The vast majority of the book takes place in a couple of locations. We learn a lot about them, but they’re also not so exotic that it’s difficult for us to follow along while we learn about the characters, the magic, the politics, etc.
But, what’s even better is that Sanderson lays in little tastes of the broader world beyond the novel’s scopes. Names of faraway lands and species drift into and out of conversation without further explanation – mostly because the characters themselves already know about them. We, however, are left curious, but not overwhelmed. As a result, we spend the book picking up puzzle pieces of Sanderson’s world. We don’t know where it all fits yet, but because we’re learning this in the midst of adventure, we’re not stuck with a bunch of tidbits and nothing to do with them.
This all comes with the added advantage of giving us a through-line to the next tale in the story – we’ve heard about these places, and in the future we’ll likely go to them. I say this without having read the rest of the series, so for all I know the characters could stay put and we might spend the next 1000 pages discussing tea in the city.
(Epic Fantasy is known for that, too)
Point being, play out the setting. The phrase “need to know” should apply judiciously to what the reader’s getting. Why, after all, spoil all the amazing things that are coming if they’re not going to show up for another book or three?
And if you get the irrepressible urge to do so, I encourage you to find a patient, bored friend, buy them a drink (or three) as a bribe to listen to you elaborate on your magnificent creation. It’ll be better than spilling unnecessary ink on pages, and your friend might even have a few helpful ideas.