Bootstrap worldbuilding

In that review of The Dragon Prince, I wanted a term to describe the kinds of initial, upfront worldbuilding that’s done by a prologue or even by the cover of a book. It’s not neccesarily an info-dump (although The Dragon Prince example was) but could be from a map at the start or a conversation early in the story.

I thought “bootstrap worldbuilding” sort of works — providing enough premise and backstory that the rest of the plot can deliver the world more organically. A classic is obviously Tolkein’s opening paragraph to The Hobbit, which doesn’t just let you know that the book will feature a small fantastical person but already sets up aspects of Bilbo’s character. I discussed already how sparingly Avatar managed this bootstrap worldbuilding in the opening credits, which explain the magic system, show the shape of the world and establish the fundamental conflict. Even so, the initial episodes had a slightly longer version:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.

I’m not sure whether the opening scene of Terminator 2 counts as this or is better thought of as a recap. Either way it establishes the science-fiction premise and establishes the stakes for the film.

Terminator 1 opens more sparingly but does a similar thing, establishing a futuristics, dystopian theme for a film that will be largely set in the present. Because of time-travel shenanigans of course, the backstory of the plot is in the future.

Star Wars (episode 4) has its famous opening crawl but I think this is more of a subversion of the idea. The text almost doesn’t matter and is there more to create a sense of a backstory than actually convey important details. The following scenes with Leia’s ship being pursued and bordedby Darth Vader establish the conflict more clearly and organically the opening text. Lucas interestingly included the text more to evoke movie serials than to set up his story.

I’ll finish with John Scalzi’s infamous parody of fantasy opening info-dump scene-setting: Still worth a chuckle.



2 responses to “Bootstrap worldbuilding”

  1. I rather like the term.

    It’s not quite the same thing, but I really approve of wordbuilding through very sparse but evocative details.
    For example, one of the things I love about The Black Company by Glen Cook (the early books anyway, before he went a bit off-piste) is how much is evoked by just the names. All the Company characters have nicknames that evoke that military/foreign legion vibe – Croaker, Silent, One-eye. The placenames ooze backstory – Beryl is one of the Jewel Cities. The bad guys bode through names alone – The Limper, Shifter, The Hanged Man – and it turns out that it’s because their real names have power.

    For a real bootstrap example, the opening to Bond movies springs to mind. The opening to Goldfinger is basically just a Bond movie in absolute miniature, I’m not sure you need to watch anything else to know who he is.

    The Matrix – with agents chasing Trinity – doesn’t entirely explain the world but it certainly does a great job of teasing what you’re going to find out.

    The opening to Moon is technically an infodump, but as it’s in the form of a fake advert I think it works.

    Liked by 1 person

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: