On Writing: Short Fiction and Worldbuilding


Two weeks ago, I wrote here about writing short fiction and how the challenges it presents differ from the challenges of writing novels.  I want to expand on that a bit, and will use as my jumping off point a comment on that first post from regular site contributor Megan B.  In her comment, Megan wrote (in part):

I think it’s worth considering that a short story set in a larger universe (e.g. the Thieftaker world, which you have established already in longer form) is a different beast than a stand-alone short story. It has it’s own advantages and challenges because it uses some people, places or concepts that the reader may or may not be familiar with.

On the one hand I think that Megan is absolutely correct:  writing a short in an established world certainly makes the author’s job easier.  In part this is just a matter of preparation.  With an established universe much of the worldbuilding is already in place.  We already have a magic system, a history, a panoply of characters, a religious system. In the case of the Thieftaker books, I already understand the relationship between my lead character and others he is likely to encounter in my story, and I understand the historical period in which I’m writing.  Obviously, with a stand-alone story set in a new world, I would need to create this narrative infrastructure first, before I could begin crafting my short story.

But more important than merely saving time and effort in preparation, writing in an established world facilitates the writing itself.  When I’m writing a novel, particularly the first novel in a series, I often find that the first hundred pages of my book are stiff, wordy, choppy, [insert adjective of your own choice to indicate awkward writing].  And the reason is, I have not yet grown comfortable with my new world and new cast of characters.  Eventually I do, and the final two-thirds to three-quarters of the book usually read far better than the opening chapters (at least until I have a chance to revise).  It’s like breaking in a new pair of shoes; until you’re comfortable with them, they bother your feet.

Well, with a short story set in a new universe, I will often have similar problems, except I don’t have one hundred pages to play with so that I can find my comfort zone.  I need to be comfortable from word one, and that can be a tall challenge.  When writing in a familiar world, that facility with the world and characters is already there.  I don’t need to break in the new setting or character relationships; they’re already as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers.

So, to get back to Megan’s comment, there is definitely a difference between writing in a familiar world, and writing in a new one.  But (and this is one big but . . .) that facility is entirely a product of my creative process; in almost all cases, it does not come because my readers might be familiar with my world and so need less explanation.  When I write, say, a Thieftaker short story that I intend to submit to a magazine or anthology, I cannot assume that either the acquiring editor or my potential readers will be fans of my series, or will even know who I am and what I write.  Indeed, I have to assume that they aren’t at all familiar with the Thieftaker world.  The story has to succeed on its own merits; it has to stand alone in every respect, because if it doesn’t I am going to have a hard time convincing an editor to buy it, and if by some chance I sell it anyway, I am then going to frustrate any readers who aren’t familiar with the Ethan Kaille stories.

And so the challenge I face in writing stories that are set in an established world is condensing those story elements that are so familiar to me and presenting them in a way that conveys all the necessary information without taking over the narrative and drowning out my other story elements.  In a Thieftaker novel, I can spend a few hundred words explaining the magic system and tying it to the fear of witchcraft that was rampant in eighteenth century Massachusetts.  I can describe the events that left Ethan with a pronounced limp and use that description to establish as well the fact that Ethan is an ex-convict and convicted mutineer.  But in a short story, I have to convey the necessary information in a fraction of the space, and I have to do it in a way that is still crystal clear.  In this case, my familiarity with the background becomes something of an obstacle.  I am all too aware of the complexity of Ethan’s past, and I have to resist the urge to tell my short story readers everything they need to know in order to grasp those complexities.  Because often with a short story, the complexities of background need to be sacrificed in favor of the pacing and clarity of narrative.

There are exceptions to this, of course.  At some point I plan to put together a collection of Thieftaker stories, which will include both previously published material and some original stories.  In that case, I will be marketing mostly to established readers of the series, and will be presenting multiple tales set in the same world with the same rules.  At that point, I won’t have to explain nearly as much, because I will be able to take for granted the fact that readers of any particular story have some understanding of the worldbuilding and characters.

Generally speaking, though, I write stort stories so that I can sell to new markets and, I hope, attract new readers to my work.  And that being the case, I cannot assume that my readers know the rules of the world I have built.

So, yes, writing a short story in an established world is very different from setting a short in a new world.  I am actually reluctant though, to refer to some short stories as “stand-alones,” because in my opinion just about all successful short stories have to stand on their own.  The reality of today’s publishing market is that, with only a few exceptions (George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson come to mind), a novelist’s readership represents a fairly small percentage of the genre’s reading public.  It’s probably not a good idea to assume that all the readers we want to reach with our short story will be familiar with the world we’ve created for our novels.

Comments?  Questions?  Have you encountered short stories that assume you know more about the world or the characters than you actually do?  Do you prefer that an author tells you things that you already know, or tells you too little, assuming that you know more than you do?

David B. Coe

11 comments to On Writing: Short Fiction and Worldbuilding

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “On Writing: Short Fiction and Worldbuilding.” It’s about the differences between setting a short story in a world that you’ve already […]

  • David, since everyone is either still hung over from Easter celebrations, or have kids driving them crazy home on spring break, I’ll comment in depth. Lucky you! 🙂

    Oh — Hey. I have new book out tomorrow. BLOOD TRADE. Just sayin’.

    >>Generally speaking, though, I write short stories so that I can sell to new markets and, I hope, attract new readers to my work. And that being the case, I cannot assume that my readers know the rules of the world I have built.>>

    I do the same thing, and I think most commercial writers do it too. Shorts are a great way to drive readers to your series or even your stand-alones. The short in anthology Strange Brew was a very successful way to bring readers of Charlaine Harris to the Jane Yellowrock series.

    I admit find it difficult write in my JY world sometimes, because I know that world so well now. I either overdo or underdo for new readers and old, and my beta readers help a lot with that. It’s a tricky balance to get it all right in so few words.

    >>Have you encountered short stories that assume you know more about the world or the characters than you actually do?>>

    Yes. And I rather like the experience, if the writer is skilled and draws me in. The discovery process can be fun!

  • I think with the short stories written in established universes (and here Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books and short stories especially come to mind), I’ve always read the story with the understanding that not everyone is well-versed in the details of that universe. What I really like is that those stories are usually laced with little references or in-jokes that the reader who *is* in the know can recognize and be amused by. That makes them even more fun to read.

    On the flip side, I have encountered short stories that assume the reader already know, and part of me feels slightly left out. Sometimes it makes me want to hunt down the series, but often I don’t have the energy, and so I write the story off as “not as good” because I couldn’t connect.

  • When I read short stories set in a world I’m familiar with I’m pretty patient with authors giving more detail about the world than I need–I understand that not everyone will be as knowledgeable as me. Plus, I tend to forget details so a reminder is always nice.

    On the other hand, if I’m reading a story and I feel completely lost because I don’t get enough detail to understand the world, then I have no patience whatsoever. Like Laura, I feel left out and generally think, “well, if the author couldn’t be bothered to let me know the details, I can’t be bothered to go find them out.” This happens very rarely, and while I know this happened not long ago I can’t even remember the series or the author. But I was reading the short story to see if I wanted to dive into the series itself, and decided no.

    I guess the bottom line of my long response is that from my perspective it’s better to give too much rather than too little if you aren’t sure how much is just right.

  • I actually find writing short stories that do not have an existing universe easier. When a short is set in the world already occupied by a JY or Ethan Haille, the writer has to find that balance of just enough background to satisfy new readers without boring fans.
    A truly stand-alone short story only needs enough world-building and history to support the events taking place in the story.

  • Thanks for the comment, Faith; I was wondering where everyone had gone. Congratulations on the new release! Very exciting. I will be happy to help you pump up the volume in any way I can. As to your answer to that final question, it seems like you’re in the minority. Read on . . .

    Laura, I think that’s the balance I like most: stories that explain what new readers need to know, but also have some “treats” for fans of the universe. But yes, I agree that stories that assume too much and leave new readers feeling left out are annoying, to say the least.

    SiSi, good to know that those of us who err on the side of giving a bit too much info are doing the right thing (at least in your opinion). 🙂

    Lyn, I can totally see that — and I have a couple of stand-alone shorts that I totally love, in part because writing them was easier as you say.

  • BTW, Faith – new book ordered and the Kindle on and waiting….

  • quillet

    I seem to have a high tolerance for too-much or too-little information in short stories. Like Laura and Sisi, I don’t mind an author giving me more info than I really need when it’s set in a world I already know. I just assume it’s there for new readers. But like Faith, I don’t mind when an author assumes I know more than I do — providing, as she says, the writer is skilled and draws me in. If the story’s engaging enough, then I’ll enjoy it as if it were a stand-alone, and the missing info will just seem like tantalizing glimpses of a deeper world.

    If, however, the missing info is so crucial that the story doesn’t make ~sense~ unless readers know it…then that would be a fail, I think. (But I don’t remember ever encountering a story so egregious! Maybe I’ve blocked it from my memory? 😉 )

  • Razziecat

    I’d have been here earlier but it took me an hour & a half to get home from a doctor appointment… 🙁 Anyway….I prefer a balance of teasers & info in a short story. It’s tricksy to get it right. I can’t think of any stories off the top of my head, although as I recall, Jennifer Roberson wrote some killer short stories, usually with a delicious twist at the end. I’d have to search to find them, I believe they were in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series.

    With a short story, you have to pack more punch into fewer words. That means choosing the right words; it means conveying in a few sentences, perhaps a paragraph, what you might spend half a chapter doing in a novel. Like I said, tricksy! But fun! 😉

  • Yay, Lyn!

    Quillet, I think it’s great that you tolerate both approaches. As to the story where the missing info is that crucial — those stories rarely get published.

    Razz, that balance is hard to find, but I like it, too. And yes, I love the clarity and brevity of a good short.

  • Megan B.

    That was quite interesting. Thank you for expanding on my comment!

    I do find it distracting to be told something I already know, but I always get over it very quickly, because I know it must be done. I like it when a writer gives just enough to help everyone “catch up” without boring those who already know. George R.R. Martin does it well in ASOIAF when he brings back a character who hasn’t been seen since the last book. (Maybe not the best example, since most people reading book 2 will have read book 1).