World-building for Short Stories!

Last week I asked Fantasy and Science Fiction writers a question: Do you have any advice on world-building for short stories as opposed to longer forms?

Here’s what they said in random order:

Cat Rambo

With world-building for the short story form, I think the important thing is for the writer to spend some time thinking about the world – and then not put all of it in the story. For some odd reason, the knowledge in your head that doesn’t go into the story still is there, like the 9/10s of an iceberg lurking below the surface of the water, making your world feel real. While the author may need to know the style of the architecture of a building’s town, a reader doesn’t need an exhaustive explanation, but they need the one little detail that shows it – the shape of a tower’s shadow on the pavement or the smell of rain on cedarwood shakes.

Tobias Buckell

I think, for myself, in both cases it has to be just enough that readers aren’t always asking questions that make the illusion of it being a fully created world. How much that is varies from story to story. There’s not as much needed in a short story, because it’s obviously shorter. I do try to answer a number of basics before jumping in as part of my outlining process, enough so that *I* can picture and buy-in to the world I created. But other writers make the world up in revisions, adding in stuff to justify what they’ve written. It’s a process where you learn how you operate best by practicing.

Jim C Hines

Off the top of my head? Short stories are probably easier, for the most part, just because it’s a smaller slice of the world. The author still needs to understand that world, but you generally see a lot more of it in a book-length work than you do in a 5000 word story. That said, a short piece where the author has taken the time to think through his/her worldbuilding and ask questions to figure out how everything works is going to be a more interesting story than one where the author just wings it.

Merrie Haskell

Overall, I think the difference between worldbuilding for short stories and worldbuilding for novels lies merely in extent and duration. You might build just a corner of a world for a short story, and leave the rest of the world sort of nebulous in your mind–but you should know the shape of it, even if you don’t have the details worked out. Only because you’re working on the novel for much longer do you get involved in the intricate details of the world. For a short story, I think you might do less worldbuilding, but show more of it, whereas in a novel, you wolrd-build more and show less of what you built.

The best example I can think of right now is a short story I recently turned into a novel. My setting for both is a faux medieval-magical country bordering on Transylvania. For the short story, I researched the major figures of Romanian folklore, the kinds of shoes my character would have worn, the specifics of the religion in that area of the time… I used probably 40% of what I researched, in creating this kingdom, and how people felt about young female apprentice herbalists, and what they might think about dragons.

For the novel version, I’ve done so much more research, I can’t really quantify it. I read a book on medieval adolescence. I started learning Romanian. I looked up articles on Romanian folk-culture. I’ve become knowledgeable about the Turkish policies towards Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. I’m pretty good at Balkan geography now. I’m up to date on Vlad Tsepes. I spend a huge chunk of time swearing at Google translator, and alternately, laughing at it. I keep a research wiki for this project.

How much shows up in the book? I don’t know. 10%? I have to know more to show less, to determine what to show, to know what’s relevant and what’s not, and what’s going to be a telling detail versus annoying info-dump. I don’t want to do “My research, let me show you it” move. (But at the same time, I have a narrator/main character who is kind of keen on proving how much she knows about herbalism, so there are info-dumps of herbalism in there. I try to use all those infodumps to illustrate something about the character.)

A brief tangent: The main difference I perceive between world-building for a historical versus a straightforward fantasy/SF book, is that for a historical-based book, sometime, some expert is going to read what you wrote and say, “You got it wrong,” so I think you tend to read and read and read to try to get the details right. When you’re responsible for imagining more than you are researching, I think you spend more time brainstorming and trying to get the system to fit logically and with your overall mood and theme.

My manymuchgood thanks to all of these classy writers. As I have mentioned before on this site, the best way to learn from these guys is to read their stuff, and see how they did it word by word. But it certainly helps to get these glimpses into their thought process as they put it together.

So learn from the above, and go out and perfect the lessons by seeing how they have done it. Buy, preferably from an indie bookstore (Kazoo Books is a great one!) and you can even win prizes doing so! I am going to pick up The Surgeon’s Tale by Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer on Thursday. Not familiar with what these luminaries have written? You silly, that’s why I linked their names to their websites. No excuse, scroll back up and click on ‘em.

For the impoverished but fascinated, here are some audio short stories in another random order that came out similar to the original:

Cat Rambo on Podcastle

Tobias Buckell on Escape Pod — I don’t know why there’s a Rosenbaum story on a Toby search, but it’s a good listen too!

Merrie Haskell on Podcastle
and on Escape Pod

Jim Hines on Podcastle

That is all.

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