World-Building in Short Stories

It’s easy to build a magnificent world in a novel-length work. Lots of room, a long plot to weave lots of tantalizing details through.

But a short story? Setting an entire world in less than 6000 words? That’s a challenge! Right?

Well, not so much. At least not for me. The thing I’ve learned about a short story is that I don’t need to show the entire world. I don’t need to tell you that this, this and this happened over the last thousand years. Such and such a nation is going to war with its neighbor, but is that really necessary for the reader to know? If it is, then a quick mention is probably plenty.

Both Wind-Loved and Hidden are set in alternate worlds. Neither is particularly explained, or detailed, certainly not in the way the world of New Name. But they could all fit into the same world, so maybe it doesn’t count. (There is mention of Kema’s tribe in Inherent… just so you know…)

How do you describe a new world in your stories? What authors build worlds in their stories with special grace? How much do you like to see in a story?

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4 Responses to “World-Building in Short Stories”

  1. Well for me is easy to write a long or short story cause I don’t stop much in descrition. The place is build as the characters enter in the place, I don’t feel that I have to tell everything at the reader right away.

    A good writter of places? Juliet Marillier, she’s my favorite.

  2. A writer builds worlds through the use of settings. Each scene will have a setting, and over time, all those settings will combine to jointly build a world.

    So, in a short story, there is no need to really build a world, only a setting. As you stated above, there is no need to build any part of the world outside the scope of the story itself. (Or very little anyway)

    I think that is what makes short stories so timeless. Readers can easily relate to most short-stories even hundreds of years after they are written because the focus is on the “what” and not so much focused on the “where”.

    If I’m telling the story of a man in his study facing the vision of a dead relative…

    There is really no need to mention anything outside of that room. What country is it in? What year? What is the political or religious structure? What season? Most of these things aren’t necessarily important, and can give the story that “timeless” feel that I mentioned.

  3. ladykuro Says:

    I find it’s helpful if I know everything about the world I’m writing in, but the story? Well, if details make it in, great! If not, then they didn’t need to be there in the first place. You just have to be careful with this so you don’t leave something important unexplained.

  4. I think the key difference between novels and short stories here is the amount of space one can afford to give word building. Where a novel can afford to get away with the occasional info-dump, short stories use other ways, the most common being referencing. I think newspaper headlines and bits of news from TV works great.

    Where a novel could go at lengths describing the war between two factions, a short story only needs the headline “Land X fights Land Y!” That tells the reader there is a war going on and so they don’t need more explanation when the main character later has trouble getting hold of something. “War shortage, sir. Sorry”

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