Worldbuilding and short stories

Short stories generally do not require as much worldbuilding as novels.

That may seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s something I sometimes struggle with when I’m writing fantasy or science-fiction short stories. Unless I set a short story in a universe I have written in before, it means coming up with a new world to write in. I try not to do a whole lot. Whereas with a novel I might map out the history of the world (to varying depths depending on the needs of the story, of course), with a short story I will stick strictly to what I need and never make notes on it, again unless it happens to be set in a world I’ve already written in before.

Still, despite that, writing short stories can be difficult for me because I run into a couple of temptations.

The first is to expand the short story into a full-length novel. This isn’t an entirely bad thing to happen, mind you, but I don’t always want to write a novel because I’m not always interested in fleshing out a world or universe in immense detail. Sometimes I just want to explore a simple idea, without having to commit to the length of time a novel usually requires.

The other temptation is to not use any of my good ideas. This thought stems from my fear that I might “waste” a really good idea that I could use for a novel later on, but it’s a really silly fear when you think about it. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “wasted” idea. After all, there’s nothing stopping me from taking that same idea later on and expanding upon it in greater detail in a novel.

Nonetheless, every time I sit down to write a speculative fiction short story set in a universe I’ve never written before, I feel like I have to do the same amount of worldbuilding I would do for a novel. This is where I am thankful for the Ambage, my writers’ group. For both of the anthologies that I’ve contributed to so far — Constellations and Fantastic Depths — I’ve forced myself just to write my stories and do only as much worldbuilding as each story requires, no more, no less.

Once I get past this irrational desire to worldbuild in excess, however, short stories are usually great fun for me to write. Not quite as fun as novels, true, but they are still fun, as writing should be.

-Tim

The Mysterious, the Fantastic, and the Impossible

The current tagline for this blog is “Journey into the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible.”

Sounds awfully fancy and intriguing, don’t it? I think it does, which is partly why I chose it. If I found a blog with a tagline like that, I’d certainly be interested in reading it. It also reminds me of old school comics, such as Journey into Mystery, which is the comic series in which Thor made his first appearance, so that’s kind of cool even though I don’t really talk about comics on this blog.

But primarily, it refers to my favorite parts about speculative fiction in general: Mysterious, fantastic, and impossible things. Creatures that exist purely in the realm of the mind, worlds that couldn’t exist in real life, and objects whose full histories may never be known.

To be clear, I am not hating on non-speculative fiction here. A good story is a good story, whether it is set in a created world or set in the real world or some mixture of the two. Genre does not affect a story’s quality. I’ve enjoyed many stories set in the real world, just as I’ve enjoyed many stories set in fictional worlds.

But it was speculative fiction stories that first got me into reading and they were the ones that first got me into writing. Although I may have been a bit harsh on worldbuilding back in October, I do love learning about imaginary worlds and strange new cultures and species that aren’t quite human. I also love it when authors leave certain parts a mystery. It tells me there is more to the world than what the author has shown, even if the author is not quite sure what the answer to that mystery is. It makes the world more believable, as there are many unexplained things in real life.

I try to have some of that in my own stories. My novels (none of which are published yet) always include a major mystery that is slowly revealed over the course of the story. I like to include things that are awe-inspiring, things that evoke powerful emotions in my readers despite their impossibility.

For example, in the short story Reunion (which you can read in the science-fiction anthology Constellations), I set the story on a giant ring-shaped starship called the Annulus that floats around an Earth-sized planet. I doubt something like that is even possible in real life (though with the way technology is advancing, who knows?); nonetheless, the idea of a ring-shaped starship big enough to wrap around an entire planet struck me in a way few ideas do and so I had to add it in, even though it does not affect the story too much.

Keep in mind it is possible to go overboard with the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible. Writers can use them as a crutch to avoid explaining anything or to distract readers from awful writing. Sometimes, things can get too impossible or mysterious or fantastic, at which point no one believes what you have written and the story fails. Of course, each reader has different things they are willing to suspend their disbelief for and it is impossible to know for sure what readers will or won’t believe, so don’t lose any sleep if one reader tells you that your idea is unbelievable or stupid.

The mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible must be combined with good story. They are not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, I’d argue that a writer must work extra hard when writing about mysterious, fantastic, and impossible in order to avoid shallowness and frivolity. There’s little else that is more disappointing than a mystery that doesn’t make any sense or is gratuitous to the story.

-Tim