Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Blogger Juliette Wade on World Building in Short Stories

By Juliette Wade

Building a world is hard enough when you have an entire novel to convey that world, but what happens when you need to show your world in a short story? Are the rules the same or are there tricks to getting it all into a shorter word count? We continue Short Story Week with an article from science fiction and fantasy author Juliette Wade on world building.

Is World Building for Short Stories Different From World Building for Novels?

Yes and no.

You might guess that a short story would require less world building than a novel - but the size of the world itself is not the primary difference between the two. Short story readers will perceive world gaps, and be confused of frustrated by them, just as easily as novel readers. The biggest difference is that in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.

Imagine that you're building a house. The first room of that house is the place where your reader enters the world. In a novel, that first room is full of doors. In a short story, it's all windows.

Doors can be opened. The novel format gives you the opportunity to send your reader through those doors, allowing you - and also requiring you - to explore a lot more of what lies in the rooms beyond. The most you get from an open window is the scent of fresh air. The short story format keeps readers confined, but if there's nothing to see outside, then they'll know something is wrong.

One of the wonderful characteristics of societies that I learned about while studying anthropology and linguistics is that large-scale trends in a society will tend to be visible even in small-scale interactions. I take advantage of this in my short story world building all the time. If you know a lot of large-scale things about your world, see if you can tighten your focus down and make them play out - i.e. be demonstrated, shown not told - on the smaller level. An entire system of phonology can be implied using a single unusual name. A system of social hierarchy can be implied by including small details of politeness in a single interaction between individuals. An economic model can be demonstrated by exploring the conclusions a character draws about the provenance of a single object.

Thus, in a short story, you should try to make every object and every interaction count. These things are not just working for your story but also for your world: they are the windows in your room. Realize that when you describe food, you're not only giving your character something to eat but potentially opening a view onto climate, agriculture, economy, socioeconomic conditions, and food culture. Realize that when you mention clothing, you're not just creating fashion but saying something about the value clothing has in your world. Realize that each person your character meets has a social role that illuminates the entire society - and that the opinion your character has of each person will give insight into that character's place within the system.

Of course, all this is true of novels as well. The demand for multi-tasking may be lower because you have more room with a higher word count, but it's always good to have your text do more than one thing at a time. Novels are expansive, so there are many opportunities to have the reader's sense of the world grow and expand.

The funny thing about short stories is that thought the amount of world building effort often seems disproportionately large, that effort will pay off. Readers can tell when the house has no windows - it's dark, and there's no air. If you choose the proper telling details to include, then you've placed your windows to maximize the view.

Give your readers something to see. They will thank you for it.


  1. I love the room with windows vs. doors analogy and Juliette's point about how every object/interaction has layers of significance. This definitely upholds the idea that in a short story every word has to pull its weight.
    - Sophia.

  2. I'm not so sure - and I hate to disagree, not least because I know you're far better at this kind of thing than me! Your blog is excellent and I learn a great deal from you through it.

    But... if an "entire system of phonology can be implied using a single unusual name [, a] system of social hierarchy ... by including small details of politeness ... [and an] economic model ... demonstrated by exploring the conclusions a character draws about the provenance of a single object" why can't those three things just be there, implying, without the backstory? If they look deeply thought through, how can we be sure they're not? In a short story, this ought to be easier to pull off because there's less chance of getting caught out.

    I'm not causing trouble for the sake of it, but wondering if we're forcing each other to go deep into worldbuilding with no real need. It could be that we're suggesting there's only one way to do things, and barricading the door against authors - or potential authors - with less effort already sunk into a setting, and so easier future releases.

  3. Porky, it's an interesting question. Yes, you can certainly do that...put in the objects without really understanding the system behind them. But chances are pretty good that if you skimp on the world concept, readers can feel it. They may not be able to express what they feel consciously, but they will feel any inconsistencies that are there. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the effort required is worth it, and how deep a world you want to imply. Not everyone approaches this the same way. But I would say that this is one of the reasons my own alien culture stories come across the way they do.

  4. Juliette, this is why I love short stories: the challenge of making every single word count and still delivering a world that the reader can experience as if she or he was there.

    I think Heinlein's short fiction was a prime example of good world-building within the short story framework because he did exactly what you suggest: provided windows WITHOUT comment. He might refer to a "beanstalk" and eventually, you figure out through the story that he's talking about a space elevator. He didn't spend time on exposition explaining, "As you know, Steve, the beanstalk was constructed during..."

    Asimov wrote that science fiction novels were the toughest type of writing to do because you not only needed a good idea but you needed a world in which that idea fit neatly into, following all of the rules of your world. That world needed to be detailed and complex enough to seem believable and real to the reader and yet without getting in the way of the action of the story.

    To me world-building in novels seem much harder than short stories, but I know many novelists who say the reverse.

  5. This is great. I'm working on a very world-focused short story at the moment, and struggling with keeping my word count down! I especially like the large-scale trickling down to small. I've read so many short stories where the author tries to show us a whole world in 10 pages, and ends up overwhelming me, where as stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things in an extraordinary world are almost always captivating.

    Great post!

  6. @ Juliette Wade - I really do need to read some of your stories, I'll admit that right away. That you even have them is great, like a dessert to the main course of the blog!

  7. Thanks, Maggie! Good luck with your story.

    Porky, I do have a free story up online if you want to read it. It was my debut story for Analog in July/August 2008. http://juliettewade.blogspot.com/2008/08/let-word-take-me.html

  8. Thanks so much for visiting today, Juliette! I highly recommend her story, so pop over there and take a peek. This gal knows how to put the alien in alien POVs.

  9. I love the windows/doors analogy!

  10. Thanks for the comment, JD. I really appreciate Janice inviting me over!

  11. Wow, great post! I've never really thought about this before. :)

  12. @ Juliette Wade - I've started reading it and plan to finish when I have the time it deserves. It goes without saying that in my view it's very strong, and excellent when dealing with language. Thank you very much for the link.

  13. World building is different. A short story world must be defined in few words, and usually the characters define it. By describing the characters you define the world.

  14. World building doesn't just apply to SF&F -- it actually applies to stories of other genres set in the modern world. Some of the most beautiful stories I've read have been in part because the author took the time to lay in the real world setting. A lot of writers simply don't pay enough attention to this.