Introducing the World of Your Short Story
“Worldbuilding touches all aspects of your story. It touches plot and character as well. If you don't know the culture your character comes from, how can you know what he's really like? You must know your characters on a much deeper level than you would if you just shrugged your way into a cookie cutter fantasy world.” - Patrick Rothfuss
With my short stories, I predominantly write sci-fi or fantasy. Sometimes my stories have just one fantastical element to them, like a magic money tree. Others require a bit of fictional world building in which I have to construct a world different than we know it.
I always love this part of the writing process. It’s the most imaginative and creative aspect for me.
There’s one caveat, though, in trying to introduce your readers to a new world with a short story. It’s, well, short. And the last thing you want to do is bore your reader with long descriptions of how awesome your fantastical world or dystopian future is. That’s not storytelling.
Luckily I’ve picked up some tips and tricks along the way through writing, researching and attending classes.
So, how can you introduce your reader to your fictional world in an interesting way?
The Iceberg Technique
Most of you probably have heard of this one. I was using this technique when I started out writing, without knowing what it was called. I first heard of the term in an online lecture by Brandon Sanderson.
So, what is it? Icebergs exist both above and below sea-level. Imagine the iceberg to be your fictional world. The top (above sea level) is the part you actually share in your story. That’s what you show your reader. The part below sea level (which is usually way bigger) is the rest of your world. This can be background information, complete magical systems, technological developments, governmental issues, etc. This is just for you to keep in the back of your mind or in a separate file while you tell your story.
I sometimes have about one page of notes full of information about my world which belongs to the below sea level part. For short stories that is. For my novel, I have pages and pages full of world building. George R.R. Martin would be jealous (kidding, of course, that man’s world building is perhaps among the most epic).
With the iceberg technique, you give the reader the impression that you know it all, that you have the whole iceberg there.
Now that you’re familiar with this technique, let’s dive in further into how you can set up an interesting world.
Building Your World
People read fantasy and sci-fi because they want to be immersed in a new place. Your job is to convince the reader of that place.
In a short story, you have limited space to introduce your reader to this world. You can only show the tip of the iceberg so to say. So how can you do that?
Create a learning curve of discovering your world. Make it gradual, and make the reader slowly part of your world. Introduce them to the necessary pieces of information that are required for the scene. In one of my latest shorts (The Electric Cold War), the reader learns something new about my dystopian world in every scene. Mid-way through the story you have a clear idea what kind of world the protagonist lives in. Plus it will make you understand his motivations better throughout the story.
Make a character introduce you to the setting. I always prefer this over plain descriptions. The trouble with plain descriptions is that you quickly fall in the ‘telling’ trap and your not ‘showing’. You’ll bore your reader. Have a character experience something unusual in your world, have them learn something new. Even better, use it in a dialogue between characters. Move the story forward, while you sneak in some exciting and unusual world building.
Elements to Consider in World Building
“I think with world building, it’s important to create a sense of culture even if it’s just a fantasy, and the best way to do that is to look at a real human culture and see what makes it cohesive. - Laini Taylor
What makes up a world? Look around you. There are so many elements to consider. However, you don’t need to use all of the elements to show off your inventive world. ONLY USE THE ELEMENTS RELEVANT TO YOUR STORY AND PLOT.
You can have elements of the physical setting of your world and of the cultural setting. The first ones are elements that exist besides humans, like science, magic, physics, technology, and even weather, geology, and nature.
A cultural setting is usually bigger. Here you need to consider politics, laws, the economy, customs, culture, history, education, etc. How do the people in your world interact with each other and the world in general?
When you are designing the world, think about what information you keep to yourself (below sea level) and what part you share with your reader. The tip of the iceberg. Rule of thumb: the tip of the iceberg are the world building elements relevant to your story.
I hope you have learned some useful tricks to set up new and inventive fictional worlds for short story writing. You can even apply these tips to novel writing, but then you can allow yourself some more space - and a bigger iceberg.
When it comes to short stories and world building, learn to be concrete! Pull the reader out of the scene and stick to the story. Don’t digress. If a reader experiences a scene rather than having it explained to them, it will become more memorable.