One of the hardest things to do is to build a new world in five thousand words or less.
Worldbuilding in general is hard to do, even in a novel. You have to bring your reader into a new world and make it real to them. The more different the characters and the setting are from our 21st century Western world, the harder it is for many readers to make the jump.
But at least in a novel, you have space. You can build the world a bit at a time. In a short story, every sentence counts. You have to do a lot, but not too much too fast, in a short amount of time. Because in addition to building your world, you also have to tell a story. And that can be a tricky thing to do in short fiction.
A lot of writers will take the easy way out (myself included) by setting their short stories in the modern world or at least a world that is easy recognizeable. We lean on tropes we understand: knights, magic spells, fairies, monsters under the bed. But let’s say you want to do something different, you want to tell a real secondary-world fantasy or science fiction story and you need to do it by making it under a specific word count.
Here are some things to watch out for and some things you need to do.
Gotchas: These are problems I’ve had and that I’ve read when critiquing other people (not just Wordslingers but in other groups or online as well).
1. Too much slang, too soon. By this, I mean, too much made-up jargon. These can be unfamiliar character names or go all the way into world-specific philosophies, religions and alien concepts. Often you’ll get a bunch of strange words dumped on you up front in the story as the author tries to build the world before your eyes, before the story truly starts. This is a serious bump for a lot of readers, especially casual readers. Hard-core Fantasy and Sci-fi fans are somewhat inoculated to strange words. But that doesn’t mean you can get away with it. If you have more than one strange word per page, it may bump people out of your story.*
2. Building the world instead of telling the story. This is an easy mistake to make. You can spend so much time in exposition, explaining what’s going on, that you forget to tell the story. Exposition bogs down the pace of your story. But at the same time, infodumps about things that never were and may never be are one of the joys of fantasy/sci-fi. The key is the placement. Get the story started, then tell us the history of the do-hickey of power.
3. Not telling us what we need to know. The world in your authorial mind is much more real than what ends up on the page. As a result, you may be making assumptions about what your reader knows, especially if you are the only person reading your work before sending it out into the great big world. This is where a critique group is critical. You need someone who doesn’t have your brain to look over your story and see where they get confused. But you can avoid a lot of problems by only telling us what we NEED to know to advance the story. There are lots of ‘cool stuff’ in your head that you want people to see but they all need to advance the story, otherwise, sorry, you need to cut it. Include all the relevant facts but don’t tell us too much. See? Hard, isn’t it?
Ok, let’s see about what you should do instead of what you shouldn’t.
1. Signal right away that ‘things are not like home’. This is useful because it sets expectations and lets the reader know they need to suspend disbelief. If your story is sci-fi, but something that doesn’t exist yet in your opening paragraph. If you are writing fantasy, try using titles or kingdom names in your opening paragraph. (just as examples, I’m sure you can do this more elegantly)
2. Start by anchoring them to something familiar. Give us a point of reference before you start building your world. Start with the similarities, then when you show us how things are different, you can accomplish more with less. Let me try an example: Most people get married, one husband, one wife. If you start off introducing someone and their spouse, that grounds us. Then if you introduce a concubine or second-wife or triad-male, you are telling us about how the world is different but you did it starting from a common point of reference. Use universal problems, common emotions, the more familiar elements you can use in your story, the more they’ll be able to identify with it even when you toss in aliens or orcs.
3. Ease in the world-specific words and slang. Using an unfamiliar word is a good way to signal what kind of story you’re telling. But start slow. Choose made-up words that are significant to the story, not just different for the sake of being different. And, again, space the strangeness out. Try to keep it to one new word per page or per two pages, if you can. You want to hook your readers, not use strange bait.
4. Know your story, your conflict and your stakes. If you need to, start out with a one-paragraph description of your story with none of the fantastic elements. Know the story first, know the conflicts. A short story is about one thing, one concept, one twist. More than that, and you’re into novella or novel territory, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of geeblefish. Think of this as a rehearsal, all your actors are in street clothes, learning their part. Then, once you have the story clear in your head, dress them up. Paint the scenery. Bring in the props. That doesn’t mean the props and scenery and costume isn’t important, it is. The fantastic elements of a fantasy or sci-fi story should be the key to your story. In fact, without them, you should have no story.**
*I’ve heard that more than 1 made up word per story is too much but I’m not sure that’s correct.
** At least according to our learned elders. I’ve heard, time and again, that if you can take the sci-fi element out and you still have a story, you haven’t written ‘Real’ science fiction. To that I say ‘Pppppthhhh’. Story is story. Fantasy and Science fiction is question of props, scenery and costuming.