science fiction and fantasy writer

So, about world building in short stories…

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2015 at 10:14 pm

There was an article in The Guardian the other day by a writer who made the bizarre assertion that while brick-thick fantasy novels are a dime a dozen, it’s “very difficult” to find fantasy short stories – or, at least, ones that don’t rely on associated novels to have done their world building for them. Presumably the author means “very difficult to find” without turning on the internets or leaving the house and going to, oh I don’t know, a library, a bookshop or a newsagent. Plenty of people have already gone to town on the ridiculousness of the central claim in the offending article’s comments section, so there’s no need to say any more about that here.

The author’s secondary assumption, however, is illuminating. Her deduction from the purported absence of fantasy short stories (in her house, with the internets off) is that they don’t exist because you can’t build a fantastical setting in a few thousand words. What this seems to betray is a fundamentally arse-backwards understanding of the relationship between world building and story.

In a nutshell: she seems to assume that a fantasy story serves the needs of the world building, not the other way around. Sure, a secondary-world fantasy novel, or series of novels, will build what appears to be a fairly complete picture of its imagined setting. And absolutely, the author’s motivation in writing their story might be to show off whatever aspect of their world building that they’re geeking out on – like Tolkien’s languages and mythology or Fiest’s D&D campaign or Martin’s realpolitik sex and murder spree or my friend Russell’s geography and cartography. But even then, if the author does their job well, as in all of the cases above, in the final product the world building will serve the needs of the story, not the other way around. Even in something like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, where the world building can seem so gratuitous at times, it serves the story’s need for the city to live and breath and feel grubbily present from the filth on its streets upwards.

Because the needs of the story aren’t limited to just developing the characters and driving the plot forward. The story needs to exist in a convincing world and, to be convincing, the world needs to appear fully realised; it needs to seem like the world extends beyond the boundaries of the story. But that’s an illusion. If the writer is doing their job, they’re giving the reader just enough information to create the impression of a fully realised world. As Andrew Stanton says, storytelling is the well-organised absence of information. That goes for world building, too. From Stanton, again, “The audience wants to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing it.” The reader actually fills in a good deal of the world building for themselves, but in a well-told story, even works as granular as Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels or A Song of Ice and Fire, the author fools you into not realising how much work you’re doing.

And that’s why you can tell fantasy or science fiction short stories that make the reader feel like they’re catching a glimpse of a fully realised secondary world – and tell stories that aren’t just “snippets”, as the author of the Guardian article would have us believe, but complete and self-contained narrative arcs, just like in any other genre. Firstly, the world building needs of the story are less, because you’re opening a smaller window than a novel, holding the reader and suspending their disbelief for a shorter time. And secondly, all you need to do is give the reader’s imagination something to work with, and that doesn’t actually need to take very many words.

Here’s an example from a short fantasy story of mine called “The Canal Barge Magician’s Number Nine Daughter”, that first appeared in the Clockwork Phoenix 4 anthology and subsequently in my Angel Dust collection:

Ponderously, with tortured screams of metal on metal, the lift tub began to descend the steep face of the Rhuin Wall. Palinday risked peeping around the edge of the hut. Behra had a sudden urge to reach out and touch his fine clothes, stroke his golden hair. She kept her hands in her lap.

“Now there’s a thing,” the doll said.

Beyond the girders of the lift tower, the city extended out onto an outcrop of rock, prow-shaped, walled tiers descending the height of the cliff.

“Rhuincastre,” said Palinday.

“Neic ap Nagh,” replied Behra, giving the great city the Rhuinish name she’d always heard her father use.

“The anvil of kings,” said Palinday, in Ornomagnen.

Beyond the city, a broad waterfall tumbled over the edge of the cliff. The sheer face of the Rhuin Wall extended into the distance on both directions, unbroken as far as the eye could see.

At first blush, the etymology of the city’s name and the Peter-Jackson-at-his-willy-wavingest view have very little to do with the plot or characters of the story. But in fact this moment does (or aims to do) several things: give a sense of a larger world; give a (blunt) visual representation of the historic defiance of Rhuin to its larger neighbour, Ornomagne, which is the political driver underlying the plot; and also serve as a tool of dramatic pacing, providing a necessary pause between an expositional conversation at the top of the lift and the bad guys turning up at the bottom.

Another example. Here’s all the sentences of pure, or nearly pure, world building from my story “Songdogs”, which you can read all of at Beneath Ceaseless Skies or listen to at Podcastle (and which is also in the new BCS weird Western anthology):

The True Moon and its False companion hung full in the sky, lighting the night so bright Agnieska could hardly see the stars. The True Moon smiled down like a senile old man. The False Moon rippled like a reflection on water. Out across the dry plain of mulga and saltbush scrub, the songdogs warbled …

A dry creek intersected their path … It was furrowed with flood channels and littered with rocks and small debris, but no patches of smooth sand that might indicate a jack-o-box lurking underneath …

Up ahead, the low roll of the desert plain crinkled up into old granite hills, painted with horizontal stripes of age and sparsely capped by stands of twisted eucalypts. Nearer at hand, the stone chimney of a long-gone farmstead rose alone above the scrub. On the far side of the hills lay the railway and the fortress towns it served.

The wait-a-while patch rustled as they passed, although there wasn’t much breeze. It looked like wild wheat, but its ears were full of fishhook barbs. Hidden beneath were leach-mouthed creepers that’d slither up out of the ground and into a person’s clothes.

The grass was a thing of the False Moon, like the songdogs, the jack-o-boxes, and the rest. Used to be, the most dangerous thing a person was likely to encounter out bush was dingoes, or the occasional mob of unfriendly natives, unless they were unlucky enough to lay out their bed roll on top of a brownsnake. Now the snakes and wild dogs were gone, and the surviving natives had retreated to the towns with everyone else.

Used to be, Agnieska reflected upon her tired feet, that a person could ride horseback across the desert, not have to walk. Her grandpapa had learned to ride, growing up in the days before the False Moon came and turned the horses into man-eaters – them and most of the rest of the world. Used to be, had been grandpapa’s favourite way of starting a sentence.

Even so, Olly would say, when he got tired of the old man’s complaining, we’ve got it better than some. At least here men are still ruled over by men.

… the air at the boundary of the warded circle was thickened as though by wisps of mist. The wisps extended limbs, probing the wards for a point of weakness. Riders, more than likely from the abandoned farmstead, seeking a host to sate their yearning for their lost humanity.

… the hillside sheared off into unevenly stepped cliffs. Killjoys inflated their gas sacs in the morning warmth and spun themselves up into the sky, off in search of last night’s leftover carcasses …

The first four-legged shape trotted out into the open, serrated beak close to the ground as it followed the trail, scorpion tail held high over its black-and-white back. It raised its head to sing …

Over the first ridge, the hills were a confusion of scree-sided gullies and striated cliffs … the stunted eucalypts that clumped in the crevices and dry watercourses, clinging to the sparse soil amongst the rocks. Not worth the risk when any of them might turn out to be gnarly trees instead.

That’s just over five hundred words of dedicated world building out of a five-and-a-half thousand word story. I’ll be bold enough to propose that it offers the reader a fairly clear and convincing picture of the world that they’re dipping into. The other five thousand words of the story provides a complete narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end, rising and falling action, a climax, character development, backstory and even a plot twist. And of course, like most stories of whatever length, the greater part of the world building is done as part of the dialogue and action, rather than separately. Words in a story can do more than one thing at a time, and in a short story, where your words are at a premium, they have to. But you don’t have to tell the reader everything. Like this:

Agnieska got her arm in the way of his clumsy swing at her head, yelped as she caught the blow on the point of her elbow. Carrick staggered away, trying to run. His escape lasted only a handful of paces before the compulsion spell stopped him and he sprawled once again in the dust.

Agnieska surged to her feet, her patience shot. With a snarl, she kicked him over onto his back. From her coat pocket she took a pair of steel-bladed calf hooks.

A lot of sheriffs used the things as a matter of course. To Agnieska they had always seemed a step too far. And she hated forcing a man to endure what her Olly had suffered through. But her blood was up, now, and she grabbed his shirtfront to shake him. Moonlight glinted off the spells etched into the ugly curved blades as she held them in front of his face.

“You know what these are?” She shook him again. His eyes went from the hooks to her. His breath rasped painfully behind the tongue clamp. He nodded. Agnieska stood back.

“Get up,” she said.

So, in those not-quite two hundred words of action, you’ve got: a compulsion spell that stops a man from escaping; steel-bladed calf hooks with spells etched into them that sheriffs use; and a man wearing a tongue clamp. I do explicitly introduce Carrick, a couple of paragraphs earlier, as Agnieska’s prisoner, because it’s the most economical way of establishing their relationship. It’s another thousand words into the story before I say what the tongue clamp is for. By then I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I never say what the calf-hooks do. In fact, I say very little else at all, through the rest of the story, about how magic works in this world.

If I’ve done my job right, I don’t need to. Because your imagination has already done the work for me.

  1. Ah, thank you! That article really pissed me off because I was sure she was wrong but she was specifically talking about fantasy (I only really read SF as short stories) so I had no good examples to counter with.

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