6 Tips for writing a fantasy short story
This article first appeared as a guest post I wrote over on CariJehlik.com. Be sure to check out the post on her site, too, where I’ve left a bonus tip at the end! Then just have fun going through all the great posts she has to offer!
A short story is, by definition, short. It is not a mini-novel and won’t have a lot of the intricacies that a novel has. You want to bring your reader into a single moment and spark something within them—be it happiness, comfort, fear, unease, pity, sympathy, deep thought, etc. This can be difficult with fantasy because it generally involves a level of worldbuilding that isn’t suited to a smaller word count. But difficult is not the same as impossible. Although many of these apply to all short stories, these are my favorite tips for writing a fantasy short story.
Less is more.
I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before, and it fits short stories in every way. The less you try to shove into your story, the more powerful it will be. Think of a single theme, moment, emotion, or question you want your short story to focus on. With every sentence you write, make sure it lends to that point. Stay on topic. When a reader finishes your story, what is the one thing you hope they think about or feel? Aim for that.
For example, let’s say we’re writing a story about an elf who learns that not all dwarves are selfish and greedy. We might want our readers to come away from this knowing that stereotypes aren’t definitive. As we write, we want to keep stereotypes in mind and consider how people react to them and ways that we break them, too.
It’s about who, not what.
Plots get messy. They get tangled. They drag in everything around them, which makes readers wonder how the rest of the world was affected. That’s great in a novel, but in a short story, you don’t want the reader wondering (or wandering) about your world too much. We can have a plot, of course, but we don’t want it to be the main focus. We want it running in the background like thematic music in a movie. (It should go without saying, but if we don’t want our main plot to take the lead, we definitely don’t want subplots, either.) Instead, keep the focus on one main character and make us feel something for them; emotional connections are what make your story memorable. Internal development is a great way to do that, so find a character and ask yourself how you can use them to express your chosen theme.
For our elf, we might want someone who doesn’t fit into typical elven stereotypes. If he knows he’s different, he will be better equipped to understand the dwarf, and that understanding will prompt our readers to wonder what stereotypes they themselves don’t fit into.
Focus your view.
Writing a short story is like making your readers look through a telescope: they can only see what you show them, but they get a close-up view of it in better detail. Focus on that view. The more scenes and settings you show your reader, the wider their viewpoint and the bigger your world gets. If your world gets too big, they will start to wonder about things outside the scope of your story. They will want more, and that defeats the purpose of your story being short. To that end, try to avoid heavy backstory and long flashbacks. Are your character’s current actions heavily affected by their past? Work it into the story as it applies to that moment, but stay focused on the scene.
Some short stories take a single character through a series of events in their life. If you choose to write one of these stories, be sure to maintain your chosen theme. Don’t show anything that doesn’t apply, and make sure each event had a real effect on shaping your character in the present time.
Now, that being said, there is a sort of fantasy-to-scenes ratio that comes into play here.
The more fantastical your story is, the fewer scenes you want to show, because with too many scenes, you’ll end up introducing way more than you can handle in a short story. The more realistic your story is, the more scenes you have available, because most of what you’ll show is already familiar in our real-world setting and requires little to no explanation. There’s not really a limit to how many scenes or fantasy elements you can have, but there is a balance between the two. In this handy (and simple) graph, the shaded section shows you where the good ratios are. The higher you are on the “fantasy elements” spectrum, the lower you should be on the “potential scenes” spectrum. Use your best judgment here to determine how many scenes you can safely show. If you aren’t sure, go with fewer. Of course, you can never go wrong with a single scene regardless.
In our example story, we’ll focus on just one scene between our characters, without letting the readers’ view slip. Maybe the elf, after a nasty encounter with the local wildlife, finds himself stumbling into a dwarf’s camp and the dwarf takes care of him, even offering up the last of his food. Our elf is shocked at how kind this dwarf is compared to the last dwarf he met, but we won’t go into a big flashback; if anything, we’ll just show it in a few lines, nothing more. Let’s stick to our campsite. We should have enough going on there, anyway.
If it doesn’t matter, don’t mention it.
I feel like this is just good advice all around, but in a short story, it’s imperative. It’s always helpful to know your character’s backstory and what else exists in your world—just for your own knowledge. But if it doesn’t affect the character in the moment, don’t mention it. Keep your world contained within your scene. It might feel as if you’re limiting yourself or making your world “boring” but I promise you, again, that in a short story, less is more.
Maybe our elves like to travel by dragon. That sounds cool, but it also makes me want to know more about the elves. Our elf didn’t set out on dragonback, so it’s best to leave the dragons out of it. We’ll keep that little tidbit to ourselves, and maybe we can find a use for it in another story.
Tropes have their places.
Accentuate anything that will be familiar to the readers. For fantasy, this can mean tweaking tropes or common fantasy elements. Not that you have to make your story one giant trope after another, but tropes exist for a reason: they’re familiar and recyclable. Fantasy has so much that usually needs to be explained, but if you drop major key words and hint at familiar tropes and elements, it cuts down on the explanation you’ll need to use.
For our example story, we can easily capitalize on the notion that elves are agile and great with a bow, and that dwarves are stocky and great with a hammer or axe. Just by equipping these few elements, our readers will not wonder too much about our races in general because they will think they already know everything about them based on their tropes/cliches. This gets the background and world development out of the way subtly so we can focus on our characters’ interactions.
Watch those fantasy terms!
Developing a world can sometimes mean building countries, races, creatures, magic systems, and even languages…but in a short story, the more fantasy terms you use and the more you name, the more you’ll have to explain and the deeper you’ll end up getting. Keep your “original” words at a minimum. Don’t use a thousand terms that all need explanations, otherwise you’re either going to have a novel or a story that begs to be one.
Our characters might let slip the names of their home cities, but in context, those are simple to understand and accept. We just won’t mention that they ride unth’lak over the Boontu Valley and eat chabrothka soup during the Galli holidays. Explaining all that, even briefly, steals the focus away from our campsite and out into the world, which is just too much for our short story.
There are plenty of other helpful tips out there, of course, but these should cover the basics. You can even write that elf and dwarf story if you’d like some practice! Just keep these tips in mind and you should be well on your way to writing a great short story (fantasy or not)! With a strong focus on a central theme and keeping things simple and contained, you can create a short story that not only pulls readers in but makes them feel exactly the way you want them to. And, more importantly, it doesn’t leave them begging for more of your story—just more of your writing. 😉
For more worldbuilding tips and help with idea generation, join my Facebook group Worldbuilder’s Muse.
Don’t forget, this article first appeared as a guest post over at CariJehlik.com. If you hop over to her site, I left you a bonus tip at the end! 😉 Enjoy and happy writing!