Why is Worldbuilding in a Short Story so Tricky?

Here, I talk about worldbuilding as being the creation of an alternative reality and world rather than a reality built on Earth. The problems with worldbuilding within a short piece of fiction come because there is barely enough words to build the story you want in the current world, let alone a place that is not immediately recognisable. It works so well in novels because you have the space to gradually immerse the reader. 

As you build an alternative world to this one, it becomes difficult for the reader to relate to the characters within it. There can often be a lack of empathy, an emotive void, which would otherwise be picked up by similarities we would find with characters on Earth. If your reader is a devoted sci-fi fan, they are more likely to forgive problems with your fictional world, but for someone like me, who isn’t a big fan of the genre, a world that I can’t relate to, or characters I can’t get my teeth into, are likely to lose me. 

Another problem for the reader is that they will have no understanding of society and the norms of the world being described. This can’t be dealt with properly within the word count, or it may take up the entire word count to describe and leave no room for your plot to take hold. However, if you leave it out then the story will be set in a mediocre pretence of a world. When submitting short stories, you often have an imposed word limit. With Firewords, you only have 2000 words to play with. This is often not enough time to construe all other-worldly attributes AND build an effective story. Something’s gotta give. You can 1) focus on worldbuilding (risk: no one cares about the characters), or 2) focus on the characters or plot (risk: the world you have created doesn’t feel believable). From experience, it is often the alternative world that takes a backseat. 

Although I said I wouldn’t focus on it here, worldbuilding in the ‘real’ world can also be challenging. It is one of the great challenges of fictional writing: building a world that seems completely real. How easily the surroundings and characters have to seem natural. While the challenges are accentuated and worsened when dealing with science fiction, this is something that will always come up. Take care when you look at tackling this problem! 

A way of dealing with this issue is not to cram your writing too full of explanation. Building a world that closely resembles Earth is another good idea. Keep everything simple about the world itself so you can focus fully on the story. And remember, for Firewords your story is only 2000 words long. Perhaps it’s not the best place to try and explore a Brave New World.