Saturday, February 20, 2010

One of the Challenges in Writing Fantasy Short Stories

One thing on every writer's mind as they are planning and writing a short story is word count. In almost every instance the shorter the work, the easier it is to find a market for it. It’s a balance of words, quality, and the story to be told.

In any case, there are more markets that accept 5000 word short stories than 7500 word stories, and even those that indicate they will look at a 7500 piece state it has to be really exceptional to be published. Consider in context what is being said, since I believe all publishers sift their submission pile for what they believe are exceptional stories. The longer the story, the higher the hurdle for it to reach publication.

Now consider writing a fantasy story. The writer has to introduce the reader to the created world, explaining ‘how it works differently’ as compared to the reader’s mundane, everyday world. The world building has to be packed within the context of the story, keeping it moving forward. Tell the readers just enough to make sense, enabling them to understand. Allow the reader fill in some of the blanks where ever possible.

An example to illustrate: A writer doesn’t need to explain how bug spray works (and its limitations) on a cockroach menace. The average reader can see the landlord in his mind’s eye removing the cap, pointing the can and pressing down on the nozzle, while avoiding inhalation of toxin. But a writer of fantasy may have to explain how a net stung with iron beads might be used by the royal gardener to snare the little fairies that have been stealing the blooming royal snapdragons.

In both examples the character is trying to get rid of pests, but the former dealing with the cockroach infestation would require fewer words than the latter dealing with the fairy menace. Maybe it would only require thirty words spread over a few sentences, but that adds up quickly when considering a word count limit of 5000. Why include the episode about the iron affecting magical creatures? Maybe it’s a way of establishing the rules or laws of that world for when a larger, more dangerous magical foe comes into conflict with the protagonist—so that the full explanation isn’t necessary, possibly right in the middle of intense action.

Maybe that’s part of what interests readers of fantasy, the discovery of new worlds and creatures, and how they interact. But there’s more than just how the fantasy world differs from the reader’s everyday experience. The story also has to include characters the readers want to follow through their interactions and adventures. And creating characters and telling the action of the story takes words too—if at all possible everything tucked nicely into the 5000 word (or less) box.

And that’s at least one thing that provides an additional challenge when short fiction with in fantasy setting.


  1. Terry,

    That makes a lot of sense. Interesting post.

  2. Thanks, Cher. Made sense to me, glad it did to you too.

  3. Great info Terry. I agree about the markets for 5ooo and under. There are a TON of micro fiction sites now.
    Best, Kim

  4. fantastic example, Terry. I've read a few samples of your writing, both short stories and novels. Your stories usually end up on the high side of the scale, but each and every single word counts, you have no wiggle room. I believe the challenge is even more difficult for you. In the end, hard choices need to be made, both with the publisher and writer.

  5. Kim, thanks for commenting. Yes, there are many new micro fiction markets coming available.

    Sandy, yes, my stories usually push the upper limits of what publishers accept, but I'm getting better. :)