World building in short stories

by Farhana Shaikh

We asked writer and publisher Farhana Shaikh to share her advice for world building in short stories, where word count is at a premium and efficiency is essential.

Find more world building resources in our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack.

Unlike a novel where you have the freedom, both in terms of world length and time, to lay down the foundations of your world and the environment your character inhabits, a short story must achieve this in just a few thousand words. So how does world-building work in short fiction?

Stay in the moment

It’s important to remember that a short story is a moment or an event. Keeping your story focused to this pivotal moment will help to ensure that you are being true to the form and aren’t simply writing an extract of a longer work.


Focus on the story not the world

One of the mistakes I often see writers making is to start their short story by explaining the world. This often has the opposite effect of what is intended. Rather than drawing the reader into the story, it leaves them feeling overwhelmed. Use maps and timelines to build your world but when it comes to writing the story leave your research at the door. Focus on the story itself, rather than the world.


Be playful

It’s worth remembering that you can take big risks in a short story with language and form. Think about what constraints you can set that are relative to the world you’ve created. Be playful as this might help to make your story have a bigger impact. For example, rather than adopt a formal structure, could you create a story in the form of a list, or repeat a certain word at the start of every sentence? Experiment and see what works.


Know your character

Developing and understanding your character – the language, the clothes they wear, the technology they use, is all part of world-building. Use character profiles to get closer to your character and understand their motivations. If a character isn’t pulling their weight, cut them out.


Your world and character must be believable

Think carefully about what you’re character observes and how they behave. Their world should be as normal to them as yours is to you. If they suddenly marvel at something or start explaining how something works this can take readers out of the story.


Start as close to the end as possible

Beginner playwrights are taught to arrive late on the scene and leave early. This advice is particularly useful here. For example, you may need to write your way into this new world that you’ve created but cutting this out during the revision process will help to quicken the pace and add immediacy.


Trust your reader

As writers we often overwrite and over-explain and while it’s important to leave enough clues for the reader so they can make the right connections, it’s important to trust them too. A good exercise to help you get the balance right is to cut as many words as possible and see if you can still make sense of the story without losing the essence of what you’ve written.


Edit, edit, edit

Every word, every sentence, every paragraph really needs to earn its place in a short story. If it’s not necessary, cut it.

Farhana is celebrating Dahlia Books 10th birthday with an online writing festival designed to help writers take the next step in their career.  #Homeby10 Fest takes place across 10 days in October. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite:

Farhana Shaikh is a writer and publisher born in Leicester.  She established Dahlia Publishing to publish regional and diverse writing. She edits the online magazine, The Asian Writer. Farhana has facilitated creative writing workshops and judged new writing competitions in the UK and India. In 2017, she won the Penguin/Travelex Next Great Travel Writer competition and the following year was longlisted for the Thresholds International Short Fiction Feature Writing Competition and the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. 

Farhana lives in Leicester but can be found on Twitter talking about books and publishing @farhanashaikh.

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

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