Come meet a woman so audacious she became an author! Come, marvel at her combinations of sounds and syllables so symphonic they supply simply sumptuous stories! This is wicked Wendy Nikel, the wizard of words who creates worlds out of imagination and yarn! She’s produced two novels (one of which I discuss here), and you should heed her words!
And here she gives us her best words on creating worlds… words I might myself stick under my tall, tall hat and use! You see, this Nikel knows of what she speaks! She may even know more than me! (She probably does, but don’t tell anyone!)
Without further ado… Wendy Nikel!
by Wendy Nikel
Have you ever tried writing a story in 1000 words or less? It’s not as easy as it sounds! And when you’re writing fiction that takes place in a fantasy world or sci-fi future or some era of the distant past, it becomes an even greater challenge. You’ve got the story’s deep, rich setting there in your head – vivid and vibrant and complex – but how do you make the reader experience it for themselves when you have so few words to work with?
As a writer of speculative fiction (including these bite-sized “flash” pieces) and managing editor at Flash Fiction Online, here’s some tricks and tips I’ve learned about creating expansive worlds in short-short stories.
Details, details, details.
In flash fiction, there’s not much room to wax poetic about the feel of stepping inside a spaceship or the smell of an enchanted forest or the heat of an ancient desert, so you have to work these details into the flow of the story. If you struggle with this, try fleshing out the scene’s description in a separate document, then go through and highlight key sensory details to weave into the story itself, dropping those descriptive words like bread crumbs throughout.
Make the thesaurus (or sites like the OneLook reverse dictionary) your friend! “Mansion,” “shack,” “rambler,” and “tent,” use up just as many words as “house,” but tell a lot more about the dwelling and those who live there. These sort of quick insights into a character’s surroundings can telegraph a lot about the world that you’re building. Include specific things (plants, animals, buildings, food) that your main character would notice – whether because they’re unusual in their world or because they’re comfortable and familiar.
Show, don’t tell.
Too often in sci-fi, flash fiction writers will spend precious paragraphs explaining how a piece of technology (or in fantasy, magic) works, interrupting the action. Often, you can save yourself some words by skipping the lecture and just showing them in action. Just like we don’t think about how electrical currents work when we turn on a lamp, if the technology is common to your main character, they probably wouldn’t even be thinking of exactly how it works, either.
Embrace your tropes!
Tropes are commonly used literary devices that can serve as shortcuts for much larger ideas or concepts. For instance, the word “wizard” evokes a very specific image in the reader’s head, so you don’t need to describe his long robes or pointed hat or magic wand (unless there’s something specific about those that sets your wizard apart). Avid readers will know what the mist on a moor feels like, what a Mars base might look like, or what a feast at a medieval king’s table would smell like. To build a vivid world in few words, embrace these tropes! Combine them, mix them up, turn them upside down – and your reader’s imagination will fill in the familiar details.
In a story with fewer than 1000 words, your focus has to be razor-sharp. Think of it like a camera lens: a wide-angle lens is good for taking a picture of a field of flowers, but for these types of stories, you want to zoom way in on just one blossom – one element of the larger whole. You’ll still catch glimpses of the background, and these will hint at a much bigger landscape, but for the purpose of flash fiction, you have to focus only on what’s important to your particular story. Get those details right, and the reader’s imagination will extrapolate the rest of your vast and vivid new world.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and is forthcoming from Analog. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com