Self-Editing Your Manuscript: How to Assess World-building in short fiction
When most writers hear the term world-building, the first thing that generally comes to mind are sprawling epics, i.e., A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time. However, world-building applies to any type of fiction, even contemporary pieces.
Magic and royalty are just as important as knowing how to ride a subway and how an elevator works in others.
Suspension of disbelief is how well you have suspended, portrayed, and consumed the reader with your story. Do they accept the well-written world and its characters as they are, or have small things snuck into the manuscript that makes them pause within their reading and tilt their heads, questioning “but why?”
This is especially true when writing fantastical fiction with supernatural or paranormal elements where the reader needs to accept the implausible as plausible.
Not everyone believes in ghosts, but in your story they need to be real.
Not everyone believes in magic, but in your story it should be as much the truth as breathing.
For the theme, it is perfectly fine to give the reader a reason to think, a thing to dwell on long after the story has ended. That is valid and intentional. A writer should never want the reader to question if something was necessary to include. Questioning the intention can break the suspension of disbelief or seem outright illogical.
These inconsistencies with world-building can make it look as though the writer didn’t quite have the grasp on their world and their characters.
Real World World-building:
Notice, this was not titled Contemporary World-building, and that’s because our world spans so many things and time periods. It is making sure that you aren’t using a type of car before it was made. It is writing real-world places based on actual maps, or even creating a fictional town and remembering where you put city hall.
For example, your 1920s mafia will not have cell phones. If your character is ever on the phone, you will need to know how early landlines and rotary phones work.
What if you have a character with a snake bite and want to inject them with antivenom? The story should take place from the late 1890s to the present day. There are some exceptions, as present-day may not have access to everything. For example, a dystopian short story may have characters that don’t have access to anti-venom.
If your characters have traveled in your manuscript, to help keep your world-building consistent with your Real World stories, you can use basic tools like Google Maps to physically visit places you may not have access to.
If you are editing a form of a historical piece, it can help to jot down relevant notes on a Google Doc, Word file, or even in a physical notebook so that you can keep to the facts of the time. If you are a plotter, someone who writes things down to varying degrees beforehand, you might do the research before you write. However, a panster, someone who likes the freedom to just write as it comes to them, then jotting down this information can be targeted research after the draft has made it onto paper.
Whatever era you have written in, research is going to be your best friend, and if you aren’t entirely sure how to flesh out this research, reach out to fellow writers. The #writingcommunity on Twitter is fabulously supportive!
Secondary World World-Building:
This is most likely what you think of with world-building. Creating an entire world from scratch, or loosely based on our own, is what many fantasy authors love to do. The religion, the culture, the people… events, days of the week, and maybe a touch of conlanging (creating a new language).
Short fiction, unlike those sprawling epic sagas mentioned above, doesn’t have the time to build up the world to the same degree and dive into all the details. While you can still have a beautifully thought out world, sometimes the little details you can slip into longer pieces don’t have a place in your story.
Any secondary world-building detail needs to be as precise as the other elements, completely owned by the characters and the world without leaving unexplained sections. If the reader has to question the inclusion of any part of the story, particularly with short fiction, then you have not held their suspension of disbelief.
- Was (this element) necessary to this particular story?
Fantasy is a particular beast on its own, given that the worlds can be entirely made up, and with short fiction we may only explore the smallest parts of it at a time.
It may help you keep your world consistent and be extra fun for your future readers if you dabble in map-making. However, you do not have to be a cartographer to put together a basic map (especially if it’s just for you). You can find easy-to-use tools here at inkarnate, which will let you work as small as a city/town. As a bonus, they have both a free and paid version based on your needs.
Even if you only have one planned story in a particular secondary world, it never hurts to write down the world-building information either before you’ve penned the story, or after, so that you can revisit it without making mistakes on your own creation.
Magical Systems (if applicable):
In fantasy worlds, be it on our earth or a secondary one, you may have a magical system in place. Whether your character actually casts spells or uses more intuitive skills, there are some rules it would benefit your manuscript for you to know. The best part about those rules is that you create them.
Magic aspects come in many forms and are sometimes spiritual or energy-based. To see the vast differences in magical systems, compare the differences and similarities in Naruto and their chakra energy and Dragon Ball Z’s chi. You can also compare the differences and similarities in Elise Kova’s Air Awakens series and the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender.
The rules that you created for your character’s magic system should answer some very basic questions:
- What can they do with their abilities?
- What supplies/feeds their ability?
- What can’t they do with their abilities?
- Does this differ from person to person, or is it universal?
When you go through your manuscript to self-edit, make sure that you worked these answers in when applicable. For example, did you have your character using multiple high-energy types of magic and forget to add in the corresponding consequence? Shortness of breath, feeling dizzy or potentially needing to rework a battle so that they had the ability for their climactic hit to the antagonist. Understanding your magic system can help you figure out if you’ve created realistic magic, or if you’ve got Mary Sue/Gary Stu magic running around in a *god-mod mode.
*god-mod mode for anyone unfamiliar with the terminology is when you have essentially removed all consequences and obstacles from your character and they have no true opposition. This is the opposite of what readers want. Readers want someone to cheer for, someone whose journey they are excited to see, because they actually have something to overcome, unlike a god-mod mode character.
Bonus Tip on World-building:
Remember, if it hurts your writer’s heart to cut aspects of world-building that you put so much thought into, you are allowed to write another story in that world where that aspect of the world-building is more relevant to the story! You have that freedom. Go forth and create!
Next Week’s Topic:
We’ll dive into the setting and discuss how your self-edits can create a more immersive experience for future readers!