Fantasy Worlds in Short Fiction: A Fisk


There are few things more maddening than some stupid liberal author trying to tell all the rest of us what is and isn’t possible. They seem to enjoy making gigantic blanket statements that are supposed to be read as cold hard fact, and then stand behind them without any specific evidence to support that asinine claim (as I have already shown in another fisk), all the while writing with this I’m so much better than you tone that makes my teeth hurt.

They aren’t voicing an opinion; they’re trying to change how people think. They want to make sure that everyone else agrees with their stupid-ass statement, I suppose because it makes them feel powerful. I don’t really care what their reasons are; their words are stupid enough all by themselves.

Today’s fisk is part one of a two-part fisk, just because both of these “opposing-view” articles are so stupid, a significant amount of derision must be applied to each of them in turn, just so that no one ever takes them seriously.


Behold the idiocy of one Natasha Pulley, who seems to think that “fantasy cannot build its imaginary world in short fiction.” As usual, the original text is in italics, while my comments are in bold.

Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction

Ah, another title that is completely stupid all by itself. Obviously, this person is not well-read, and probably lives under a rock in Tanzania. That’s the only way anyone would believe something so absurd. More on this in a moment.

‘Mega-novels’ are not a marketing wheeze, but a necessarily giant scaffolding for vast imaginative reach.

Really? So, everything with “vast imaginative reach” must be long? I take it you think that poetry is automatically worthless, too. Most of it is, after all, under a thousand words. I bet Keats and Poe and Tennyson and Byron would have something to say about that.

Recently Damien Walter wrote about the tyranny of fantasy serial mega-novels.

Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get to him tomorrow.

He suggested that fantasy novels now tend toward the enormous because of market forces — because everybody in the publishing and television industries is looking for the next Game of Thrones, and a new author who can open a factory of imagination that will lead to commercial success. I don’t think that’s the reason behind the size or format of fantasy books at all.

Really? Do, tell.

Last year, I was teaching on a short fiction course and agreed with the convenor that I’d do genre fiction while he covered high literary, New Yorker-style stuff.

Right. Because everything that is “high literary” is automatically associated with that bastion of culture, the Yankee, foaming-at-the-mouth-liberal cesspool, New York.

But although I read truckloads of fantasy,

Well, we know THAT’S a lie, because if you had, you wouldn’t think that fantasy is limited to the mega-novel.

and write it,

We’re in trouble now, people.

it was very difficult to find fantasy short stories that don’t lean in some way on an existing corpus of novels.

Again, you’re an idiot. What are you reading that gives you this idea? Baen Books knows you’re an idiot. Want to know how many people entered that contest? Several hundred. And none of those stories could be based on any existing body of work. It says so, right there in the rules


There’s a very good reason for that, and it’s nothing to do with market forces — and everything to do with the requirements of the genre itself.

What is it with you liberals putting “requirements” on the genre? I thought that fantasy was just a descriptor for a kind of story. “Fantasy” can include everything from Harry Potter to Frodo to Monster Hunter International to Harry Dresden to Merlin to steampunk pirates, whatever the author likes. And “fantasy” can be any length, from a poem to a short story to a novella to a single mega-book to a whole series of mega-books, whatever the author likes. Whichever suits his story the best. Because, contrary to your idiotic beliefs, it’s about telling a good story, not about marketing or making up rules to make yourself feel powerful. Your rules don’t help the genre; they limit the genre. And anything that limits it needs to be blown up and blasted into oblivion. You can take your “requirements” and shove ’em where the sun don’t shine.

High fantasy of the George RR Martin kind hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters.

Not necessarily. Authors with a lot of skill can convey world-building details in very few words. Just ask any of the short-story winners. They sure as hell managed it.

Oh, wait. That kind of thing requires SKILL. Right. I forgot. Never mind, in your case, I’m sure you’re right. It would indeed be impossible.

Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don’t tell, and these details take even longer to convey.

Again, not necessarily. See above.

A very fine example of this is Robin Hobb’s Farseer series. The plot is simple. It’s about a prophet who wants to change the world by bringing back dragons. But each book is more than 600 pages long, and it’s not pointless rambling allowed by an editor who simply wants to sell three books for £20 per hardback rather than one.

Uh-huh. Simple plot doesn’t have anything to do with epic worldbuilding, you idiot. Those are two different aspects of storytelling, and when last I looked, you were talking about worldbuilding, not plot. Make up your mind, and quit clouding the issue.

The time is taken up by the meticulous portrayal of a friendship.

Yeah, that’s plot again, not worldbuilding.

If it were set in the real world, this portrayal would take far less time and space — it’s two men who’ve known each other since childhood, doing variously awful and accidental things to each other throughout their adult lives. That is the stuff of top-tier literary fiction, of Ian McEwan and novels that last an exquisite 250 pages.

You’re still off on that tangent, sweetheart; get back to your point about how fantasy can’t be told in a short story because the universe has to be established in more than fifty thousand words.

It’s possible in literary fiction, though, because stories of people in the real world lean on the reader’s knowledge of the real world. There’s no need to explain what sort of government the UK has, nor modern geography, nor what our preconceptions are of particular fashions, because everybody already knows.

And that right there reveals you as a crappy storyteller, because you should never assume that your reader knows anything. If I were to write a story about a girl in Aubrey who wants to go on a trip to Tioga, guess what? I have to tell people where Aubrey and Tioga are, how long it takes you to get from one to the other, and what characteristics makes the two towns different from each other. That takes description, and even the obvious is part of a storyteller’s scope. I can’t just leave it at “Jane Smith woke up one morning and decided to take a trip to Tioga.” That’s not a story, that’s a statement. And down here where I live, “everybody knows” where Aubrey and Tioga are. That doesn’t mean that anyone else does.

However, Hobb’s stories don’t take place in the real world. The two main characters are not ordinary people who can be sketched and left largely to the imagination of the reader.

No character should be — that’s the author’s job, to describe the character, no matter what genre or time period or situation the character is in. We want to know who they are, what they look like, where they live, how they dress, how they talk, and why we should care about them. Do they have talent? Do they have skeletons in their closet? We can’t know unless the author tells us.

You’re wandering off into more of that “reader response” bullshit, where the reader has to put significance into the story, instead of reading about it. Yes, stories affect people differently, but they have their own objective reality that can’t be changed just because a reader “feels” something about them. Read the story for what it is, not for what you, the reader, can try and make it with your own rose-colored lenses.

One of them can see the future and refuses to disclose, for cultural reasons and out of general pig-headedness, whether he’s even a man or a woman. The other is a royal bastard born into political circumstances that deny him an ordinary family and any other truly meaningful friendships beyond that of this wonderful lunatic.

Now, how did you come to know that about these two characters? Oh, I think the author must have described them as such. Gee. And you’re still off your original topic.

They live in a world where there is magic in the air and the stones, and a dragon buried in a glacier.

Oh, there’s the topic again. Worldbuildng.

All those things which are not mentioned in literary realism

Literary realism? What the hell does that even mean?


but are important for its context – government, geography, fashion, everything – are equally important in this trilogy,

Really? I’m sure they’re important to describe the characters and to show what kind of world they live in, and the place and context in which the plot happens, but equally important? I doubt it. Not all aspects of a story are equal. I would think that plot and characters come before the fashion of the various people in this imaginary world.

but they are not already understood by the readers. To bring it all to life requires a lot of space, and a huge amount of detail.

Not necessarily. Hey, look, I’m repeating myself. It’s nice to read a story that has pages and pages of detail added in. To borrow a phrase from an old history professor of mine: “you can drink it in like a fine wine.” It’s part of the entertainment of the story to get all of those long details. Like David Weber. He goes on almost interminably about the ships in the Honorverse — how fast they are, how their weapons work, what their defenses are like, how the software operates, how many crew members each one has, and so on — but that’s part of the fun of the story. It’s not absolutely necessary for EVERY story to have that kind of extreme detail. It depends on what story is being told, and how, and by whom.

You seem to think that it’s an ironclad requirement for ALL stories. You’re an idiot. If ALL stories were like that, they would all be the same, and that would be boring as hell. Not to mention a crappy way to spend time. What if I want to read a nice, little short story instead of the full Lord of the Rings trilogy? I’d be shit outta luck, if you had your way.

If you take out the detail of fantasy and boil it down to the skeleton of its plot, the result is nearly always a lot of unexplained magic. That has a quite a peculiar effect.

I’m not even sure what you’re talking about, and it doesn’t make any sense.


Who would want to boil anything down like that? You can’t have a story without SOME worldbuilding. You’re talking about these things –plot, characters, and worldbuilding — like they’re completely separate things with no relation to each other. You need ALL of them to tell a story, but not all stories need them EQUALLY. There is such a thing as a plot-driven story AND a character-driven story, like James Bond versus Jane Austen. The three aspects of those stories are not equally parceled out in each.

Once again, another good Liberal maniac trying to make everything and everybody equal. But it’s not about not equality of opportunity; it’s about equality of outcome (thank you, David Weber, for that beautiful and short description of exactly what’s wrong with the Liberal mindset).

Game of Thrones: There was once a girl who raised three dragons and set out to conquer the world.

Lord of the Rings: There was once a hobbit who inherited a ring enchanted by a fallen spirit and destroyed it to save the world.

Harry Potter: There was once a young man who defeated an evil wizard.

The stories immediately begin to sound like fairytales.

Uh, so what if they do? There’s nothing wrong with fairytales. Everybody, no matter how old they are, can use a good fairy tale: “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”


And you can “boil down” anything to sound like that:

Pride and Prejudice: There once was a family with five daughters, who each wanted to marry a handsome gentleman.

James Bond: There once was a great warrior, who fought bravely against the enemies of his country.

The Expendables: There once was a group of dangerous men, who joined together to save the world from evil.

This Article: There once was a Liberal who made a fool of herself before the citizens of an entire kingdom.


At its heart, high fantasy is what happens when a fairytale-style plot is sufficiently elaborated upon. The magic is explained and systematised; where a fairytale says, “there was once a witch”, fantasy explores what witches are and where they come from, how they live, the culture of witchcraft. It builds its reasoning from the ground up, brick by brick. It becomes sprawling and densely populated because often it isn’t about a unifying plot, but a common world.

Yeah, because plot is an afterthought.

There’s nothing wrong with building up that kind of world, but it’s not always necessary. You — let me rephrase, a talented author — could tell a perfectly good fantasy short story with nothing more than “there once was a witch,” and then cut straight to the plot, with only a few details about the world the witch lives in. A few sentences would suffice, but the world is still built. That doesn’t make it any less fantasy, or any less quality than anything written by Tolkien or Rowling or Martin (although the quality of Martin’s work is highly questionable, but that’s a topic for another post).

Everything else about high fantasy is shared with fairytales — settings, objects, stereotypical characters, stereotypical plots. It’s world-building that separates them — and, therefore, length.

You’re back on that again. Why do you think that worldbuilding can only be long and involved? That’s preposterous. Take the example with the witch again: There once was a witch who lived in a large, enchanted forest at the edge of a prosperous kingdom. There. Worldbuilding accomplished, and I only used nineteen words.

To write short fantasy is very difficult.

No disagreement there. I’m sure you can’t write any short fantasy, but don’t try to say that it’s impossible just because YOU can’t do it.

If the usual big-fantasy detail is taken out and you only sketch a plot, you get a fairytale.

You’re making a useless, arbitrary distinction between the two. Stop it.

If you write real high fantasy in 4,000 words, details and all, it tends to be a snippet, not a story.

I think K.D. Julicher and about five hundred others would disagree with you. What about Chicks in Chainmail? Or Shattered Shields? Or the Tales of Tethedril? Or the Fantastic books? Or Lord FREAKING Darcy?

If it’s something set in a basically real world but with a fantasy element, it’s not fantasy so much as speculative fiction, or alternative history, or a ghost story.

Here you go again with the arbitrary and stupid distinctions. Are you saying that The Dresden Files aren’t really fantasy? How about Monster Hunter International?


That means that there is an incredibly narrow taxonomical window in which short fiction can be recognised as fantasy at all. What we recognise as fantasy is long. Sometimes really long.

Only in your little world. The rest of us can appreciate short fiction, and especially short fantasy. See the above list.

The fantasy series, and the mega-novel, may have been encouraged by market forces. But they are, above everything else, the natural format for anything so sprawling as a fantasy universe.

Really? I thought they were just the format the author chose in order to tell the story that he wanted to tell. Well, guess I was wrong.

There’s rubbish, of course;

Like this article? I agree, and I’m glad you recognize that.

There’s also some properly good writing, and some of it isn’t by Tolkien or Martin. So I hope they keep coming. As long as possible, please.

Yeah, like Brandon McClellan’s Powder Mage series? Or John D. Brown’s The Dark God series?

Those are long stories, with multiple installments, and lots of worldbuilding. I love how McClellan set up his magic system — a combination of classic sorcery and a new kind of magic with gunpowder. Brilliant. Yes, they’re long. Yes, they have multiple installments.

But they are not the only kind of good fantasy.

The length of the work should be whatever the author decides can tell the story he wants to tell. That can be anything from a short story, to a novella, to a novel, to a multiple-installment mega-novel series. Who cares how long they are, if the story is good?

Oh, wait. You liberals do. Because you want everything to be the same. You want the rules to be followed by all little Author-Bots in the world.

If you had your way, there would be no more fiction. We’d all be writing pre-determined plot lines with a maximum word requirement, and standards for the amount of plot, character, and worldbuilding in each.

Why can’t you liberal maniacs just have an opinion? Why can’t you just say: “I think that good fantasy requires significant worldbuilding. In my opinion, that means that a short story just can’t reach the level of worldbuilding that I prefer, and that I think makes a good story.” That would be your opinion, and you’re perfectly entitled to it. You can spend your money on those mega-novels, and be happy with them. But no, you have to take your opinion and make it into a set of ironclad rules that all the rest of us plebs have to follow.

Here’s what I think of that:


We’ll be over here writing our little hearts out, and we’ll see who’s the more successful.

lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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