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Character and world building in less than 2000 words

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Is it possible to build a new character and/or world in a science fiction under a tight word limit? What aspects should be covered and what avoided? Also are there some similar previous examples to get inspiration and to learn from?

The main thing is that we cannot express the full thought process of a new character and thus are unable to show his/her characteristics and point of view. Similarly how is it possible to express or show what a new world looks like in the fewest words possible? Is it totally impossible? Or do I have to narrow down something?

For example, I'd like to write about a girl who transferred to a new world and found some new family members and some new powers. I'd like to convey the message that humans are special because they don't rely on powers and do work by believing in themselves, but I'm struggling to fit all this in the short word constraint.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48924. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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3 answers

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The general principle, which would apply in this case as much as in any other is, establish the base and describe the deltas. Don't describe anything in complete detail. Rather, call up a general image and then add the distinctive details that make it specific to what you are creating.

To do this in 2000 words obviously means that you will need to start with something relatively familiar so that you can sketch the deltas quickly, but that does not mean you cannot create something rich and strange. It just means you need to sketch the deltas with a broad brush.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

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1

Narrow down.

2000 words is a tight constraint indeed. While you can show something in that limit, you can't show everything that you mentioned in your question.

Sci-fiction is famous for having a lot of short stories authors (I think of Asimov, of course, but I'd suggest to take a look at Ted Chiang's "Stories of your life" too). Even then, 2000 words still qualifies as pretty short, at least in my book.

In my opinions, you have to focus on one of three factors:

  • Concept. Sci-fi, speculative sci-fi in particular, is famous for presenting new, interesting idea. Your story may present a new concept and explore briefly its consequences. E.g. of concepts are "What if gravity worked backwards?" "What if humans had superpowers?" "What if wormholes were portal to Hell?" or whatever you might like.

  • Worldbuilding. Maybe you want to showcase a world you're thinking of. Maybe a planet in an galaxy far far away. Maybe a dystopic, soul-consuming city-factory. Maybe an war-against-alien setting.

  • Character. Again, you have a character and you want the readers to see him/her in action. This means that your character is particularly interesting and/or is part of a bigger series of event; as in detective stories.

Once you have chosen your focus, narrow down everything that it's not related to it. If you want to explore a single concept, you won't have the time to show your world or character building. Same goes for the other ways around.

Sure, this doesn't keep you from outlining your ideas better, defining your worldbuilding and deciding who your characters are. But there are only so many informations and nuances that you can stick in 2000 words, along with the plot. Resist the urge to try to explain everything to your readers and only highlight the really important points. Everything else, either you can synthetize into your short story, or it's lost, redundant or unhelpful information anyway.

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1

If you are trying to minimize the number of words, it will help a lot if you stick to the old rule, Show, don't tell — Wikipedia (a good rule to follow even if you aren't trying to save words).

Telling the reader about something requires words. But showing can be incorporated into the plot.

For instance:

As the hover-car approached the massive Ministry of Integration building's roof, Mary could see the vast plantations whose crops included kulbains, her new favourite fruit.

provides the reader with at least four significant concepts.

It didn't say:

The city was immense, but the people got their food from nearby plantations that grew almost all the agricultural products required by its citizens. Much of the food was common grains, but it also produced local fruits known as kulbains, which Mary had never tasted before.

Being a long-term visitor, she was required to register with the government and obtain appropriate identification cards.

To get to the Ministry of Integration offices, Mary boarded a vehicle that the people here called 'hover-cars' to travel around the city. They were like taxis, but they could fly over obstacles and land on top of buildings.

which conveys the same information, in many more words, and with no action or plot advancement.

Details that are missing from the short version can be inferred by the reader, or can be supplied at the appropriate time in later passages. For instance, we will soon see Mary getting her ID card, so we'll then know why she went there without having to explain it in advance.


Learning to write this way can be made easier if you practice it without having to be creative at the same time.

Pick an existing story you are already familiar with, whether it's a short TV episode or the whole Harry Potter series, and retell it in your own words. As you approach your word limit (say 1000 or 2000 words), you'll continually find yourself going back and rewriting it, discarding more and more unimportant details. Eventually you'll end up with the essence of the story in a very compact form.

Do it a few times and it will get easier and feel more natural.

Then later, when you write original material, it will be much easier for you to write only as much as is necessary.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48939. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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