Being a Better Writer: Using Shorts to Explore Character or Setting

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday once again! How’d that happen? The weekend seemed to flash by, but it’s probably partially as a result of me spending a good chunk of my Saturday working on The Minstrel and the Marshall. Which has been edited, trimmed, and revised in a few places … but I think I want to make one more change before I upload it today. A small one tweak before I let others get a look at it.

Still, it’s under the word requirement for Troubadours and Space Princesses now. Which, I remind all of you, only has open submissions for another twenty-four days! If you’d like to submit a story for the collection, check out the requirements and relevant information here!

All right, let’s cover some other relevant news. Starforge editing is hitting hard this week, so I’ll be blitzing through the opening quarter of the book and making changes. I’ll also once again be looking over and possibly retooling my Amazon advertising: For reasons unknown to me, views cratered after March 1st, and I’ve as yet been unable to figure out why, but it’s impacting my bottom line, so figuring it out is a bit vital.

Other than that … there’s not much worth sharing at the moment. Well, maybe one thing. Did you know this site has a Discord channel? It’s true. A channel with various rooms and even people! Now, the link isn’t public, because usually the only time it’s been open to invite people is for live Being a Better Writer Q&A sessions. Basically, like a forum, I’ve rolled it out slowly so that things are overwhelmed with spam or bots (there’s enough of that going on already on the site, hence requirements like emails on comments).

But there is a Discord, and there you can talk about books you’re reading (mine or others), writing, games you’re playing. You know, the usual forum/chatter stuff.

And today? I’m feeling like it’s time to crack the doors open a little. The link will be past the jump, just to put a slight block in the way of spam-bots, but if you’d like to join in, the link will be live for one week! It’s a larger crack than we’ve given the door before, and we’ll see how it goes.

I think that’s about it for news. With all that said, maybe we should talk some writing? Go ahead and hit that jump to find both the aforementioned link to the friendly little Discord, and to get looking at today’s topic.

First: The Makalay Camp Discord Link. If you don’t understand the name, check your on-hand copy of Shadow of an Empire. If you don’t have an on-hand copy of Shadow of an Empire, then head on over to the Books tab and fix that! Seriously, don’t sleep on that one. It sold out at LTUE for good reasons!

Anyway, welcome to the camp, and enjoy. Obvious rules apply, etc etc, keep it clean and PG-13 at the worst, yadda yadda. Common sense … which should honestly be called “rare sense” these days owing to that it’s not so common, but that’s another topic for another day.

For now? Let’s talk about writing. Specifically, about using short fiction to explore our characters and setting.

Today’s topic is a tool in the writer’s toolbox, yes, but it’s a big one. This is not a small tool like a chisel or a screwdriver. This is more like a full-on milling machine and lathe.

In other words, this tool is a space taker. It’s big. It’s going to use some space, and it’s going to take your full attention. You may—or rather will—find that you use a lot of other tools working with it, sort of like how a lathe comes with a whole array of bits and bobs.

All that said, however, this tool can be extremely useful in your writing. How? Well, let me share a story with you that I experienced recently. More than once, actually.

A few weeks back I was talking with someone who had the aim of writing a full length Epic. Not a series or anything. They just had a book and a setting in mind that they’d been working on for some time and really wanted to write … but they were also hesitant. And perhaps you’ve found yourself in this situation.

They had characters. They had setting. But as they spoke with me about a lot of this work they’d done, there was something they didn’t have: Any assurance that some of these pieces would work once they’d stuck them together.

Now, if you’ve ever felt like that, rest assured that this is normal. It’s not uncommon for an author who’s built all these different pieces to look at them before writing the story and wonder “Will these fit together with that? Or does this piece need to be changed?” Before on this site, I’ve compared crafting a story to building a house, one where you have windows and doors and various rooms, all of which need to be framed and neatly fit together. But sometimes, like with building a house, we’re unsure if something like a bay window will fit in a particular spot simply based on our plans. We want it. We think it will fit, both in physicality and with the decor … but we don’t know, and may not know until we get there.

Sands, many times we may not even be certain we can build a bay window. We want to, but we’re not certain we can pull it off. And I’m not just talking about someone who has never written a book before, I’m talking about experienced, hardened authors with multiple books under their belt that have callouses on their fingertips. Sometimes all those callouses were built writing gritty political thrillers, and now they want to try their hand at a fantasy romance, and they have no idea if the pieces they’d like to build will work together because they’ve never tried.

To go back to our metaphor of a story being a house, there are plenty of writers who are skilled at plumbing and electrical work, but have never framed kitchen cabinets before and have no idea if they’ll be able to pull it off when going into a story. This can be daunting, because no one wants to write a story centered around those cabinets, only to discover when they get there that their cabinets are really poorly made.

And the hesitance sets in. As with those aspiring people I spoke with who expressed a fear over this. They knew the story they wanted to tell. However, they didn’t know if the pieces they’d imagined would fit together properly.

At which point, I suggested bringing out one of the biggest writer’s tools of all.

Now if you’ve read the title of this piece, you can probably guess what that tool is and why it’s so large. It is kind of spelled out.

That’s right, it’s taking those things you’d like to build and “testing them” in a short story! At which point … yes, this tool does qualify as one of the larger tools out there. And you can see how it might use most of the other tools in your toolbox.

To which some of you may say “Well, why not just write the whole book, then, and save time finding out?” The reply, however, is that’s not the point. That, and if you do write the whole book only to find that the cabinets really weren’t a good idea, and now you’re going to need to redo the whole electrical system and put an oven in … well, that’s a lot more work that building a “small scale test model” and seeing early on that “Oh yeah, that character arc really doesn’t mesh with this setting, does it?”

Which is why writing short fiction can be a great way to testbed larger projects. To see if the worldbuilding you’ve planned and figured out actually holds up when put to the test.

But how do you do that? How do you actually sit down and turn a full novel into a short story?

Well, first, you don’t actually do that. You’re not going to build a scale model of the entire mansion that is your story. It’s more like building a small diorama of a part of that world, setting, or character based on what you want to test out.

For example, I’ve done this a few times with settings of my own in ways that illustrate how this tool can be used. The first and most obvious one I can share is from Shadow of an Empire. Which those of you who read it might ask “Wait, what?” But the few who have read Unusual Events, specifically the short story Ripper, which is a “prequel” of sorts, set in the same setting as Shadow.

And there’s a reason for that. Because when I was working on Shadow of an Empire, I had a lot of great ideas, but I wasn’t confident that the ideas I’d setup for the world, with the system of hard magic it had, would work first as envisioned for a coherent setting, and second for the story of Shadow.

At which point I sat down and wrote Ripper not just to write a neat (if grim) story, but to test out the various worldbuilding elements I’d dreamed up and see if, when put together in a setting with characters, things flowed the way that I wanted them to!

That’s what Ripper was. It was a testbed! It was a chance to stick my feet into the world, into the setting that I’d dreamed up, and see the various gears come together and start to function. A chance to explore how I’d imagined the magic working hand in hand with the formation of the society I’d thought of, and to see if it actually worked, of if things went off the rails a bit.

That’s what Ripper was. A test. The short I worked on this weekend? It’s similar. The Minstrel and the Marshal is the first story I’ve written in a new setting, an attempt to see how well the various pieces and parts come together and work as a whole. And a chance to see if the magic I’ve envisioned for it makes sense, adds to the world, or maybe even just takes away, as I’ve considered having none of it at all in the story I’m telling. Writing Minstrel has allowed me to see exactly how much influence and effect the sparse magic will have on the setting, and whether or not I want to include it when I move on to write the story I want to write in this setting.

My point, therefore, is not that you should look at how to condense an entire story, setting, and character into a single short. Not at all! But that you should take the one or two aspects that you’re worried about, and try building a short story around them! It might be, for example, that you’re worried about the character emotion in a certain situation in your setting. Well, maybe try a short that explores similar emotions or occurrences from another character in the setting. See what happens when you turn those emotions lose. Do you get a good story or a scene out of it? Or do bits and pieces of it grind against one another?

The core idea here is that you identify what parts of your work you’re hesitant about. Is it characters? Emotional reactions? A specific plot situation? The setting? Or something else? Whatever it is, you identify it, and then you pull it out on its own, or maybe with a few other things you want to test, and you take it over to this large tool you just drug out of your toolbox. You sit down with these elements, and you put them together in the tool, and you craft a short story that allows you to test said elements. It might be in the same setting, it might not. It might be entirely unrelated save for a single character attribute, or it could be set in the same universe during a different time period to see how interesting and alive that location is, or how your worldbuilding holds up.

It could be a number of approaches. But you make a microcosm, a little short where you can see how the pieces that have been rattling in your head shake out.

And at the end of it? When the short is done, whether it’s a single page or a few dozen, you look over it and you see how those elements you wanted to test worked out. Maybe you show it to a few people, with or without telling them what it was for, and see how they react. Do they like the thing you were worried about? Or do they have concerns or questions?

If so, don’t fear! Now you can come up with answers to those questions, answers to the same questions that very likely would have been asked when you’d written the full story, but now you have the answers in mind before you write that story out, and you can fix any prospective problems before they become problems.

So that’s really all there is to it. To some, this may sound straightforward. Maybe even obvious. But I promise you, there are those for whom this is a revelation. For whom when I’ve suggested the idea their eyes have gone wide and they’ve said ‘I never thought of that!’ because they’re so focused on the larger story, crafting a smaller microcosm to test out some of the concepts they’re worried about never occurred to them.

So there you have it: The art of using short stories to test character and setting blocks that may have otherwise bogged down your writing process. It’s a big tool, but at the same time … it’s really a good one for making sure that the foundation you’re about to build, and the house that goes on top of it, is solid. You may not use it often, but it should always be in your toolbox, just in case.

Because when you do need it, it’s a great tool to have on hand.

And who knows? Sometimes what results might surprise even you.

So good luck. Now get writing!

This week we welcome a new Patreon Supporter, Jacob! Welcome, and thank you for your support! Their support, as well as that of others listed below, keeps Being a Better Writer coming and Unusual Things ad-free:

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Using Shorts to Explore Character or Setting

  1. I been writing short stories related to my book long before reading this post. Its a good strategy for flashing out side characters and laying the rule of the world down.


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