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Does Size Really Matter? – Fantasy Shorts

We are used to fantasy being big – epicly big in many cases – running in countless volumes of increasing size, or the kind of thick tomes that take up far too much shelf space, doubling as doorstoppers and spider killers, rivalled only in bulk by the likes of The Yellow Pages and the Argos catalogue. When we think of fantasy we think of worldbuilding on a grand scale, of entire new societies, languages and magic systems.

But what happens when fantasy is smaller – really small?

Short stories are something very special; they work differently from longer fiction, usually focusing more on character or theme, constructing new worlds and cultures with the subtlest or slightest suggestions. A short story can say as much as a whole book can, and sometimes even more. Short stories also tend to be more open to experimentation, to new ideas and risks, that longer works might find more difficult to sustain or to market. Genre boundaries are often blown completely out of the water, demonstrating that the line between fantasy, science fiction, and realism is much thinner than it seems.

Fantasy in the Short Form – From Folklore to Pulp Magazines

The Philosopher by DongedyframeIn fact, fantasy is perfectly suited to the short story. Bedtime stories, fairytales, folklore and myths – it could be argued that the short story is fantasy’s natural form. Not only that, but you could say that fantasy is the short story’s original genre. Fantasy and the short form are strongly linked throughout history.

As far back as we can study human society, we find the myths and folklore that people told to each other; stories that helped explain the world or that enforced the rules and taboos of a particular culture. These stories usually contain elements that we would associate with typical fantasy today: magic, gods, monsters, powerful beings, the supernatural, heroes, and strange lands. Much of modern fantasy is built on the foundations of myths and legends from the past, from the creatures and the weapons, to the underlying themes of these tales.

In most cases, myths grew out of a need to explain or to justify certain things. For instance, in Greek mythology you will find many references to the genealogy of certain royal houses or tribes, linking them back to divine origin and so establishing the right to authority and power. In all cultures there are myths explaining how the world began, with the creation of cities or natural features, the divine power behind weather, or human emotion being common themes.

Because of this, myths are often bound up with a specific time and place in our world. Fairytales, on the other hand, take place in a separate otherland, and ‘once upon a time’. Often growing out of the same oral tradition as myths, fairytales share something of their fluidity, changing form based on different tellings, sometimes with alternate endings or versions. Whereas myths are harder to hold down in one specific form, fairytales begin to resemble the more solid story structures that we are used to today. They have satisfying beginnings, middles and ends, twists and turns, strong characters and a better feel for pacing than many myths. This is because fairytales are meant to be stories in ways that myths are not necessarily intended to be. Myths are essentially religious, and cannot really be separated from the culture to which they belong. Though fairytales, like myths, can be devices for teaching morals and behaviour, they begin to do something different from myths; they are entertainment.

Fairytales, and the bedtime stories inspired by them, also began to change the audience for these kinds of stories. Although most were intended for adults as well as children, this slowly began to change, and so their tropes – fairies, elves, dwarves, magic items, witches and adventurers – became the stuff of children’s stories. This was cemented during the Victorian era in which fairytales were deliberately sanitised, leading to today’s ‘Disney versions’. This was also the era in which these shorter tales began to influence longer fantasy stories, still aimed at children, such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, Peter Pan, and many more. Fantasy was born, but it was still the domain of children.

Today, the original intent and darkness of fairytales has been reclaimed, and many authors have even created their own unique fairy stories. Fairytales might also be said to have had an influence on modern urban legends, particularly those featuring the supernatural, which always happen to a ‘friend of a friend’ and often share a similar vagueness of location or time. These are our ‘campfire stories’, fulfilling some of the purpose that folklore once did.

Collections of short stories really began to appear in the 19th century, but it would be some time before true fantasy shorts for adults would emerge. These began with horror stories, by writers such as Poe, Lovecraft and Bierce. Detective stories and mysteries also began to emerge, and became extremely popular with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In the 1880s H.G. Wells began to write his first science fiction short stories, and the popularity of science fiction also grew. ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, short story magazines introduced in the Victorian era, published what were considered sensational and slightly trashy adventure stories. Their successors were the pulp magazines of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. This is where fantasy, by authors such as H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, began to appear. Conan, Tarzan, John Carter, and others were born.

Why Read Fantasy Shorts?

Vintage Books by CarlChristensenThough they will never be epic on a physical scale, short stories have the capacity to be emotionally and thematically epic in ways that some 1000-page series, which follow huge casts of characters or history-defining storylines, can sometimes fail to be. Short stories will naturally focus in; they will tend to take a conflict, a theme, a larger story, and zoom in to an individual level or an unexpected perspective. A short story set in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for instance, might tell the story of one slave, freed by Dany and suddenly faced with a new existence, perhaps with the unpleasant realisation that his or her everyday life has somehow barely changed. A short story set in Tolkein’s Middle Earth might take a more unusual route and explore what it means to be one orc in Sauron’s army. What are they fighting for and why? How does the world look from their perspective? These are stories that might not be long enough, or simply would not work if told in novel length, but as a short story provides something fresh and beautiful.

Today’s fantasy short stories combine elements of everything that has influenced them – the fairytales and folklore, and pulps and longer novels, creating something new. A short story is intended to be read as a story; it is expected to entertain as a longer novel is, and must have structure and pacing that tells the story to best effect. It focuses on character, builds a world, and usually follows some kind of change or conflict. Short stories today tend to be more like a novel in short form than the oral tales of history were. However, short stories still bear many similarities to the myths and legends that they have grown from; they do not have to adhere to the same rigid structures as most novels; they can be more experimental; they will often carry a moral, a message or an important theme; they are not as concerned with genre; they can hit harder with a devastating ending that would perhaps be frustrating in a novel.

Short stories can also be a fantastic way to discover new writers. A short story can tell you whether a new author’s style is for you or not, or they can introduce you to authors you might never have found otherwise. It is also easier to find a more diverse mix of writers when reading short stories – fantasy by writers of different countries and cultures, male and female, LGBTQ. These might offer a new perspective, open up new ideas or reject old rules, or simply tell a very entertaining story.

Alternatively, there are also many well known authors who write short fiction as well as longer novels. If you are unsure where to start, beginning with a favourite author could be a good idea. Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Ursula le Guin, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Catherynne M. Valente all write wonderful short stories, to name just a few. And while epic fantasy might not have begun with shorts, other sub-genres such as sword and sorcery were born in the old pulp magazines. Why not search out these old stories and see how it all began?

Short stories are not necessarily better or worse than longer fiction – they are something very different that should be appreciated on its own terms. If you are looking for something new, something short, something challenging or different, something that takes risks, or if you are feeling exhausted with longer stories, or have simply never tried a fantasy short before, why not give a short story a try? They make a perfect bedtime story, and fit nicely into a lunch break too!

Types of Short Story

Book Lift by PopElegantiarumStrictly speaking, a short story is anything around 1000 to 15,000 words. The average length tends to be around 5000-7000. Less than 1000 is a flash fiction or microfiction, and a story of 15,000 to about 70,000 is a novella. Although this article uses the term ‘short story’, flash fictions and novellas can be considered to fall under this general category as well.

Flash fiction naturally has to be extremely quick and to the point. It will usually focus on one moment, on a particular emotion or theme.

A novella is getting close to the length of a short book, but tends to be slicker and much faster pace than a longer novel. Stories with a pulp style, racing plot, and very active characters are well suited to novellas, and a fantasy novella will often be an extremely fun story. In particular, the novella’s length lends itself to the sword and sorcery sub-genre. Famous novellas include Of Mice and Men, A Christmas Carol, and The Time Machine, and in the fantasy genre Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books. Novellas had been unfavoured by publishers until the ebook led to a rise in their popularity. This means they can be a little harder to find, but are often well worth the effort.

Where Can I Find Short Stories?

Short stories can be found in three main locations:

– Anthologies containing many different authors. These are usually themed. Try searching for anthologies on Amazon or on publishers’ sites, or look in the anthology section in a bookshop (it’s usually before ‘A’ and arranged according to theme). In fact, Fantasy-Faction is releasing its very own anthology soon! Find out more about it here, or click here for the cover art reveal.

– Collections of stories by one author. These are a little easier to find. Search for an author and see if they have published any short story collections. “Fragile Things” by Neil Gaiman and “From Dark Places” by Emma Newman have been two of my favourites.

– Short story magazines. Many of these can be found online, and a lot of them post their stories for free. Others can be downloaded as ebooks, or ordered as a hard copy. Subscriptions are usually incredibly cheap for the amount of stories provided, and many can be subscribed to on Amazon. Short story magazines can also be found in some bookshops. Below is a list of some locations where fantasy short stories can be found online. If you have any suggestions or recommendations, why not leave them in the comments?

Fantasy Short Stories Online

Clarkesworld
Strange Horizons
Apex
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Lightspeed
Crossed Genres
Interzone
The Future Fire
Ideomancer
The World SF Blog
Shimmer
Realms of Fantasy
Something Wicked (more horror focussed)
Weird Fiction Review

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4 Comments

  1. A good article – but no mention for Lord Dunsany? He was arguably the most influential short story writer in 20th century fantasy – Lovecraft was immensely influenced by him, for instance, and his influence is still very obvious in modern fantasy short stories.

    • Ooh how could I forget good ol’ Edward Plunkett? (fantasycon quiz question xD ).

      Yes, really good point! 🙂 He was a huge influence on Robert E Howard (Conan writer), Tolkein, Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, and others too. If anyone is interested in reading Lord Dunsany’s stories, you can find a lot of them free on Project Gutenberg.

  2. Graeme Dolan says:

    Great article, I have been looking for some of this information lately. Feel cracking short story writing would be a great step into writing a full novel.

    On another note, more series are bringing Shorts and novellas out with the Novel to enhance the story ( Dresden), clearly shows the popularity of short stories

  3. Excellent article! I think there is a lot of good short fantasy that flies under the radar. One of my favorite anthology series was Robert Silverberg’s Legends, which had novella-length selections of series by major authors. If an author I haven’t read has a story in Legends, I usually read it before plunging into a dauntingly massive series to see if it will be worth my time.

    While I love the narrower focus of shorter fiction, I’m also a big fan of plot. I’ve found that the perfect marriage of the two occurs in novelette territory, around 13K words.

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