Three Thoughts About Writing Short Fantasy Fiction

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the fantasy genre today. This is mostly because the novel that I’m reading at the moment (“Kill The Dead” by Tanith Lee) is a short traditional-style fantasy novel – seriously, it’s just 172 pages long 🙂

One of the things that can be off-putting about the fantasy genre is the sheer length of the average fantasy novel. Don’t get me wrong, longer fantasy stories/series can be good (eg: J.K. Rowling, Clive Barker, G.R.R Martin etc..) but a longer novel is just as likely to put readers off as it is to attract them.

So, whilst Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” isn’t the first shorter fantasy novel I’ve read (since I also read urban fantasy novels sometimes), what I’ve read of it so far has made me think about what makes a good short fantasy story. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips.

1) A focused story: Simply put, if you want your fantasy story to be a lean and efficient story, then you need to focus on a few essential elements.

For example, I’ve read just over half of Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” so far. In what I have read, there are three main characters, one central magical element (eg: the creation and exorcism of ghosts) and one mythical location for the characters to journey towards. Everything in the story is related to these five elements.

If you want to tell a shorter fantasy story, then this seems like a good template to follow. In other words, you need to find the few truly essential elements of your story and then focus all of your attention, descriptions etc.. on these things.

2) Pre-existing elements: If you are telling a fantasy story within a sensible number of pages, then you need to at least partially rely on things that the reader already knows and understands before they read your story. Yes, you need to add one or two important new elements to these things (otherwise your story will become generic and uncreative), but you also need to rely on your reader’s pre-existing knowledge too.

For example, Dave Duncan’s “A Rose Red City” partially relies on the reader’s knowledge of history and myth in order to make room for more storytelling. Likewise, Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” uses pre-existing history and a mixture of Roman/Norse/Greek/Egyptian mythology in order to add a lot of extra depth to a relatively short (350 pages or so) self-contained dark fantasy thriller story.

Plus, pretty much every urban fantasy novel already expects the reader to know what vampires, werewolves, elves etc… are and what the modern world looks like.

This sort of thing can, of course, be done in a much more subtle way too. For example, the settings in the first half of Tanith Lee’s “Kill The Dead” are all various nameless villages and natural landscapes. Since the average fantasy reader will already be familiar with medieval-style villages and most people will be familiar with natural landscapes, the novel can do a large amount of worldbuilding with relatively few well-chosen descriptions and details – leaving more room for characterisation, drama, storytelling etc….

3) Other genres: Virtually every shorter fantasy story that I’ve mentioned so far has taken inspiration from at least one other genre (eg: the thriller and/or horror genres).

Focusing on blending the fantasy genre with another genre means that you have to use techniques from that genre. Many other genres have more of an emphasis on fast-paced, suspenseful, focused storytelling.

In other words, adding another genre shakes you free from the traditions of the fantasy genre. It frees you from the idea that fantasy novels have to be giant, sprawling epics that contain seven pages of family trees and four maps before the first chapter even begins.

Other genres don’t really do this sort of thing very often. So, by adding elements from another genre to your fantasy story, you can use those elements to tell a leaner and more efficient fantasy story 🙂


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂