Building backstory into sci-fi short fiction.

Darth Vader Luke


I really enjoy writing short stories for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that a good short story is almost pure in concept. Short fiction forces a writer to concentrate all the best elements of their idea into a single narrative. When this is done well, the results are exceptional. However, this can be pretty trick when it comes to Science Fiction.

One of the best Science Fiction writers was the amazing Philip K. Dick, famous for Total Recall, Minority Report and the basis for Blade Runner. What a lot of people don’t know is that most of Dick’s tales were short stories. One of his greatest strengths was in creating backstory through implication and dialogue which kept his stories short but densely packed with meaning and concept.

The problem with short fiction backstory is that the writer does not have time to really establish much outside the main narrative. Info-dumping (long passages of background being fed to the reader) is frowned upon in a novel, in a short story it’s a disaster. The novelist, however, has a way around this and can drop little details bit by bit over the course of the book. Characters can be debriefed, read a newspaper, have a conversation with a new friend, and so knowledge is imparted to the reader. In the short story, these options are much less common.

In some cases, this isn’t a problem. If you’re writing a character driven piece about a teenager leaving home for the first time or a period piece set in a familiar environment, you can probably stick to narrative and characterisation. The essential facts will be enough to set the mood.

For a sci-fi story, this just won’t work. One of the great things about fantasy, sci-fi and horror is that the sky is the limit. The freedom to write anything and everything is not only why readers enjoy the books, but it’s also why they’re fun to write. The problem is that it is very difficult to write a book when you, as a writer, have no limitations. The touch people, whether it is to move them or to frighten them, requires a strong element of connection. This is impossible to do when you’re writing about a world they don’t recognise. In these situations you must create a world with its own boundaries and quirks. Science Fiction fans will be your worst nightmare and your best friend, they will highlight whenever your world breaks its own rules, grows too outlandish or fails to entertain. The positive side is that they want to love the world you create, and if you do a good job they will flock to your books and spread them to others.

One of the most important rules in writing science fiction is to establish a world clearly and then stick to it, but how do you establish something a complex as a fictional universe in a single short story? Here’s a technique that really works for me.

If you’re trying to establish a world that is built around a new technology or a new discovery, one of the best ways to do this is to show characters taking the tech for granted. In your story, do people change bodies the way they change clothes in the morning? Write it like that.

“Grant was late. Big meeting today, he flicked through his outfits. He’d probably go in tall today, maybe something african for the press conference. The media loved that multi-cultural stuff.”

Used well, this technique gets across so much to your reader. The technology exists, it’s been around so long it’s considered mundane, it’s in the public knowledge. How about limitations?

“He had planned on wearing the 56, a professional looking Chinese ensemble, but he’d taken it away on a weekend and it only had about three hours before decay set in.”

Here we have a character adressing one of the technical limitations of this new technology, but it’s brought up naturally. What these passage also do is establish that despite this new body wearing technology, the world it largely the same. People still have meetings, companies,  the press is still around. China and Africa are still around (or still remembered) and people still go away for the weekend. We also pick up a few details about the character. He’s a businessman of some sort, probably has a bit of money, represents his company and tries to take in the PR angle.

Now, we’ve established everything the reader needs to know in a single paragraph and without using infodumps. From here on out we can probably write the rest of the story without explaining any more back story to the reader.

Now I’m going to go write the rest of that story.