On Short Stories and Prequels in Fantasy: Don’t Learn to Walk By Running a Marathon

A few years ago, I got an idea for a huge saga, or an epic, as I’ll lovingly refer to. I got excited and inspired, outlined, plotted, structured, and sat down to write the thing. I’d had writing experience, but it had never been on that scale. The work has so many moving parts, so many complexities and is a massive undertaking. It’s been written and rewritten multiple times, and I got especially stuck in that cycle for a while.

It’s still in progress. I love the work and where it’s headed. I have confidence in it, but at the time I started it, I bit off way more than I could chew, so to speak.

I heard the advice about starting with short fiction and prequels, but ignored it. An unwise choice. “But I want to get this work done! I want to write a NOVEL, not just short stuff.” or something to that point, I thought. Then I started reading short stories and novellas more, with a more open mind, and I finally got it. I quickly fell in love with the medium.

I realized that in order to make my epic saga better, I needed to go bear bones. I needed to really get a grasp on this monster I created and take smaller steps, and really get to the roots of storytelling. I’ve since started doing this and it’s been a blast. I’ll tell you why.

  1. I learn about my world on a smaller scale. Inserting things and new ideas, grounding cultures, grounding history and lore, playing with things, etc. It’s all practice for the big, epic work. You don’t learn to walk by running in a marathon. By writing prequels, novellas, and short stories, you have a smaller arena to work in. There’s more room for practice, refinement, and problem solving is easier to see. It will all aid you in your magnum opus.
  2. All the little details I adored, but didn’t fit in the epic can be used. Small cultures, silly but interesting characters, lore, locations, etc. They’re all ripe for picking and using in shorter work without trying to be jammed into the epics where they don’t always fit, or aren’t otherwise useful.
  3. World building without stagnation. It happens a lot, especially in fantasy. You get so caught up in building the world (map making, language creation, culture building, etc.) that you don’t actually write anything. But in smaller works that still take place in the world, you can world build and explore while also telling a story.
  4. The pressure comes off. I’m one of those “I’m my own worst critic” types, and that isn’t unique whatsoever. When writing such a huge work, as sagas and epics, with so many moving parts, characters, plot lines, and complexities, etc. I got so caught up in trying to make the damn thing work to the point of frustration. That lead to a lot of second-guessing and self-doubt on the work itself. In shorter works you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing on such a huge scale. You can narrow your focus to the roots of telling a compelling story.
  5. It’s just plain fun. Many writers I’ve talked to get to the point where writing isn’t fun. It becomes frustrating, sometimes infuriating. You love the craft, but the work of it often sucks. You can easily get frustrated and discouraged. But in shorter fiction in the same world, you get a break from all that. If you’ve hit a wall in your big work, you can switch to the shorter stuff for a little bit. “Hmm…I have an idea for a silly bard character who always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That could be fun to write.” Next thing you know, writing becomes a joy again. A breath of fresh air.
  6. Working out problems in your writing. We all have them. Little “ticks” so to speaks, little habits that maybe aren’t the best. They’re easier to find, navigate, and solve in shorter fiction because there just isn’t as much to sift through.
  7. Background story in the epic becomes so much easier to write. In my very first drafts of my big epic, there was so much background, world building, and backstory that I felt needed to be there, that the main conflict didn’t start for a long time. “But I have to tell the readers why this culture/country has beef with this culture/country, because of stuff that happened a long time ago!” While it’s important for that “beef” to be established, no one wants a history lesson for 3 chapters. It’s still backstory that may not always be relevant in the big epic. By writing out those prequels, I got a much better handle on the background and then could sprinkle it in where it was relevant in the big work.
  8. It’s satisfying. Your big work may be hundreds of thousands of words in length. That’s a huge undertaking that may feel like it will never be finished. By writing only a few thousand words, you finish work and drafts more often. That’s a huge confidence booster. When you can finish 80,000 words, writing 100,000+ words feels less daunting.

Now, I will start the close by mentioning that I’m in no way claiming short fiction is any “easier” than any other kind of writing. It comes with its own problems and challenges. However, in comparison to a huge epic and in regards to practice and world building, it’s a great format to work in.

Whenever new writers ask for advice, especially for fantasy, I always tell them to start in shorter work. You can do it while you work on your epic, or you can let that idea sit for a while. It’s really up to you. For all the reasons above (and more), it’s a really great way to get to know this thing you created and breathe life into it.

Want more advice? Here’s some advice on short fiction:

Some short fantasy stories and novellas I recommend:

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