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I'm writing short stories in a Fantasy world setting I have created — medieval times, magic, dragons, etc. People who are familiar with such a world may not find a problem reading a short story set in an unknown world. Since short stories are usually very condensed and precise, I'm torn about the amount of knowledge I should include about the world. Should I show more than usual? I do not intend to write a novella.

So my question is:
How much setting information should I include in a short story set in an original Fantasy world?

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Short answer:

You should write just as much as necessary, and nothing more.

Short stories are supposed to be like that - short. Even if it's a fantasy setting, maybe a wildly elaborate one, you should not describe more than you need to bring the short story to an effective, satisfying end.

Any information you give should serve at least one of those purposes:

  1. Allow the reader to understand what happens, or
  2. emphasize something about the theme of the short story.

Point one basically means that you can't pull important informations on the setting without having them introduced, first. Let's suppose you're writing a short story about a warrior exploring an unknown dungeon. He stumbles on a chest and tries to open it, expecting to find some treasures, but - surprise surprise - there's a magic trap inside and he bursts into flames. While that would be quite a big shock for the audience, it wouldn't be satisfying if you have not hinted at the existance of magic in the world.

In other words, all the elements that come to play in your short-story arc should be somewhat understandable to the reader.

Point two is about something more subtle. Let's say that the underlying theme of your short story is greed or proto-capitalism in your fantasy setting. Then maybe it would be interesting to talk about the guild system in your world, the trade routes, the kingdom's taxes, the slave-runned gold mines ... you name it.

Maybe those things don't come into play into the plot per se, but they add relevant flavour. A character may just stop and think: The elf had a thick layer of sweat on his brow, like a slave after a long day mining gold for silk-gloved hands.

Ask yourself: what's the point of my story? What is the theme?

Remember: you don't have to "explain" everything. Most of the times, hinting at something is enough - the audience is smart and will connect the dots. You don't have to stop and tell how everything works, everytime.

What you want to avoid at all costs is useless exposition. You may feel the temptation to show the readers how cool your worldbuilding is: try to resiste the urge. No one cares if you've got the most fantastic magic system in your story if it doesn't come to play, or it doesn't help making a point.

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    One clarification on point one: you don't necessarily need to foreshadow information consistent with reader expectations. Magic often exists in the fantasy genre, so if you establish your story as fantasy you need not foreshadow magic specifically. (For example, a warrior in a dungeon is a common fantasy trope, so as long as you're clear this isn't historical fiction, no one familiar with the genre of fantasy should be surprised by a magic trap.) -- I'd focus more on foreshadowing why there might be a trap there, rather than the existence of magic per se. (This also stems from point one.) – R.M. Feb 11 at 18:30
  • @R.M. You're right; maybe my "warrior in the dungeon" isn't overall the best example of point one. – Liquid Feb 12 at 8:06
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    One example that really sprung to my mind reading this, The Unpleasant Profession of Johnathan Hoag, by Robert Heinlein. This is one of his earlier works, written long before Stranger. I feel like the world had a rather interesting magic system, but we basically get to see almost none of it. We do learn about the titular character and his unpleasant profession, but apart from the bit foreshadowed in the title itself, it feels like every loose end is left dangling. And yet, at the end, I didn't feel cheated. I knew what Mr. Hoag did and why it wasn't a pleasant job. – Ed Grimm Feb 13 at 0:01
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@Liquid's answer is fantastic, I would add just one thing.

Create a Beginning That Immerses the Reader In The Setting

Since this is a short story you want to set it up as quickly as possible.

A number of things will help pull your reader into your setting:

  1. Strong story title
  2. Early, specific setting details

If your title is created properly readers are going to immediately understand that it is a fantasy and has a specific type of setting.

Specific Details

Concentrate on your intro sentences and show something that will provide the reader with a definite understanding of the setting.

A large shadow raced over Zelda and her right hand went to the hilt of her sword as she shielded her eyes from the bright sun and looked up. Fleekle the dragon had found her. But how?

I'm sure you can do much better than that simple example, but notice that I mention the sword, the dragon, etc those small elements are enough to let the reader get an idea of the setting.

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Include a map at the beginning.

This might mean some work or require some help. Have a map at the beginning that shows all the fantastical elements in the imagery, such as the archetypal cottage to represent a town in a forest, a medieval castle to represent just that. In the periphery, paste images of dragons or wizards or old compasses to embellish. If you have two suns, show them at the top, for example.

A lot of land, culture, sense of scale, background, and general exposition can be conveyed in a single map image.

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