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Can you write a short story that's only an exposition for worldbuilding?

Let's say that you have a collection of science fiction short stories. In order to have strong worldbuilding, is it possible to only do exposition in some short stories, meaning telling and not showing, so you can show some important things in more important short stories where the narrative is important, and do show and not tell in those short stories? Is this something that was done before in a collection of short stories? Because it is so hard to do worldbuilding in a short story, I feel this is the only way to do a lot of worlbuilding.

5 Answers 5

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I've seen it done.

When Harlan Ellison created a shared world anthology set on Medea, a planet of a red dwarf flare star, as I recall the first published story of the setting was simply a detailed description of the world of Medea itself -- ending with "...but Medea is a world, and as such, infinite." In my opinion, it was magnificent.

That said, if you aren't Harlan Ellison, it's almost certainly better to include some actual, well, story in your story.

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I don't think so. Exposition is not a story, a story has a hero, with a problem, that suffers to finally find a solution.

Nobody wants to read a straight up history lesson.

If you want to build your world that way, I'd suggest short stories about how the world came to be.

In the real world, there are myriad turning points with real people in conflict. Newton And Liebniz inventing Calculus. Einstein introducing Relativity. Ford inventing the engine block that led to the car revolution, and the oil revolution, and ultimately climate change that might kill us all.

Columbus blazing a trail (after others) that resulted in the looting of The Americas, but also The American Revolution.

The rise of Quantum physics. The American Civil War. WWII and the rise of Communist Russia, still plaguing us today by way of Putin.

Your fictional world came to be through discrete events, which provide the struggle, the heroes, the battles and victories or losses that changed society and culture and everything else, even the climate and fate of tens of millions of species.

A series of sequential short stories about the most key turning points in the history of your world could provide the exposition you desire, as always exposition concealed behind a plot for a hero struggling to make a change.

Stories about turning points are something people will read.

Stick to the 3 act structure: Hero, Inciting Incident, harrowing complications that leave the hero near despair, and finally gumption and risk that leads to a Resolution (and a change of some sort in your world that will persist.)

It doesn't have to be the same hero each time. Change them up. Skip a generation, hell skip centuries; the dark ages were pretty static for humanity. As were tens of thousands of years without change, a hundred thousand years ago.

List your big points, put them in some sort of sensible historical order, and find a hero and a story for each of them.

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    "Nobody wants to read a straight up history lesson." Fact check false. Some of us would occasionally like a fictional history, or other creative endeavor not covered by the three act structure. However, we're either in the minority, or the keys to traditional publishing are generally gatekept against our tastes.
    – Jedediah
    Sep 8, 2022 at 3:25
  • @Jedediah Fair enough. There is an audience for it, but so small it typically doesn't garner a lot of commercial interest. Perhaps as customer targeting AI grows more sophisticated, such markets will become more identifiable and cost effective to contact as a revenue stream for Facebook or Google marketing services.
    – Amadeus
    Sep 8, 2022 at 10:00
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I've seen some works that "World Build" with stories that world build by showing in universe media or literature to explain the world building. In the Graphic Novel "Watchmen", the chapters are broken with media exerts such as news paper clippings that explain the world in more depth than the main line story. In the film this was achieved through the "The Times They Are A-Changin'" sequence which translate many of the chapter break elements to scenes in the sequence to paint a picture of the world the characters live in.

In the Animorphs series, several books were written separated from the main title books that would tell the background of elements not directly featured in the main book and were almost always told through the framing device of the characters telling their stories to other. This was somewhat of a necessity as all books in the series are first person narratives and it is impossible for the main characters to understand the history of side characters. Books of this nature were the "Chronicle" Novels and "Visser". "The Andalite Chronicles" was a "last will in testament" of the alien Elfangor, who's death kicked off the main story, "The Hork-Bajirr Chronicles" was framed as a member of the titular race telling the story of his race's fight against enslavement as lead by his ancestors, to one of the main characters. "Visser" tells the tale about how the antagonist alien forces came to learn about humanity through the framing device of the leader of the invasion effort, Visser One, defending herself to charges treason, and her testimony at the trial. In "The Ellimnist Chronicles", the titular god like character and ally of the main heroes tells his origin story to an unknown main character in said character's final moment of life, explaining the cosmic struggle which the entire series amounts to a single move in a game of chess to the Ellimist and his evil counterpart character.

Here the exposition is an actual narrative story, framed as a character telling another character his/her story. In film and television, this can often take the form of a flashback sequence or the imagination of the character learning the story or the memory of the storyteller.

In Roshomone, the story invovles several flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks of two men (the wood cutter and the priest) telling a third (the commoner) about a trial that they were two of the five witnesses, and the bizzare nature of the other three witness' testimoney. We then flash back to the trial and each of the five give their testimony in flashbacks (The wood cutter discovered the murdered body of the samurai, the priest was the last person uninvolved in the murder to see the Samurai alive and establish the three players in the incident that lead to the samurai's death (the Samurai, His Wife, and the Bandit). The remaining three witnesses, the Bandit, the Wife, and a medium channeling the spirit of the Samurai all testify to the sequence of events that took place leading to the Samurai's death, which is where the story's conflict comes into play: Not only are all three witness' stories incompatible with each other (they can't agree on a murder weapon, the location of a piece of critical missing evidence, and who left the scene of the crime, or even if the Bandit and the Wife's sexual encounter prior to the murder was consensual or not), they all testify that they and they alone killed the Samurai and that no one was around when they did kill the Samurai.). The film gets a lot of parody in American media (it was not as well loved in it's native Japan) as the three characters remembering a series of events differently is both a great character study and great for comedy (even in non-comedic series, episodes that run this plot tend to be more comic relief episodes. Both the variants used in X-Files and CSI used it to explore exaggerations of the main character's personalities). They also rely on very little set pieces, allowing for a cheap production budget. The one in "Everybody Loves Raymond" went so far as to not even change the dialog of the scene (No one denies they said what they were quoted, but the tone of the speaker changes. So when Deborah recalls Ray whining about spilling tuna water from his tuna can onto himself, Ray rebuts that he was making light of accident because he knew Deborah was already stressed out by the entire situation.).

Another situation, a popular framing narrative used by the Simpsons in it's classic years, has the flashback compose the entirety of the plot of the episode (First done in "The Way We Was" but also "Lisa's First Word" and "Maggie Makes Three" which focus on the Homer and Marge's First Date, Bart's jealousy of newborn Lisa, and the birth of Maggie and reason for a lack of pictures of her in the family photo album. All three are quite memorable and establish some of the most endearing moments of the show's history). All are framed as Homer and Maggie telling Bart and Lisa a story about the family they wouldn't have any way of knowing and take up the majority of the A and possible B plot of the story and intermittent cuts at the story breaks to allow the kids to comment on the story. The animated nature of the show lends to this working very well as a live action version would not be able to de-age the children very well.

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It's been done. More commonly, the story has a very thin plot and characters. Often the characters are merely exploring the world, as the plot.

Do note that it does have to be an interesting and fascinating world to hold the interest instead of the plot.

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Arabian Nights:

This is at least partially addressed in other answers, but I thought I'd give my piece. You want a story where a narrator is addressing their audience. The short story is about telling the stories. If the narrator is a character in the stories, it explains their telling and knowledge. Or they can just be telling stories they've heard but filling in details to be sure their audience knows the Witch King is in Loveloth and is a terrible ruler. They can give personal information that reveals details about the world.

Or they could be acting like a teacher, telling the stories to inform about the world or illustrate a point. If the supposed audience they are addressing is likely to be ignorant about relevant worldbuilding details (like a couple of travelers swapping stories around a campfire) it is less out of place to have Bob telling Betty about a city she is travelling to (since people tell in real life). Then he adds a story about the place to make it come to life for real.

This could also take the form of a brief introduction to each short story as the narrator explains to their audience what they are about to tell.

But telling, not showing is a bit more natural in first person. That's why the format here works. If you like first person, telling flows better in general. I find it harder to tell the actual "showing" part of first person, which is why I've used the narration technique occasionally as an intro or prologue.

I've also had characters who were teachers discussing worldbuilding details with others as education. Tell a child why the sun is blue, and why that's impossible. You can give a simplistic explanation and you've delivered the facts. Or you can have the teacher tell the student that an explanation will follow (but never give one). Then the reader accepts that there IS a reason the sun is blue, without needing to explain that a blue star doesn't last long enough (a few million years) to allow time for evolution or possibly even planet formation.

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  • I would say right Idea, but your example literature is wrong, as the titular collection of stories were told by Shahrazad to her sister, in front of her new husband, the king, who had a habit of marrying women and then having them executed the next day, to prevent them from cheating on him like his first wife. Shahrazad would always time her stories just right so that they would not be resolved by dawn, forcing the king to spare her one more night, so he could hear the ending. It's tantamount to saying that Romeo and Juliet exist in the same universe as Hamlet because Shakespeare wrote both.
    – hszmv
    Sep 11, 2022 at 16:31
  • @hszmv I don't really see why it doesn't apply, but perhaps we have a different understanding of the question and/or my answer. No worries.
    – DWKraus
    Sep 11, 2022 at 16:54
  • Essentially, the core story of 1,001 Arabian nights is that it is a story about a woman who saves her life by telling stories. The stories she tells are not world building, as they're fairytales that were known in some part of the world (The original tales were about 300, and it's widely believed the most well known stories were added later by other writers). That said, Shahrazad would occasionally tell a story within a story to explain a minor plot point to the original story... and to stall for time. These could be examples of her worldbuilding herself.
    – hszmv
    Sep 12, 2022 at 12:13

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