How do you write good science fiction? Emphasis on good.
Science fiction requires a ton of extra work. Like other types of speculative fiction, such as fantasy, sci-fi demands that you create an entire world instead of relying on existing settings and social customs. Not only do you need to build an entire world from scratch, but you must also immerse your reader in it. They need to understand how your world works. But if you miss a single step in your world-building, your entire story can fall flat and seem artificial and ill-conceived.
In this post, we’ll share tips on how you can improve your sci-fi so that it’s captivating and unforgettable.
What is Science Fiction?
Let's start with a quick definition of science fiction so that we're on the same page.
Science fiction is a sub-genre of speculative fiction that focuses on how humans interact with science and technology. Most sci-fi stories are focused specifically on the future, but a sci-fi story can take place during any period, past, present, or future. Some sci-fi stories can even take place in parallel universes.
The key element to any science fiction story is, well, science.
Whether we're dealing with outer space, inner earth, time travel, or a future dystopia, every science fiction story must contain two elements: science, which is the acquisition of new knowledge, and technology, which is the practical application of this new knowledge.
Science fiction stories are speculative because the science and technology described within them don't currently exist in our reality.
Not only do you have to build worlds, but you have to create your technology. In addition to being a writer, you’re a philosopher, scientist, and engineer. Making matters even more complicated, to gain the trust of your science-savvy reader, you often need to build on the technology that currently exists, especially if you’re writing sci-fi in the not-too-distant future.
That’s why sci-fi is so hard to get right. You have to commit to fleshing out this world and capture the often-complicated, sciency side of world-building.
And if that's not confusing enough, science fiction can further be divided into two major subgroups: Hard and soft.
In hard science fiction, the story is focused on the actual science and technology of the world you've built. Because science plays a major role in this type of story, it needs to be realistic and plausible to the average reader. They shouldn't need to suspend disbelief to accept your world as fact.
Well-known examples of hard science fiction include Carl Sagan's Contact, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, and Andy Weir's The Martian. All of these stories exist just outside of what we believe is possible tomorrow.
Then there's soft science fiction, where the science is less realistic and more philosophical. It also focuses on culture and relationships and how the story's characters use technology to navigate their lives.
At its core, science fiction explores how science can change humanity. It looks at what may be possible and asks the reader if those possibilities are agreeable or disagreeable.
So with this foundation, let’s explore how to write better science fiction.
1. Create Technology That's True To Itself
The technology in your world needs to make sense. Contradictions shouldn't exist in your world because each contradiction will cause the reader to lose trust in you as a storyteller. You must ensure that the technology checks out on every level of your story. This can be time-consuming but it's necessary. Even if you don't explicitly describe how a technology works to your reader, you must know how it works yourself so that when you're writing about it, you don't accidentally contradict what you've already written.
Your technology, and your world at large, should obey a consistent logic.
2. Don't Break the Law
While you do have a creative license to build your world and make up your own science, it's not a great idea to break the current laws of science in your sci-fi novel. Give your reader a foundation to stand upon (i.e., science that we accept as truth). Instead of breaking the law of gravity or thermodynamics, accept those as facts and build upon those laws.
The only exception to this is if your story directly deals with a new scientific discovery that revokes one of our currently accepted laws. But, unless you’re prepared to document a turn of scientific reasoning to back your claim, revoking basic science laws is pretty difficult to do well.
3. Don't Forget the Human Part of Your Story
Science fiction allows you to introduce all sorts of fantastical characters, from AI to aliens to any other sentient being that your brain can conjure up. However, your story needs to focus on the human element. It's not about technology but instead how humans interact with technology. It's not about aliens but how humans respond to aliens. This shift is what makes your story relatable and unforgettable.
4. Build a Realistic World
Although often associated with fantasy, constructing imaginary worlds is important for every speculative genre, especially science fiction. Your reader needs to see what you see, which can be more difficult when you're describing a world that the reader has no reference for. This will require you to spend a lot of time developing the world in your story.
Even if you don't share all of these elements with your reader, you need to know elements such as the government, the reigning philosophy, the religion, the economy, and the folklore of your world. You also need to know what your world looks like and whether your characters use technology within their world.
5. Tell a Great Story
You have a great philosophy or a unique technology that you'd like to explore, but that in itself won't tell a story. A story needs to include five main elements:
1. A theme - Include a central message, such as the effects of greed or the intransigence of human nature even in the face of changing technology.
2. A setting - Include a plausible location. This helps the reader to see and almost taste, smell, hear, and feel. World-building is huge for any type of speculative fiction.
3. Characters your reader will care about - Create whole characters that your reader can root for throughout the story. These characters can act as surrogates for the reader as they explore the world that you've created. The characters will also move your story forward, not acting as puppets but instead as agents of their own destiny.
4. A plot - Sequence the events in your story in a way that continues to keep the reader invested in what's happening. A plot starts with exposition, which gives you a chance to set the stage for what's normal. Then there's the inciting incident that changes things for your protagonist. Then, there's rising action where your protagonist comes into conflict. Following that is the climax of your story, where the protagonist makes a choice that they cannot return from. Then, there's falling action where you resolve all subplots. Finally, there's the resolution where your characters settle into their new normal.
5. A consistent point of view - Choose how you'll tell your story, whether it's in first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they, it). This matters because it affects how close the reader is to the narrator, and therefore to the story. If you tell the story in the first person, the reader has a closer experience with the story. The same is true for the second person because the reader becomes the main character in your story. But if you opt for the third person, the reader has a more distant experience. But this point of view can also give the reader a greater appreciation for your story and its characters as a whole.
6. Build Your Characters
Good characterization is essential.
The most important part of science fiction is the human struggle with technology. Show how your characters exploit technology and also how they may be exploited by that same technology.
7. Let Science Play a Leading Role
Science is one of the main characters in your story. As mentioned above, your stories should document how your characters interact with science. While your story doesn't need to focus obsessively on science, it should be a “character” that pushes against your main characters in some way.
Exploring the world of science fiction writing can take planning. Remember that you’re writing a story about humans interacting with science. This subtle shift can help you to create a more memorable and relatable story.