The time has come and you’ve decided to write that science fiction story you’ve had in your head for decades. You feverishly spend 3 months getting everything down. Lasers, phasers, giant space battleships, robots, aliens, scoundrel heroes and adventurous princesses – you’ve got it all. Then you submit, submit, submit. Your responses are either ‘No’ or silence. You have just learned the first and most important lesson of writing Science Fiction or any genre for that matter.
There’s a lot more to writing science fiction than robots, spaceships and phasers-on-stun. For anyone thinking of writing science fiction here are 18 tips to turning any science fiction work into a great one that people will want to read.
Read How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card.
This thin, unassuming how-to book is considered by a lot of writers to be the final word on writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are a ton of great tips and advice in that guide. It’s well-worth having a physical copy to highlight and make notes in. Whatever Card might be in his personal life, when it comes to writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, he’s one of the best!
Know Why You are Writing Science Fiction
The best science fiction always asks the big “What if..?” questions. This allows us to play with the day-to-day realities of our own world by exploring different realities in worlds we create and control. It examines big issues and asks difficult questions about things that concern us all. Science fiction can place the public eye on different issues, bringing them to the attention of the world. What is the big ‘What if..?’ question in your story?
Are You Writing in a Setting or a Genre?
Romantic comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, thrillers are thrilling but science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:
- Star Man – is a romance and a science fiction film
- Alien – is a horror movie and a science fiction film
- The Terminator – is an action movie and a science fiction film
- Logan’s Run – is a thriller and a science fiction film
- Sleeper – is a comedy and a science fiction film
Every genre has a specific story beat. You need to know what your primary genre is and write to that beat first-and-foremost. If you’re writing a futuristic revenge thriller, make sure you outline a decent revenge thriller first, revealing your sci-fi world through action and character. Don’t try to shoehorn a revenge thriller plot into a sci-fi world.
Know Your Science Fiction World
No matter the place or time, the relationship your characters have with where they live and the technology that surrounds them is critical. The two essential world-building elements in science fiction are time and space. Not the year your story is set but the social/cultural stage that your world is in and the kind of space that your characters inhabit.
The important thing is that your story will rarely, if ever, sit squarely in one world stage or another. More likely it will take place in-between two of the stages and will deal with the effects that the change has on the characters.
Get the Science Right – or as Right as Necessary
The science always matters – even if it’s totally made up – but it really matters when you’re depicting things the audience knows. If your story features a space shuttle launch you should know the launch procedure. If a character describes a scientific principle, make sure you get it right. Many science fiction films feature a laboratory scene, but the good ones feel like real laboratories and the people in them dress and act appropriately and take their work seriously. Basing your imaginary world on real things in our world grounds them in a way that makes them feel authentic, but this means you have to know a little of what you’re talking about. You don’t need to be an expert, just learn enough to write convincingly, but above all, be consistent. It doesn’t matter if the physics of your world aren’t real as long as they are consistent and you never break your own rules.
Don’t Write Ludicrous and Nonsensical Dialogue
There will always be jargon associated with science-fiction, but what sci-fi writers must avoid is nonsensical faux-technology and pompous, ludicrous-sounding names for things. If you’re ever tempted to write a line like “They’ve reverse-polated the quantum transmission data and the resulting Heisenberg matrix has calculated our relative vector” and just remember that “They’ve found us!” is easier to say, has greater impact and makes sense to everyone who hears it.
Write Something That Can Be Made!
If you really want to write science fiction, write something that has a chance of being made. It’s easy to let your imagination run wild but interstellar space travel and alien creatures need vast special effects budgets, so unless you’re JJ Abrams or best mates with Will Smith, it’s unlikely you’ll see your story made into a film. Instead, look for the small stories, in single locations, with few actors and no special effects and write those. Explore the big-impact issues that affect all of us, extrapolate from current technologies in medicine and genetics and find stories there. Often they’re the stories that are the most interesting.
Create Powerful Imagery in Your Writing
“Show, don’t tell”. Create resonant, meaningful descriptions that will make your words come alive! This simple checklist, from The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr., is a concise list of best practices for creating rich imagery that will have your readers clamoring for more.
- Paint the image in small bites. Never stop your story to describe. Keep it going, incorporating vivid images, enlarging the action, and putting the dialogue in context.
- Incorporate images into action.
- See through the character’s eyes. Hear through their ears. When you can, use the character’s senses instead of the author’s. It’s called character point of view.
- Use the tiny but telling detail.
- Choose action-bearing verbs. Cushioned, absorbed, stopped, whispered, pointed, grasped, tore, leaped, tugged, screamed, ran, slapped, stabbed, and cursed. These words do so much more than say what is. They indicate first fear, then panic.
- Choose action-bearing non-verbs. Looming is a verb form used as an adjective. Crashing is used as a noun.
- Invent fresh viewpoints.
- Create an image without saying so.
Keep Your Tone Consistent
If you find yourself having a difficult time sustaining one tone over a long work, try these three tricks.
- Find a paragraph that sounds exactly the way you want to sound for this work, and tape it to your computer so that it’s always in front of you.
- Each time you’re about to return to the piece, spend 20 minutes reading the work of an author who writes in the tone you’re after.
- Starts and finishes are especially important to tone.
Craft Compelling Characters
The most compelling characters are those who appear internally consistent and yet are capable of surprise. In my own work, I’ve found that the art of crafting such fully realized characters can be boiled down to four crucial elements: a driving need, desire, ambition or goal; a secret; a contradiction; and vulnerability.
- A Driving Need, Desire, Ambition or Goal
- A Secret
- A Contradiction
Learn From Other Writers Who Know Their Stuff
Check out Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold and World-Building (Science Fiction Writing) by Stephen L. Gillett and Ben Bova. These books are great resources and starting points, but they should not be the only books you read before you write.
Do Lots and Lots of Research
And not just because it’s fun. Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy means writing another world, a world very different from our own, but often with aspects that we, the readers, recognize. With that in mind, writers hoping to tell stories within these genres often spend time learning about climate, culture, war, technology, biology, psychology, linguistics, physics, mythology—you name it, Science Fiction and Fantasy authors are researching it, both broadly and in deep, intricate detail. Not only are they learning about our world, they are building on it and warping it and turning it on its head to create their own.
When it comes to Science Fiction and Fantasy, the facts of our world are like cold taffy; writers pull and twist and stretch at them then package the result of their efforts in a story.
Symbolism plays a huge role in many works of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Symbolism, when it is not heavy-handed (and even when it is) can enrich a work of fiction and make the world the story is written in feel more intricate and complete. It wouldn’t kill you to pick up a dictionary of symbols and just leaf through it. If anything, you might get some cool ideas.
Share Your World View
More often than not, Science Fiction and Fantasy stories allude, whether directly or obliquely, to current events. The authors are having opinions about politics and the goings-on in the “real world” through the medium of space ships, dragons, and heroes with a mind to ruffle the status quo. If you’ve got opinions on current events and social issues, a Science Fiction or Fantasy story would be a great place to work them in.
Draw All That You See
Draw your world and your characters. I do it constantly! So much of writing Science Fiction and Fantasy is imagining and creating people, places and things that don’t actually exist. Visualizing them just might best be achieved by simply drawing them. This is useful in creating consistency as well. You will have a rough idea of what it looks like so you can describe it the same way each time.
Write For The Size and Scope of Your Story
Science Fiction and Fantasy stories can range from epics – life and death on a global, sometimes galactic scale – to very personal stories with a small cast of characters and specific psychological themes. However intimate or grand your story is, remember to write accordingly.
Show-Off Your Creation
Science Fiction and Fantasy readers want to live through the stories they read. Your job is to immerse them in a virtual reality that takes them to other worlds and dimensions. You need to make sure that you are actually showing your readers enough of your story’s world to satisfy their desire for escapism. It can be difficult, then, to know how much information to include.
Show off. Info-dump in the first draft then trim it later. Write in exhaustive detail about every little thing, every minute and inconsequential nuance. You can pare down your description in the second draft. That is what revision is for. In your first draft, be expansive. Go off on tangents. Pontificate. Be proud of the world you’ve created for your readers. Don’t hold back.
In the not-awful sense, of course. If you like a writer’s idea of time-travel or the inclusion of a talking dog or of a female villain protagonist for the protagonist’s best friend, then take that element and mold it and make it yours. Put your own unique stink on it, so to speak, and use it in your story. It’s okay to borrow a few small bits or a vague idea here and there from a fellow writer. They won’t mind. They probably “stole” it, too.
There ya have it. 18 tips. Just a drop in the bucket when it comes to writing but it’s a start. Just remember that you are unique and therefore your writing will be unique. Write what’s in you to write!