So, you’ve always been a fan of the genre, and now you’ve decided to go about writing your own science fiction masterpiece. You’ve got a killer idea, a handful of interesting characters, and a setting to make a tech-head swoon. Maybe you even have a plot mapped out, or at least a few interesting scenes ready-to-go. But now what?
Well, now comes the difficult part — translating those pieces into a complete, engaging narrative and adhering to the genre conventions enough that you write the sort of book you want to write.
This is a lot to consider, and maybe as you’ve started, you’ve begun to overthink the whole thing — what makes science fiction good? What makes it “science fiction” for that matter? As with any genre, there are as many rules as there are exceptions to those rules, but there are a few key things to keep in mind when approaching this sort of writing.
Luckily for you, I’ve got a handy guide here, ready to give you a handful of tips to consider while you craft your masterwork.
1. Science Fiction is Based on Speculation
More so than any other genre, science fiction is future-leaning, which means the heart of these stories is speculative. But what does that mean for an aspiring sci-fi author?
Ask good questions of your story and of your world. You should have some key idea or quandary that you want to explore; this could be as simple as: “What sort of lawyers will be needed in a hundred years?” to something more complex and existential like: “At what point in the technological revolution does humanity become something else?”
Wherever your interest lies, this sort of speculation is what sci-fi fans really crave, and it's the kind of thinking that forms the soul of any sci-fi work.
Keep in mind though that good sci-fi asks interesting and puzzling questions, but that doesn’t mean you have to find any solid answers. Sometimes, speculation is enough, and there are some quandaries that can’t be wrapped up into a neat little bow, not even within a novel. Just because you don’t know where your key question might lead you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the chance to explore it.
In fact, it’s exactly those sorts of questions that create a compelling world and story.
2. Don’t be Afraid to Emphasise Character and Narrative Over Ideas
This second point might seem to contradict the first, but really, they go hand in hand: good science fiction is fiction, which means that story and character should be taking centre-stage.
It’s all well and good writing about the profession of space-lawyering, but if you can tell the narrative of a specific space-lawyer and let the reader fall deep into the intricacies of their life, then you’ve written good fiction.
As important as key speculative ideas are in sci-fi, your set-up is different from the actual narrative, and you should be developing your characters just as much as you would in any other genre.
3. Setting is not Story
Similar to point number two, the setting of your space drama shouldn’t make up the meat of your book. We can all agree that exotic alien lands and cyber-punk styled cities are cool, but don’t let lengthy descriptions of place and world get in the way of telling a good story.
This is surprisingly more difficult than you might first imagine — like any genre that falls outside the realm of the every-day, a science fiction world is bound to operate within spaces that your reader will need a good deal of help visualising and understanding.
There’s a careful balance to be struck though, and unfortunately, that balance will depend on the writer, but just keep in mind that while pages and pages of descriptions, exposition and backstory might be fascinating to you, there are better ways to develop a world than creating an encyclopaedia.
My best advice on this point is to pay attention to how other writers balance description and world building in their own novels. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, especially when you’re starting out.
4. The Rules of Your World Should be Consistent
Here’s another point that might seem to contradict the previous: science fiction typically takes place in worlds that are unfamiliar in some way to the reader, and those differences and how they impact the narrative is something you should have a firm grasp on and keep consistent throughout the story.
This goes double for any technology/futuristic science that you incorporate into your world building. Physical laws and scientific functions should be replicable, right? So, for these aspects to be believable, then they need to have clear rules and expected effects within your world.
Think of this a bit like you’re writing a high-fantasy novel with a ridged magic system — in many ways, how that magic works, who can use it and its limitations determine how the narrative progresses and where potential plot-holes might appear. Sci-fi writing has the same sort of world building bent, only here, we typically deal with scientific jargon rather than magic, but really, those are two sides of the same coin, especially when the “science” in question is far-fetched by today’s standards.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with these parts of your story — or even that they must always stay consistent. Having your characters encounter some singularity, some exception to the established rule makes for a great point of conflict and is a tried-and-true route to interesting plot.
Though, this only works if you and your reader know the status-quo for your world.
5. Do Your Research and Keep an Eye on New Discoveries
The best way to keep the “science” part of your science-fiction believable and consistent is to base it on some real-world research or discipline, and this means doing your research and doing it well.
If you plan on writing about extra-terrestrial botany, then you should have a solid grasp of botany as a discipline. Same goes for anything else. If you really want your writing to be on the cutting-edge of science speculation, then it pays to keep an eye on the most recent discoveries, research, and articles published in whatever scientific journals interest you and inform your writing.
An important caveat here: this doesn’t mean you have to understand every nuance within some specialised field of study. In fact, it’s better if you don’t take the time to become a complete expert — many a writer has plummeted into a research rabbit-hole and achieved little writing as a result.
But as mentioned above, it’s important to have a basic grasp of whatever concepts and terms are standard for the kinds of science you want to write about, and it can help make your world that much more believable and accessible to your reader.
And you never know, reading the latest in scientific discovery might just provide a spark of inspiration that gets you an extra-interesting concept to explore in your writing.
6. Keep an Eye on Your Jargon and Keep Your Language Accessible
Just as you shouldn’t shy away from including actual scientific language and research in your work, you should also avoid overloading your sentences with so much jargon that it takes a proper expert to decipher. You want your novel to be understandable to as wide an audience as possible, so that might mean “dumbing it down” a little bit, or at least making sure the bulk of your writing doesn’t clock it at a PhD level.
This is harder to do than the alternative — as they say, it takes a real expert to explain a complex idea in simple terms, and that goes double if you’re looking to incorporate those ideas into a narrative work. But just because it’s more difficult, it doesn’t mean this is a corner you should cut.
And while we’re on the topic of specific language, you might find yourself creating your own words & terms and naming concepts as part of your overall world building. This is fine, so long as those words serve a purpose. You’ll want to define or explain any such terms you invent, and this doesn’t mean a dictionary-style lengthy passage of exposition, either. You can incorporate the meanings into the story, the character interactions or into dialogue, just make sure you do so.
What I’m really warning against here is including confusing, undefined terminology just as a way of proving that your world is unique and different from reality, or another author’s novel. Your audience doesn’t need you to do this. They know the world of your story is outlandish, fantastical, weird, and wonderful – that’s part of the reason they picked up the book.
So, don’t go about confusing them unnecessarily.
7. Read a Lot of Science Fiction— But Also Expose Yourself to Other Types of Stories
The best way to get a feel for how other writers have gone about integrating story and concept is to read works of science-fiction, and to read them carefully as a writer with an eye for craft rather than as a reader.
This means looking for the ways an author approaches definitions and world building, how they introduce new concepts without breaking the narrative, how they keep their story grounded in the familiar or allow it to blossom into any number of speculative directions.
Reading good science fiction will give you a sense of how these things can be done.
Likewise, reading bad science fiction will give you a sense of what to avoid, what common pitfalls authors fall into, what might be considered cliché or overdone for the genre, and the ways in which their worlds break down. Reading skilful writing is helpful, but picking up a truly atrocious example of genre writing can be just as informative, if not more so.
So, read widely and indiscriminately. And while you’re at it, pick up some titles that aren’t science fiction at all. For example, read a historical romance, a western, a police drama, or any other type of fiction.
If you only read one genre, you might not have the most rounded sense of what story can do. Or worse, you might end up rehashing tired tropes and storylines without realising you’re doing it.
The best way to produce something unique is to bring in ideas from somewhere outside the genre-box that sci-fi inhabits. You want your influences to be broad and various, so read widely.
8. Bonus Tip: There Aren’t any Real Rules, You’ll Learn Best by Experimenting
Here’s the thing: genre writing that adheres too closely to any set of established rules is bound to be tired and formulaic, but you don’t want that, so take any set of rules or tips, including the ones from this list, with a grain of salt and use them as a guide.
I’ve included these guidelines for good reasons, and it’s best to understand why something might be considered a rule of thumb before you go about breaking it, but don’t be scared to experiment and forge your own fiction trail.
You never know what you might produce.
The writing police aren't going to pull you over for improper genre-conventions, and there’s nothing wrong with producing a bad piece of writing when you’re starting out.
The only thing you absolutely cannot do is to stop trying.
My biggest tip?
Learn by doing. Write the damn story, and if it’s bad, just write another. And if it’s good, write another story anyway.
There’s nothing like experience to build a writer’s confidence and help to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re unsure how to begin your epic novel, consider writing a few short stories set in the same universe, or grab your copy of this eBook that’ll teach you everything you need to know about writing a bestseller, no matter the genre!
Whatever you do, keep trying, and get writing!
And once you’ve finished writing your sci-fi masterpiece, hire me as your book editor – science fiction is one of my specialties, so I can help you to make it shine!
To your success,
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!