3 Tips for Writing Better Science Fiction

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about specialized craft, and today I want to focus on some important elements of craft in the science fiction genre.

Craft is basically the best practices of writing in a particular style or genre. Whenever people talk about craft, they refer to the artistic side of writing that flows from decades and centuries of growth.

That’s a simple overview of what craft is. If you want more detail, I wrote about the distinction between craft and practice in a post a few weeks ago.

I’m also focusing on science fiction here to the exclusion of all other genres. There’s universal value here, but I’m focusing on issues I see as needing highlighting in sci-fi more particularly.

Know your “What If?”

You don’t need a framing question to write science fiction.

But it helps.

When you finish putting your story together, it helps if your setting isn’t just a rehashed bunch of tropes. That can work in a mass-market approach, but it means that you’re forgotten one strength of the genre.

When Ursula K. LeGuin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness, she used a very simple “what if” question: “What if there were a world where gender was temporary and fluid?”

Then she created what we might aptly call one of the most visionary works of science fiction in the 20th century.

Pretty much every memorable sci-fi piece has something like this that can boil down the central conceit of the work.

“What if the government monitored everything and guided every action with information control and propaganda?” (1984)

“What if the Egyptians were in contact with an ancient stellar empire?” (Stargate)

“What if World War 2 turned out the wrong way?” (The Man in the High Castle)

Think of this What If question like a character that needs to develop over the course of the plot. The quality of the story will come down to how well the initial response holds up under, shifts with, and adapts to changing events.

If you don’t have a clear What If, you’ll often wind up with a bunch of different questions that go their own ways. Just like an overly large supporting cast, a vague What If made up for by lots of small showcases of oddities just confuses readers.

None of the examples I gave are strictly focused on technology itself. They highlight the consequence of technology or social change. Mediocre science fiction gets bogged down in random details.

Better science fiction finds humanity where it can go

Now, when I say this I’m not concerned with plausibility or implausibility. That’s the subject of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness and may influence your market but isn’t a pre-requisite for something to be science fiction.

Rather, think about the role of people in your setting.

What are their goals?

What are the barriers in their way?

Who have they become?

It’s easy to get bogged down in technicalities. A lot of the great classic sci-fi writers do this, with the caveat being that their practical skill can pull off an explanation of the positronic brain.

Unfortunately, modern sci-fi often forgets that the greats wrote from a perspective of adding science to fiction. People starting out in the mature genre often try to out-science their predecessors.

Depending on your particular niche, you may or may not have to explain how the parts of your world may vary.

It is safer to err on the side of not explaining things. Focus on what they mean to people.

This doesn’t mean that you leave things mysterious, but you focus on function over details. Brand names, arbitrary specifications, and astronomical distances can add flavor, but unless a character cares about them the reader won’t.

Remember that the two central elements of storytelling are plot and character, with setting influencing these rather than being a main point.

Step Beyond the Norm

Many people prefer the science fiction genre for entertainment.

They are not drawn to “X, but in space!”

Novelty is part of what makes science fiction interesting.

This doesn’t mean that every science fiction story re-invents the wheel. One upside of writing science fiction in an established genre is that many conventions and ideas already exist.

A good example of this would be faster-than-light travel, which is now so prevalent in science fiction as to have multiple different explanations (including the classic “it just works”) that let it fade into the background.

You can still explore these things, if you take the right approach to them. The movie Interstellar focused on the question of how going through a wormhole and finding oneself in an entirely different frame of reference than the rest of humanity impact peoples’ lives.

There are other stories that focus on this or feature it as a major element. Ender’s Game, for instance, involves limitations of travel at the borders of the speed of light.

This doesn’t mean that the individual idea has become tired.

Cobbling together a lot of elements in a way that doesn’t expand on them or make them significant is a problem, though. Taking a bunch of elements from interesting settings can make an incoherent mess.

But even if the pot-pourri setting worked out, it would still have to deal with the question of significance. Basically, you still need a What If.

And your What If question should have an interesting answer. While developing a story you are unlikely to duplicate another author’s take on the same issue, but it is worth looking into whether you are retreading tired ground.

Wrapping Up

In short, the number one problem with mediocre science fiction is that it doesn’t explore new ground. It takes its genre elements and turns them into a vehicle for telling a story that doesn’t exploit them.

This can be fine in certain sub-genres (e.g. space opera) where the central plot is worth having on its own, but if the writer doesn’t think about the balance of the work it’s easy to waste time and distract readers.

Worse, adding extra elements can create a veneer of shiny novelty over tired storytelling. Great science fiction expands boundaries, rather than playing inside the same sandbox as everyone else.

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