Kyle Willey

Sci-Fi For Everyone: Four Tricks to Write Sci-Fi Anyone Will Read

As a multi-genre writer who writes sci-fi, I need to figure out how to retain my core audience while writing the things I’m interested in.

This requires a careful approach to the craft of writing.

How do you do this?

With a measured use of everything that you have access to.

I often touch on sci-fi genre conventions very lightly in my work. Even when my characters are in a universe far removed from our own, I let hints and subtext carry differences.

Other times, I lean more openly on conventions and norms. This requires a lot more skill, because you’re moving from simple storytelling to a more complicated approach to building a universe.

This is where you can run into problems. Science fiction relies on a rich tapestry of conventions and methods to create fantastical worlds.

For instance, science fiction will provide a hypothetical invention or an unknown force of physics that changes the way something people take for granted works.

These tools can easily backfire on a writer who doesn’t know what they’re doing and loses focus on what matters.

When you move between genres like I do, you gain a greater discernment of what makes sense in certain contexts.

There are four tricks I use that help people who don’t “like” sci-fi appreciate my work.

1. Cut Meaningless Elements

“The shot passed by his head at ten thousand feet per second, punching a hole in the bulk-head behind him.”

Can you make sense of this? Does every piece feel important? Or are there things that should be cut?

You need to write things that readers engage with. There is no room for things that distract.

Focus is how you evoke things and help your audience feel like they’re in the story. If you’re too focused genre conventions and tech, it will outstrip your general writing craft.

Sci-fi writers often lose sight of evocation as a goal when genre conventions outstrip general writing craft. Click To Tweet

You need to gauge your evocation potential by bouncing things off your audience. You write–as you should (link to my post on this)–what seems cool to you. It may not translate to other people. I use the SCENE heuristic I developed for assessing writing to get around this.

Here are a few things that cut into your evocation potential.

  • Numbers, especially those with no basis for comparison
  • Technologies that rely on babbling and complex explanations
  • Made-up or overly technical words, especially in abundance
  • Switching locales because characters move quickly, when there’s no good reason to move
  • Explaining things in on-the-nose dialogue

This isn’t a religious proscription. Great writers will occasionally need to explain things. But Milan Kundera’s winding philosophical expositions in The Unbearable Lightness of Being or the casual reference to a “forty-five handgun” in a noir novel are part of the reader’s engagement with the text.

You need to avoid anything that isn’t engaging.

If you think your tech or scientific dissertation carries a story, you’re wrong. Stories are narratives, changes in progress. They can include those elements, but only in a framework of events.

2. Focus on the Focus

It’s hard to convey abstract concepts in a way that resonates across a broad audience. When we hear about spaceships or laser guns or faster than light travel, we don’t have concrete experience to return to. And, if you’re writing sci-fi with an emphasis on the fiction part, you may be working from a unique understanding of how these things function.

Your characters have a relationship to these things.

Think about things how your characters think about them.

What does technology do in your character’s life?

How do they expect it to work?

You can apply this both to novices and experts alike. A spaceship captain and someone on thir first trip off-world have radically different perspectives.

Use that.

3. Call a Spade a Spade

There’s very little to keep science fiction from using sensibly named objects. A lot of items can be named simply. Everyone knows what a blaster does.

The secret here is to avoid jargon and increase focus on what the characters are thinking about and intending to do with what they’re looking at.

“I took the [] and pointed it at his leg. ‘How much do you like standing?’”

Can you guess what [] is in this context? Easily.

Think about that whenever you introduce a new object. Focus on what characters are doing with technology and how it impacts their life. We experience things around us as if they had purpose and direction.

A microwave heats something. It doesn’t send rays through the air that are blocked by liquids and solids through a transfer into heat, at least not outside a textbook.

This also helps with prose. Unless you’re a master wordsmith, you can’t explain scientific processes in text without destroying your story.

So don’t.

Even the master wordsmiths only “get away” with this, and it almost never improves the final story.

If there’s some pivotal point, bring it up, but only if the plot significance outweighs the time spent. Never explain an abstract process of physics or chemistry. Your reader is looking for a plot, not directions to replicate your experiments.

If the planet-destroying space laser has heat vents perfect for a plucky upstart to launch a missile down, then that’s worth noting.

Otherwise, ignore the mundane elements of fantastic things.

4. Focus on Characters and Plots

The two things readers get invested in most often are characters and plots. Most writers begin from one or the other place. You can read more here (link to external article), and I strongly recommend checking out Jeff Gerke’s Plot versus Character for a good overview of this.

Bad science fiction often focuses on things. Things are not interesting. They are the subject of encyclopedia articles.

While a rare subset of people may read the encyclopedia for fun, most read stories for entertainment and moral lessons.

You may protest, of course.

“My story isn’t about things, it’s high concept!”

But a high concept is just a thing without characters and plots to back it up. For example, cyberpunk isn’t about fancy guns, neon cyberspace, and shiny new body parts. It’s about how those things change people and make new problems for us to solve–or at least survive.

If your story is ripe for a pitch that says something like, “In a world where [your concept here],” then your story focuses on that thing as much or more than the characters. That description may apply, even if it’s rooted in a strong plot and not in a thing, but character comes first when appealing to your audience.

Why Character First?

Because you can’t sell a plot.

Seriously, try it.

You might be able to sell a movie with a flashy trailer, but you run the risk of giving away what’s important.

So start with a character, or a group of characters.

Define the world around them.

Then add in the plot.

Audiences who are not traditionally interested in sci-fi dismiss the genre because they think it lacks character and plot. You need to focus on how characters are tied to their

A good example of a book that does this well is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s incredibly high concept and bold with its setting, but it focuses on the human element of the characters. As the novel unfolds, the events are all set up to give us a plot that could happen anywhere. Then Le Guin presents the tale with the peculiarities of her setting. Nobody could forget that the book’s taking place on a different world.

But the differences are there to provide the stakes.

But most of the time she doesn’t have to tell us. The characters go through things that no human of our era can go through. The roots in archetypal patterns of storytelling elevate it for non-sci-fi markets.

Wrapping Up

You want to have science fiction that sells to markets outside the genre. Use craft and good foundational storytelling, and you can do that.

Move your emphasis to characters and settings. Focus on what they see and feel.

Don’t get lost in details and technicalities. These are not stories.

An author who gives fifteen years of history in painstaking detail is going to lose their audience regardless of their genre.

Someone who shows fifteen years of people growing and changing might write a masterpiece.

Get to the good stuff. Don’t talk shop.

When a detail is important, bring it up, but it must serve the plot.

Plots and characters tell stories. Numbers just add texture. Technology just adds texture. Wild hypotheticals don’t inspire audiences.

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