Mastering the Art of Writing Science Fiction: 5 Tips to Write a Science Fiction Novel

brainstorming genres
Mastering the Art of Writing Science Fiction: 5 Tips to Write a Science Fiction Novel

From Andy Weir’s The Martian to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, science fiction stories are among the most popular genres. But what makes these stories so compelling to audiences, and how do you write a good science fiction novel? That's what we'll discuss as we look at the elements of the science fiction genre, and how to write a science fiction book well.

Science fiction (sci-fi) is a subgenre of speculative fiction that imagines a world different from ours–usually because of the technological systems involved in these worlds–and explores a high-concept idea. Within the sci-fi genre may be many other subgenres as well, such as dystopian, space opera, or Afro-futurism.

What are the elements of science fiction?

There are three key elements needed in every sci-fi story.

High-concept idea: these stories imagine the world in a new and different way and ask: “what if?”

Science and technology: these will play a major role in the plot of your story. They can be the problem your character has to solve, the answer/solution to the problem, or both.

Setting: sci-fi stories are set in worlds that diverge from ours in one way or another. This can be minor differences, such as the invention of new tech or weapons (think Marvel's Black Panther), or large-scale differences, like an entirely new universe outside of our own.

With these elements in mind, here are 5 tips for writing a science fiction novel:

 5 Tips for writing science fiction

Ask “what if?”

Since one of the main building blocks of science fiction stories is a high-concept idea, you’ll want to ask yourself what if questions? What if a spy traveled back in time to eliminate Hitler before he was born? What if a young girl was told her parents are not actually her parents, she is not human, and she’s not from this world? In a world where everyone has the exact date of their death stamped on their wrist when they’re born, what if your main character was supposed to die yesterday?

"What if" questions are a great way to draw out creativity and get you to shift your view of the world and see it through a different lens! Don’t worry about how “outrageous” or “silly” your questions may sound. Let your mind wander in any direction it wants as you develop your story idea.

Hard vs soft science fiction

Science fiction writing can fall under two common categories: hard science fiction and soft science fiction.

Hard sci-fi: the science/technology used in these stories is grounded in real science and facts based on our current knowledge of how our universe works–like space travel. Examples of hard science fiction novels include The Martian and Project Hail Mary, both by Andy Weir, and Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

Soft sci-fi: focuses less on the technical aspects and more on the social aspects of the world and its impact on society. With soft sci-fi, you may find that readers allow more creative license with the scientific systems and will suspend more of their disbelief. The technology in these books is usually not explained in great detail. Many stories that include time travel or opening portals to multi-universes or multi-dimensions fall into the soft sci-fi category. Examples are Kindred by Octavia Butler and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Keep in mind that many sci-fi novels are a blend and combine elements of both hard and soft sci-fi, though they may lean more towards one or the other. Decide whether your novel will lean more towards the hard or soft sci-fi genre.

Know your sci-fi tropes

As a science fiction writer, you should read science fiction classics, as well as contemporary examples of science fiction to understand the tropes and genre expectations of your audience. Some classic science fiction novels are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Other popular science fiction novels include Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

 At its core, science fiction explores our relationship with technology— making it distinct from fantasy, although science fiction and fantasy may occasionally overlap (such as with the Star Wars franchise). Some common science fiction tropes are:

  • Stories set in the future or alternate universes
  • Space travel, or outer space settings
  • Technology such as time travel or teleportation
  • Speculative technology such as enhanced artificial intelligence, bio-engineering, and advanced weaponry
  • Social structures within utopian, dystopian, or post-apocalyptic societies
  • The existence of alternate races such as aliens or mutants

Understanding these tropes doesn't mean you have to include them when writing your novel. You can subvert common tropes, or leave them out completely— but knowing them will give you a sense of what your readers may be looking for in the world of science fiction.

Research

Many sci-fi readers are often science lovers, which means they will notice if you get the science wrong in your story, and it’ll lose the reader. If you aren’t already an expert in the field your book is about, you’re going to have to do a lot of research, especially if you’re writing hard sci-fi. If writing a story that involves cloning, you’ll need to understand biology and genetics. If your story is set in space, you may need to understand planets, the solar system and how it works, magnetic and electromagnetic fields in space, biology, and evolution (to understand how and why life evolves on a planet), and any other field that may be relevant to your story.

How much research you’ll have to do will be determined by the story you’re trying to tell and how much you already know about the science involved in the story. Be careful not to include all of your research in your story. You can end up bogging it down and slowing your pacing. Only use the information needed for readers to understand the world and your story, and try to spread out the information throughout the book, so you don’t end up with a huge info dump in the beginning.

Make your sci-fi believable and consistent

The science–regardless of whether it’s hard or soft–must be believable. To make your futuristic world believable to readers, you want to make sure any real science you're using within the story is written about accurately, any “fake” science you've created for the story (like time travel, portal dimensions, or the biology of an alien race) is explained clearly, and the rules remain consistent throughout the story.

As we said above, science lovers will notice if you get a fact wrong, especially if it's a basic and well-known fact within the science community. If you want to write great science fiction that readers will love, make sure you understand the subject well.

Whether you're writing hard or soft sci-fi, it's a good idea to break down the scientific concepts of your world into small bite-sized chunks spread throughout the story that are easy for the reader to understand. While many of your readers may be science lovers, you'll inevitably have a portion of readers that are not. Explaining the science in this way can help avoid confusing and losing readers who don't have a background in science.

There are a lot of elements to remember and keep track of when it comes to writing a sci-fi novel. You may have a ton of research you've done exploring the topic, and if you're a soft sci-fi writer, you may have a lot of rules you've created for the science in your book. You'll need to remember all of this info so you don't accidentally write yourself into a plot hole you can't get out of. That's where the story bible comes in. Use it to keep track of your research, world-building, character development, and more!

You're ready to write a science fiction novel!

If you keep in mind the three key elements of science fiction (high-concept idea, science and technology, and setting) and use the tips above, you'll be on your way to writing your own scientific adventure in no time.


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