Science fiction has grown exceedingly popular within the last century. Some would say it’s the most popular genre right now, for both movies and books. The idea that we could go farther, live longer, see more, create indescribable things, is a tantalizing idea and has spawned enough books and movies to not only reignite our imaginations but to reimagine what actually could be. We’re starting to wonder what is ultimately possible, and that can be attributed quite a lot to the prevalence of science fiction.
And this is why nerds and geeks everywhere are jumping up and down excitedly. People finally get why we’re so enthusiastic about science!
Seriously it’s been a long time coming.
Other worlds, parallel universes, aliens, monsters, the Apocalypse, no matter what form it came in, the question of “what if…” has driven authors for decades to be curious about the things we don’t know and the things we could. It’s how we’ve been able to enjoy the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Vern, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and movies and shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and The Matrix.
Which can absolutely make science fiction both a thrilling and terrifying genre to write.
What if you make a mistake? What if the planets thought to have life on them don’t? Or what if they do and you get the alien species wrong? What if there are holes in your future set dystopia? What if your characters are too normal or too special? What if you don’t understand the intricacies of the human genome or the rotation of the planets?
Here’s the thing with science fiction: it’s called fiction for a reason. The exact definition of sci-fi is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.” Straight from Google ya’ll. I see no requirement for accuracy there.
Yes, we all appreciate a sci-fi that could actually plausibly be truth. But most people don’t read science fiction for scientific accuracy. They read sci-fi to be swept away in “what if…” or “what could be…”.
And honestly, that does alleviate a bit of the pressure. Like with any story, it’s more important that your story is told well, rather than completely accurately.
Challenges and Devices
One thing that can trip authors up is the variety of subgenres within science fiction. At the very lowest level we can split sci-fi into two main genres: hard science fiction and soft science fiction.
Hard science fiction is sci-fi written using current technology or plausible hypothetical technology. This is a fairly advanced subgenre and takes quite a bit of research before you even start writing.
Soft science fiction is pretty much everything else. This can include but isn’t limited to:
- Time travel
- Space opera
- Military science fiction
There is also psychological and philosophical science fiction, which deals more with the social ramifications rather than the technology itself. Quite a lot of dystopias fall into this category.
The subgenres of sci-fi are wide-ranging and numerous so I encourage you to search the internet and see what ones stand out to you.
Picking your subgenre will make the rest of your story that much easier to write. Each genre has fairly specific devices so use those to your advantage to start creating your story. You’ll find you can use a subgenre to your benefit rather than letting it pigeonhole your story.
One of the best ways to start writing your sci-fi work is to start with your setting. Not only will you create the world your characters will operate in, but you’ll answer some questions of plot and timeline for yourself without even knowing it.
By figuring out your setting first, you answer the basic question of “where”. Where will your story take place? Modern day earth, future earth, apocalyptic earth, Earth 2.0? Another planet, another reality, another dimension? Inside a space ship, inside a robot, inside a star? It’s up to you. Consider the reasons your setting became the way it is.
If you’re writing a story taking place on Earth 2.0, what happened to the first Earth and how did humanity end up on Earth 2.0? If you’re writing about events on a space ship, where was the ship coming from and where is it going? Who is on the ship and why? What causes the conflict? If you’re writing about what happens inside the star, how did your characters get there? And maybe also answer the questions as to why they haven’t blown up yet…
You get the picture.
By defining your setting, you get a jump on everything else about your story. The other points of your work will all stem from that root of setting.
Perhaps in sci-fi more than several other genres, the setting of your story will define the rest of your story. It will dictate how your characters behave, what relationships they have, what they are passionate about, who they love, who they hate, who their friends and enemies are. You can explore the influences of society on a person better in sci-fi than you can in so many other genres.
Technology defines quite a lot of subgenres of science fiction. For example, there is a difference in subgenres for dystopian. They will either be science fiction or epic fantasy. The deciding factor is whether or not technology plays a key part in the setting. If technology is a key part, then your dystopian would fall under the genre of science fiction. If technology is not a key part, then your dystopian would fall under the category of epic fantasy.
Technology is the next step after setting. Once you’ve figured out the world where your characters will operate, you must figure out the technology they will face. This will define their journey, their weapons, their intelligence, and their understanding of the world around them.
I’m sure we’re all aware of this, but technology can be a bit invasive. If we’re on social media too much, we can feel depressed or FOMO. If we stare at a screen for too long we might need to get glasses. If we look at screens right before bed, we might not be able to fall asleep.
As well, technology can be helpful. A GPS on your phone can be a lifesaver. Being able to search where the best Indian food is can answer the question “What’s for dinner?”.
There are two sides of every technology and a talented sci-fi writer will display both sides. However, more often than not, one side is good and one is bad.
And this dichotomy is where your characters (and you!) must be intimately knowledgeable.
Again, this doesn’t mean you need to know every single process relevant to the technology you present in your story, but it does mean you should write as if your characters know the most important parts. The parts that could change the world. The parts that could destroy it. And you can write them well without being 100% accurate.
I’ve just pinned a whole slew of helpful pins on sci-fi in my Writing in Genre Pinterest board. Be sure to go check them out!
Are you writing in sci-fi? What are some of your challenges and tips?
Postscript: I know sci-fi and fantasy often get put together as one genre (specifically known as Speculative Fiction), but for the purposes of this series, I’m splitting them up. Next month, fantasy will get its chance to shine!