Science fiction is one of the most popular genres in literature, and certainly the one with the most cultural influence. So what is it about sci-fi stories that readers love so much, and how can authors use that knowledge to create their own sci-fi masterpieces?
In this article I’ll be exploring why sci-fi is so influential, and identifying the 3 golden rules that lead to a great sci-fi story. Of course, before identifying what makes great sci-fi, we need to talk about what doesn’t…
Sci-fi isn’t fantasy with robots
Ask someone to name a work of science fiction off the top of their head and chances are they’ll say Star Wars. It’s got space ships, aliens, robots, futuristic inventions, the whole nine yards. The problem is that most science fiction writers would disagree, claiming the films belong in the fantasy genre. So what’s the difference?
Science fiction is just that, fiction about science. The science might be invented, and it might be of any stripe: political science, psychology and sociology, electronics, or the type with beakers and skeletons, but all sci-fi revolves around a central ‘what if..?’ question that addresses a deeper query.
It’s for this reason that many prominent sci-fi writers dislike the genre’s name, instead preferring ‘speculative fiction’. Sci-fi asks questions, it’s a fictive study of a central thesis. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep asks ‘what if androids were as emotionally complex as humans?’ This thesis is used to explore how we define emotion and memory, and how we understand what it means to be human.
The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things.
– Margaret Atwood
The Star Wars movies, however, are not built on this kind of thesis. The story is of a (jedi) knight on a quest to save a princess. The castle may be a star ship, the duels fought with laser swords, but the futuristic tech is never used as a lens through which to examine our own world. That’s not to say that fantasy can’t comment on the human condition, or that it isn’t a valid genre with a lot to offer, but it does it in a distinctly different way to sci-fi. No matter how impressive, the aesthetic trappings of robots and aliens won’t make a fantasy story into science fiction.
Rule #1 – Know your thesis
With that in mind, the first golden rule of writing sci-fi is ‘Know your thesis’. Just want to write about strange lands and weird characters? That’s fine, but it’s likely you’re writing fantasy in space. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist encounters two races, the seemingly brutish, subterranean Morlocks and the beautiful but vapid Eloi. While many readings are possible, it’s undeniable that Wells uses the two races to comment on the politics of appearance, and even labor. The protagonist’s constantly shifting understanding of the two races’ relationship provides critique after critique of the modern world.When writing sci-fi, know your thesis. Click To Tweet
Wells’ ‘what if..?’ is ‘what if our evolution continued according to our current social behavior?’ His conclusion is best left to the reader, but suffice it to say it’s not favorable.
So what’s the point of your world? What are you talking about? Try and take the ‘science’ of sci-fi as an approach rather than a topic. Use your world as a case study, almost an experiment, which will prove your point to the reader.
Of course stories are more than one thing, but keeping your thesis central has many benefits when writing sci-fi. Knowing the point of your fictional world will stop inconsistencies. In 1984, George Orwell provides detail after detail of the fascist state Oceania. Views on entertainment, dress, behavior, and literature are scattered throughout, giving the reader the impression of a totally consistent world.
Orwell is able to create this impression because he has a clear idea of the philosophy behind the society from the start: ‘What if a government tried to cement power by eliminating choice?’ The details that follow are all accepted by the reader because they all serve this idea.
Clarify your idea. What’s your question, and what’s the answer? You don’t have to spell them out to the reader but you have to spell them out to yourself. Write them down and stick them in your work space. Every time you’re looking for details on your world or characters think how they would act in a reality based on that question.
Rule #2 – Do your research
Once you’ve decided on your question it’s time to look into the answer. Margaret Atwood has claimed of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale:
There isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.
Based on the question ‘what if the ability to reproduce became rare?’, among a few others, Atwood describes a futuristic society where women capable of giving birth are property sold to the highest and most influential bidder. She uses knowledge of fundamentalist religious treatment of women, as well as the history of slavery and war, to craft a world which feels real because it is built on a real understanding of misogyny.
Whether your thesis is ‘what if we met aliens in the fifties?’ or ‘what if we all went deaf overnight?’, there will be real information you can research to learn how similar situations have gone in the past. What happened in our own past when new cultures met? What is it like gaining or losing a sense? Whether the occupying force is aliens or mutated plants, as in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, we have records of life under occupation. Accounts of the best and worst in humanity are available in myriad forms.Details sell sci-fi – your research will pay off in time.Click To Tweet
It’s the details that sell sci-fi. They make the world seem real, validating your thesis by ensuring the story constantly rings true. The more research you can do into your selected area, the more ideas you’ll have. There are several types of lizard that disguise themselves as females to avoid alpha males and steal mates, types of birds that hide their eggs in other’s nests where they hatch and kill off the other chicks, and fish that pretend to be caves so prey will swim into their mouths. No matter how strange your aliens, monsters, or other beings, there are realistic details just waiting for you to find them.
So once you’ve got your thesis and you’re armed with real-life precedents it’s time to really be brave…
Rule #3 – Don’t be afraid of the new
Sci-fi asks big questions and knows what it’s talking about. It’s maybe the bravest genre, not just keeping up with its audience or period but forecasting ahead to the future. That’s why it’s essential to ask what’s new about your story. Is it the world you’re crafting, your position in time, your own voice?
It may be true that every story has already been told, but every day there are new ways to examine the human condition. What does social media tell us about humanity, and what might it look like in the future? It’s a sad truth of sci-fi that the exaggeration of yesterday is the truth of today. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (often described as the first sci-fi novel) explores the idea of creating unnatural life from a Victorian perspective and has many interesting and perceptive insights, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is written from the perspective of a writer not just theorizing about cloning, but living in a world where it’s already been done.What new insights does your sci-fi offer?Click To Tweet
What is new or unique about your questions? Even if it’s just a new way of presenting your theory to the audience that’s enough, but identifying what you’re bringing to the discussion will help you place emphasis in the right places.
Appreciating your audience
Sci-fi is often the first foray into new ideas. Even as we explore the possibility of real artificial intelligence, we already have vast libraries on the resulting moral quandaries, and writing on space travel predated actual attempts by centuries. A sci-fi audience is one with big expectations, and if you can understand what they expect and why it works, they’ll be the most engaged fans a writer could ask for.
Writing other worlds or societies can be incredibly tricky, especially when it comes to setting aside your own experiences and biases. For some advice on writing the alien, try our article Are You Writing Believable Non-Human Characters? Or for tips on crafting a believable world, try You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It.
Are you a sci-fi fan or a sci-fi sceptic? What was your first sci-fi story and how did it influence your world view? Let me know in the comments.
42 thoughts on “The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book”
Great post. I love sci-fi/speculative fiction for the very reasons you’ve pointed out. And some great writing tips too to keep me on track for my current projects.
Thanks very much for the kind words. Hopefully we’ll hear more about those projects as they progress.
We need some new terminology. Science Fantasy is an oxymoron. SF mixed with fantasy would be better called:
Personally I’d like to see sci-fi broken up into more prominent sub-genres. Pop culture is so sci-fi led now that it doesn’t feel like a helpful label any more. We have the very specific term ‘superhero movie’ for movies and ‘zombie’ has become a sub-genre never mind ‘horror’, books are missing out.
I don’t see it changing though: as ebooks become more and more common people can navigate via very specific tags and keywords. It might be that we’ve just skipped over the middle stage of genre labels and landed in the uber-precise.
Thanks for this thoughtful roundup! And your examples are excellent.
I don’t read much sci fi these days, but my mind was blown by Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. A fantastic blend of true social vision and scientific plausibility (though of course with a few blurry bits).
As usual it’s nice to read an article on a genre I don’t visit often these days — and as usual I’ve taken something from it.
Thank you, Robert, and thanks Standoutbooks.
Thanks for the kind words Jen,
I haven’t read 2312 yet but it sounds like a good example. Often the social aspect of sci-fi stories is the most engrossing part.
Yes! For me the social aspects are the biggest draw.
Or maybe it’s just that we can’t get a more ‘complete’ world than one where the author has reimagined society. (I guess that would be Rule One: know your thesis?)
And you already mentioned my all-time favourite — 1984. It’s not only well imagined and socially cohesive but as literature it can hardly be topped. Who could beat ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’?
Thanks a lot. I think the mark of great world building is how strongly you want to wander off and look around, and there are few more interesting aspects to that than the imagined social conditions.
I’ve always compared “Star Wars” to “Star Treck”, and now I know the former is fantasy while the latter sci-fi. That’s a new shock. 😉
As long as it’s a useful shock. I think genres are a great tool for discussion, but hopefully something we can put aside if they start to become restrictive. There’s a definite trend of putting anything set in space in the ‘sci-fi’ box. I think acknowledging that that isn’t an automatic step leads to more interesting places than not.
Thanks for your answer, Rob.
Just had to thank you for your posts. Your thoughtful, in depth information is extremely helpful to this newbie fiction writer. It’s like having a teacher who really cares and wants to see his students grow. Following your advice, I know I have!
Wow, thanks very much. That’s excellent to hear. I hope you keep on growing, and that I can help as much as possible in the process.
Hi. This is a great post. And I have a plan to write SF based on one of the most unreliable science–which is economic. Do you know any economic-based hyphotesis SF?
Thanks very much! A lot of sci-fi stories incorporate economics to some degree, since many dystopias require an explanation for a poor underclass and a rich ruling class.
In terms of stories that use it as their central thesis though, the ones that came to mind for me were Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’ and Cory Doctorow’s ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’. Though I haven’t read it yet, Warren Ellis’ ‘Normal’ also seems like it will fit in this category.
As you say, economics is one of the shakiest sciences around, which makes it difficult to imagine a whole new version of it. Your idea has the potential to really fill a niche, so good luck with it!
Thanks for the tip, I am not sure what category my new story falls under, sci fi or fantasy, but I am less worried about labels than creating a fantastic and believable world. I want to write about an oppressed alien race that needs humans to help free them from their tyrant alien overlords. Parts of what I want to do feel like fantasy, others like sci fi, I am curious, what do you think? Can I successfully incorporate both into one story?
As you say, labels are only as good as the new perspective they offer, so I’d suggest going with whatever works.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, sci-fi and fantasy can be understood both through their aesthetic sensibilities and their structural tendencies. The aesthetics or ‘look’ of either can be used however you like, and are easy to mix together. Structurally, though, there’s more of an issue.
In terms of structure, sci-fi and fantasy aren’t impossible to combine (very little is impossible in writing), but they do tend to work in different directions. Sci-fi tends to be specific and unique, built around core ideas that define the world, whereas fantasy is more general, offering up a set of established rules that are immediately familiar and comprehensible to the reader. Neither is better than the other, but they tend to do different things, and work towards commenting on our own world from different directions, so combining them can often lead to them working against each other.
Again, though, it’s not impossible, but I’d suggest basing your decisions on your intent with the story. Do you want to make broader, more timeless comments about the human condition, or focus on specific aspects or developments? Fantasy lends itself better to the former, sci-fi to the latter.
Thank you for the article.
My first sci-fi that left an impression was Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Loved that book.
Thanks for commenting – Dune is a really interesting work, and I’m not surprised it left an impression.
Just to clarify, Star Wars isn’t anything about a knight on a quest to save a princess. Not at all! How did that misconception even arise?
It is fantasy, that’s true, but only because of the Force. Apart from the Jedi and Sith orders and the Force, it’s more or less set in a science fiction universe.
Thanks for your thoughts. In terms of presenting Star Wars as fantasy, the suggestion generally advanced is that while the ‘look’ is typical of sci-fi, with robots and aliens, the actual structure and nature of the story is fantasy. Star Wars is about (Jedi) knights on a quest to save Princess (Leia) – that’s even the language used in the movie itself. They fight with swords, kill monsters, and even battle an evil, black-cloaked wizard who shoots lightning. All of that is overlaid with the aesthetic of sci-fi, but for writers, that’s not a particularly useful way of defining genre.
Sci-fi, or speculative, fiction tends to be more about how and why things happen. It usually imagines or comments on our future in a technical sense – there should be some of the ‘fictive science’ from which the genre takes its name. The work of Philip K Dick or Isaac Asimov would be a good example. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, artificial life is used to examine how we define life and consciousness. The droids in Star Wars aren’t used in that way – they’re just characters who happen to be robots.
As Star Wars grows as a franchise, it may hew closer to sci-fi, though it usually does so to its detriment. ‘The force’, for instance, is pure fantasy – basically just another word for ‘magic’ – while ‘midi-chlorians’ are a more sci-fi idea, since they’re couched in more realistic terms and are closer to fictive science.
Again, this distinction is more important for authors than for audiences, since it’s more to do with how stories are structured, and Star Wars is no poorer for being fantasy, it’s just built on a different structure.
Thank you for the article.
Having mentioned about Dune what do you think is the “what if” of the book?
Second question: is the “what if” the only indicator for rule#1 know your thesis or are there other revelatory questions?
I think you could make arguments for a few different questions, but I’d suggest ‘what if we fall back into feudalism?’ as a top contender.
Likewise, there are a bunch of questions that can help, but if I was to pick another, I think I’d go for ‘what could I change with search and replace?’ By which I mean, what’s woven into the story and what’s just set-dressing? Not that the latter is a bad thing, but it’s useful for authors to clarify what’s at the core of their writing, and therefore what most deserves their attention.
Whilst I agree that most ideas in sci-fi have been written about, don’t be put off by this.
I have written 26 sci-fi books (e-books, 9 of which are now in paperback), and the themes can be found in many other books – but the circumstances are different – so it’s a new story !
One tip I would suggest, is start the story with a bit of ‘eye catching’ action – get the reader’s interest hooked – as the story unfolds, gradually ramp up the action, and finish with a twist which will make the reader think ‘I didn’t see that coming!’. A softer ending is OK, especially if there is a sequel to the story – I have two trilogies like this – each part is complete in itself.
Don’t be afraid to put the story down for a while before publishing, and then read it again – you may be surprised how a few alterations here and there can sharpen up a scene, or give the main character a little more depth. The reader must believe in the main character – and if the reader can identify with the main character, that helps!
Kind regards, David.
Thanks very much for your comments – some great insight there that will be useful to many.
I now have 26 books published as electronic downloads, and seven of the best of them are now paperbacks.
Whilst I agree with everything you say, there is one thing I find a dead cert for writing a good story – you get an idea, and it won’t go away!
I found this in ‘Of Wood Metal, and Glass’ . I had the idea and did a rough draft – somehow I just couldn’t start the story. Days later I was still thinking about it – it just stuck there, so I put myself in the place of the ‘hero’ – how would I handle the situation ‘I’ was in – and the story began to flow. To say I got one hell of a kick writing it is true, I wanted to BE that person!
If you have a good idea, and you are stuck, don’t give up – BE the person in the story and see what happens!
Hope this helps someone – David
Thanks for sharing the benefit of your experience – a great tip.
Thank you very much for this inforation. I’ll be writing a book that has to do with robots and global warming and the possibility of humans becoming extinct. I need a little help and aid. Thank you very much.
My pleasure – if you want to click the blue ‘START’ button at the top right of the page, I’d be happy to provide some more specific advice on your project.
I’m an odd one for on here. I’ve always been a movie goer, it’s always been my brother that’s been the reader in the family. I’ve always been a sci-fi fan because I love both its escapist nature and the possibilities for the future that it can represent but as I said, I’m a movie goer and really haven’t read much. As for the sci-fi that was the first to really influence me, I believe it was Ray Bradburyks Fahrenheit 451 which I watched as a boy. I saw this distopic future world where information was being controlled by the state through the outlawing and destruction of all books. At the same time that same world was sort of mascarading as some sort of a utopia where the only need for a “fire department” was to burn the books. I think that this one piece of sci-fi influenced me in that I have always liked stories with a distopic theme. I find it interesting that all these years later we can see signs of governments trying to do exactly what Ray Bradbury wrote about in that story… controlling the information.
So here I am in my early 50s, having only watched my sci-fi on movie screens and television, and I find I have a story I want to tell rattling around in my brain. It was while googling information on how to go about writing that story that I came across this article. I know it was originally written several years ago, but I found it very interesting and informative. Thank you.
My pleasure, Brian, thanks for commenting. I hope you find an effective way to tell your story.
Has anyone else had a moment when someone compliments you on a developing project and you think “Wait, I don’t write – Oh! I suppose it is Sci-Fi.”
I’ve had this experience both with projects I’m working on and just books I’m reading for pleasure. While I think ‘sci-fi’ remains a useful term, I can see the argument for ‘speculative fiction’ as something more people would recognize in their own work.
My first real introduction to Science Fiction was Andre Norton. You could argue that some of it was fantasy and/or Science Fiction, but the flights of wonderful characters to other planets inhabited by aliens caught my imagination and I was hooked and have been ever since. I had to be about ten years old when I first read her books. And from there it evolved into Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov and pretty much anything I could find.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Chean. Out of interest, and for the readers who come after, what single story would you recommend to someone who has the same tastes?
I have recently had a thesis come to me and have begun exploring it. I am so far away from a story right now, I’m in the mire of world-building and figuring out the overall structure before I focus on individual characters and how they feed into the story.
Is that normal? I know every writer is different, but I guess I’m asking if it matters that I build the world before I have an idea of my main protagonist(s) as of yet.
I think you put into words why sci-fi/fantasy is one of my fave genres, because they’re like looking into a window of a parallel universe to see if our society had veered another direction, what would that be like?
Thank you for this article, it is helpful.
My pleasure, thanks for the kind words. In answer to your question, it’s certainly not abnormal. I’d say that you’re in the minority in terms of where your story has started, but it’s not a tiny minority; it shifts with genre, and it’s worked for a great many big-name authors.
The only note of caution I’d offer is that characters and/or events are what make a setting personal to the reader, so while it’s fine to start wherever gets you excited to work, you do need to eventually make this story about people and what happens to them (while also using them to explore your world).
That’s what I’d say to you as someone writing a book, but I should also mention that there are a lot of opportunities around now that aren’t just prose stories. A lot of tabletop games exist on the strength of their worlds (since players provide the characters), so if you believe you possess a preference for world building that goes beyond the norm, it’s worth exploring avenues where that’s going to be most to your advantage. The article below should provide some more information on this.
8 Radical Writing Opportunities (That Pay)
You can write about almost anything under science fiction – from adventures in faraway planets where aliens rule the galaxy, to the underwater worlds where mermaids and mermen exist! Everything that the mind can imagine can be written in science fiction.
I totally agree. The difference, I think, is in HOW you write about these things. For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that the mermen in Harry Potter constitute sci-fi, whereas in L. Sprague de Camp’s ‘The Merman’, it would be hard to argue they’re anything else. Angle of approach is the key – how you talk about your subject and what you’re using it to say.
Science fiction is not just about aliens, mermaids, time travel, and more. Here, you can also write about deep and philosophical stuff, and even tackle societal issues. For example, issues on technological advancement such as the possible takeover of robots and the impending destruction of the planet are commonly emphasized in numerous science fiction novels. These and all the other issues in the society today are tackled in length in science fiction because there is no better place to explore them than in this genre.
This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
Who knows, you might be living your favorite science-fiction movie in the near future.