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Writing

5 Tips for Writing a Science Fiction Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 3 min read

Science fiction (or speculative fiction) is one of the most popular, varied, and enduring genres. It encompasses everything from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds to modern dystopian and cyberpunk variations.

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What Is Science Fiction?

Science fiction takes readers to a new world that’s an extension of our own. The key here is that the reality of the science-fictional universe diverges in some key way from the real world as we know it. In other words, science fiction authors and short story writers ask the question: What if?

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley asks what might happen if humanity found a way to create life. Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles asks what life might be like if humans settled the red planet. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot asks what social and political situations might arise from the creation of semi-conscious robots. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nebula-award winning The Left Hand of Darkness asks how human society might change if there were no such thing as gender.

5 Tips for Writing a Science Fiction Novel

Writing a great science fiction novel is a long, hard process. As with any novel, you’ll want to construct a satisfying plot, develop interesting characters, and write polished, vivid prose. That said, writing science fiction requires many unique considerations. Here are five writing tips for creating a memorable science fiction novel:

  1. Remember that science fiction is about ideas. More so than any other genre, a good science fiction story depends on a great conceit. Before you start writing, have some sense of the question your novel is asking. In sci-fi, those questions can be implicit or explicit. For example, many early works of sci-fi make their question obvious. In H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, the question is: What would happen to human society if it were invaded by technologically advanced aliens?
  2. Make sure you’re telling a good story. It’s one thing to have a great idea or situation, but that doesn’t mean you have a story. While science fiction novels are often thought experiments, they also can’t just be thought experiments. That means you’re going to have to come up with an intriguing story that brings these questions to life. Ask yourself: What is the change that will occur over the course of your story, either in the world or in the life of the main character?
  3. Create an interesting world. Worldbuilding is one of the most important parts of creating a compelling sci-fi story. The intricately imagined details that make up your world should flow in some way from the idea at the heart of your story. In that way, the world you create in your sci-fi novel also reveals something about your point of view on the real world. Even the most fantastically imagined story is still a reflection of real-world questions and problems.
  4. Make sure the rules of your world are consistent. One of the qualities that set sci-fi novels apart from fantasy and surrealism is that no matter how strange or fantastic the world is, it still obeys an internally consistent logic. That logic will necessarily be different from the logic that governs reality, but it must be intelligible and in order for it to feel credible to the reader. Spaceships might be common in many works of science fiction, but a spaceship landing in the middle of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—a dystopian sci-fi novel set in a technologically regressive world—would violate the rules of the reality as Atwood developed them.
  5. Focus on character development. As a science fiction writer, you may get caught up building your world or focusing on your plot, but remember that well-developed characters are equally important to your story. If your story idea doesn’t create interesting situations or conflicts for your characters, then you probably should develop the idea further to see how it would impact the emotional lives of your characters.
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