How to Write Science Fiction

This page discusses how to write science fiction and offers tips for writing a novel that explores alternative realities. This is just one of many pages on this website about how to write a novel. At the bottom, you'll find links to more pages about creative writing techniques.

How to write science fiction - what is science fiction?

There are lots of definitions of science fiction out there. But basically, science fiction is the end of the equation:
reality + what-if = ...?

  • What if there is intelligent life on other planets?

  • What if we could time travel?

  • What if we invented robots that could write bestsellers?

In science fiction, the way this what-if element operates is based on the principles of actual science. For instance, if there is time travel in a science fiction book, it is performed with technology, not by waving a magic wand.

Science fiction is for you if...

  1. you like creating imaginary worlds, and

  2. you are interested in science and technology.

If you like imaginary worlds but don't really like science, consider writing a fantasy novel instead.


How to write science fiction - creating imaginary worlds

Science fiction writers create imaginary worlds. These might literally be new worlds, i.e., an invented planet. Or these might be our world in the future, or with some innovations (for example, that humans have evolved to breathe underwater).

The way things work in your imaginary worlds will be based on actual science. So it's important for you to be familiar with the scientific principles and inventions that are related to your creation. For example, if you're writing about humans living on a planet with zero gravity, then you need to know the effects of zero gravity on the human body and the kind of technology that would be needed to compensate. If you write a novel that takes an existing scientific discovery one step further, then you have to understand the actual discovery.

Then you have to figure out the exact rules of your imaginary worlds. And you have to follow them.

If humans have evolved to breathe underwater in Chapter 1, your heroine can't drown in a swimming pool in Chapter 3. If your robots write poetry but not fiction, then you can't throw a novelist robot into Chapter 8. Or if you make these exceptions, you'd better have a convincing explanation for your reader.

The issue here is maintaining your reader's trust and what is called suspension of disbelief. That means the reader is willing to pretend along with you -- if you say that humans can breathe underwater, then she'll take your word for it. To maintain this suspension of disbelief, you have to let readers know what kind of reality they're in and then follow the rules of this reality consistently. If you start out with an ordinary detective novel and then throw in someone breathing underwater in the 6th chapter, you're reader's reaction is, "What the h...?" The imaginative spell is broken. You've pulled out the rug from under the reader and startled him out of his imagination. The same thing happens if you change the rules halfway through. "What the h...?"

Once you've lost the reader's trust, you may not be able to get it back again.

Part of your preparation work for the novel is to map out its worlds for yourself in great detail. Decide:

  • The history of its worlds (if your novel is about a new version of our own world, then figure out how this new version came to be).

  • The geography (if different from the current world)

  • What possibilities does it offer that aren't offered in our current world? What are the limitations, things your characters can't do?

  • How everything works in this new reality.

  • How all of these factors affect the way your characters think, feel, and react to things. For example, if you have invented a world where people live to be 1000 years old, then characters will take a longer view of the future. And maybe a 10-year space flight will seem like no big deal to them.

You don't have to tell your reader all the rules or present her with an extended fact sheet in the first chapter. But you have to let readers know enough to feel oriented and understand what's going on. And you definitely have to know the rules yourself so that you can follow them. This also allows you to work out logical problems and contradictions before you start writing. Maybe your book is going to be about a mutant race of half-humans, half-birds. But you also want your characters to breathe underwater. Neither humans nor birds breathe underwater, so how will you explain this? Decide it ahead of time.

How to write science fiction - top tips

  • Read lots of science fiction. As with any kind of writing, the best way to learn how to do it is to read it. Classic science fiction writers include H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. You can find new science fiction authors and books on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association website.

  • Do your homework. Learn about the real science and technology that is related to the imaginary world you are creating.

  • Create an ordered universe. Figure out the rules of your imaginary worlds ahead of time, and follow those rules consistently.

  • Make it feel real. You are inviting readers to visit an alternate reality. They will want to be able to see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste what it's like. Whether your novel's about a world without disease or an undiscovered planet in another galaxy, help your readers feel like they're actually there.

    Click here to read about how to use specific detail to make your writing come to life.

How to write science fiction - basic ideas for science fiction novels

  • Imagine the world in the future.

  • Imagine the end of the world.

  • Imagine that an actual important historical event had gone differently.

  • Think of an existing technology, then imagine what would happen if it were taken much further.

  • Imagine a new invention that would change the world.

  • Imagine that time travel is possible.

  • Imagine life on another planet.

  • Imagine a new species of super-humans.

  • Imagine extraterrestrials coming to earth.

  • Change an existing law of the universe.

How to write science fiction - further study

For an excellent introduction to science fiction writing, read Orson Scott Card's book, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can also find more about how to write science fiction on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Association website.

eerie sunset to illustrate article on how to write science fiction
Photo credit: Malith D. Karunarathne @ Unsplash

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