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Posted on Oct 05, 2021

6 Fantastic Tips for Writing Stellar Science Fiction

Writing science fiction is possibly one of the most immersive and fulfilling experiences a writer can embark on. Readers arrive in search of a new (yet relatable) world in which a stimulating story unfolds, which means that as a writer, you have to juggle creating something unique while grounding it in shared human experiences. It may seem daunting at first, but we’re here to help!

For this post, we turned to some of Reedsy’s experienced science fiction editors for some practical tips on how to write compelling science fiction. Here they are!

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1. Find out what your audience expects

Science fiction is a vast category with many subgenres — a space opera and a dystopian novel will both fall under the same big umbrella. Each subgenre brings with it different features and tropes you can play into or subvert, so the key is to read deeply into your chosen niche to get a better sense of the market. 

While we don’t want to speak too broadly about such varied corners of publishing, there is one important distinction that new writers should be aware of: the difference between writing hard and soft science fiction.

Hard science fiction

Hard SF is grounded in real scientific laws and understanding, where elements of natural science (mathematics, physics, biology, etc.) form a crucial part of the plot. Readers of this kind of work will enjoy concrete possibilities and are likely to scrutinize your novel’s scientific base. In other words, technical credibility is important in a piece of hard science fiction. 

📚 Examples: Andy Weir's The Martian, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Space.

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and presumed dead by NASA. The challenge he has to overcome is to figure out the logistics of staying alive and of re-establishing communication with Earth. In true hard science fiction fashion, the conditions of Mars and the limitations of communicating and travelling in space are crucial to the story.  

Soft science fiction

Soft SF, on the other hand, is more concerned with the social aspects of the fictional universe. Often, readers aren’t hugely fussed about the technical details of the world’s logic, especially when it requires a specific appreciation in the so-called “hard” sciences. Instead, the intricacies of the cultural and social aspects of the world will have a greater impact on the reading experience. 

📚 Examples: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a diplomat who’s sent to an ambisexual planet on a peace envoy. While navigating the unfamiliar social and cultural set-up of this other world, he also has to manage the intergalactic political power-play between the planets. The book’s groundbreaking focus on sex and gender as a theme is directly related the human social experience, giving it a strong soft SF quality.

Writing Science Fiction | Aircraft Illustration by Matt Hubel
Art by Reedsy illustrator Matt Hubel

Hard SF isn’t always all science, soft SF isn’t solely concerned with social topics, and both can support an epic, intergalactic premise, if that’s the book you have in mind. Indeed, all good books feature a mix of scientific and social problems. However, understanding the taste for each kind of science fiction can help you better research and write your novel so that intended readers are not disappointed. 

Looking for more classics to read? Have a look at our list of 100+ best science fiction books ever written! 

2. Give your world believable structures

Regardless of whether you’re writing a science fiction novel rooted in real-life science, the world you create must be inherently believable. Beyond scientific rules that hold water, you also need to have social structures that govern your book’s society (or societies). You can head to our detailed guide on worldbuilding for some in-depth suggestions, but here are a couple of SF-specific tips to think about. 

Find inspiration in real life

For both science-y and social aspects, a good source of inspiration for a well-structured world is real life itself. Our knowledge systems and societies are unendingly complex, which means that there are always real-life pieces of information or perspectives that can inspire you in your worldbuilding. 

A strong understanding of real-world structures will give you a good grasp of the mechanisms that make up a universe and society. These basic dynamics are useful models that you can either mimic or subvert to craft your fictional world — as many of the best SF authors have done so in the past. For example, the complex societies in the acclaimed Dune series was inspired by the Middle East’s ecology, cultures, and strands of theology, all of which author Frank Herbert carefully researched. 

Pay attention to powerholders

Former Penguin Random House editor Rebecca Brewer suggests thinking about the powerholders and how they validate their status — e.g., through military, economic, technological prowess. From this understanding of the power base, you can draw out conflicts that exist within this society, as well as the history of the people in your universe. 

It’s not expected of you to write a whole encyclopedia on the origins of your book’s world — after all, not every science fiction book has to be of epic proportions. Instead of over-stretching yourself, think about details that can organically be tied to the science logic of your book as well as those that can influence the flow of your story. 

For example, in the future of Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, human consciousness can be transferred between bodies — making people effectively immortal. However, the social chasm between the rich and the poor means that only the wealthiest can afford to 're-sleeve' themselves in young healthy bodies. As such, the science and the social are married to create a believable, intriguing world. 

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Avoid adding details to serve a plot point

For editor Allister Thompson, it matters most that world structures are logical and consistent throughout your book. “You can’t add details just for the convenience of the plot,” Allister says, “readers know when you're just making stuff up to write yourself out of a jam. A pop culture example is ‘midichlorians’ from Star Wars — it’s a concept introduced later on in the franchise that ruined it for a lot of people.” 

Writing Science Fiction | Star Wars Midichlorian Plot Device
What are midichlorians? The logic behind the Force or a plot device? (20th Century Fox)

The ‘midichlorians’ were introduced as a way to explain the workings of the Force and advance the story in the 1999 episode, Phantom Menace. At this point in time, the Star Wars fandom had more or less established their own interpretation of the Force. The ‘midichlorian’ explanation, therefore, felt out of place, and it disrupted the immersive experience of the audience. 

You want to avoid making the same mistake by mapping out the grand structures of the world before you write (our free worldbuilding template can get you started on that), and stick to their logic throughout. If you face a roadblock while plotting or writing, review your world and work within those constraints rather than draw your way out of it with new and unnecessary details.

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3. Don't overwhelm readers with exposition dumps

When you start writing your novel, you may be eager to bring readers into this universe as soon as possible. In this genre, you’ll sometimes find prologues that ‘set the table’ with a history of the story’s universe — but they’re rarely the best way to start a book. It’s often better to pace yourself, introduce readers to this realm through small details, and avoid the dreaded info-dump. Essentially, you want to find interesting, natural, and digestible ways to carry out your exposition so readers can understand what’s going on without needing a history lesson. 

Writing Science Fiction | Boy Living in Post-Apocalyptic Waste Illustration
Art by Reedsy illustrator Manuel Figueiredo

Worldbuilding belongs everywhere

Editor Ashley Wyrick has a tip for you: “Add worldbuilding details into everything. In action scenes, dialogue, major plot points — everywhere. Spread them out: give bits, pieces, and hints all over the place by making them part of the characters’ experiences. Mention the same detail in new ways, or show how it can affect characters in different ways.” The important thing, in other words, is to introduce a steady stream of exposition throughout your book, rather than a Biblical flood that completely overwhelms your reader.

For a spot-on demonstration of how a futuristic world can be built gradually, consider Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

Writing Science Fiction | Excerpt from Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains

Pay attention to how he introduces details little by little, blending them in with everyday activities, right in front of the reader’s eyes. This way, the reader can feel like they’re a part of the narrative — someone of that time period — rather than a strange visitor from the past, ogling at the newfangled technology.

4. Uncover what's at the heart of your story

Inspiration for a science fiction novel usually comes in the form of a premise or an idea for a world. But at the end of the day, a novel’s a story, and every good story has a strong core, according to Rebecca Brewer.

“Consider what the heart of your story is once you take away all the technical details. Is it about a nobody who saves the universe, or is it someone who is searching for a new family? Whatever the heart of your story is, being able to condense it into one sentence — as if you’re writing a query letter — will help you focus the narrative.” 

If you’re struggling to home in on this core message, here are some approaches that might help. 

Pinpoint the central conflict

The central conflict is the underlying cause of all the challenges that the protagonist faces; it keeps the story going and the readers interested. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the surface story is a thrilling romp about surviving dinosaurs in a theme park — but the central conflict is between nature and humanity. It’s about what happens when humans try to play God — and the pushback they get from the natural world. The story can be seen as a meditation on social issues ranging from commercial exploitation of animals to how technology has made us callous and apathetic.  

Writing Science Fiction | Jurassic Park Life Finds a Way
In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Life, uh, finds a way.” (Universal Pictures)

Given their speculative quality, science fiction novels are ideal for exploring human nature by pushing characters and societies to the very edge. This is why most conflicts in the genre are of this nature — and you might consider taking the same approach. Take a look at our guide on conflicts, their many manifestations, and how you can create them if you want a deep dive into this aspect of storytelling. 

Don’t ignore your second act

We often hear that it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. While you finish rolling your eyes at this cliché, let us elaborate on this statement: in science fiction, the time spent exploring the world accounts for most of the ‘fun’.

Many new writers focus heavily on impactful openings and whizz-bang twist endings — neglecting the second act, which is where much of the adventure can be experienced. It’s where your heroes encounter allies and enemies, discover new lands, and find themselves in increasingly hot water as the stakes start to mount. Getting that second act just right will ensure that your readers enjoy their journey and are delivered to their destination, ready for your jaw-dropping final act. 

That said, this second act of a story can be the hardest to pull off as it asks the writer to balance exposition with character growth and mounting tension. For some inspiration, head on over to our story structure guide for detailed tips on the many ways you can unfold your story.

5. Don’t neglect your characters 

A common mistake that a lot of SF authors make is prioritizing worldbuilding over character development. But as Allister Thompson puts it, “science fiction is really just a fascinating cloak draped over something all fiction aims to do: to tell human stories of love, loss, ambition, and tragedy. You need to have round characters that are believable and relatable, as much as they would be in any piece of literary fiction.”

So if you’re a writer who does any amount of planning before drafting, don’t forget to sketch out your characters. Write down details about:

  • Their personality, and how this affects the way they tackle problems;
  • Their desires, which may or may not change over time;
  • Their past, which has implications for their motives.

If you’re looking for more guidance, download this free character development template and start filling it out!

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Take Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, which was the basis for the 2016 film adaptation, Arrival. This narrative takes the common SF premise (first contact with aliens) and uses it to drive home a very human message about fate and loss. The story follows Dr Louise Banks on her mission to learn the aliens’ language, which she soon discovers has the ability to unlock the future. She begins to ‘remember’  her own future — one where she has, and then loses, a daughter. The alien language becomes a way for Louise to make sense of her life and her loss. It also ruminates on our human perception of free will, since Louise now knows pain that her future might entail and can choose whether or not to fulfill it.

While the scientific approach to linguistic research in the story is fascinating, it’s the protagonist’s internal struggles that ultimately hit home with readers. 

Writing Science Fiction | Dr Louise Banks in Arrival
At its core, Story of Your Life/Arrival is about how we make sense of our decisions and our lives. (Paramount Pictures)

As such, the best kind of science fiction is the one that intertwines mind-boggling science with human struggles — one that lets readers see themselves in the characters even when they exist in an entirely unfamiliar domain. 

6. Read beyond the realm of science fiction

While our first tip on this list was to read deeply into your own niche, developmental editor Rebecca Brewer reminds us to stay open to titles from various genres. There are certain features and techniques in other kinds of writing that can be used to enrich your story and turn it into something truly memorable. 

“Reading romance novels will show you how to build chemistry between characters,” Rebecca says. “Mystery novels will show you how to drop important details, and literary fiction will show you how nuanced language can have an impact. Each author has their own writing toolbox, and reading their works is a fantastic way to learn those and incorporate them into your own writing.” 

Need a recommendation? Look no further than these carefully curated reading lists on our Discovery blog:

Writing science fiction is no simple task — you have to devote your time to meticulous worldbuilding while also crafting meaningful, engaging stories that push the boundaries of our imagination. It takes time and practice, but remember that you’re not alone. There’s a robust community of SF readers, authors, and professional editors out there ready to help you, should you ever need some feedback!