Time travel, outer space, and aliens galore. Science fiction is a broad term that covers a wide array of subgenres, and it can be daunting to start writing your own. Want to write your own science fiction but don’t know where to begin?
Before you start writing the next 1984 or Star Wars, it’s important to think about the role of science in your story. The core of all science fiction is the same: science. A good story is built on sound science — or at least believable science.
In this article, you’ll learn what science fiction is, the role of science, science fiction subgenres, and how to start brainstorming ideas. Ready to write? Let’s get started.
What is Science Fiction?
Before we delve into science fiction, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. Science fiction is often abbreviated as SF, and from now on, that’s the term we’ll use. SF is a subgenre of speculative fiction. This genre includes elements that do not exist in reality, so it can take place in an imagined world or a future version of our current reality. Speculative fiction includes other subgenres besides SF, including fantasy, dystopian, and horror.
You’re probably thinking why do I care about speculative fiction?
To define what SF is, we have to define what it’s not. SF is not fantasy. Science is not magic. Fantasy relies on the rules of magic where magical creatures and supernatural powers are both staples of the genre. SF imagines future concepts, technology, or ideas. In other words, SF has to be reasonably plausible.
Ray Bradbury, a celebrated SF writer and the author of Fahrenheit 451, defines SF as this:
“Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together . . . Science fiction is a logical or mathematical projection of the future”Ray Bradbury
While SF can only predict or imagine the future, these predictions are based on logic over magic. So to recap: SF is plausible, fantasy is impossible. Let’s examine another imagining of SF and how science plays a role distinct from magic.
SF writer Arthur C. Clarke—and the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey—came up with these three “laws” of SF to guide our imagined scientific future:
- “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
- “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
- “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The third law might seem a little contradictory. The line between science and magic can get a little blurry, and Clarke even says that nothing is impossible in his first rule. Explore, create, and imagine, but remember to use logic to explain your story, not magic. Starting to feel a little intimidated by all this talk of science and logic? Let’s break down the different kinds of science in SF and the role they play in the story.
How Do I Write Science in SF?
You’re probably thinking there’s no way I can write SF without being an expert in science.
It doesn’t take, well, a rocket scientist to write SF. Although a little research about a certain subject never hurts, it’s all about using logic instead of magic. The genre relies on crafting a future that is entirely possible (and often equally terrifying).
The first thing to consider before you start writing is whether your story will be hard or soft SF. So what’s the difference?
How Does Hard Science Work?
Hard science is more scientifically rigorous. It focuses on natural sciences like astronomy, math, and engineering. Think Jules Verene and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne wanted to use his works to teach science to the average reader. His work is more technically dense and goes into great detail explaining the science.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea focuses on the Nautilus, an underwater ship that closely resembles the modern-day submarine. The Captain of the Nautilus explains how the ship is powered by electricity generated by sodium chloride in seawater. Keep in mind, electricity and thermodynamics were new concepts during the novel’s publication in 1969. To Verne, thermodynamics was almost a futuristic concept, and the science he imagines is believable if not entirely real. Let’s take a look at this excerpt where Captain Nemo explains electricity:
“‘The electricity produced passes forward, where it works, by electro-magnets of great size, on a system of levers and cog-wheels that transmit the movement to the axle of the screw. This one, the diameter of which is nineteen feet, and the thread twenty-three feet, performs about 120 revolutions in a second.'”Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Although some of the science in this novel speculates a more technologically advanced future, the science is based on logic. It doesn’t all have to be factual, but it has to make sense. Readers of hard science fiction are there for the science as much as the story, so readers won’t mind more technical writing. Don’t be too intimidated by the science! Not all of it has to be explained, but the foundation of the story needs to rest on plausible logic. Let’s take a look next at the role of soft science.
How Does Soft Science Work?
Soft science, on the other hand, is slightly more flexible. It focuses on social sciences like sociology and psychology. Think H.G. Wells and The War of the Worlds. Wells wanted to use his works as political and social commentary. His story The War of the Worlds depicts Martians invading England. The aliens terrorize the country in large three-legged machines as they incinerate people with a heat rays.
This story may seem a little more fictitious than electricity, but the driving force of the story has different motives than learning. This alien invasion story is actually a commentary about the British colonization of Tasmania. Wells comments about this directly in the preamble to the novel:
“We men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them [the Martians] at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. […] And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Wells uses an alien invasion as social commentary about colonization. Although aliens aren’t exactly scientific, science comes through in the way humans think. He explores what would drive them to destroy a population of people. Although it may be hard for readers to understand colonization in the context of our world, framing the same issue through the lens of an alien invasion makes the concept easier to digest. Soft science is the perfect way to twist a modern issue into something logical yet fantastical.
Now that you know the difference between hard and soft science (and how they drive an SF story), let’s talk about writing SF. How do you decide what kind of SF to write? Beyond hard and soft SF, there’s an abundance of subgenres to explore.
How do I pick an SF Subgenre?
Ready to start writing some of your own SF? Wondering where to start?
Let’s start by picking a subgenre of SF to narrow down your story. The possibility for subgenres is almost endless, but here are a few different ones to spark inspiration:
- Space Opera: Your classic melodramatic soap opera, but, you know, in outer space. Focused around conflict, adventure, and romance and featuring a large cast of characters.
- Robot/AI: Trust no man (or robot). Imagines a technologically advanced future with robots of varying humanity and morals
- Cyberpunk: High tech, lowlife. A lawless, collapsing society dominated by technology.
Start by exploring different subgenres to see what’s out there. Have a favorite SF book or movie? Look up what subgenre it falls into and you’ll find common traits SF in that subgenre share.
These subgenres as great and all, but when do we get to the writing? Now that you have a good grasp of what SF is, how it works, and the foundation science lays for the story, it’s time to write!
How Do I Start Writing?
Once you’ve thought about what type of science your story will use and what subgenre will serve as the backbone, it’s time to start writing. (Or planning, if you’re just as Type A as I am). Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin drafting your short story or novel:
- Don’t get too technical! Unless you’re using hard science, don’t lose your readers with technical words and jargon. Sell the story over the science.
- Write relatable (human) characters. Even if your protagonist is an alien, give them a few human characteristics readers can relate to. Maybe Aioxl the alien has a hankering for pancakes.
- Be consistent. Want to include twenty-seven different species of aliens? Just make sure you keep your facts straight so your readers can, too.
- Don’t forget to world build. Whether we’re in a technological future or on another planet, readers will be unfamiliar with the setting of your story. Plan out not only the backdrop for each scene but the entire world of the story. What color is the grass (if there is any)? What does the governing system look like?
With all this talk about science, let’s not forget about the story. Science is the backbone of SF, but without a creative plot, strong characters, and stellar worldbuilding, the science will fall flat. The best way to start writing SF is to ask “what if?”
What if aliens invaded Earth and forced us to assimilate to their culture?
What if we discovered a new planet?
What if Earth became a matriarchy?
What if robots had human emotions?
When you start to ask “what if,” you can craft an intricate and creative story only limited by your imagination. Don’t let science stop you from writing a good story; use it as the foundation that makes your story stand.
Think about your favorite SF stories for inspiration. What “what if” questions do they answer? What subgenres do they fall into?
For 15 minutes, brainstorm a list of “what if” questions. Focus on quantity over quality. Once you have a list, pick your favorite question. Think about which subgenre of SF would best fit your idea. What kind of science drives your idea?
Write the first few sentences of a story that explores your chosen idea, then post your response in the comments (if you’d like).