Science fiction is one of the oldest genres in literature and has only gained massive popularity with the exponential development and conception of new technology. The genre has evolved along with our understanding of the cosmos, the rise of new technologies, and the ethical questions which that new tech poses.
Science Fiction v.s. Science Fantasy
It’s common to confuse a piece of science fantasy with science fiction. Of course, science fantasy invariably contains science fiction within it; however, it always takes an extra step towards the unbelievable. Take Star Wars, for example: although faster-than-light travel could be theoretically possible, the seemingly magical force is the type of element that pushes the franchise towards science fantasy.
On the other hand, science fiction maintains a certain level of probability. Science fiction author Ray Bradbury explains:
Science fiction is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.
In other words, a science fiction story often explores a statement on humanity, as opposed to science fantasy which explores the adventure its protagonists go on. That isn’t to say that science fantasy is devoid of hard philosophical questions, only that those kinds of questions are more so the central focus of science fiction. More on that later.
Writing Science Fiction
We will cover soft science fiction, which is different from hard science fiction which tries to go into immense depths when it comes to explaining the science or technology behind their science fiction.
Science Fiction and Other Genres
Science fiction pairs up quite well with other genres such as dystopian fiction, fantasy (as previously seen), and even with comedy. Establishing early on whether your own story will deal with other genres is quite important, as it will guide things such as tone and plot.
Understand the Role of Science in Your Story
The science part of science fiction shouldn’t be the entire focus of your story; otherwise, it’s not really a story, but a discussion on fictitious science, which will turn away disappointed readers.
Science in science fiction could (and should) be an important plot device by either having science be the cause of the protagonist’s problems and/or having it be what enables the plot to progress. Science could also have a more minor role as part of the setting of a story in which the protagonist resides in, and have the plot be driven by elements that are complemented by the setting such as in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who uses sci-fi elements to highlight the story’s dystopian theme.
Essentially, if you strip all the science from a story, you should still have the basis of a good story. Even if you take a story where the protagonist is the science, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you’re left with the story of a person (the "monster") who struggles to live in a world that won’t accept him for how he looks.
Keep the Language Simple
Needless to say, science can get very complicated. Some writers spend years researching even the smallest details to make their story as accurate as they can, which was the case with Andy Weir’s The Martian. Although this commitment to accuracy is commendable, an overabundance of technical terms and complex scientific concepts could turn away layman readers.
Of course, your story doesn’t need to shy away from complex ideas. One good approach is to stick to the basics: show, don’t tell. Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan, 2014) masterfully demonstrates the relativity of time and its distortion near objects with intense gravity by showing how others outside of that cosmological effect age by a considerable amount.
Sometimes, you’ll just have to sum it up. See how acclaimed scientific figures vulgarize complex scientific notions for everyone to understand, and apply the same tactics they do. Remember to confirm that you’ve successfully simplified the story by having someone proofread it while you’re editing your story.
Begin with a “What if…?”
Science fiction stories often focus around a human theme, otherwise it would be fiction with robots. A compelling statement on humanity, politics, or existence is an easy way to get people to not only read your story, but also have them think about it well after they’ve finished it. But how do you get there?
Finding your message isn’t always straightforward, but it could start with a simple question: "what if…?". One way to formulate a "what if…?" is to see it as kind of an experiment; put people in a position where something about their way of life is fundamentally different from our own. Alternatively, you can have people react to an event that either changes their way of life or puts it at risk. Not only does this set you up to have a discourse around the human theme of your choosing, it gives you insight on what your plot and setting could be. This is part of the creative process and should be done before you even sit down to write your first draft.
Many works of science fiction don’t exactly focus around a message on humanity. This is especially true for long series such as Star Trek or stories that involve more than one genre such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which is also primarily a comedy) or The Hunger Games (which is a dystopian fiction). Although these works address important subjects, it’s either diluted in its prolonged storytelling, or delivered through the means of its other genre. So, even if you don’t exactly feel like focusing your science fiction story on some grand message, starting with a “what if…?” can lay a solid foundation on which to write.
What Should My Message Be About?
A human theme often looks at an element of the human condition or at some truth about us as sentient beings. Alternatively, your commentary could be more of a reflection on society, or even a projection, highlighting a trend you believe to be worrisome.
This message is often demonstrated through the protagonist’s story arch, but could also be the focus of the plot itself. The key here is to not fall in the trap of simply monologuing your message. Be interesting with how you address it because in many ways you’re trying to prove its validity. A good story will stand on its own, but having an intelligent, accurate, and profound message will make it shine.
Make It Modern
Science fiction is relative to the time in which it was written. There used to be a time where small devices that can communicate over huge distances were unheard of, and now we have cell phones. Many of us grew up on science fiction that had new and interesting ideas, and even if some of those aged well, we certainly can’t look into the past for inspirations on what the future could hold.
Do your research. You can’t write interesting science fiction without getting interested in our current science or technologies. Picking up older topics and revamping them with new insight could also work, but what will separate good science fiction stories from great ones is that push for what’s new. The acclaimed British television series Black Mirror does this successfully, and not only because of its outstanding storytelling, but also because some of what the show depicts could actually happen.
Science Fiction in a Short Story
Science fiction goes hand-in-hand with the short story format because most of what’s expected in a short story is already a necessary part of sci-fi. The best way to write a science fiction short story is to focus on a character’s development which in-turn reveals your message on the human theme, while having the sci-fi elements drive the plot.
A great example is in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, that chronicles the experiences of a man called Charlie Gordon as he undergoes an experiment that increases his intelligence.
In essence, science fiction tells a story of what could be. It looks at the current worries, trends, or fundamental subjects about the human condition, and tries to reveal some kind of truth through the experiences of the protagonist, using science and technology as either setting and/or plot.
Now that you’ve learned the very basics of writing science fiction, dedicate your next project to the genre, and we’re certain you won’t be disappointed.