Sci-fi is a peculiar genre to try and tackle because, despite being in the public eye since the 17th Century, it’s still a relatively niche readership. Can you count the number of sci-fi books you have read? It does not help that the genre has a preconceived stereotype for having confusing technobabble or ambiguous themes. Sci-fi is a difficult genre, but it is not impossible for a writer to delve into. It is important to take into consideration if your sci-fi is about the technology or if it is a character-centric story, what purpose your sci-fi serves, why the technology/aliens are important, and creating a thought-out setting.
Is it even about the Engine Room?
This was a question I discovered from an article on arcstudiopro.com pertaining to writing science fiction and it is one of the fundamental things you should consider when crafting a sci-fi story. The question is in relation to excessively explaining sci-fi mumbo-jumbo like how a ship’s hyperdrive works, or how a laser sword operates. Unless it is imperative to include as a main plot point, hard sci-fi should be kept simple because the reader does not need to know everything. Sometimes it is the element of the unknown that gets the readers hooked into a sci-fi world, not the four-page explanation of how futuristic technology works.
That has been my primary approach to writing sci-fi, the notion that the technology is more for aesthetic purposes rather than to fully tell the story. Sci-fi tech absolutely enhances the story and makes for creative scenes, but it is not what drives my storytelling. At the end of the day, the characters are what drive a sci-fi story because if they do not work then no manner of cool tech or strange worlds can save the story. You can see this at the center of many popular sci-fi stories like Star Wars, Hunger Games, and Avengers. Luke Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi Knight, Katniss Everdean’s revolution against President Snow, and Tony Stark’s realization of self-sacrifice are at the center of those stories. Luke’s lightsaber, Katniss’ environment, and Tony’s armor are simply aesthetic elements that make them iconic and help develop their journey as a character.
With that said, a writer should understand the basic rules of their technology even if it is not explained in the story. You need to remain consistent with your technology or else it compromises the immersion. Sci-fi writers do not need to know the exact science of how nanotech weapons work, just that there are rules for it. We as viewers understand that Iron Man’s nanotech suit can form weapons and shields, but it cannot create food or water. To make for an effective character journey, the technology should not be able to solve all the MC’s problems. Sure, it would be awesome to have a suit of armor that could solve every situation, but that eliminates all conflict from the story. Taking a page out of Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic: what the technology cannot do is far more interesting than what it can do.
Hard vs Soft Sci-fi:
When it comes to writing science fiction, it is important to consider what kind of sci-fi you want to delve into. There are two main subcategories of this genre: Hard Sci-fi and Soft Sci-fi. An article on arcstudiopro.com defines, “Hard Sci-fi means that everything is based soundly in science, or at least in speculative science. Soft Sci-fi has less of a focus on the technical aspects of the world and more of a focus on the people.” A lot of authors, myself included, tend to delve more into the Soft Sci-fi subgenre because we choose to put greater emphasis on the challenges of characters rather than the science. While we do our research and obtain advice on the various sciences applied in this genre, a lot of authors feel safe knowing that there is a deeper, character-driven story to fall back on. Hard Sci-fi is more for writers who have a solid background in physics, chemistry, or biology because they can accurately explain the science behind their work.
An example of Hard Sci-fi is the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton where so much of the story revolves around computer systems, chaos theory, paleontology, and genetic sequencing. A lot of technobabble is in this book, and it unfortunately overshadows the character story arcs. But that is not to say that the story is boring. The basis of Jurassic Park is a theoretical look at what could happen if cloning technology was used unchecked and without regard to human morality. A Soft Sci-fi example is the novel Red Rising by Pierce Brown where the technology is visually described, but the inner workings are left to the reader’s imagination. A reader can glean enough data from the name of a “ripWing” to know that it is a fast starship, and that is all they need to know. Instead, the focus is on the main character, Darrow, and the story revolves around his emotional and physical journey to enact vengeance.
In either sub-genre, it is still imperative that a writer understands or researches some fundamentals of science. Even for a two-sentence throwaway line about a computer algorithm, you need to do the research to ensure such technobabble is as accurate as possible. Even understanding human biology is important when dealing with scenes in the vacuum of space or planets with different gravity. How would our bodies react to lighter gravity? What happens to human lungs if they breathe in a different atmosphere? Your Google search is going to be full of strange questions.
Another question you should consider when writing sci-fi is: Why Sci-fi? What is the purpose of setting your story in the far future or in a different galaxy? For many sci-fi writers, the why relates to themes of human expansion, cultural evolution, or dystopian revolution. Some writers feel that sci-fi serves as an ideal outlet to express the change in humanity they want to see, so it is important to settle on a central conflict for the world. Your sci-fi world needs to change over the course of the book/books because evolution is intrinsic to the nature of science fiction. In Star Wars, the oppressive Galactic Empire must be defeated by the Rebel Alliance to bring freedom back to the galaxy. In Red Rising, the ruling class of Golds must be dismantled to bring equality to all the lower colors like Reds. In Jurassic Park, the park administrators must accept that cloned dinosaurs cannot be controlled by the will of man.
When developing your central sci-fi conflict, a writer needs to understand precisely what the world’s problem is and what steps must be taken to fix it. Who are the key players of change? Who are the ones keeping the world stagnant? Creating competent forces of opposition is important to any story, but sci-fi allows a writer to go as big or as small as they want. Perhaps the protagonist seeks to topple a conquering armada, or maybe they seek the cure for a strange affliction. I think we gravitate to writing epic space operas because of the vast scope of planets and expanding empires, but not all sci-fi has to conform to that.
In books like Maze Runner or Hunger Games, the first installment rarely has anything to do with revolution or epic sci-fi. Their stories involve survival in a world that views such struggle as entertainment, a dark yet believable behavior that humanity could evolve into. These stories serve as a warning to the dangers of becoming too infatuated with entertainment, and that humanity should value every life in its society. Your sci-fi story can reflect your warnings or hopes for humanity in the far future.
In every writing circle there is mention of Chekhov’s Gun and how it should apply to a story. The sci-fi genre has its own take on that rule, which is Chekhov’s Egg, which is in a sci-fi story if you introduce an alien egg in the first act, it must hatch and eat a character by the third act. This trope was inspired by the film Alien by Ridley Scott, and it is one of the cornerstones when writing sci-fi horror. But that is not to say it is exclusively meant for sci-fi horror; a Chekhov’s Egg could be any sort of creature, device, or object introduced in the first act that must be showcased later in the story.
In Jurassic Park, the idea of a flawed dinosaur tracking system is introduced within the first act of the novel. The park’s supervisors are confident that their animal numbers are accurate and stable since they engineered the dinosaurs so that they could not breed, but some characters believe that the system is incorrect. In act three, the supervisors run a test in the system to account for more dinosaurs than originally counted, revealing that the animal population has increased. This is a clever use of Chekhov’s Egg because it is hinted early on that the dinosaurs could be breeding, only to be revealed as true in the final act.
Just like Chekhov’s Gun, this trope is one of the primary methods of foreshadowing something of importance in your sci-fi story. As with any foreshadowing, you need to understand the why and how when developing your Chekhov’s Egg. An example: Why is this Egg important? Because the Alien bursts from a crewman’s chest to wreak havoc on the ship. How does it influence the story? Because this propels Ellen Ripley to step up as the heroine and prevent the Alien from spreading.
Your sci-fi is only as good as the world you create for it. We as writers understand the importance of world building, especially for fantasy, but sci-fi is not limited to building just one world. Sure, there are sci-fi stories that take place on one planet or on a single continent, but why stop there?
Going back to the scope of your sci-fi story, it is important to settle on how epic you want this tale to be. Should it be limited to a single solar system? Should the adventure sweep across an entire galaxy? Even if a writer decides to limit the story to a single planet, the world needs to be different enough from our own to make it interesting. Flora and fauna are exceptionally fun to develop for these new worlds. Some planets may not have the same atmospheric composition as Earth. Maybe some worlds have plants that withdraw into the ground at the slightest movement. Perhaps there is an alien hive that has infested the planet and seeks to spread to other worlds. The best advice for sci-fi world building is to develop planets with exaggerated features.
Star Wars is a great example of exaggerated biomes because there are planets made up entirely of ice, sand, or lava. Yet, the singular biome does not make the planet boring if there is solid world building behind it. Tatooine, a desert planet, was strip-mined of its resources in the past and left to become a wasteland. If a writer develops an exaggerated biome for a planet, it is important to know the reason behind why the planet is the way it is. It could be something as natural as a geological catastrophe, the shifting of its planetary axis, or a terrible storm.
At the end of the day, you can write sci-fi however you want to. These are just a few guidelines I took into consideration when developing my own sci-fi worlds, but every writer is different. Creativity should not be stifled just to adhere to the subjective rules of one sci-fi author. If your sci-fi world is whacky with an alien cyborg as the main character, that sounds awesome! I hope these pointers help inspire you to write a thought out and intricately crafted sci-fi story.
Meet Matthew Romeo
Matthew Romeo is the self-published sci-fi fantasy author of The Maven Knight trilogy. He graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 2014 with a B.A. in Communications. He is one of the OG boys of The Writer Community and participates in both the Great Writing in ATLA and Galactic Writing Instagram lives. When he’s not writing he is either sketching, practicing martial arts, playing video games, running D&D campaigns, or copiously editing his work. He lives in central Virginia with his wife, and he works full-time for an international shipping company while writing his next novel.