How To Write a Science Fiction Novel
by Tom Ashford
There are probably a few different answers to the question, “How do I write a science-fiction novel?” Sit down and type, could be one. One word at a time, for another. And of course it’s a ludicrous question, really. Here are a couple of better ones:
What makes a sci-fi novel a science-fiction novel?
How do you satisfy audiences looking for a science-fiction story?
Readers of sci-fi do so usually because they know what they’re getting – not in terms of the actual story per se, but the tropes and tone and themes. Few people pick up a sci-fi novel and expect it to be about a romantic relationship or an undead serial killer, unless the book was very clearly marketed as such. As with every other genre, people want new stories but they also want what feels familiar.
As Jon Land said during our interview with him at Thrillerfest, “Give me the same, but different.”
Without further ado, let’s take a look at answering those two (better) questions.
Ask Big Questions
The best sci-fi stories often start with a big question – after all, sci-fi is all about speculative about the future. Arrival (originally a short story called Story of Your Life) asks how we would communicate with an alien race. Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) asks the big question: what is it to be human? Even smaller, more vague questions can be effective. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke asks how Earth would react if visited by a more advanced race, and The Martian can be boiled down to this: A man is left stranded on Mars. How would he survive?
Of course, any book can be reduced to a simple “What if?” question. But given how its very name describes fiction grounded in real-world logic (science fiction, not magic fiction), don’t be afraid to tackle something really big.
And on that note…
Tackle Big Themes
Even before you get into sub-genres such as dystopian fiction, sci-fi lets you really explore big themes. Modern politics? Go for it. Changing behaviours surrounding technology? Just look at the success of Black Mirror. Climate change? Absolutely.
This basically connects pretty directly with the last point. Ask a big question, and then really embrace the theme that emerges. Go mad – you can’t do this with a romance novel.
Some science fiction stories are very self-contained. Take the movie Ex Machina, for example – it’s almost entirely set inside a single home/compound. But sci-fi also lends itself to sweeping, epic stories set across whole galaxies. If you’re writing the latter, you need to lay a lot of groundwork. You need to build your own universe, essentially.
There are so many things to think about, if you want your fictional world to feel realistic. Do your civilisations have the same genders as we do? Do your aliens have different races within their species, like us? What religions, foods, cultures, architecture, arts, working hours and weird habits do they each have? And don’t just think about the now – every civilisation has a history, and they probably have histories with every other civilisation too.
Real life is detailed and complicated. Want your readers to feel as immersed in your story as they would a thriller or romance novel (i.e. something set in the real world)? Then make it just as complex. Just make sure to sow all that information into the narrative in a subtle and organic way. Nobody wants an info dump.
Make a Note of Everything
Following on from the previous point – make sure you make a note of every detail you add to your universe. It’s no use writing that your alien race hates sandwiches cut diagonally if in three books’ time you write about a member of that species who eats sandwiches no matter what shape they are. Consistency is key in sci-fi. Collect it all into an enormous encyclopaedia if you have to – you can always sell it as a standalone book when your series becomes successful enough.
Know Your Sci-Fi Tropes
As mentioned earlier, people stick to certain genres because they know what they like, and they know that they’ll get what they like from those sorts of books. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can stick any old cliche into your story and your audience will love it. Quite the opposite, in fact – the more sci-fi your readers have read, the less time they’ll have for anything unimaginative. That said, there’ll be certain tropes you can include to make your novel seem comfortably familiar.
Here are a few to get you started: cryosleep, alternate universes, ancient civilisations, faster-than-light travel, monstrous aliens (we should have never gone looking!), evil androids.
Make sure you nail down which sort of sci-fi story you’re writing, however. You can’t write Ex Machina and then throw in a portal to Alpha Centurai right at the end, but you can use the evil android trope.
Read a Lot of Sci-Fi
It goes without saying that in order to write brilliant science-fiction, you need to know what people already consider brilliant science-fiction. Read widely and deeply. And don’t just stick to your niche or sub-genre – if you’re writing something original (or as original as any of us can hope for) then it’s good to have influences that go beyond your immediate market.
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