by Ellen Buikema
To get your science fiction story started, ponder the should, might, and heaven forbid, but what if it happened anyway.
Start by asking, “What if?”
The “What if” question drives the Sci-Fi genre.
Science fiction stories have an element of newness, the new thing that is grounded in reality. It’s the difference between sci-fi and fantasy.
Consider monsters. Vampires as mythological creatures are fantasy. But what if a virus makes people need to consume blood to survive? Viruses are real science, so they’re grounded in reality. The viral vamps would be dangerous, real-world creatures.
Asking a “what if” question and answering it with something new will give you a solid foundation for your plot.
Decide upon The Type of Science Fiction
Hard science fiction
- Hard SF is grounded in scientific laws and understanding. Elements of natural science form a critical part of the plot.
- Examples: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain, and Andy Weir's The Martian.
Soft science fiction
- Soft SF is more concerned with social aspects. The technical details of the fictional universe aren’t essential.
- Examples: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
A good sci-fi story must feature science in a way that’s essential to the story.
Once you have a big question and your science-fiction type, think about themes that make sense to explore.
10 Possible Themes
- Explore multiple sides to a story to answer the question. Do different choices lead to better outcomes? Alternate reality offers sci-fi fans play in worlds that exist parallel to ours.
- Examples: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, David Levithan’s Every Day
- In fictional stories, A.I., a self-aware computer system capable of thinking on its own, often escapes from the control of its programmers and turns on humanity. Sometimes, while trying to help the lesser beings—us—their efforts do more harm than good.
- Examples: J. Michael Straczynski and Pete Woods' Terminator Salvation, (The original author may be Sophia Stewart, who wrote Third Eye, the basics of Terminator as well as The Matrix. Court case is ongoing.), Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near
- Body modifications in sci-fi vary from superficial to superhuman. They can be mechanical, organic, or both. The modifications might improve the character’s life but sometimes leaves them ruined or dependent upon their mechanical “upgrades.”
- Examples: acflory’s Miira , Frank Miller’s RoboCop (Steven Grant adapted Frank Miller’s screenplay.)
- If your mind is scanned, mapped, and copied into another entity, will it still be you? One possible way to achieve immortality is by uploading a person’s brain into a machine. Science fiction theorizes that enough scientific advancement may lead to immortality.
- Examples: Dennis E. Taylor’s We Are Legion (We Are Bob) , John C. Wright’s The Golden Age
- Science fiction delves into human evolution and the inner workings as well as limitations of the human brain. Have we unlocked our full potential? If pushed, will people develop abilities that cannot be explained?
- Examples: Tricia O’Malley’s One Tequila , Jody Houser’s Stranger Things
- Robots come in various shapes and sizes; their function is to enhance people’s lives. They sometimes go above and beyond what was originally required. Sci-fi stories also portray self-aware robots, leading to a revolution where people play the weaker beings.
- Examples: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Meredith Katz’s, The Cybernetic Tea Shop
- Space—the final frontier. These words immediately cause me to hear the theme track to the Star Trek TV series. As science fiction often uses technology that doesn’t exist in the story’s timeframe, space is a great setting for new tech.
- Examples: Andy Weir’s The Martian , James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn
- Technospeak (or technobabble) is any mix of words that sounds like a blending of buzzwords and real science to fit the genre.
- Examples: Instead of a specific book, I thought it’d be fun to have a technospeak/technobabble generator and found this cool link: https://www.scifiideas.com/technobabble-generator/. Scroll to the bottom for lots of interesting sci-fi random generator ideas like future food names, planet names, alien species …
- A popular time-related idea is time travel. Could we undo a past mistake or learn what our future self does? An interesting time-related theme is the time loop, where a character must repeat the day over and over until they figure out how to break the cycle.
- Examples: Adrian Cousins’ The Jason Apsley Series, Shawn Inmon’s Middle Falls Time Travel
A gripping sci-fi story might include a few major themes. Find themes that play well together.
The themes of us vs. them plus exploration can make a fantastic space odyssey book with lots of aliens. Androids and robots can tie together what it means to be human with the risks inherent in technology.
To be continued.
Do you prefer hard science fiction or soft sci-fi? If you decide to write a science fiction novel or graphic novel, what would your “What if” question be? What is your favorite science fiction book?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi.
Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.
Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay
Nice article. I favor "hard SciFi “ in both my reading and writing, because too many people confuse pseudo-science with real science, and this leads to bad real world decisions. So, I try to provide a peek at the complexity involved in scientific decision-making.
My own series uses an alien encounter incident to propel my main characters to dramatically lead humanity from our contemporary civilization to becoming an interstellar species.
Wow! Sounds like an exciting series.
Do you have a background in a particular science?
A friend who writes hard science fiction contracted with NASA in the past and uses his knowledge of science in his novels.
Scary stuff is possible.
Nice breakdown of the basics, Ellen. While I've read (and studied) many of your examples, you have several examples I have not read and am excited to put in my TBR pile! Thanks for sharing.
If you have examples to add, I would love that.
I typically prefer soft SciFi because I want the stress on the human element, though I liked Asimov's "I Robot" stories and have them on my shelf. The addressed that the question of what it is to be human. The story that had a huge impact on me was "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury. My favorite SciFi series of all time remains the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons.
Ooh! I am not familiar with The Hyperion books. I will have to check them out.
Thank you for your additions, Christina!
I like a light-hearted soft sci-fi. My favorite sf would be either Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series, or Joseph Lallo's Big Sigma series. My current WIP is the Spaceport series, which focuses around what if aliens showed up at what is essentially a sci fi convention. My stories focus more on the people than the technology.
I also tend to like it when science fiction and fantasy cross and come together.
I'm thinking that aliens attending a sci-fi convention might lead to some wonderful comedy. Your Spaceport series sounds awesome, Lisa!
Soft Sci-Fi is more appealing to me.
Denise, I also prefer soft sci-fi, but enjoy a mix.
I'm all about soft-sci fi as a reader. As a writer, I found I like mixing Space Opera SF with Fantasy's new species. However, I also write the dystopian themes of futuristic environments or "after" some cataclysmic event. As C Hawthorne mentioned, the human element is more important in this type of writing. Figuring out how they feel, and what they will do next, and how it affects others or not, is how I like to write my stories.
That's a great summary.I am also a fan of the human element in sci-fi.
Thanks for including 'Miira' in such an august list, Ellen! The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune were/are two of the major influences in my writing, but I also need my scifi to be possible, even if it's not probable, so I do a lot of research based on what's possible now. I'm very much a lay person so it's always a case of 'all care, no responsibility'. 😀
I very much enjoyed Miira, and appreciate your research and artwork. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.