Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 24, 2023

Writing Science Fiction, part 2

by Ellen Buikema

(Part 1 of this series can be found here.)

Begin in the Past

When building the world for your science fiction story, consider creating the backstory, or history.

Whether your world is an advanced space-faring civilization, about to encounter aliens, or if a virus wiped out most of the planet’s peopled population, you need to begin in the past.

How did it happen? Why did your world get to the point it’s at when your story starts?

Work backward to figure it out. What did the world look like a few years ago? Twenty years before? A century? You already know the effects. Now determine the cause.

The cause is critical for writing a well-developed world within your science fiction story. As you delve into the past, occasionally falling into the rabbit holes that we all know and love, you will find other plot points to explore.

Plan Your Civilization

After building your foundation, ponder the details of your story’s societies and their social structures. Spend quality time on this aspect, as the more detail you have, the easier your plot building will be.

This link has a helpful template to use while word-building.

The science has to be believable. Good science makes good science fiction.

William R. Leibowitz, author of Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox, stresses the importance of research as well as keeping a good balance within the story telling.

If a work of science fiction is to be believable and engrossing, the science in it must be plausible—and the science must be understandable to the reader. Too much detail easily becomes boring and makes the readers think they are back in school being harangued by a tedious teacher. Too little detail, and the author is asking the reader to take giant “leaps of faith,” undermining the credibility of a science fiction story.”

William R. Leibowitz, for Writers’ Digest

Soft sci-fi stories may take place in a dystopian Earth or a futuristic society in space, below the ocean, or floating above the planet. Science still needs to be a guiding force in the world you create to be true science fiction.

Soft SF is more concerned with social aspects. The technical details of the fictional universe aren’t essential. Whereas, hard SF is grounded in scientific laws and understanding, and the elements of natural science form a critical part of the plot.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games  trilogy, and Frank Herbert’s Dune series are examples of soft sci-fi.

Look here for more information on soft sci-fi vs hard sci-fi in part 1 of Writing Science Fiction.

Invent Your Technology

Developing sci-fi tech can be an enjoyable part of the process. It’s time to turn up your geek gauge and create new toys for your world.

Think about the following as you develop your tech:

  • How was the tech created?
  • Why is the technology needed?
  • What is the tech’s power source?
  • Does this technology help or hurt people?
  • Who has access to the tech?
  • What might go wrong with the technology?
  • How does the tech weave into the story themes?

Consider any current, real-world examples that are related to the technology. While pondering these questions, let your imagination run amuck.

Peter von Stackelberg has a fantastic guide to writing sci-fi technology.

Develop Your Characters

Now that you’ve built your world, it’s time to populate it.

Keep your story’s themes in mind when creating your protagonists and antagonists. How will their traits, flaws, and character growth weave into the subject matter?

Characters need motivations and goals that make sense within the world paradigm. They should also have flaws that are relatable to the readers. Those imperfections can contribute lots of tension in the story.

Solve (or Create) a Problem with Science

Something is wrong in your characters’ life. They need to reach their goal, and an object, person, formula, or other impediments are in the way. Therein lie the conflicts.

Your main characters advance toward their goal via the plot. When writing science fiction, the way your characters fail and succeed depends on science. Sometimes it’s in the math.

The science in your story might be causing your characters' problems, keeping them from achieving their goals.

Ian McEwan, who wrote Machines like Me, had this to say,

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you,” McEwan told an interviewer with The Guardian.

“If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

What do we do when the line drawn is fuzzy?

Now that you’ve figured out what role science plays in your character’s development and story arc, you’re ready to roll!

What technology would you invent for a sci-fi story? How would your world be different? Do you prefer stories where the science hinders or when it helps?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series 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.

Top Image by kalhh from Pixabay

8 comments on “Writing Science Fiction, part 2”

  1. I love soft scifi. In my stories the technology is more of an extension of the various species that my characters encounter. I like it when the technology both helps and hinders, especially since technology is such a big part of my life, it feels realistic for it to be a pain occasionally.

    Love these posts!

  2. Very good points, Ellen! I would lean very heavily on medical science, if I were to write Sci-Fi. A good example is the movie Contagion, which was heavily watched at the beginning of Covid (although really too close to home at the time!). It tracked an organism that spread disease, using the CDC and other real life scientific facts to create a fake pandemic. It was (mostly) believable. Another is Tom Clancy's Executive Orders- where a weaponized strain of the ebola virus created great plot twists and turns. As long at the facts seem realistic and not medically stretched beyond believability, these kinds of medical Sci-Fi can be a great read.

    1. I totally agree, Miffie. It makes sense that you'd enjoy the medical science as it jives nicely with your background.

      I'll keep watch for a future germ-based sci-fi story written by you.

  3. Love the tools and resources you've shared, Ellen. I write soft science based on medical science, technology, and psychology. The sciences both causes the story problems and solve the problems.

  4. Hi Ellen,
    These are great considerations for writing science fiction. Inventing technology is a fun part of the genre for sure.

    Thank you for your insights and reminders for one of my favorite genres.

  5. I've written ONE sci-fi (because I had to for the NYC Midnight contest) and I was shocked at how much I liked it. It was about specialized and advanced knowledge, and kind of Big Brother-ish. It was a tremendous amount of fun to take a cutting edge technology that is barely started and turn it into the plot of a story. I'd totally go there again.

    But MAN, the research is hard.

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