Writing Sci-Fi: The 3 Basics

March 9, 2016

So, you want to write Sci-Fi and you don’t know where to start…

 

I believe that there are some basics that every Sci-Fi writer should know…not only will they help you create a Sci-Fi masterpiece, but they will also enhance your Sci-Fi writing experience. As a writer of the genre, I personally find joy in the creation of a new story. I find even more pleasure in writing it than I do reading it (probably why I became a writer). Writing it is EXHILARATING…but sometimes, daunting. Here are a few tips to help organize all that Sci-Fi brain clutter.

 

#1 - IMAGINATION 

If you want to write Sci-Fi, the most important thing you need is imagination. Sci-Fi is a genre of the unrealized and without a vivid imagination, it will likely be difficult to create settings, characters, and ideas that entertain to this audience.

 

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. EVERYONE has an imagination.

 

Sure, anyone can picture themselves as being the woman (or man – who am I to judge?) Leo finally decides to settle down with. Even though I'm not a model, I can moving into his “green” mansion, having his babies, attending the Oscars as his date, and driving a Prius. Wait…am I the only one?

 

But I'm talking about Sci-Fi Imagination.

 

In order to write Sci-Fi, you must be able to imagine the impossible and turn it into something scientifically probable. You have to create at least one thing out of nothing, and then craft an entire world around it.

 

“An aging scientist’s experiment goes terribly wrong. In a minor explosion, his face is sprayed with green residual goo. It is sticky, smelly, and really gross, but has a miraculous effect on his appearance: the goo has transformed the elderly man to the young stud he once was.”

 

THAT is Sci-Fi Imagination.

 

#2 CURIOSITY

Imagination isn’t everything…you also need to have a fanatical curiosity about all things science. In order to make the impossible scientifically probable, you have to understand, at least at a basic level, how things work. This, of course, varies depending on your setting. If your story is set in space, well, higher than a basic understanding of astronomy and astrophysics will likely be necessary. But even if you don’t, if the curiosity is there, you can learn the elements needed to give your story clout.

 

I know, I know. You’re an English/Fine Arts/Communication major and while you were in college, you didn’t study anything science-related, expect for a few, required, GenEd classes.

 

Well I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t matter. I was a Musical Theatre major. Even though I chose not to focus on it earlier in life, I always had an innate curiosity about science. My favorite classes in college weren’t my major classes, they were my astronomy classes.

 

But how will I learn more about human biology if I want to write a story about mutation?

 

HELLO?! It’s called THE INTERNET. Ever heard of it?

 

Seriously, the internet has made so many things possible for so many people. A greater understanding of a specific scientific discipline or process, is completely possible for EVERYONE now. Before I wrote The Farmed, my first novel, I didn’t know much of anything about eugenics or microbiology. I did some research on the internet and VIOLA – I was soon confidently able to write my story based on my newfound knowledge. Don't get me wrong, I'm still an amateur, but I was able to learn enough to tell the details of my story. You don't need to be an expert in a subject to write a FICTION book about it.

 

**Don’t forget – no matter how viable you think a website, and the information within, is, you should ALWAYS double, and even triple check the facts before you put pen to paper. This will save you a lot of time in the editing room AND will stave off potential criticism from the real experts.

 

#3 THE SCI-FI ELEMENT

Now to the hard part: identifying and defining The Sci-Fi Element within your story. The main problem should revolve around this element. In my opinion, setting your story in space isn’t enough to classify it as Sci-Fi. People are currently living at the International Space Station…so if your story is set at the ISS, and there’s a murder, and it was Colonel Mustard with the Lead Pipe in the Billiard Room, what is it about your story that makes it Sci-Fi? The genre is all about making the impossible scientifically probable…what is so impossible about the situation I just described?

 

I actually have a bone to pick with Hollywood. The film, Gravity, is considered a Sci-Fi Thriller…but I don’t think there’s anything Sci-Fi about that movie, except that it is set in space. Everything that happens is already probable, even (SPOILER ALERT) Sandra’s hallucinations at the end from the lack of oxygen. Interstellar and The Martian, however, ARE Sci-Fi. The type of space travel used in each of those movies (to distant planets in Interstellar and to Mars in The Martian) is currently impossible. Those stories make the travel seem probable.

 

Sigh. Sometimes I can go off on a tangent faster than Stephen King…let’s get back to it.

 

The Sci-Fi element can be found in three basic areas: setting, character, object, or any combination of the three. To help explain this in greater detail, I’m going to break down Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. The novel uses all three elements to tell its story.

 

Setting: The book takes place in space, in a future where Mars, the Moon, and the Asteroid Belt (simply called “the Belt” in the novel), have been colonized. All of the galaxy’s citizens, work together to ensure the sustainability of all.

 

Character: One of the main characters, Detective Miller, was born and raised in the Belt, specifically on Ceres, the biggest asteroid. Gravity is different out there, artificially created to sustain life. As a result, Miller’s physical appearance is inhuman: he is extremely tall (taller than NBA players) and lanky. The reason? The artificial gravitational pull on the Belt is only a small percentage of what it is on Earth, thus there is less “weighing you down” so to speak. Bones can and muscles can grow longer in less gravity.

 

Object: An alien substance, called the “protomolecule” was discovered on one of Saturn’s moons, Phoebe. It has the ability to infect and mutate life and is considered an alien weapon. Its existence drives the plot of the entire book.

 

Leviathan Wakes is a perfect example of how all three of these elements work together to create a Sci-Fi masterpiece (it won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel), BUT COMBINING ALL THREE ISN’T NECESSARY. In fact, it’s very difficult and should probably be reserved for a project a little further down the line. If you’re able to successfully incorporate ONE of the elements above, you’re on the right track!

 

If you’re considering writing Sci-Fi, I sincerely hope this article helps bring you over onto my side of the fence. It’s a lovely place to be…full of wonder, intrigue, and best of all, science.

 

Let me know your thoughts! If you have any questions, I would love to connect. Just shoot me an email…

 

Happy Sci-Fi creating!

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A dystopian, action-adventure trilogy set in San Francisco.

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writer | author | sci-fi storyteller

Lisa Caskey

writer | author | sci-fi storyteller
© 2016 by Lisa Caskey
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