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How to Write Science Fiction When You’re Not into Science

Guest post by Meriah Bradley

Science fiction writer was my third career of choice, right after astronaut and Jedi. I knew I was unlikely to become an astronaut before I knew I couldn’t become a Jedi Apprentice. That’s what happens in a house full of math and science people.

My first few stories were fantasy for the singular reason that I didn’t want to get science fiction “wrong” (at ten years old, I was getting fantasy wrong anyway, but I hadn’t figured that out yet). What if the star I picked turned out—one day—to not to have any habitable planets orbiting it? There was too much risk.

Eventually the drive to write science fiction that aligned with my beliefs grew so strong I tried it. I wrote a crazy, brilliant, over-wordy semi-hard science fiction. And…I came to the depressing conclusion that science fiction writers needed to know everything.

But a first draft, several short pieces, and much research later I discovered otherwise and learned some things I wish I’d known all along.

You don’t have to be a scientist to write science fiction (SF). You just need to be willing to prepare some before you start writing—and it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Here’s a loose set of steps. Next week, I will share some more.

Step 1: Don’t panic
Seriously. First and foremost remember that you’re writing a story. You can do that. Plenty of science fictions with inaccuracies are loved for their stories. Example: The Matrix is considered a classic among multiple sub-genres of science fiction. Yet the human characters are batteries (literally), and not very good ones at that. And yes, that concept is the basis of the entire story!

A quality story arc is the core of any decent book or movie; accuracy is an aspect of the quality. You should try to make the science portion as accurate as the story requires, but much can be forgiven in a well-told tale. So relax.

Step 2: Choose your sub-genre by comfort level
Bite off what you’re willing to chew. Each sub-genre comes with its own expectations, almost like difficulty levels.

“Hard science fiction” is advanced. The technology in the story is expected to already exist or be hypothesized as possible (generally in the near future). I recommend trying this sub-genre after you’ve written other science fiction stories, because the research aspect will be less intimidating.

The trick to writing hard SF is reading lots of hard SF—and keeping your storyline simple at first.

I thought all science fiction was hard SF at first, and it’s not at all!

Every other SF category falls under “soft science fiction.” In this broad category, story and character come first and science is bent for the sake of the story. How much you bend (or break) scientific concepts defines how soft your soft SF is.

This is a sliding scale and on the end farthest from hard SF is “science fantasy.” This mini genre generally has some conventions of science fiction, like spaceships or robots, but explains them with magic or mystical devices (like sun stones that power battle mechs or science that “just looks like” magic and is never explained). This is generally easy to write and gets you comfortable with the “props” of SF.

In the middle is philosophical or psychological science fiction, where the story focuses more on the social sciences in a future world instead of technology (some Dystopians fall into this category). In this range authors just use technobabble (believable, scientific-sounding hogwash) to explain why warp drive actually works, etc.

Just google science fiction sub-genres. There’s something for everyone.
This is an over-simplification of a complicated, debatable topic but it should give you an idea of your reader’s expectations. Find a place of comfort on the hard/soft scale and you’re well on your way.

Step 3: Pick a few things to really research
Don’t feel like you must research everything. What concepts are central to your story? Whether hard or soft, science fiction is an idea genre. What if humanity used chemical injection to inhibit emotion? What if someone cloned you at birth? How alike would you and your clone be? These are your “premise concepts.” Research these most; give yourself a break on the rest (at least for the first draft). Like the emotion idea? Learn about neurotransmitters. If you went with the clone thing you’d want to research genetics, maybe relating to twins.

How does the food replicator work? Don’t worry about it, especially if your character doesn’t. If it’s something she takes for granted it won’t feel like a plot hole. But if “whatever it is” is going to change her life, she’ll want to know how it works.

In short: research your strong areas—you will emphasize them naturally. Then research some weak areas to strengthen the story overall. Repeat step one if you need to, and find ways to make it fun.

Step 4: Find fun ways to learn
Think of research as discovering the history of your world. It doesn’t need to—and shouldn’t—be boring! Your research defines the setting. It’s helping you discover things your characters had to learn in school or during their first military tour off planet. Their history is defined by energy sources you choose. Let the research help you brainstorm.

Don’t go the boring route; try the fun stuff. Get some Idiot’s Guides or Dummies Guides from the library, look up things on iTunes U or try some education apps on an iPad or tablet and do try educational YouTube channels like Crash Course.

We will be hearing more on science fiction from Meriah next week!

In the meantime, tell us in the comments what your experience has been writing science fiction.

About Meriah

Meriah is a long-time OYANer who’s passionate about bringing Christianity to science fiction. She enjoys astronomy, drawing, chocolate, music and many fandoms.

Currently she teaches English as a Second Language online to students in Korea and is in her senior year studying for a Bachelor’s in English. She lives with her husband in a little apartment not too far from her horse and a small lake, where she and her husband spar with longswords.

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. This post was like a breath of fresh air for me! Many of my story ideas have sci-fi aspects, though I wouldn’t consider that my main genre. And the idea of researching science for them has always made me wince; science was never my favorite subject. So, I doubt I’ll ever write hard SF. But your tips here have given me hope for writing sci-fi in the future. Thanks, Meriah! I look forward to your post next week!

  2. Thank you for writing this! As a Sci-fi writer myself I can understand where your coming from. I had this problem to, being worried of writing SF “Wrong”. I managed to get out of that mindset by the realization that one of the Beauties of the SF genre thou is that it’s SUPPOSED to me make-believe. If it were too close to modern times, or to believable, it wouldn’t really be SF any more. I think people orient themselves towards the SF genre of books and movies because of the question of “what will everything look like a hundred, or a thousand years into the future?”Personally, I know that I do, and I tend to put down books that portray SF in a more believable light. I read SF because I want to be dazzled by technology I can dream MIGHT exist one day, but know PROBABLY WON’T. As for wanting to bring Faith into SF, I give you two thumbs up! What started me first in the SF genre (aside from my major SF addiction) was the revelation that there are so many great SF stories that are ruined because of their atheistic viewpoints, and could have been AMAZING if only they had had Faith woven into them.

  3. Science fiction stories often illustrate the social reality of the current times. These stories give us a clear picture of how the technologies of today are affecting our daily lives, particularly our interaction and connection with one another. These stories help us understand the things that make up our current reality.

  4. Excellent advice. All the content on this page is useful in my writing project in the future. One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. Anyway, thank you for sharing such wonderful information.

  5. Woke up one day and wanted to write a short Sci Fi piece. Finished it and knew it did not work. NOW, after reading this very clear and helpful article from Meriah, I have new energy to delve into the research I need for my hard Sci Fi story. I just learned ‘Hard Sci Fi’ here. Thanks so much Meriah! I am looking forward to more info from you as I progress on my Sci Fi journey.

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