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How to Write Science Fiction for Beginners

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Balancing Reality and Dystopia

by Kashika K

“Science fiction is also a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent past and the present.”

- Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

‘Science Fiction’ (SF) was a term evolved in the 20th Century, by Publisher Hugo Gernsback, to understand the writing which was a sort of cross-fertilizing of concepts like utopia, thrill, adventure, etc. Mary Shelley is often credited with the invention of the genre, with her novel ‘Frankenstein’ in 1816.

Science Fiction can be defined as writing that wishes “to show realistically both the now-possible (believable and existing) and the now-impossible but forever-not-impossible (believable though not existing here and now) relations between people in a material world.” (Suvin)

SF is a hard genre to master, the themes it covers are often hard to capture and express in a manner of writing that appeals to a large audience. The author has to be careful and extremely precise in the world they define; the story they wish to tell. SF is about confronting something which we have not yet confronted.

In case you wish to venture in and explore, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Here are some tips that might help you:

  • Know Your Basics

The basics of any good SF story remain quite similar. Whether it’s the concept of ‘Utopia,’ ‘Cognitive Estrangement,’ ‘Alterity,’ or ‘Novum’ there are certain consistencies that are important.

Understanding such basics can come from research, and also from reading. Certain authors like Isaac Asimov, Ursula E. Guin, Ray Bradbury amongst various others have produced SF work that is a foundational way for beginners to get exposure into how writing in SF differs from other genres.

  • Listen to Suvin

Darko Suvin is one of the most prolific sources in understanding the SF genre. Considered a pioneer, he developed the concept of ‘Cognitive Estrangement,’ one of the leading pillars of any SF narrative.

To put it simply, ‘Cognitive Estrangement’ means to create a balance between what is known and what is unknown. The ‘Cognitive’ is what is already known by readers; something from reality that creates a sense of familiarity. ‘Estrangement’ is the dystopic; the unfamiliar introduced by the writer.

It is extremely important that this balance is perfect. If there is only estrangement, your story will be found absurd, and if there is only cognition, it will seem like only a scientific explanation of a concept, with no factor of extraordinary-ness to it.

  • Understand Your Idea

Any writer, regardless of the genre they are writing in, considers this the most excruciating part of writing; waiting for a ‘Eureka’ to hit. This becomes even harder in a genre like SF, where innovation is paramount in the development of an alternate reality that you have to create and then develop.

Remember that Science Fiction’s principal focus is not just science, it also explores ideas like class, gender, race, environmental issues, etc; remember that as you search for inspiration.

  • Common Themes Explored in SF

Time travel, Teleportation, Aliens, Space Travel and exploration, Fictional worlds are some main themes and elements that are most popularly used.

Some other themes you can dive into can be interplanetary-warfare, parallel universes, alternative histories, super intelligent computers and robots, etc.

  • Befriend Science and Keep In Touch

SF is guided by scientific knowledge and concepts that are one of the most decisive and determinant elements of the plot. It is often the part that compels readers to pay close attention to each detail.

Hence, scientific knowledge, scientific evolution and recent discoveries should be something you should be at least slightly in touch with. If there is a particular concept that is central to your novel, you should be absolutely well-versed in it. It is impossible to teach others about something you yourself are not sure about.

Research is the most important aid, and if you have friends who have studied, or are studying Science, reach out to them!

  • Worldbuilding

The alternate universe that is created in SF also is one of the main readers get driven in. A well-thought out, complex, familiar-yet-distant, world that immerses the person reading completely.

To increase the quality of worldbuilding, take particular care in coming up with the rules of the world, how it functions, how the people survive and live, etc. Half the task is tackled in the coming up of these ideas, and the other half is integrating them into your story.

The principle of showing, not telling is something that every good writer swears by, and in SF, it becomes all the more crucial to keep your writing as concise and to the point; providing the necessary details and letting the reader figure out other parts of your world through what they see happening.

  • Show Traces of the Past

Often while constructing a futuristic world, writers forget that the past plays the most important role in establishing the believability in this future. There is always the human tendency that looks for sameness.

Tradition and its awareness help to make your readers relate to your world in a much better manner. This is how you make the world seem familiar while still having an alternate sense of reality through your plot, etc.

  • The Central Conflict

This is what your story is driven by; what gives it structure and what you build everything else around.

Whether its Climate Change, War, Authoritarian Regimes, make sure whatever conflict exists in your plot is executed perfectly. This is often introduced early in the story, and sets the tone for the all the actions that occur after, or the reason for the existing world of the story, as the reader reads it.

  • Characters

Making your world perfect also includes developing characters for your world that all reflect at least a little bit of each perspective of the beings that exist in the society they all exist in. Different perspectives give the reader further insight into the alternate reality they are reading about.

In case your world still includes humans, understand the changing circumstances, the dystopia they are experiencing, and the reactions these changes elicit. There is often this belief that humans are always persevering whatever they encounter; they wish to survive and conquer. However, do not be afraid to make your characters sceptical, vulnerable and hesitant to accept the world.

Understanding the relationships your characters share with their world makes you write them in a more refined manner.

  • Remember The Difference between SF and Fantasy

This is to again drive home to point of how important Cognitive Estrangement is to the genre. No good science fiction work is discontinuous, or completely escapist.

Your novel should always have some grounding in reality, and not completely unfamiliar to the point where there the reader forgets that this is a reflection of a possible future, etc. If there is no exploration of scientific concepts in your plot, and all it presents in all alternate reality, it is a work that would be a part of the Fantasy genre.

To understand the difference with two very easy texts, something like Harry Potter is a fantasy novel, whereas something like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton would be a part of the SF genre.

  • Understanding Your Power

Science Fiction has the incredible opportunity to show consequences unlike Fiction. The effects of whatever conflict the author chooses are immediately available to the reader, unlike the obscurity of just the existence of these concepts.

In his short story "Ice Age Cometh," author Jayant Narlikar brings forth a glimpse into a future where Climate Change has completely deteriorated all known order of weather and temperatures in major parts of the world. Here, we know the problem, why it exists, what it leads to, and the urgency for action is once again prompted to the reader.

You also have the ability to do the same. Whether you are writing about a dystopian future, or the triumph of AI over humans, remember that you have this power of portraying a future that is not rooted completely in impossibility.

You can help shape the way someone looks at the future, and make some reader’s conversations extremely interesting.

In conclusion, writing SF is no easy feat, as it involves taking steps into exploring the unknown, but the limitless possibilities, doubled with a genuine effort to build something incredible, can drive you to write something extraordinary.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, and keep writing!

Science Fiction Book Recommendations:

  1. Mary Shelley – ‘Frankenstein’ (Novel)

  2. George Orwell – ‘1984’ (Novel)

  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula L. Guin (Novel)

  4. Isaac Asimov – ‘Nightfall’ (Short Story)

  5. Ray Bradbury – Sound of Thunder (Short Story)


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