Sci-Fi Writing Tips

  • #1
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1

Main Question or Discussion Point

Could we have a sticky to collect some of the more helpful general advice on the do's and dont's of plot-construction in speculative fiction? I've been reading some of the older threads which have been moved to this board, and came across two insights so far which I found personally useful and would like to see included:

Basically no matter how much research you do and how perfectly and scientifically accurate you make something if that something will generally be considered unlikely then your research is not going to make your audience, who has not done said research themselves, consider it any more likely. So, essentially, the problem of disbelief cuts both ways. Funny huh?
The bigger the lie, the sooner in your story you need to tell it.
I mean only things like these, which are specific to sciency plot devices and fantastic settings, none of the usual trite genre-independent writing advice like "show, don't tell" and "avoid excessive use of adjectives".
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Ryan_m_b
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
5,839
707
Good idea, this should probably be restricted to generic SF tips though. In other words not a place to discuss specific problems.

Personally I've really valued the principle that whatever plot device (i.e. new/modified law of physics/technology/society) your story uses make sure it is consistent and the social ramifications are well explored. How it works barely matters compared to this.
 
  • #3
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I'm a First time writer while posting this, and I hope to become more then a "first time" Writer at some point.

But So far My advice would be to simply Write, It doesn't matter in the beginning if its total bunk in your eyes or the eyes of others. You will get better, as you get more confidence. So far its working for me.

Now for SF specific Advice.
SF is defined as
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, parallel universes, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas".[
Much like Ryan says above Make sure your setting acts in a consistent manner, it doesn't matter if your telling a story about the Psi Ghosts of Jupiter, or a Time traveling, dimension-hopping super-criminal. It will help maintain the fourth wall, among other things.

One of the best way to do that is to make an outline of the events you want to touch on, and to define you Plot Devices ahead of time, as much as you can. Even if the Audience will never hear about it, take the time to define what is different about your world. If it is a technology make sure you clearly write down what it does, and any flaws it might have, Aliens, what they are, what personalities they have, or even what they eat if it differs from human Norms. You don't need to write this all down (but it helps if you do) but you do need to have this clearly in your mind while writing. If you're having problems with a part of your setting ask for help, either here by asking questions, or IRL.

And Finally what ever your writing, Editing is fine, but do not fall into the trap of endless revisions, for some people I know including myself, It just leads to frustration, depression, and then you just stop writing. Set Goals but realistic ones.
 
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  • #4
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^ This is indubitably sound advice, but also exactly what I meant by "the usual trite genre-independent writing advice".

There is nothing wrong with that as such, but the problem is that there's so much of it that the less obvious and thus more valuable insights exemplified by the two quotes in my OP (YMMV, needless to say) all too easily get lost among it.

Fortunately for me, I'm just a lowly forum member, and so don't have to figure out whether and how to translate that opinion into something more concrete. :smile:
 
  • #5
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Some useful ones from Orson Scott Card when it comes to naming characters (which I find particularly important in building a character people can relate to). While he does say "rules" I would think of them more as "tips" or ideas.
http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/2003-03-05-1.shtml

"First rule: No two characters in the same story can have their key name (i.e., the one most commonly referred to) start with the same letter or the same sound). "

"Second rule: People from similar cultures should have names that reflect that; from different cultures, the naming should show the difference."

"Third rule: All names should be pronounceable by American readers. Thus, you change the spellings or transliterations, and you don't get cute with punctuation marks."

More useful general tips for science fiction writing (and I think some for just writing in general) from the author can be found at his website:
http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/index.shtml
 
  • #6
Borek
Mentor
28,299
2,684
All names should be pronounceable by American readers.
Chauvinism, don't you think?
 
  • #7
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Chauvinism, don't you think?
No Realism :smile:
As English speakers, any SF we would write has to be understandable by the audience. The largest English population is currently the US. The Best method to sell books is to appeal to the largest number of people.

Although I never had a problem reading books with strangely written names in them myself.

Also Respectful this comment and the preceding one is not necessary for a sticky thread, can possibly should be purged/deleted
 
  • #8
chasrob
Gold Member
131
45
The Turkey City Lexicon is a handy link for SF writers.

It's from veteran writers who have been there and done that.
 
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  • #9
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"First rule: No two characters in the same story can have their key name (i.e., the one most commonly referred to) start with the same letter or the same sound). "
It occurred to me just now that that rules out naming two members of a Power Trio "Harry" and "Hermione" (sharing not just initial letters, but pretty much first syllables)... well, maybe that's the proverbial role-proving exception?
 
  • #10
chemisttree
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
Gold Member
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It occurred to me just now that that rules out naming two members of a Power Trio "Harry" and "Hermione" (sharing not just initial letters, but pretty much first syllables)... well, maybe that's the proverbial role-proving exception?
I'm not sure that the sounds of the names are as important to readers as the spelling. I can always mispronounce 'Hermione' to myself if I need to but I'd never confuse it with 'Harry'.
 
  • #11
ReaverKing
Minimizing the dreaded "Exposition dump"

In general it is rarely necessary for an author to "educate" his audience on the ins and outs of a particular technology, so long as it is used consistently and the ramifications of "speculative" physics are visible in the background world of the story. This has already been said. What follows are a few tips on how to minimize the size of a "Dump".


1. To characters who are familiar with any technology, such technology is completely ordinary.

For example, "Cooking" is changing food by way of a series of chemical processes that modern science is still studying. Yet characters sitting in a restaurant are almost never going to talk about polypeptide chains when complaining to the waiter that their steak is cold.


2. A simple explanation applied consistently is always the best explanation, even if it's completely "wrong".


Exposition can be truncated by clever use of name or by one character drawing parallels between the unfamiliar device or phenomenon with things that are familiar to another character (and the reader). Alternatively, the familiar person might deliberately over-generalize their description to describe the appearance of how something works rather than how it actually works.

That's why warp drives have manifolds, screwdrivers can be sonic, and why people frozen in cryogenic stasis invariably were frozen in the 20th century. It's also why willpower is green, everybody has universal translators, and time is "wibbly, wobbly".


3. Detail required scales directly with importance to the plot - How something works is more important when it is malfunctioning than when it is working normally
.

Human beings only tend to notice things when the unexpected happens. When a device breaks down, someone has to find out what went wrong and fix it. This means that more about the device and how it functions must be revealed to the reader than if there is nothing to fix. Likewise, if something is functioning when it shouldn't be (i.e. after centuries or millennia without repair) additional information is needed to retain suspension of disbelief.

Deflector Dish Corollary: How something works also matters when a character does not use it "as intended".


4. Never be afraid to have a character say "I don't know" or "I don't care".


The best example of this I can think of is Dr. McCoy from Star Trek. Throughout the original series, McCoy only ever elaborates on a character's injury or death when the manner of said injury or death is plot-relevant. Otherwise all that is said is some variation of "he's dead Jim".

Likewise, whenever McCoy is asked for answers by the Captain in a field other than medicine, McCoy frequently replies: "I'm a doctor not a (insert appropriate profession)."
 
  • #12
If you're looking for miltary sci-fi then go to military-sf.com
 
  • #13
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0
"First rule: No two characters in the same story can have their key name (i.e., the one most commonly referred to) start with the same letter or the same sound). "
Cute, considering Ender's Game has characters such as Peter (American) and Petra (Armenian) - quite different cultures.
 
  • #14
856
51
Some useful ones from Orson Scott Card when it comes to naming characters (which I find particularly important in building a character people can relate to). While he does say "rules" I would think of them more as "tips" or ideas.
http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/2003-03-05-1.shtml

"First rule: No two characters in the same story can have their key name (i.e., the one most commonly referred to) start with the same letter or the same sound). "

"Second rule: People from similar cultures should have names that reflect that; from different cultures, the naming should show the difference."

"Third rule: All names should be pronounceable by American readers. Thus, you change the spellings or transliterations, and you don't get cute with punctuation marks."

More useful general tips for science fiction writing (and I think some for just writing in general) from the author can be found at his website:
http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/index.shtml
Names, i wonder how much trouble with a name like Ági (to a side character dont named too often)? Á characters arent only in one language.
 
  • #15
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TheStatutoryApe said:
Basically no matter how much research you do and how perfectly and scientifically accurate you make something if that something will generally be considered unlikely then your research is not going to make your audience, who has not done said research themselves, consider it any more likely. So, essentially, the problem of disbelief cuts both ways. Funny huh?
Well I agree, especially for extremely advanced science fiction that is far beyond our present technology and scientific understanding. However for the near future stuff, does that then leave the option of something generally being considered "likely" to then be considered more likely if presented with some plausible / scientifically founded reasoning?

I remember a video clip called Wanderers by Erik Wernquist a few years back. The opening plate was simply stated as:

"All locations depicted in this short film are recreations of actual places in our solar system".

It struck a chord in me. A deep profound chord. It was simply because a huge portion of what I was seeing was real. Yes, the technology to get there has not been invented yet, but it was not depicting anything extremely out there. No warp drives. No teleporters or other whiz-bang stuff. Some things were a stretch but it felt amazingly within our reach.

If you'd like to view the film I'm referring to, it can be viewed online
 
  • #16
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15
I think one can create a sci-fi novel by their own if they read anyone of the Jules Verne's works.Because he is a great inspiration for scientific writers.

So adding our imagination about technology in our writing can help us.
 

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