Genre Lessons: Science Fiction

"Mystic Mountain" nebula.

Hubble space telescope’s view of “Mystic Mountain” nebula. Image from hubblesite.org

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month, we’re reading science fiction. I already read a fair amount of sci fi, but it’s usually “softer” sci fi, so I went for a space opera to try to push my genre boundaries. Here are the main writing lessons I took from the book.

1. Character is king. I know speculative fiction readers gravitate toward those stories because of their unique settings, be they worlds with fairy wars and dragons or augmented space ships that respond to mental communications. But what makes those settings interesting is the way the characters interact with them. I had trouble getting into this book at first because the main character starts out as a pretty unlikable person. This is absolutely intentional, and it’s done very well, but I had a hard time caring about his struggles in the beginning. (He grows more likable, but it was tough to stay invested in those first chapters.)

If you have an unlikable character, try to balance that with more emphasis on the plot. I stuck with this book because I wanted to know the outcome of the central contest, even though I didn’t really care whether the protagonist won or not in the beginning.

2. Rich settings are great, but too much description can bog the story down. Unless you’ve got a book where the setting is a character, setting can’t drive a story by itself. (And even then, I’d argue that the characters should do most of the driving.) Setting can enhance a story, and provide a backdrop for essential plot points; but ultimately a lengthy description of how your main character’s hovercraft works is only necessary if that hovercraft doesn’t work later in the book.

3. Give readers information as they need to know it. Instead of a huge info dump that provides every detail of your character’s home planet, sprinkle in the good stuff when it’s relevant. Tell us about the heightened gravity when your character has to jump a fence and can’t make it. That’s probably the only time she’ll be thinking about gravity, anyways. The book I read did a great job with this, too.

4. Even if there’s magic or sophisticated technology, your world has to make sense. There have to be rules. One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is coming across a magic system that’s inconsistent or a piece of tech that feels contrived solely to make the plot work. If we’re told the mind-controlled space ship can only hold enough fuel to fly from Planet A to Planet B, then your character shouldn’t be able to go from Planet A to the much-farther Planet C without stopping to refuel. And please, don’t have him find some kind of alternative fuel that just happens to work perfectly and saves him from running out of fuel in the middle of the galaxy. Readers will notice, and they’ll call you out on it. (Note: this didn’t happen in the book I read for book club, but since I’m talking about writing sci fi, I thought I’d mention it.)

So, those are the basic lessons I learned from science fiction. Are there any that you’d add?

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