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Writing Science Fiction – The New Thing

1. Remember as you shape your story, that you are writing science fiction. Understand what science fiction is and shape the plot accordingly. Or don’t, but be aware that you’re moving out of the genre. A love story with ray guns is not a SF story. A love story between two people conducted under the pervasive surveillance of a totalitarian state is – or at least was before technologies of surveillance were widely developed.

So what is a science fiction story? There are hundreds of answers to this question but I am going to give just one, from the view of a creative writer rather than a literature academic. I hope it will be useful to bear in mind when you are writing. It’s not meant to be a definition but a tool to help you create ideas and move the plot forward. It will not provide everything in your story but it will provide its backbone, its central conflict.

A science fiction story is one where the new thing – the central difference between the imagined world and ours – is at the heart of the story. Critics talk of the ‘novum’ in SF, this crucial difference in the invented world, but I will stick to ‘new thing’ as I think Latin is best avoided outside of medicine and coats of arms.

There may be many ‘new things’ in a SF story but one is usually more central than others and provides the main challenge to its characters.

I use the word ‘heart’ advisedly. It might be interesting to work out what would happen if teleportation were possible and to show what possibilities and problems that might bring, but that is all a story will ever be, interesting, if we don’t find out how our characters feel about it, how they suffer, delight and change as humans in response to this god-like power.

It’s great to write an interesting story, but wouldn’t you rather write a terrifying story, an enchanting one, a breathtaking story?

For this you need to tell us not how the future works but how it feels, through the eyes of a character we can believe in.

Narrative drive is provided by its characters’ response to a difference in the laws of science, to social conventions, to prevailing environmental conditions or to the restraints of technology between the real world and the imagined.

2. Story moves through conflict. Therefore the ‘new thing’ – the change to the laws of dimensional space, the ability to effectively brainwash people, the sentient, hallucination-leaking planetary sea – causes problems for the protagonist. In most narrative progressions, each problem offers an opportunity which leads to another problem and the nature of the problems escalate throughout the story, though this isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Don’t know what comes next? Have the new thing get in the protagonist’s way and force them to respond.

The new thing could do this by its essential nature – in a society where everything is under surveillance, the simplest act of non-conformity becomes a challenge. It could do this by going wrong, revealing its limitations. It could do this by simply spoiling breakfast if you want to foreshadow the difficulties to come. Or it could do it by doing exactly what it is meant to do in the most literal way like the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s a good rule of thumb that the new thing is not there to make the life of the protagonist easier. That might be its goal in your imagined world but its functioning in your story cannot be without problems. Your protagonist’s relationship to the changes you posit between their world and ours will define and shape your story.

Scottie never said ‘The dilithium crystals are in fine shape, Captain. They will easily provide the power you’re asking for and we should be free of the Klingon fleet within seconds’. Yes, Star Fleet’s advanced weaponry and teleportation beams provide answers to plot problems – though they can provide problems too – but the encounter with the alien enabled by interstellar travel is the heart of the story. The writers aren’t letting the Enterprise out of there so easily. Other technologies add colour and sometimes conflict to the plot but they are not central to it.

3. The story’s biggest conflict will centre on its core ‘new thing’. For example, the technologies of control in A Clockwork Orange or 1984, the fact of being marooned on an asteroid with next to no tools and only a cast of criminals for company in Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass, and the struggle to control access to Spice in Dune.

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