What Works in Science Fiction Writing by G. Miki Hayden

This article has been provided by Lynda Lotman and

This is a trick title, really, because what works in science fiction is what works in romance, mystery, and mainstream fiction-a plot that intrigues, a conflict that requires resolution, and characters with which the reader can identify, even if they are scorpionlike Boletties from Gutondra in Sector Eight.
That simple premise is exactly the point. Although the story or novel you are writing is set in a future that has yet to happen or in an altered, alternative past, or a universe that operates under a strange set of natural laws, the author still has to follow certain 20th and 21st century Earth rules. We can’t pull free of this planet’s gravity or literary conventions just yet.
The most essential element the writer must insert into the story or novel is the factor that will make the reader racingly eager to turn the page. That “hook” is usually an appeal to a strong human emotion, such as anger, love, pity, fear-or curiosity.
Why do we keep reading the latest Harry Turtledove novel when we know we ought to put it down and go to bed? Why do we tell someone we’ll call them back after Babylon 5 and can hardly wait to get her off the phone?
Frequently, we’re just plain curious. We want to know if the hero triumphs over the nefarious lizard race or if the artificial world of Gamma Three will go supernova. What happens next? Often, even if we think the acting or writing is subliterate, we still keep watching or reading, strongly compelled by our desire to know what happens to the hero.
Insert that element into your own writing and your readers will bow down at your feet. The question is “how?” How do you create a real page-turner? Tension is the force behind the need to find resolution and the greater the tension, the stronger the reader’s wish to stick with you through the denouement.
For the novel to create that tension between possible outcomes-will they be able to mine the fuel from the radioactive, 3000 degree sun or will they be taken over by the Warriors of Hezon?-your readers need some f eeling of identification with one or more of the characters, or at least not be disenchanted with them. However, you do need negative characterizations. If one character makes the reader sick because he is brutal or wants pet humans to entertain his offspring, that will probably increase the tension and the determination to discover how the more vulnerable character makes out. If, however, you offer no characters for the reader to hope will overcome the situation, you provide no tension, and the writing is a flop..
In other words, how you create and maintain your tension and identification is your creative decision, but, without these, the story will not take hold of your audience.
The bells and whistles of strange societies, marvelous creatures, and times we have yet to witness–or that never actually (in our own time dimension at least) occurred are a must for science fiction to delight its fans. But without the inclusion of the basic, mundane elements of successful literature, those superbly whittled details will not win you a sale.
Why is Star Trek the all-time moneymaker of science fiction that it is? Because we admire Captain Kirk’s courage and loyalty, and empathize strongly with the supposedly emotionless Vulcan, Mr. Spock. Going where no human has gone before is merely window dressing. We want to know how characters we care for deal with a difficult-nearly impossible situation-and we want a few twists and turns along the way. Special effects, costumes, and trips through hyperspace are glorious, but those are add-ons. Writers must focus on the core issues first. Our readers have a 98.7 percent likelihood of being homo sapiens, and most of us in this galaxy are looking for the traditional convolutions of fiction along with a story arc paced to our evolutionary status.

G. Miki Hayden’s Pacific Empire, an alternate history of World War II and beyond, was a 1998 NYTimes summer reading pick for science fiction. Miki’s work has also appeared in various small press science fiction magazin es. Miki, a Writers Digest online workshop instructor, received an Agatha nomination for her book Writing the Mystery (Intrigue Press, 2001).

Copyright © 2002 by G. Miki Hayden, Lynda Lotman, all rights reserved. This article has been provided by Lynda Lotman at and is printed with her permission.

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