What Works in Science Fiction Writing
by G. Miki Hayden
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This article has been provided by Lynda Lotman and http://www.scifieditor.com.
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
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
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
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.
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..
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
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
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 http://www.scifieditor.com and is printed with her permission.