7 Unbreakable Rules of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (and When to Break Them)

Some rules of writing you should never break. Others could stand a little bending. Others…need to be smashed.

8 Unwritten Rules of Writing Science Fiction Andrew Timothy Post sci-fi writer

Greetings, sci-fi fans! Klaatu barada nikto!

Andrew Timothy Post writer sci-fi blogger science fiction writer rules for writing scifi

See what I did there? I started with a reference to a famous work of science fiction. Some of you know it. I hope you all know it, but some of you probably don’t.

The people who don’t know it are thinking, “Huh?”

Not exactly the best way to grab your audience.

The people who do know the reference are probably thinking “Wow, that was cheap. I thought this writer was going to be original. Guess he’s just a hack.”

When you write science fiction and fantasy, there are rules. Any SFF writer will tell you about them. Some of them are written down, but most aren’t. Some of these rules exist because audiences hate stories that break them; some of these rules exist because publishers and editors hate stories that break them. And some of them exist for no reason at all, and should be broken like dead twigs.

I’m not an expert by any means (I’ve been writing for over a decade and haven’t yet sold a single story). But I’ve done my research. I combed the Interwebs, hunting down famous sci-fi writers’ writing rules and other sundry science fiction advice. Here’s what I came up with. Break these rules at your peril—but remember, as Terry Bisson said, peril is the sci-fi writer’s best friend.

Rule 1: Write in third-person omniscient.

I’ve encountered this rule in several places across the web. It applies mostly to short stories. If you wanna write a successful short sci-fi or fantasy story, don’t set it in the first person. Maybe in a longer novel, where you had time to set up the story and the characters and take your protagonist around to meet all of them, you could write in first person; but you’re limited by the brevity of a short story. (Terry Bisson says a short sci-fi story should be no longer than 4,000 words. Any longer than that, he says, and the audience starts to fidget.) When you write short fiction, you gotta be able to bounce around between places and viewpoints at will. At least, that’s what popular wisdom says.

short sci-fi story rules writing Margaret Atwood Handmaid's Tale

When you should break it:

There are some instances when you actually want to write your short sci-fi story from a first-person POV. Namely, instances when your protagonist is isolated from his or her society, social circle, or the truth of life in some way, shape, or form. Some examples include Stanisław Lem’s short stories about Ijon Tichy (“The Star Diaries,” “Memoirs of a Space Traveller,” etc.). Tichy is a dispassionate observer of the story, and not really a main character.

Though the following are long-form examples, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan are also splendid uses of first-person narration in a science fiction setting. All of the protagonists are cut off from the rest of society somehow. The main character of Neuromancer is a hacker, and outside the law; the main character of The Handmaid’s Tale is a member of one of the lower castes of the society she lives in, cut off from freedom and her basic human rights and like-minded individuals; and Altered Carbon is a cyberpunk detective novel where the main character is a former elite special forces trooper whose experience is almost completely different from everyone around him.

If you’ve got an ostracized, antisocial, condemned, or otherwise isolated protagonist, it’s okay to write a short story about them in the present tense. Make the reader share your MC’s isolation. Make them feel it.

Rule 2: Don’t write in present tense.

There are a host of good reasons not to write a short story (let alone a novel) in the present tense. I’m not going to go into them all here. But if you’ve ever read a story written in present tense, you know just how…different it can be from a traditional past-tense narrative. You’re much more conscious of the fact that you’re being narrated to, for one thing. In a story written in first-person present-tense, the main character is talking to you, only you, right now, and the resulting urgency of the story can be a little jarring. Present-tense stories also tend to be a bit more suspenseful (and, well, tense) because you feel like the story is happening right now, not being recalled later from memory. It’s tough to sustain that tension for long periods. That being said…

present tense scifi stories Andrew Timothy Post

When you should break it:

…I’ve read some pretty damn interesting present-tense short stories online, on other amateur writers’ blogs, and occasionally (very, very occasionally) in sci-fi anthologies or major New York magazines like Asimov’s. A successful present-tense sci-fi short story is so rare these days that I don’t really have an example to cite for you (if you do, please leave a comment and tell me about it).

I’ll just give you this piece of advice if you want to write a present-tense short story: keep it short. I mean really short. A few hundred words, maybe. No more than 1,500. Like we’ve discussed, the longer the story goes on, the tougher it is to keep up the tension. End the story before your reader starts to fidget.

Rule 3: Don’t make your villain a Nazi.

This one hardly needs explaining, right? Nazis may be perhaps the most perfect villains ever for a sci-fi story (unabashedly evil, tons of weapons and superweapons, conquered half the civilized world, and that whole occult thing going on). Unfortunately, because of this, Nazis have been used, overused, and used and overused again by science fiction writers over the past hundred years. It’s like beating a dead horse. It may be the most unoriginal trope in science fiction, now.

Thinking about making your villain a Nazi? Here’s a tip: don’t make your villain a Nazi. Just don’t.

Andrew Timothy Post sci-fi writer Iron Sky Nazis on moon space Nazis

When you should break it:

Okay, so you really really want to make your villain a Nazi. Fine, far be it from me to squelch your dreams. If you’re dead set on making your villain a Nazi, here’s my advice. Nazis only make good villains under the following circumstances:

(A) Your story takes a fresh and original spin on the old “evil Nazi” trope. Case in point? Dean Koontz’s novel Lightning. [SPOILER ALERT] The Nazis have invented time travel and a Nazi officer falls in love with an American woman and watches over her for her entire life, protecting her from those who would harm her (both in the past and in the future). It’s really quite a sweet and romantic story, made all the more surreal when you remember that the male romantic lead is A FREAKING NAZI.

(B) Your story goes completely over the top into comedy and absurdity. Two words: Iron Sky. Don’t even try to make sense. Just have fun.

Rule 4: No backstory or prologues.

This applies mostly to novels, but short stories can occasionally be derailed by excessive amounts of backstory. Like most of the so-called “rules” I’m listing in this post, there’s a huge debate about prologues going on in the literary world. The criticisms of a prologue are manifold: they’re boring, they’re not connected in any discernible way to the main story, they serve merely as a “hook” to get the reader interested, they dump too much information onto the reader (see Rule 7, “Don’t infodump”), and so on and so on. Many agents and publishers have stated that they’ll skip a prologue immediately if they see one, or worse: toss the story onto the slush pile. Excessive backstory at the beginning of a story is also a big no-no. And sometimes any backstory at all can be a bad thing—it may cheapen your actual story, expose plot holes, create new inconsistencies, or just disappoint or frustrate the reader.

Andrew Timothy Post writer science fiction story rules
Case in point…

When you should break it:

If you’ve thought and thought and thought and thought and decided that your prologue is absolutely crucial to setting up your plot, then go right ahead and put one in. A prime example is the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book. While much of the Harry Potter series was written in third-person limited POV (from Harry’s perspective), the first chapter leaps back and forth between Mrs. Dursley and third-person omniscient. (This article has a lovely discussion of this.) It’s an enormous inconsistency in the narrative style and a huge risk for an author, especially a debut author. But it paid off. Rowling managed to weave absolute need-to-know information about the world she was building into this brief first chapter, so by the time we see Harry as an eleven-year-old, we are already familiar with critical elements of his backstory and the world he lives in.

The best sci-fi prologue I’ve ever read was in Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, in a few deft paragraphs, informs us that a strange object has entered our solar system, scientists have determined that it is artificial and not natural in origin, and explains that a mission has been launched to intercept the object. When the first chapter opens (on board the spaceship heading to intercept Rama), we feel like we’re already oriented in the story, swimming along with the tide. Clarke’s prologue is a masterwork of brief, to-the-point storytelling.

The essential rules of a prologue are: keep it short. Keep it relevant. Keep it interesting.

Rule 5: No portals or FTL.

It’s generally acknowledged that easy FTL travel is the product of lazy sci-fi writers. As it stands now, scientists have no idea how to achieve faster-than-light travel, because our understanding of physics tells us that it’s impossible for anything but an object of zero mass to exceed the speed of light. Therefore, if your story does involve FTL travel, there had better be a darn good (and scientifically plausible) explanation for it. It would require technology that we haven’t dreamed of yet. Same thing with teleportation. It would take a hideous amount of power to fold space-time in half and create a portal between a point on Earth and, say, a point in the universe billions of miles away.

Andrew Timothy Post writer Star Trek teleportation transporter beam me up scotty

When you should break it:

That being said, science fiction is just that: fiction. We’re not writing science fact, here. It’s okay to speculate a little bit. If you’re writing a grand, sweeping, epic space opera, and the empires and nations and federations and star-fiefdoms in your story span galaxies, then you’re gonna need some way to move your players around this massive stage quickly. Just remember that FTL travel spawns a whole new set of problems that you’re going to have to believably solve for the reader. How does the ship propel itself faster than light? How does it stop? How does it make sure it doesn’t hit anything in between?

Another good question you should ask is, “Are there any drawbacks to this technology?” Interesting technological drawbacks will sometimes make readers forgive your lack of scientific plausibility and originality. A good example is the short story “Aztecs” (later developed into a novel called Superluminal) by Vonda N. McIntyre. Faster-than-light travel is possible…but any human who remains awake during an FTL jump ages incredibly quickly and dies. Most of the crew is put into hypersleep during FTL travel. However, some members of the crew (called Pilots) must remain awake during a jump and at their stations. In order to avoid aging, they must be able to control their own biorhythms. All Pilots undergo heart surgery; their old heart is removed and replaced with a mechanical pump which allows them to mentally slow or increase their metabolism. Pilots can now navigate interstellar space with impunity, but at the cost of the thing which symbolically grants them their humanity. Interesting drawback to FTL travel, right?

Rule 6: Don’t reference other science fiction.

As a general rule, sci-fi writers avoid making reference to other writers’ famous works (or famous sci-fi films, or TV shows, or any other form of media). Why? References to another work are cheap, that’s why. Instead of describing a character or a circumstance or a monster in an original way, the author merely makes reference to an established work of science fiction and lets the reader’s cultural memory fill in the rest. It’s just lazy writing, is what it is. Moreover, it yanks the reader out of the world you’ve so carefully built for them and sticks them into an established one. Not what you want to do. Keep the reader lost in your story, not someone else’s.

Andrew Timothy Post H.P. Lovecraft science fiction

When you should break it:

Are you writing a comedic story? Reference away. If you’re not, don’t.

The sole exception to this exception is if you’re bestest-best pals with another sci-fi writer and the two of you make veiled references to each other’s works in short- and long-form fiction. Case in point, H.P. Lovecraft (creator of the Cthulhu mythos) and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian). The two men were pen pals, and Lovecraft occasionally made reference to the “Hyborean Age” (in which Conan is said to have lived) in his Cthulhu mythos tales, while Howard sometimes mentioned Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” (god-like eldritch abominations) by name in his Conan stories.

Rule 7: Don’t infodump.

An “infodump” is a solid block of text meant solely to bring the reader up to speed on something. That “something” could be anything: a character’s backstory, the history of a people or a country, the specifics of a scientific or technological principle vital to the plot of the story, whatever. Often, these come at the beginning of a novel or a sci-fi story. Jules Verne was notoriously fond of these—he would frequently jam the brakes on his swashbuckling adventure novels (like, say, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to explain the particulars of sea urchins or jellyfish. Herman Melville does this all the freaking time in Moby-Dick. He’ll halt a harrowing tale of man vs. nature and supernatural revenge to tell the reader, “Hey, wanna know something interesting about whaling? Here’s how we clean up the blubber…”

Andrew Timothy Post writer Arthur C. Clarke rules of science fiction

When you should break it:

Sometimes, the audience just needs to know. They gotta have the low-down or they won’t grok the story. Lucky for you, there are numerous tricks you can use to make your infodump more palatable to your readers, including:

  • Show, don’t tell. Instead of just narrating what you want your audience to know, have your characters act it out. Your audience will get the idea.
  • Mix the infodump with scene-setting. While you’re setting up the characters and setting of your novel, throw in a little info here and there about the history of your setting and the tech your characters use on a daily basis. Problem solved.
  • Disguise it as dialogue. Careful with this strategy; it can easily backfire. If it’s done poorly, the audience will see right through it. But if, during the inciting event of your story, the characters are discussing history, politics, tech, or any combination of the three, this is a perfect opportunity to dump some info on your readers.
  • Disguise it as a rant. William Gibson is the king of making his characters’ angry, cynical, or excoriating inner monologues also reveal a ton of information about the world they inhabit.

These are just a few ideas mentioned in the excellent io9 article I linked to above. Check it out and get some ideas of your own.

Now, as always, get the heck off the Internet and get writing!

Sources:

10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break – Gizmodo

10 Laws of Good Science Fiction – Cthreepo

Rules for Writers – Terry Bisson

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

Leave a Reply