A Not-So-Technical Guide to Creating a Setting for Sci-fi Stories

Doug Landsborough
July 26, 2023

Galaxies on the edge of the universe, unknown planets teaming with mysterious lifeforms, space colonies filled with intrigue and politicking, and secret labs right here on Earth housing unspeakable experiments… all of these are just some of the near-infinite settings you could use in your science fiction story.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of the sci-fi genre is its ability to transport us to an incredible new world, even if it's just futuristic or advanced versions of our own. Your readers crave these places to get lost in, to mesmerize them as they go on a journey with your astronauts, scientists, and soldiers.

All this build-up to say that you really want to know how to create a setting for sci-fi novels if you’re going to journey down this road. In fact, you’re going to want to know how to write out-of-this-world settings.

That’s a little wordplay for us science fiction writers.

If you haven’t rolled your eyes and clicked off this article yet, let me tell you what you’re really in for. We’re going to talk everything sci-fi settings. That includes:

  • Understanding sci-fi settings
  • Writing science fictions stories
  • Worldbuilding techniques
  • The different types of sci-fi settings you can use
  • Common pitfalls to avoid

So set your phasers to stun, make sure the fuel cells are loaded, and get ready to jump into hyperspace (and the exciting topic of sci-fi settings).

Understanding the Sci-fi Genre

When it comes to creating a compelling and memorable sci-fi setting, it's essential to have a solid understanding of the genre itself. Science fiction, or sci-fi, is a genre that encompasses a vast array of imaginative stories set in the future, alternate realities, or advanced technological societies.

These stories often explore the impact of scientific advancements, futuristic technology, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, but also include scientific elements in climate fiction and near-future stories.

Sci-fi is also broken up into two different categories: soft and hard science fiction.

Hard science fiction really places the emphasis on technology, physical sciences, and scientific laws. The story is built around these principles, often explaining them in great detail, and the characters are forced to understand them to interact with their world in their day to day lives.

Soft science fiction is the opposite: science and technology take a backseat to flesh out the world, but the story is more about the characters and their journeys. It doesn’t dive into the weeds of theory and knowledge.

It’s important to note that many sci-fi stories fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but most skew more one way than another.

Regardless of which you write, both of them need to take place somewhere, right? That’s why we’re here.

Defining “Setting” for Sci-fi Stories

For us authors, setting refers to the backdrop against which the narrative unfolds. It is the world in which the characters exist and plays a crucial role in shaping the story.

In the case of sci-fi, settings go beyond mere physical locations and extend to encompass elements such as technology, time, society, and the laws of the universe.

A well-defined sci-fi setting not only provides a stage for the plot but also becomes an integral part of the narrative, influencing the characters and their actions.

Key Features of the Sci-fi Genre

What needs to appear in your backdrop varies depending on the story you’re writing. A near-future, dystopian corporate espionage story will take place in a vastly different physical and cultural setting than an intergalactic space opera spanning hundreds of years.

That said, there are elements common across all settings (and we have a guide you should bookmark before we delve too deeply into sci-fi), and there are recognizable science fiction-specific elements you probably know.

Futuristic technology - One of the defining aspects of sci-fi is the inclusion of advanced technology that goes beyond our current understanding. From spaceships capable of interstellar travel to sentient robots and mind-bending virtual realities, futuristic technology is a cornerstone of the genre. When creating a sci-fi setting, it's essential to take into account the role and impact of technology on the world and its inhabitants.

Alien worlds and extraterrestrial life - Exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth is a common theme in sci-fi. Whether it's encountering intelligent alien species, exploring uncharted planets, or depicting diverse extraterrestrial civilizations, the inclusion of alien worlds and extraterrestrial life adds depth and intrigue to a sci-fi setting. Spend time on the diversity of alien species, their cultures, and their interactions with human characters to create a vibrant and immersive world.

Interstellar travel and exploration - Sci-fi often takes us beyond the confines of Earth and into the vast expanse of space. Interstellar travel, starships, and space exploration are prevalent themes that allow authors to venture into uncharted territories. 

When crafting a sci-fi setting, consider the mechanics of interstellar travel, the challenges and wonders of space exploration, and the various civilizations and phenomena that may exist in the cosmos. This, of course, doesn’t apply to near-future stories that don’t have this kind of tech.

Dystopian and utopian societies - Sci-fi frequently explores the potential consequences of societal changes, presenting dystopian or utopian visions of the future. Dystopian settings depict oppressive regimes, post-apocalyptic worlds, or societies plagued by technological dependence, highlighting the dangers of unchecked progress. 

On the other hand, utopian settings portray idealized societies where advanced technology has solved societal issues and created harmonious living conditions—usually with some kind of secret. Think about the social structures, governing systems, and moral dilemmas within your imaginary setting to create a thought-provoking backdrop.

Understanding these key features of the sci-fi genre will serve as a foundation as we get into the good stuff.

Worldbuilding Techniques for Sci-fi Settings

More than most genres, creating a compelling sci-fi setting requires careful attention to worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an intricate and believable fictional world that captivates readers and enhances the storytelling experience.

Be warned, though! Speculative fiction writers (aka sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction authors) are at higher risk of contracting Worldbuilder’s Disease. This time-consuming infection occurs when we spend way too much time crafting our imaginative worlds and use it as an excuse to not write.

As my pal (and fellow Dabble writer) Abi said, “If you find yourself listing all the different species of spiders in your story’s universe—and spiders are irrelevant to the narrative—stop. You’re done. Start writing.”

So here are the elements you should think about for your sci-fi setting. Read about them, build your imaginary world, let some of it come to life through your writing, but don’t spend years and years on what you’re about to read.

Developing Technology

More than anything else, this genre is defined by its tech. So much so that I have a whole guide about it over here. For the jot notes, though, there are a few things to keep in mind when building out the technology of your world.

First, balance scientific knowledge from today with your imagination for tomorrow (or 1,000 years from now). Even something far in the future should be grounded in what we know now.

Then, establish limits. Technology can’t do everything. It shouldn’t be a cure-all for your character’s problems and should occasionally (or primarily) cause a problem.

Finally, consider how it impacts daily life. Think about how much of a difference the device you’re reading this on has made in our society. It’s huge! And the tech your characters have access to will be exponentially more powerful and useful. Technology touches everything in their everyday life.

Mapping out Geography and History

When crafting a sci-fi setting, it's important to establish a detailed geography that provides a sense of place and adds depth to your world. Consider the planets, star systems, and celestial bodies that make up your setting.

Think about their physical characteristics, such as terrain, climate, and natural resources. How do these elements impact society? Power dynamics? Settlements and colonization?

Mapping out these elements not only aids in visualizing the world but also helps in determining how they influence the societies and cultures within it.

Additionally, a well-developed history is vital for grounding your setting. Consider the timeline of events that have shaped the world and its inhabitants. Explore pivotal moments, technological advancements, conflicts, and cultural shifts.

By delving into the history of your setting, you can create a sense of continuity and provide context for the current state of affairs.

Developing Unique Cultures

Because the worlds and galaxies of your story will be so grand, it’s important to focus in on the more micro-level elements. Little things like entire societies and cultures.

In sci-fi settings, cultures and technology often go hand in hand. The societies within your world will be shaped by their technological advancements, and these advancements will, in turn, influence the cultures and social dynamics.

Consider the different species, civilizations, and factions that exist within your setting. How do they interact with each other? What are their values, customs, and belief systems? Consider the conflicts, alliances, and negotiations that arise from these encounters.

Cultural exchange can also provide opportunities for character development, as individuals from different backgrounds navigate unfamiliar territories and confront their own biases.

Sci-fi lets you authentically embrace diversity and explore the complexities of cultural exchange in ways that will add depth to your setting.

Social Structures and Power Dynamics

Societal structures and power dynamics shape the relationships and conflicts within your sci-fi setting. Consider the political systems, hierarchies, and social classes that exist within different factions or civilizations.

Explore the distribution of power, whether it's centralized or decentralized, and how it affects various aspects of life, such as governance, economy, and social mobility.

Pay special attention to the tensions and conflicts that arise from these power dynamics, as they can fuel compelling narratives.

Ethics, Morality, and Philosophical Questions

Sci-fi stories provide a platform for exploring ethical and philosophical questions in exciting and grandiose ways. Guess what? Your settings within those science fiction stories let you tackle those big ideas, too.

Delve into the moral dilemmas that arise from technological advancements, cultural clashes, or encounters with an alien race or species.

Consider the ethical implications of actions and decisions made by or forced on characters within the setting.

Engage readers by raising thought-provoking questions and prompting them to contemplate the consequences of scientific progress and societal changes.

Consistency and Internal Logic

Though it’s not sexy, maintaining consistency and internal logic within your sci-fi setting is crucial for creating a believable world.

Ensure that the rules, laws, and principles governing your setting are consistent throughout the narrative, especially if you’re writing hard sci-fi. Pay attention to cause-and-effect relationships and ensure that events and actions have plausible consequences.

Avoid inconsistencies that might break the reader's immersion in the story. This genre is all about immersion, and the smallest inconsistency can obliterate that.

Pro tip: Dabble lets you store all your worldbuilding notes just one click away from your manuscript. No more shifting through a dozen different files just to find out how your fuel cells for your asteroid ice harvesters are manufactured.

As you venture into your universe crafting, remember that the worldbuilding process is iterative and ongoing. Continuously refine and expand your setting as your story progresses, allowing it to evolve alongside the narrative.

But keep track of it all to ensure you craft something immersive, consistent, and exciting.

Types of Sci-fi Settings

When it comes to writing science fiction, the possibilities for settings are virtually limitless.

Seriously. You can even pull a Marvel Cinematic Universe and start introducing unlimited multiverses. And before anyone says anything, yes, I know the comics have been doing that for a while. Relax.

From dystopian worlds to sprawling space colonies, each type of sci-fi setting at your disposal offers its own unique characteristics and storytelling opportunities.

So let’s take a look at some of the most popular types. Use these to let those imagination androids in your supercomputer brain determine what will work best for your story.

Dystopian Worlds

Dystopian settings portray a bleak and oppressive future society. In these worlds, authoritarian regimes, environmental disasters, or technological advancements gone awry have led to the collapse of civilization.

Dystopian settings often highlight themes of social control, resistance, and the human spirit.

Key elements may include oppressive governments, restricted freedoms, scarcity of resources, and a sense of despair among the populace. Cue someone making an edgy joke about governments today.

Utopian Societies

Contrasting with dystopian worlds, utopian settings depict idealized future societies where peace, harmony, and social progress are prevalent. Utopias often explore concepts of advanced technology, equality, and the pursuit of a perfect society.

But guess what? That pursuit normally comes at a cost. I’m talking like harvesting humans, enslaving people or alien races, or a “perfect society” for a select few.

Key elements may include advanced healthcare and education systems, sustainable living practices, societal equality, and a focus on personal fulfillment and well-being. Many utopian stories involve some dark twist.

Cyberpunk Cities

Cyberpunk settings are characterized by high-tech, low-life environments where advanced technology coexists with social decay. These settings often portray gritty urban landscapes, dominated by powerful corporations, advanced cybernetics, and a pervasive digital presence.

Cyberpunk settings usually aren’t afraid to get dark, showcasing the worst of humanity.

Key elements may include neon-lit cityscapes, augmented humans, virtual reality, hacking subcultures, living to the extreme, and a blend of futuristic and retro aesthetics.

Planets and Exoplanets

Exploring different planets and exoplanets allows you to unleash your creativity and imagination. These settings can range from hostile alien worlds to habitable planets teeming with unique ecosystems and civilizations.

What happens if the planet is too close or far from its star or just on the precipice of an event horizon? What if chemistry works differently here and plants are made from polymers? What beat out the previous civilization as an apex predator?

Key elements may include distinct geological features, indigenous lifeforms, extraterrestrial cultures, and the challenges of interstellar travel and colonization.

Spaceships and Starships

Spaceships and starships serve as mobile settings that enable characters to traverse vast cosmic distances. These settings can range from sleek, advanced vessels to rugged, makeshift spacecraft.

Think about what it’s like living in an enclosed space that’s traveling countless miles. Resources must be planned and stored ahead of time. Roles must be filled. The contents of space itself are a threat to where your characters live and work. What impact does that have on your story and cast of characters?

Key elements may include futuristic propulsion systems, artificial gravity, diverse crew members, encounters with alien species, and the challenges of survival in the depths of space.

Space Stations

Space stations are more than stationary spaceships; they are self-contained habitats or research facilities orbiting planets, moons, or located in deep space.

They provide unique settings where characters must navigate limited resources, isolation, and the challenges of living in a confined artificial environment—potentially forever.

Space stations range in function and form, but all of them share that sense of sustainability and isolation, sometimes for generations.

Key elements may include rotating gravity sections, research laboratories, diverse international or interplanetary crews, and political tensions among different factions.

Lunar Colonies

Lunar colonies depict human settlements on a moon—either Earth’s or another planet’s—showcasing the challenges and possibilities of living in an extraterrestrial environment.

These settings often explore themes of lunar resource utilization, scientific research, and the quest for self-sufficiency.

Be sure to ask yourself why the colony exists. Are they terraforming? Harvesting a particularly important resource? Escaping conflict? Do the people there even know?

Key elements may include modular habitats, underground structures, mining operations, terraforming experiments, internal politics, and the psychological impact of isolation on colonists.

Post-apocalyptic Worlds

Post-apocalyptic settings depict the aftermath of a catastrophic event that has devastated civilization. These settings present a world in which survivors struggle to rebuild society amidst the ruins.

What led to the end-times is up to you and will have some impact on your setting, but most post-apocalyptic settings share similar themes.

Key elements may include barren landscapes, scarcity of resources, remnants of advanced technology, factions vying for power, and the resilience of human spirit in the face of adversity.

Parallel Dimensions

Parallel dimension settings introduce the concept of alternate realities that exist alongside our own. These alternate reality settings explore the idea of multiple timelines or universes where events unfold differently.

Key elements may include portals or rifts connecting different dimensions, alternate versions of characters or civilizations, and the exploration of the consequences of divergent paths.

Artificial Intelligence Dominated Worlds

Artificial intelligence (AI) dominated worlds feature societies where intelligent machines or sentient AI have become the dominant force. These settings delve into the ethical implications of AI advancements and the potential consequences of relying heavily on artificial intelligence.

Key elements may include advanced robotic beings, AI-controlled governments or corporations, human-AI relationships, and the exploration of themes such as consciousness and the definition of humanity.

Virtual Reality Worlds

Virtual reality (VR) worlds are immersive digital environments where characters can escape from reality and enter a simulated realm. These settings explore the intersection of technology and consciousness, blurring the lines between the real and the virtual.

When creating a VR setting, be sure to juxtapose it with the real world. There should be stark differences (good and bad) for both that keeps the character returning.

Key elements may include advanced VR systems, virtual avatars, simulated landscapes, and the exploration of themes such as identity and the nature of reality.

Remember, all these are just a few examples of the diverse sci-fi settings you can explore. Each type of setting offers its own unique opportunities for storytelling, character development, and thematic exploration.

As a writer, you have the freedom to combine or modify these settings to create something entirely new and captivating.

Whether you choose a dystopian Earth, a bustling cyberpunk city, or a distant exoplanet, the key is to immerse your readers in a vivid and believable world that complements your narrative and engages their imagination.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing a Sci-fi Setting

With so much space (literally) to create your backdrop, it’s easy to make a misstep and end up in the gravitational pull of a black hole. Figuratively speaking, of course.

So here are some common pitfalls to avoid when you go about creating your sci-fi world.

Overreliance on clichés - Falling back on overused clichés can make your setting feel predictable and uninspired. Avoid relying too heavily on familiar elements and strive to bring fresh and original ideas to your worldbuilding.

Ignoring scientific plausibility - While sci-fi allows for imaginative leaps, it's essential to maintain a sense of scientific plausibility within your setting. Readers appreciate well-researched and logical extrapolations from existing scientific knowledge. Strike a balance between pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding and maintaining a level of believability.

Neglecting character development - A captivating sci-fi setting should not overshadow your characters. Remember to prioritize character development and ensure that your setting serves as a backdrop for their growth and experiences. Make the setting interact with the characters in meaningful ways, shaping their beliefs, values, and actions.

Lack of internal consistency - Inconsistencies within your sci-fi setting can undermine its credibility and confuse readers. Pay attention to maintaining internal consistency in terms of the rules, technology, and logic of your world. Create a well-defined framework and adhere to it throughout your narrative.

Infodumping - Avoid overwhelming readers with excessive exposition and information dumping about your setting. Instead, introduce details gradually and weave them organically into the story. Let readers discover and explore the world alongside the characters, creating a sense of curiosity and wonder. Here’s a guide to effective exposition.

Neglecting emotional resonance – Here’s a big term for you. While sci-fi often explores grand ideas and concepts, it's crucial to ground your setting with emotional resonance or influence your readers by evoking emotions. Create a connection between readers and your characters by infusing the setting with emotional depth and relatable experiences. Explore themes of love, loss, hope, and human nature within the context of your sci-fi world.

Lack of diversity - Science fiction is an ideal genre for exploring diverse perspectives and experiences. Avoid creating homogeneous worlds by incorporating a range of characters from different backgrounds, cultures, and identities. Embrace inclusivity and use your setting as an opportunity to challenge societal norms and biases, but make sure you’re doing it authentically and respectfully and consider hiring a sensitivity reader.

Failing to push boundaries - Science fiction is also a genre that thrives on pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions. Avoid playing it safe and venture into uncharted territories (like the final frontier). Take risks, explore unconventional ideas, and push the limits of imagination to create a truly innovative and thought-provoking setting.

Explore Your Universe With Dabble

Writing a sci-fi novel is a big undertaking, and your setting is just one element of that.

I know I already touted the benefits of having Dabble along for your deep space adventure because it can house your worldbuilding bible just a click away from where you’re writing.

But it’s more than that!

You get goal tracking to break your intergalactic journey into manageable chunks. You have the power of ProWritingAid on your side to check spelling, grammar, and even style. Best of all, you can write on any device, anywhere (even space), and your work will automatically be backed up whenever you have an internet connection.

And it costs a whopping zero dollars and zero cents to try for fourteen days. You don’t even need to put your credit card info in. Just click here for lift-off.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.