How to Write a Sci-Fi Novel That’s Out of This World

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

Want to know how to write a sci-fi novel?

Start asking big questions. 

What if our phones were embedded in our hands and corporations could advertise to us in our dreams? 

What if Earth gradually transformed into a spinning orb of dry dust and humans evolved to survive it? 

Suppose there was a planet that was exactly like this one except that everybody’s hands were on backwards?

Really, all fiction poses a question. And as far as I’m concerned, one of the best parts of being a writer is applying my imagination to find the answer. But there’s something different about science fiction.

I think it’s that blend of extraordinary and ordinary—recognizable characters living under remarkable circumstances. And the way an airtight science fiction novel gives you the chilling sense that the author’s made-up world is entirely possible

…that their wide-sweeping, world-shifting “What If?” presents a reality that doesn’t feel so different from our own.

There’s no denying it. Great science fiction is a work of wonder. I’ll be honest: if you want to know how to write a sci-fi novel, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But you can handle it. A little perseverance and a lot of curiosity get you far in this genre.

I’m about to walk you through the key points of writing science fiction. I’ll cover all the main elements of a story and clarify how you can adapt your approach to those elements to fit the genre. 

First, let’s start with the question that stands at the heart of this entire article:

What Makes Sci-Fi Different?

Science fiction lands under the umbrella of speculative fiction. This means sci-fi—like fantasy and horror—involves elements that do not and have never existed in reality as we know it. 

You can probably guess what sets sci-fi apart from other speculative genres. (Psst. It’s the science-y bit.)

Now, as a science fiction writer, you’ll build a story concept around a Big What If. “What if we had the ability to reanimate dead humans?” “What if we cloned dinosaurs?” Big questions like these are the key to how to write a sci-fi novel.

Sci-fi asks massive questions—questions that examine things like power structures and the risks of scientific advancements. Most other genres stick to more intimate inquiries. “What if your ex crashed your honeymoon?” Or, “What if people kept getting murdered on a stranded train?”

And then, of course, there is the science of science-fiction. That’s another defining characteristic—one that deserves its own section. 

How Science-y Does Science Fiction Have to Be?

A large-eyed robot looking up.

For many aspiring science fiction writers, the question of how to write a sci-fi novel comes down to, “How much science do I really need to know?”

If you love the genre but aren’t looking to get a degree in aeronautics, take heart. You’ll probably have to do some research to write a science fiction novel that makes sense. But you might be able to get away with less than you think. It all depends on your specific story.

The first question to ask yourself is whether you're writing hard science fiction or soft science fiction.

Hard Science Fiction

Hard science fiction places a lot of focus on scientific laws. This type of sci-fi novel tends to highlight the physical sciences, like chemistry, physics, and astronomy. If you're writing a hard science fiction novel, you may need to explain things like:

  • How characters use science to solve problems
  • The scientific laws or technological innovations that made the world of your novel possible
  • What characters must to do survive in their world and why
  • How characters operate the technology of their world

Examples: The Martian by Andy Weir, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.

Soft Science Fiction

When someone refers to a sci-fi novel as “soft science fiction,” they could mean a couple things. 

They might mean the book focuses on the “soft sciences” like psychology, political science, and anthropology. 

Or they might simply mean the book places more focus on conveying human emotions than clarifying scientific details. This definition is where the line gets murky. There are a good number of sci-fi novels that champion accurate, detailed science and go deep on the feels. 

The main thing to know is that when readers know they’re getting soft science fiction, they won’t expect you to explain all the nitty gritty scientific details that drive your story. You will need to know enough to make your world feel authentic. But you can probably get away with fewer hours in the library.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, The Female Man by Joanna Russ.

Whether you choose to write hard or soft science fiction, the science must be integral to your novel. It should influence the conflict, throw obstacles in your protagonist’s path, and color the world of your story.

Having said that…

The Science-to-Fiction Ratio

A person in a white jumpsuit standing in a science fiction setting.

While science is the defining characteristic of your sci-fi masterpiece, it's important to remember that, ultimately, you are writing a novel. Your readers are here to find out what your characters do and what happens to them in the world of your What If.

In this sense, the answer to how to write a sci-fi novel is the same as the answer to how to write any novel. You must tell a compelling story about well-rounded characters who face extraordinary conflicts.

Simply put, the science should serve your story. Any scientific elements that don't relate to the plot or build out the world in a meaningful way will feel like distractions, tangents, and wasted space. 

Now that we've hashed out the expectations of the sci-fi genre, let's dig into the actual how of how to write a sci-fi novel.

Find the Big What If

That said, your Big What If has a major role to play in your book. This thought experiment sets the scene, informs the conflict, and sets parameters for character growth.

So how do you find the guiding question of your sci-fi novel?

One great strategy is to read a ton of science fiction. This is essential anyway, because you can't write good science fiction if you don't read good science fiction.

For every science fiction book you read, challenge yourself to state the Big What If in a single sentence. This exercise alone might spark some ideas for your own big questions. 

If that doesn’t work, practice approaching everything around you with deeper curiosity. Feeling hungry right now? What would it be like to live in a world where you could order delivery just by thinking about it? Or if there was wearable tech that would tell you what you’re craving? 

Take inspiration from technology. Look at what's going on in politics, whether it's world politics or PTA politics. Reimagine historical events. Explore social justice issues or dream up your own utopia and poke holes in it.

Then, when you sit down to write your sci-fi novel, let that question touch everything from your conflicts to your setting to your character arcs.

Create Compelling Sci-Fi Characters

A person in a black hoodie walks down a blue metallic hallway.

Just as with any other novel, your sci-fi novel is about a character who wants something, endures a conflict while trying to pursue that thing, and undergoes a transformation (unless they don't).

You can find a shocking amount of character development resources in DabbleU. For now, I'll just give you a quick overview.

Great characters have:

  • A wound in their past (sometimes called “the Ghost”)
  • A flawed philosophy based on that wound (“the Lie”)
  • Clear motivation
  • A specific goal
  • A need (They often don't know what this need is and won't know until the end of act two.)
  • Fears, strengths, weaknesses, and flaws
  • A character arc—a journey of transformation (or an ongoing refusal to transform, in the case of a flat arc) 

These elements are especially crucial in science fiction. Your sci-fi novel presents your reader with a world that is wildly different from the one they know. Well-developed characters provide a portal allowing your reader to access and experience this world authentically. 

They may not know what it’s like to live in the world where the Hunger Games is a thing. But they understand the drive to protect one’s family at all costs.

Your unique challenge as a sci-fi author is to make sure the Big What If of your story ties into your character development. 

What wounds might your character have suffered because they live in the reality of your novel? Do they have their own philosophy regarding your thought experiment? How is their goal related to your Big What If? 

Not every single aspect of your character's life and identity needs to be defined by your thought experiment. But your reader needs to see that there’s a reason you created this specific character to fight this specific battle in this specific world.

Now, about that battle…

Give Your Conflict the Sci-Fi Treatment

Electricity shoots out of a metal cylinder in the ceiling.

In the simplest possible terms, conflict happens when obstacles threaten to prevent your character from achieving their goal. 

These should be massive obstacles standing between them and their high-stakes goal. You want the conflict to push your character to their limits. Force them to reveal their weaknesses, confront their flaws, and question long-held beliefs. 

There are six types of external conflict. I encourage you to explore each one in-depth in this article. You can use any of those six in a science fiction novel. However, there are three categories of conflict that are particularly ripe for the sci-fi treatment. These are:

  • Character vs. technology
  • Character vs. society 
  • Character vs. fate or destiny

Now, in addition to wrestling with an external antagonist, your character needs to fight an internal battle. 

Are they in the midst of an identity crisis? Are they facing a moral dilemma? Do the unique circumstances of their world force them to see relationships in a new light or question the beliefs they were taught?

This is your character’s internal conflict and it gives your reader a reason to invest emotionally in that character’s journey. 

The secret to writing great conflict is to weave internal and external conflicts together. What's going on outside your character should make things even worse on the inside and vice versa. If that sounds confusing and complicated, this article should help.

Plot the Journey

Once you've created your characters and designed your conflict, you can smash these elements together in the form of a plot.

And how do you write a sci-fi novel plot?

Well, every plot, regardless of genre, should consist of five main elements:

  • Exposition
  • Rising action
  • Climax
  • Falling action
  • Resolution

The way you actually structure these five elements in your novel can vary. You might choose to follow the hero's journey, three-act structure, the Fichtean curve... it's your call. (To further explore your options, I recommend starting here.)

However you choose to structure your novel, remember to keep your Big What If in mind as you build your story. Make sure your grand speculation has a role to play from beginning to end.

Quick Tip

Let your plot reveal your thought experiment. First-time sci-fi writers are sometimes tempted to introduce their world to the reader through prologue, dumping loads of exposition about the technology or uprising that led to this unfamiliar reality.

It’s way more effective to let your readers discover your world and premise through the eyes of an active character—someone they can connect with.

The Giver doesn’t open with an explanation about how some people got the harebrained idea to create a utopia where no one had memories of sadness. 

Instead, the reader meets this kid who’s freaked out by the sight of an unfamiliar plane flying over his neighborhood. There’s the urgent order that all citizens must go inside. Then there’s the second announcement reassuring them that it was only a lost pilot who would be “released.” 

“There was an ironic tone to that final message, as if the Speaker found it amusing; and Jonas had smiled a little, though he knew what a grim statement it had been.”

In just two pages, we understand that this is a community under tight protection—a world that our protagonist perceives as safe compared to the world beyond. And yet, there’s a sinister vibe here with all this “released” business. So we keep reading to find out what that’s about. 

Set the Scene

A circle of shooting stars in a desert sky.

How do you write a sci-fi novel setting?

It really depends. Science fiction worlds can vary widely. Your novel might take place on a different planet in a galaxy far, far away. Or it could take place on your block five years from now. 

The first setting requires more extensive sci-fi worldbuilding than the second, but either way, you've got some work to do. Here are some quick tips for nailing your setting. 

Build the World Around Your Big What If

After all, the world of your science fiction novel is your thought experiment come to life. 

Let’s say your big question is “What if we all had smartphones embedded in our hands and corporations could advertise to us in our dreams?” Your next step is to start answering the question.

It would probably change our relationship with privacy, right? Is there any concept of solitude in this world? How does this constant connectedness affect professional standards? Is hustle culture running rampant in your sci-fi world?

What about free thought? Is it possible in a world where advertisers can infiltrate your mind? What would the world look like if corporations could brainwash people into wanting what they wanted them to want? 

Would corporations basically run the world? How would they design cities to further their cause? 

You get the idea.

Make it Make Sense 

Science fiction that feels possible is a spine-tingling, brain-exploding thing. 

It doesn't matter how close we are to achieving the kind of scientific innovations spotlighted in your book. If the science makes sense, feels like a natural extension of the science we know, and everything in your sci-fi world follows a clear logic, it will feel possible to your readers.

On the flip side:

Don't Abuse the Privilege of Working in an Imaginative Genre 

By this, I mean don’t introduce an invention two-thirds of the way through the book just to get a character out of pickle. Your readers won’t like it.

This is known as deus ex machina and it ruins great stories.

Fill in the Blanks

If your story is set in the speculative future, imagine the journey from our present reality to the future world you created. You don’t have to rehash the whole saga in your book, but consider whether that backstory might have left clues behind. 

Does your protagonist’s city bear the scars of an android uprising? Are there any lingering mementos of a lost time? What are the hollowed-out phone booths and mildewy Yellow Pages of your sci-fi world? 

Inspire Awe

Last but not least, give the people what they came for. Even if your sci-fi novel is set in a dystopian hellscape, it still has the power to strike wonder into the eager souls of your readers. 

Use the five senses in your scene descriptions to make your extraordinary world vivid. Polish your tone until it sparks the sense of dread or reckless optimism you want your readers to feel.

If you can do that, you’ll get them scrambling for Book Two. 

How to Write a Sci-Fi Novel Without Losing Your Mind

If your mind is reeling by now, I get it. Writing a science fiction novel requires you to master all the elements that go into any other novel and then add half a billion more considerations.

But if you love living in the world of science fiction, this challenge is bound to be fun. The toughest part—other than dealing with writer's block—is figuring out how to organize the brilliant chaos your imagination spews forth.

Every writer has their own way, but here’s my two cents.

Check out the Dabble writing tool. Dabble allows you to create endless Story Notes organized under customizable folders. This means you can create an entire worldbuilding bible in the same program you use to write your manuscript.

All the while, the Plot Grid is right at your fingertips. You can outline your story, rearrange scenes, insert chapter breaks, and more. 

A screenshot showing how you can use Dabble to write a sci-fi novel.

If you're not a Dabble user already, you can test out the tool for free for fourteen days. There's no software to download, no commitment required, and you don't even have to touch your credit card to sign up. 

To start your free trial, click on this link and start dreaming up your wild What If.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.