// 2021-11-20 // by Neon

Seven Rules for Sci-Fi Writers

Everyone has a million and one things to say on the topic of writing advice.

So let's start off by cutting straight to the first question you're going to ask. Why should you listen to me?

I'll respond to this in bullet form:

I can't pretend to give you advice that will make you a successful independent author or make publishers more willing to like you. Actually, listening to my opinions is probably a fantastic way to never get published, considering my views on topics like copyright.

The intent of this post is to lay out the rules I personally force myself to follow whenever I write fiction.

So here's my pitch. Check out my fiction portfolio and read some of my work. You can decide for yourself if I'm qualified to give you writing advice. If you like what you see and want to write like I do, then keep reading because this post is for you.

Still with me? Cool. Let's get started.


So as to avoid clickbaiting you, here is a list of the topics we'll discuss in this post:

  1. Show, don't tell
  2. Mind your message
  3. Do more with less
  4. If you didn't mention it, it doesn't exist
  5. Map out background actors
  6. Make the world react realistically
  7. Use Asimov outlines

1 - Show, don't tell

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but try to avoid directly describing the attributes of people, objects, or situations that you want your readers to notice. Describe details surrounding the broader picture that you want to highlight and let your readers intuit the obvious conclusion based on the information you've laid out for them.

I'll give a couple examples from my own work:

What I want to tell: "The society the protagonist is from treats their lowest members like literal animals. Treating people like that is really bad. The protagonist has major trauma from her upbringing as a member of the underclass."

How I show it: "Several pills rattled inside the mostly-empty bottle as she dumped a couple of them into her greasy, calloused and bloodied hands. A synthetic painkiller was the only company the scared little girl had to reassure her in the face of her aching hands and aching heart."

What I want to tell: "The sleazy corporate executive was a bigot."

How I show it: The suited man squinted and feigned an awkward smile, "Listen, Miss Janofsky, my dear, I want you to know that I'm on your side here. I'm just not convinced that the best future for you is here with our company. Surely, you could find a good husband and settle down to a peaceful life here in a civilised country."

Remember, you're trying to write a story, not a fact sheet or a documentary. Show your readers what they need to see and let them come to their own conclusions about the story you're trying to tell them.

You will find that often you can leave a much more powerful impression on your readers with your implications rather than that which you make explicit.

2 - Mind your message, and mind the death of the author

We just discussed the power of showing your readers what you want them to see as opposed to merely telling your readers what you want them to think.

But we need to take a step back and think about that for a moment. What do you want your readers to think? It's an important question that you as an author are obligated to ask yourself.

All stories are persuasive. Your story has a message or a moral that it explores and that it seeks to argue to your reader. Figure out what your message is and align the language you use with the message you are trying to send across to your reader.

"But what if my story has no message? I don't really care about persuading my readers about boring social issues or whatever, I just want to let them escape into a cool sci-fi universe with me!", you may cleverly assert.

Fuck you, that's where The Death of the Author comes into play.

The Death of the Author is a classic essay on the philosophy behind interpreting fiction. It argues a position can be boiled down into the following list of assertions:

Obviously your readers are not you, so they're not going to read your work and interpret it the same way you do. But they'll get something out of reading your work, whether it was what you intended or not. Our brains are wired to seek out patterns and explain things. Like it or not, your readers will ascribe moral value to the situations and characters you write.

When you put characters in tough situations and conflicts, your readers will find themselves thinking about what they'd do if they were in the same situation.

Your characters are a kind of role model for the reader with their actions. Readers will idolise or demonise your characters' actions based on the way you choose to portray them and the prose you use to describe the predicaments they find themselves in.

It is your responsibility as an author to ensure that the role models you give your readers are responsible ones.

When you stay aware of the fact that your work has a message, you can keep on top of how your readers might interpret your work. You can actively steer your reader into the direction you want to take them, rather than passively letting them flounder around in your text.

3 - Do more with less

The previous section discussed the idea that being mindful of one's message is important. But how do we keep ourselves focused? Let's talk about one practical method of keeping your fiction fixed on your message.

For every sentence you write, always ask yourself the following questions:

If you're having trouble answering any of the above questions about the sentence you wrote, just delete it.

It's easy to get lost in writing mindless descriptions or inconsequential scenes and dialogue because, after all, a lot of what we do in this world is inconsequential, right?

While it's true that even the most interesting person in the world is going to devote a large portion of their day-to-day life on activities that are ultimately mundane and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, those activities are not interesting (Unless they are. But I digress-- my point is that you as an author should be consciously deciding what is or is not interesting to your reader).

The point of a story is to single out the interesting parts of a series of events. Remember: you're telling a story, not filming a documentary.

Let's explore an example. A common trap that inexperienced authors will fall into is that they spend a lot of time describing every little thing any newly-introduced character is wearing, down to the smallest detail.

It's easy to feel like you need to describe every scene in photographic detail in order to make sure the reader understands the scenes you are trying to set. However, the reality is that generally the little details don't really matter. Your reader can use their imagination to fill in the blanks where appropriate, and it's both meaningless and obnoxious to force a reader to sit and listen to you ramble. Get to the point.

So ask yourself: is what you're describing or explaining really helping your reader understand your story better? Is it helping develop your message? Is it effectively building the mood or aesthetic that your story requires?

If it isn't, delete it!

Note: It can be hard to avoid what I call being a "sentence hoarder". You worked hard writing each and every word you put into your story. I've had times when I might write an entire page of content before I stop myself and realise that my prose does nothing but distract and derail my story with details that are inconsequential to my message. It's always a little painful to have that little Marie Kondo voice tell me the page I've just written does not spark joy. You have to be able to let go and allow yourself be okay with deleting the precious words you laboured to create because it will make your work better when you do.

So, yeah. Do more with less. Make each sentence count, and delete the ones that don't.

4 - Stop assuming. If you didn't mention it, it doesn't exist to your reader

Okay, we just did a whole bit on how it's easy to write too much and how important it is to prune the parts of your text that aren't pulling their weight in delivering your message. Now let's switch gears and talk about the opposite problem.

If there's something important that your reader needs to know, don't assume that your reader will pick it up out of nowhere. Readers have this tendency to be completely oblivious to literally anything that isn't spelled out directly under their nose. This isn't meant to be an insult so much as a statement of fact: your reader is not you, so they cannot read your mind and just know what's important to pay attention to unless you tell them.

Don't forget Rule One: show, don't tell. Lead your reader to what's important, and don't forget to describe the elements of your scenes that make what you're telling the reader meaningful.

It sounds really stupid and obvious, but it's so easy to have the following happen:

Don't ruin a great story by not making elements of your plot clear enough to your reader. It's so important to remember that if you didn't mention something, it doesn't exist to your reader.

But that's not to say that whatever it is doesn't exist to you...

5 - Map out what forces are at play in the conflict your story centres around, then keep track of what they're doing behind the scenes.

The world is a complicated place. It's easy to forget that other people in your world are still out there doing their own thing while your protagonist is adventuring.

Your reader may not know what outside forces and institutions around your protagonist(s) are doing in the background while your story unfolds, but you the author definitely should.

Keeping track of everything going on in the background of your story can get really complicated really fast, so here's how I tackle this problem.

First of all, every story has a conflict that drives the plot forward. Start by making a written list or spreadsheet for all your actors (aka, people and organisations who have some kind of stake in the conflict your plot is about).

For each relevant actor, write down and answer the following questions:

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to share these worldbuilding details with your reader. After all, your reader will only have the protagonist(s)'s perspective on the other actors, which may be skewed or inaccurate to the reality of the situation the protagonist(s) find themselves in.

The beauty of this method is that you can quietly consult your notes on what's going on in the background while the protagonist does their thing. You may come to find that when you keep rich background details actively in mind, your worlds may react to your protagonist(s)'s actions in rich new ways you might not have otherwise expected.

6 - Set your ego aside and consider how the people in your fictional world would actually react to stuff

While any writer worth their salt will be attached and invested in the actions of their characters, it is important to keep in mind that your characters are not you.

They have lived their own lives and have their own diverse set of experiences that shape how they interact with the world around them. Consider how those experiences might influence your characters to do things you personally might not necessarily agree with.

It is easy to write a character who you see as morally upstanding and always does the right thing as you might see it. However, as sci-fi writers we are often in the business of writing about people who grew up on worlds that are nothing like ours.

Tread carefully any time you are in a situation where you are forced to consider what your characters believe to be morally right or wrong. Their experiences may drive them to subtly different conclusions than what you yourself might prefer. And that's okay. Embrace the difference of perspectives in your world and it will bring your characters to life.

On the same token, be mindful of the way your antagonists or opposing forces to the protagonist(s) act in your world.

Single-minded moustache-twirling villains who are evil for the sake of being evil are boring. Don't write them like that. Make sure your antagonists have good reason to act the way they do, and ensure that their responses to the actions of your protagonist(s) are appropriate to how you've characterised them to behave or think.

For example, a villain who has been characterised as super smart shouldn't fail to predict obvious moves by the protagonist(s) just so that your protagonist(s) can beat your villain.

That being said, there is a highly important caveat regarding Rule Two, minding your message. It is important to always be aware that even though your characters are fictional, the people who read your work are real people who live in our real world.

While it's important that you let your characters act as they would, you are not obligated to glorify actions that you do not find morally acceptable in our real world.

In fact, I would argue the opposite. It is your responsibility as a writer to do your best to paint a realistic picture when your characters do something unacceptable to you as an author. Don't be afraid to show your readers the consequences of a character's immoral actions and how they negatively affect the world around themselves.

7 - Outline your story using the Asimov method

This last point is an overarching method for planning your stories at a high level.

My favourite author is Isaac Asimov, and in his autobiography he described a beautifully succinct method for how he outlined plots in his works.

To put Asimov's method in bullet point form, the way it works is as follows:

The outline you create using the Asimov method will be barebones enough to avoid becoming overbearing as your story and characters develop in ways that you didn't expect, but at the same time you can stay cohesive enough to always have a direction to steer your plot so that you don't get lost along the way.

I have found that the Asimov method is so effective that I use it to plan every single story (and sometimes individual chapters) of everything I write.

And, to my more avid readers scrolling through this post and thinking to yourselves-- yes, I do in fact already know how The Zeta Directive ends. To which I can only respond...

We'll get there when we get there


Over the course of this post we've explored seven rules to follow when writing science fiction. Please keep in mind that these aren't the only considerations to keep in mind when writing fiction, but I personally think these are the most important ones.

It's also worth noting that rules are made to be broken. Go with the flow and write what you think is good; don't ever let a stuffy set of rules get in the way of a good story.

I will leave you with one final nugget of what I consider to be the single best piece of writing advice I have ever been told:

"The best way to write a story is whatever way ends up with a completed story on your desk."