How to Write a Science Fiction Short Story
So, you’re a Sci-Fi nerd. You’ve got subscriptions to Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and you read each and every issue cover to cover. Your dog’s name is Bradbury, your cat’s name is Huxley, and your three goldfish Orson, Scott, and Card live in a starship shaped fishbowl. In light of this obvious fascination with speculative fiction, no doubt you’ve considered contributing to it yourself, correct?
Unfortunately, one does not simply warp into Nebula Award winning authorship. As with any story, the obvious constructs need to be solid—plot, voice, setting, and pace. But when it comes to sci-fi, there are other elements that help a story thrive within the genre.
This may go without saying, but it is a fine line to walk. With the genre shifting in recent years into “speculative fiction,” we’re not simply talking about robots and spaceships anymore. There must of course be an element of science, be it futuristic technology, biology, or space travel, but it can be nuanced. The theme should be clear enough that the story couldn’t function without it, however. Otherwise, what makes it science fiction at all?
Though not as involved as it would be with a novel, world building is still essential for short fiction. Because of the nature of sci-fi, the entire story can hinge on the setting itself. Is it a post-apocalyptic Earth or another planet altogether? How does technology change human interaction, global economy, and everyday needs such as food and transportation? Do the same rules of physics apply in your fictional world as they do in the real world? A thoroughly developed atmosphere will show in the details, even if you keep setting description succinct.
Technology and culture is fantastic and fun, but the characters are what drive the plot. You don’t have the luxury of long chapters to develop your protagonist’s personality, so you must be strategic. Layer details within dialogue, motivation, and action. Let your reader see what kind of personalities you’ve created by watching them interact with your fictional world. People are complex, flawed, and rarely rational. Even the most heroic figures struggle, often landing on the right decision for the wrong reasons. Where does your character find hope, passion, or value in life? Think about background, physical and mental health, and level of confidence. Even if none of these things are illustrated specifically within the scope of your story, they play a part in the creation of a complete character worth following to the end.
Dialogue is a useful tool directly related to world building and character development. It’s an easy way to reveal details about the setting and culture, as well as information about the person speaking. Does your world have a unique religion or ideology? How does this shape the vocabulary of your characters? Does it provide a slew of slang or profanity exclusive to your story? Wordplay can be clever, but it’s imperative that the dialogue sound natural, so don’t overload it with too many made-up words. Read the lines aloud to yourself and format the sentences to fit common speaking patterns.
Nuts and Bolts
Do your research. There are several good resources out there to help you format your manuscript professionally, online and on paper. Standard short story length is anywhere between 1,000 and 7,500 words, but you should always double check what each publication is looking for. Most publications have writer’s guidelines listed on their websites, and you should never submit anything without consulting these first.
Finally, keep in mind that rejection is not just part of the freelance game, it’s MOST of it. Take criticism and use it to your benefit. Every single one of your favorite writers faced overwhelming rejection before they hit any amount of success. Remember to write because you love being a big fat nerd, and everything else is secondary.
What do you want to write your science fiction short story about?