Seven Rules for Writing Science-Based Fiction
Fiction with a scientific angle has seen a major renaissance in recent years, from The Martian to The Circle to apocalyptic novels like Wool. Movies such as Interstellar, Life, Avatar, and Arrival have captured the public’s imagination with their science-heavy themes. What’s going on here? Isn’t this the age of antiscience?
Remember Star Trek? In the sixties and seventies, the future of scientific advances seemed limitless. We were traveling to the moon, exceeding our earthly boundaries. Atomic power would give us unlimited energy and the ability to create flying cars, self-cooked meals, and robot servants like those imagined in the Jetsons cartoon.
But the seventies gave us a big dose of reality. Technology had promise, but it had problems, too. We had The China Syndrome and The Andromeda Strain and other apocalyptic visions of the future. Suddenly, the promise of technology seemed more like a threat, and people began to retreat into old-world ideas like spiritualism, paganism, and astrology.
We eventually moved out of that period into the Internet age, where technology once again ruled. It was exciting at first, with advancements including the Internet and the iPhone capturing our imaginations. It didn’t take long, however, for technology to lose its sense of wonder. Standing in line for the latest iPhone doesn’t seem as exciting as it once did. We’ve become overwhelmed and bored with technology, at least at the consumer level. Truly astounding technological advances like self-driving cars seem almost passé, but groundbreaking entrepreneurs like Elon Musk continue to remind us that technology can be both wondrous and awe-inspiring.
Enter the “new” science-based novel. Apocalyptic dystopias have dominated the fictional landscape lately, but we as a society can remain depressed for only so long. We hunger for inspiration and the promise of technology to solve our modern challenges. The success of The Martian may have been technical in nature, but its true theme centered on how we can use our creativity and inventiveness to get out of difficult situations. The Martian was basically “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” and that’s a good thing.
Science-based novels still pose a challenge for modern writers. It’s easy to overdo the science. Let’s look at seven rules for writing successful science-based novels. Why seven? Because ten rules are passé. The number seven has historical significance, from Hebrew text and Native American culture to medieval pagan religions.
1) The future is about the past.
All technological advancement starts with history and society’s accumulated body of knowledge, so it’s always good to link your science story to historical events or former scientists whenever possible. Readers enjoy watching the journey of an idea from past to present to future.
2) Science is a tool, not a goal.
Compelling stories have always been about people, not things. That doesn’t change with science-based fiction. The scientific theme of your story should never take precedence over the hero’s journey and the challenges he or she may encounter. A little science goes a long way. While The Martian had a good deal of technical detail, the main core of the story centered on Mark Watney’s struggle to stay alive and NASA’s efforts to rescue him.
3) Science-based fiction is entertainment first, enlightenment second.
It’s okay to educate the reader a bit about the science in your story because it helps anchor events in reality, what writers call verisimilitude. Science is also a great way to shine a light on social change, but never forget that fiction is primarily about entertainment. Readers don’t want to be lectured. Make sure the science is critical to the human events that drive your story forward. If you can enlighten readers while entertaining, your story will have greater weight and endurance, but make sure to successfully “hide the medicine in the ice cream.”
4) Science is best consumed in small doses.
In The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy was famous for going on for pages and sometimes chapters describing the technical aspects of submarine warfare. While it added to the realism of the drama, many readers expressed frustration when the technology took them out of the action. Dish out your science in small doses. Sprinkle in plenty of action and human interest to keep the story moving.
5) Facts are sometimes stranger than fiction.
The world is filled with bizarre scientific facts and unbelievable coincidences, but don’t get too enamored with the unusual. Chances are you’ll lose credibility with readers. We are far more likely to accept a strange fact when we know it’s true. In fiction, the same bizarre fact can seem contrived, a heavy-handed attempt by the writer to shock or surprise. Sometimes you have to be more believable than reality to be believed.
6) People love to be tricked, when it’s done fairly.
What’s the difference between a magician and a con man? The magician tells you up front he’s going to trick you; the con man takes your money and runs. The thrill of magic comes from the “magician’s promise” that you will have a chance to figure out the trick. Avoid cliched outcomes and give readers some good surprises, but allow them a chance to spot the surprise through well-placed clues or foreshadowing. When writers use arbitrary twists to shock or solve some intractable problem with their plot, it comes across as lazy writing. The Latin term deus ex machina means god from the machine. It originated in Greek tragedies when human actors would find themselves in impossible situations, only to have a Greek god lowered onto the stage by a “machine” to solve the problem as only a god can.
7) Even anti-heroes need to feel loved.
Most writing advice suggests making villains truly evil. All the better for readers to despise them and enjoy their eventual comeuppance. But even the most evil villains should have rational motivations for their villainy. Otherwise their actions seem contrived. Simply creating an “evil death ray to destroy the planet with science” isn’t enough. What does the villain gain from a destroyed planet? If you can’t answer that question, readers won’t believe your story, no matter how compelling the science . . .