The first time I watched Star Wars as a kid, I knew two things: 1) I was going to become a Jedi, and 2) I had to tell stories like this. While I never mastered using the Force to push objects off my school desk, I did learn a few things about creating science-fiction worlds and understanding how they resonate with us even from a galaxy far, far away.
Science fiction and science fantasy are incredible mediums to manifest internal conflict as external struggle. Both genres use technology as set pieces to amplify universal themes and highlight the human condition, all of our problems, triumphs, goods, and evils. Much like the jester in the king’s court, they can strip away real-world factions to comment on polarizing issues with universal, almost parable-like truths.
So how can we writers tell science fiction stories that transcend time and space? How can our writing affect future generations?
Start with a theme.
Without a theme or question to explore, science fiction becomes a tin man with no heart. Flashy, looks cool, but ultimately hollow, nothing inside. Through years of journaling story ideas, I’ve discovered the ones that make it past the “honeymoon phase” of a new idea are the ones that have more going for them than an interesting scenario or situation. And they’re exactly the ones a writer wants for good sci-fi.
One idea from my journal reads, “A boy grows up on a robot-inhabited planet.” Cool. Commence the honeymoon phase. What if he’s the only human on a planet full of robots? What if he thinks he’s the last of his species? Ooh, and what if one day a girl crash lands on his planet and tells him everything the robots have taught him is wrong? Great. It has everything it needs for a compelling story? Or does it?
Actually, the aforementioned idea turned out to be my new book Bobby Robot, but I believe the idea made it past the honeymoon phase because the initial kernel of inspiration came from wanting to explore a theme, in this case, the theme of perfectionism. The main conflict of a human growing up with robots and having to achieve their level of perfection was simply a natural extension.
Am I saying a writer always has to begin with a theme for an idea to be good? Absolutely not. I’ve found a lot of my inspiration centers on interesting scenarios and unusual situations. (What if a woman discovers her apartment is bugged by an alien scientist?) Hey, it might become the next award-winning sci-fi novel. But I think to get it there, the writer will need to apply something deeper, something relatable, something that takes the reader on an exploratory adventure, big or small, but in some way profound.
But maybe you don’t plot your story? Maybe you barrel ahead with that interesting concept in a coffee-fueled writing frenzy and see what comes out? Go for it. But take a look at that first draft when it’s finished and ask what can give your story longevity. Often, you’ll find your brain worked something deeper into the manuscript when you didn’t notice. Strengthen that something in subsequent drafts.
If you’re a plotter and you have a general idea of what you want to explore, you can use the Hero’s Journey or another story pattern to structure your great idea and bring that theme full circle.
And don’t forget to tell your characters about your theme in your pre-draft cast meeting. They’re the ones driving this whole thing, after all. Even if they aren’t consciously aware of what you’re trying to say in your manuscript, some part of them needs to know. Then dress them up in sci-fi trappings, throw some obstacles in their way, and let them get to work exploring your theme and shaping the reader of the future. Because, remember, what makes a lightsaber fight so compelling is not the concept of laser swords, but who is holding them and why.