20 Mistakes To Avoid In Science Fiction

– This is a continuation of a series that began with 20 Mistakes To Avoid In Young Adult Fiction/Romance. I included a couple exterior sources throughout the article that covers certain points in more detail for those who would like further advice. I hope this is helpful. Happy writing!

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Referencing Current Culture Inappropriately

Not all references to pop culture are misplaced in sci fi. For instance, in Ready Player One, it’s integral to the plot. However, it’s random references to political things or important people that do not have anything to do with the movement of the plot or are misplaced within the context of the universe. This can bring your reader out of the story and confuse them in terms of world building and basic information about the history of your constructed universe.

Not Understanding Space & How It Differs From Earth

Do your research about space if you’re writing about space, and learn about how different planets work, the rules of physics, the laws of gravity, the conditions in other parts of the galaxy, etc. This information is available to you in may places and in many formats that are broken down simply for you to understand, especially for writers. You just have to look for it. I actually have a resource master post called “Resources For Writing Science Fiction” that would be really, really useful for this.

Putting No Thought Into Aliens

Aliens shouldn’t just be modified versions of humans. Coloring a human purple doesn’t make them interesting. Think about the environmental factors on the alien’s home planet and how those conditions would affect their biological makeup and physical/mental features. Take the time to do this, because readers appreciate it when it’s done well.

Technobabble

This is just a word for technological-sounding gibberish that writers put into their book to make it sound legitimate. However, what a lot of them do not realize is that science fiction readers are often interested in science, and therefore know that it’s 3 sentences full of nothing. This is okay in some circumstances, but it can never hurt to do 10 minutes of googling to maybe learn a bit about what you’re about to feed to the reader before writing it. Technobabble is really useful for writing the first draft (where you’re just telling yourself the story to have something to develop), but it shouldn’t live past that point. 

Conlangs (Unless You’re A Linguist)

Do not take on constructed languages if you aren’t ready for years and years of study and practice with linguistics, because your conlang will flop. J.R.R. Tolkien, who is famous for not only his series Lord of The Rings and his novel The Hobbit, but also the invented languages within them. He had a long career in linguistics and was well-versed in it, and that is why they’re such a sticking point of his works in Science Fiction. It took years of study and practice to create the conlangs in those books. Conlangs are no game. 

Prologues

Most authors do not like prologues for a plethora of reasons, but with science fiction there’s really not a good justification for having one. Start where the action is and input the important highlights from the past as they become important to the reader’s understanding of the present.

Info-Dumping

Long paragraphs or pages upon pages describing the setting or the way the character is feeling and so-on has no place in any book, let alone science fiction which is already packed to the brim with detail no matter what. Sprinkle detail in as it becomes relevant instead of getting it all out in one spot and then expecting the reader to see the significance in every one. 

Over-Explanation

It’s good practice to avoid over-description of things that don’t matter. The general rule of thumb is show, don’t tell, but also, don’t bore the reader with 3 sentences describing each button on a control panel that the main character walks past once and never appears again. 

Overly-Complicated Names

This is simply a pet-peeve of a lot of people, and it doesn’t really add anything to your story. It’s cliche and kind of laughable when a writer names their character “Celeste Apollo Saturn” or something like that. Sure, it makes you feel original, but it doesn’t add to the reader’s experience much. It’s okay to have unique, space-themed names, just don’t overdo it.

Not Exploring

Overthink your world. Overthink your characters. Overthink the details. Explore all the possibilities. The better you know your world and everything in it, the more vivid your storytelling will be, even if 80% of the details you’ve explored are left out. You should be an expert in your story, because that will make you tell it better.

Regurgitating Popular Sci-Fi

Please don’t rewrite Star Trek, Star Wars, The Avengers, etc. and just change the names. There’s a difference between taking a trope or a popular type of science fiction story and putting your own twist or speculation on it, and handing your reader a book version of an existing story.

Not Thinking Critically About Fictional Elements

“Apply logic in places where it wasn’t intended to exist. If assured that the Queen of the Fairies has a necklace made of broken promises, ask yourself what it looks like. If there is magic, where does it come from? Why isn’t everyone using it? What rules will you have to give it to allow some tension in your story? How does society operate? Where does the food come from? You need to know how your world works.”

– Terry Pratchett

Underestimating The Audience

Your audience can deduce things, and doesn’t need every implication explained to them. You don’t need to beat the symbolism and implications into their brain by constantly alluding to it or reiterating it in a million different ways. Subtext is important, and it should be left as subtext, otherwise there’s no need for thinking about the story and your reader will forget it (or worse, be irritated by it).

Leaving Plot Holes Because You Think Nobody Will Notice

Don’t do this. Just don’t. There’s always going to be someone who notices even the most minute details that are not explained when they should be, and then shares with a friend, and then it becomes a thing. If the thought “eh, I don’t have to include this detail because nobody will notice that this whole scene is ridiculous without it” crosses your mind, kill it. However, there’s a difference between a plot hole and a detail that was cut due to irrelevance, and that’s explained in the next point.

Forgetting To Actually Deliver Information

You, after months or even years of planning, may forget to include important details for the reader’s understanding due to the fact that overtime they seem so obvious to you. Be careful about this, and make sure that every scene you write is set up with the information the reader needs to know in order to understand what’s going on. This is easy to do as long as you have someone on the outside who can tell you where things get confusing and where the holes are. 

Putting World Building Before Storytelling

You’re telling a story, and it’s important that you have an actual story to tell before you develop the world around it. Not every detail you plan out will be relevant to the story and won’t make it to the final draft, and that’s okay. Put the story first, and don’t sacrifice the reader’s focus to add detail that doesn’t enhance the story, because it will take away from it instead. 

Poor Choice Of Writing Style

point of view, tense, person You should be very careful about the stylistic decisions you make about the way in which you will deliver your story to the reader, because this is often what makes sci-fi convoluted and boring. The three main details you need to decide on carefully are which point of view you tell the story from, so which character you’re choosing to focus on, the tense  (past, present, or future), and person(first, second, or third). Most stories are told in third person surrounding the main character in past tense. Future tense and second person are pretty rare, but can be pulled off by authors who are willing to take on the challenge (though I don’t recommend it if you’re not willing to do a lot of problem solving and workshopping in following drafts).

Ignoring The Speculative Aspect

When your story deals with something like, say, time travel, you need to not only imagine the implications for your characters’ present, but their future along with everyone else’s. You also have to recognize that small changes may have a butterfly effect, but the universe has a way of straightening history out, and not all of them will have eternal lasting effects on the future. You’re speculating, and speculating doesn’t stop at how your characters’ situations change at the immediate moment, but also in the long run, as well as what implications come with each new detail you change between your world and ours.

Not Planning

This genre is not for the writers who identify as pantsers rather than planners. This genre is very, very difficult to approach as even a very organized author, and its readers are typically very observant and nit-picky. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s a great thing, as long as you’re prepared for what you’re in for. 

Historical Absolutes

Mark Vorenkamp actually explained this really well in this article, so I recommend heading over there because he articulates it way better than I ever could.

You’re Not A Scientist (And That’s Okay)

Accept that you’re not a world-famous scientist and that you don’t have all the answers or all the research to back up the speculation and estimation that comes with science fiction. That’s okay, and as long as you do your best to know what you’re talking about and do as much research as possible to add substance to detail, you’re fine. This is fiction, after all. Not a dissertation. 


This article is really, really detailed and extensive, and it’s a good continuation of what I’ve covered in this article. I recommend giving it a read if you’re about to sink your teeth into the editing or second-draft onward of your story, because it further examines things like the use of passive voice in sci-fi, and other, more advanced details of writing for this genre specifically. 


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