How to Start Writing Your Sci-Fi or Fantasy Novel
In the age of interstellar travel and mythical creatures, the worlds of science fiction and fantasy hold an irresistible allure. From spaceships traversing distance galaxies to knights battling fire-breathing dragons, these genres help us to escape the confines of reality and let our imaginations soar to new heights.
But turning those vivid ideas into a cohesive and engaging novel can seem like a daunting task, can’t it? Fear not!
In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through five steps that will help you start writing your science fiction or fantasy novel without the overwhelm that stops most writers in their tracks. Let’s dive right in!
Step 1: What kind of story are you writing?
Science fiction and fantasy are consumer-facing labels (commercial genres) that tell readers there will be fantastic, magical, scientific, or futuristic elements in a novel, but they don’t tell you how to construct a story from the ground up.
For example, Young Adult Fantasy and Adult Science Fiction are commercial genres with target age ranges attached.
You can even take this one step further into the commercial subgenres of science fiction and fantasy like dystopian, space opera, hard sci-fi, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, portal fantasy—the list goes on and on.
And while these commercial genres (and subgenres) are essential to know—especially when it comes to querying agents or marketing your story to readers—they don’t tell you how to construct a story from the ground up. So, they don’t tell you things like:
- What your protagonist wants and needs
- What your protagonist stands to lose or gain (what’s at stake)
- How to construct the beginning, middle, and end of your story
- What emotion your reader expects to feel or experience
- The theme of your story (or the point your story is making)
But this is where your story’s content genre comes in.
If you can identify your story’s primary content genre, you’ll immediately get a sense of things like the type of scenes you need to include in your story, the character roles you need to fill, what’s at stake for your protagonist, and more.
Here are some examples of popular science fiction and fantasy stories with their content genres to help bring this concept to life:
- The Hunger Games (Action/Status)
- Throne of Glass (Action/Worldview)
- A Court of Thorns and Roses (Action/Worldview/Love)
- The Eye of the World (Action/Worldview)
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Action/Worldview)
- The Magicians (Action/Worldview)
- The Name of the Wind (Action/Worldview)
- The Dresden Files (Crime)
- Dead Until Dark (Crime)
- Rivers of London (Crime/Status)
- Piranesi (Crime/Worldview)
- Outlander (Love/Worldview)
- The Time Traveller’s Wife (Love/Worldview)
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Performance/Status)
- The Night Circus (Performance/Status)
- The Shining (Horror)
- Wool (Society/Worldview)
- The Handmaids Tale (Society)
- Oona Out of Order (Worldview)
If you need help figuring out your content genre, there are some questions at the bottom of this blog post that will help you narrow in on the best choice for your story.
Skipping this step is why so many science fiction and fantasy authors have trouble outlining and writing their drafts—they know what kind of setting they want to write a story in, but they don’t know how to build their stories from the ground up in that setting.
This is also why I haven’t done a podcast episode (or a blog post) about the key scenes and conventions of a science fiction or fantasy story.
I’ve already broken down most of the content genres' key scenes and conventions, so all you need to do now is to identify which content genre best suits your idea, and then you’ll have a list of those key scenes and conventions to help you get started.
I will keep adding to this list as I analyze more science fiction and fantasy stories, but hopefully, this gives you a good place to start when it comes to choosing the content genre/s for your story. Let’s move on to step two!
Step 2: What does your protagonist want and need?
Once you know what kind of story you’re writing, it’s time to explore what your protagonist wants and needs—and if you have more than one protagonist, you’ll want to answer this question for each one.
Now, here’s the cool thing…
What your protagonist wants and needs will be determined by your story’s content genre. So, for example, if you’re writing an action story, your protagonist’s primary goal will be survival—so they’ll want to defeat or stop the antagonist so that they can restore their sense of agency and live to see another day.
If you couple that with an internal worldview arc, your protagonist will need to update their outdated worldview in order to defeat or stop the antagonist. So, you can look at this through the lens of your content genres—and then you can take the generic goal your genre provides and make it more specific to your story.
For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, which is an action story with an internal worldview arc, Harry’s goal is to prevent Voldemort from getting the Sorcerer’s Stone—if he does that, he will maintain his sense of agency, and Voldemort won’t be able to regain his power.
So, the key point here is to use your genre framework as a guide and then make your answer to this question more specific to your story idea.
You can continue to refine your answers to what your protagonist wants and needs as you get to know your story more, too. But using your genre framework is a great place to start. Now, let’s move on to step three!
Step 3: What conflict will your protagonist face?
Once you know what your protagonist wants and needs, consider the specific conflict they’ll face as they pursue their goal. And you’re looking for two sources of conflict here:
- What conflict will your protagonist face externally?
- What conflict will your protagonist face internally?
The external conflict your protagonist faces will come primarily from the antagonist of your story. So, this is a good time to dig into who your antagonist is, what they want, what they’ll do to get it, and things like that.
The internal conflict your protagonist faces will come from their internal obstacle—so whatever internal source of conflict they need to overcome before they can be successful in your story’s plot. This is a good time to dig into your protagonist’s backstory to understand where their internal obstacle came from if you haven’t already.
Your content genre can provide clues here, too. For example, in a society story, the antagonist wants to maintain their power and keep the “little guys” down. If you couple that with an internal worldview arc, the protagonist has an outdated worldview that they have to upgrade before they can successfully challenge the antagonist.
For example, in Wool by Hugh Howey, which is a society story with an internal worldview arc, only a few people in power know the truth and the history behind the Silo. They withhold this information to keep the population complacent and to avoid rebellion. Eventually, Juliette uncovers the truth (and unwinds her outdated worldview) and is able to successfully take power away from the powers that be.
So, again, use your genre framework to get you started, and then continue to refine your antagonist’s goal (and plan) as you get to know your story more. Let’s move on to step number four!
Step 4: Where (and when) will your story take place?
It’s no secret that when writing science fiction or fantasy, you have to create a believable and three-dimensional world for your characters. Readers expect this to varying degrees based on the kind of story you’re writing.
For example, an urban fantasy might require less worldbuilding than an epic fantasy, but it’s still an important element to spend some time on.
Now, you might think that your story’s content genre can’t inform your worldbuilding, but spoiler alert: it totally can! For example, one of the conventions of the horror genre is an isolated and claustrophobic setting. If you’re writing a horror story, brainstorm how you can use the magical or technological pieces of your story world to help you create an isolated or claustrophobic setting.
If you’re writing an action story, one of the conventions of the action genre is that there’s a large power divide between the protagonist and the antagonist. You can use this same lens to look at your world through. For example, brainstorm how you can show a large power divide in relationships between other people in your story world, too—not just your protagonist and your antagonist. You can also consider what kind of power divide will exist between your protagonist and your antagonist—in a fantasy story, it’s probably a magical power divide. In a science fiction story, it’s probably to do with the technology or the advancement of something or even with weapons.
You can even back out of your content genre to consider what guidelines your commercial genre might offer. For example, a reader of dystopian sci-fi will have different expectations than they would if they picked up a space opera, right? I know that might sound obvious, but sometimes it’s the obvious things we don’t think of until we’re already deep in the weeds, so I just wanted to mention it.
I’d also consider the age range you’re writing for because this will tell you what kind of learning curve your story should have. If you’ve never heard this term before, a learning curve basically means the amount of time it will take a reader to understand your story world—so all the rules and boundaries of your magic system or of your technology.
And if you’re writing for middle-grade readers, you’ll need to have a much more shallow learning curve than you would if you’re writing for adults. So, basically, if you’re writing for adults, you can introduce a lot more about your world within the opening chapters than you could if you’re writing for a middle-grade audience. This isn’t an excuse to info dump if you’re writing for adults, but I’m just saying (generally speaking) adult readers can take more worldbuilding info right out of the gate than middle-grade readers can. So, just something to keep in mind.
Next week, I have a whole episode about worldbuilding coming out, so I won’t get into all the details here, but consider things like what kind of magic system you’ll have, or if you’re writing sci-fi, what technology exists (or doesn’t exist) in your world, and then brainstorm the rules, boundaries, and limitations around your magic system or around your technology. You can also brainstorm environmental things, too, like geography and weather. Or the type of people that make up your world, and things like that. But don’t spend too much time here because things will grow and change as you start outlining and writing your story—plus, you really only want to go deep into the things that have an impact on your story. You don’t need to know everything there is to know about your world, especially when you’re just starting out.
So, that’s step four—do some brainstorming about your story world and use both your content and commercial genres for guidance here. Let’s move on to step five!
Step 5: What happens in the beginning, middle, and end?
You don’t have to have everything figured out before you start outlining or writing your story, but it can be helpful to have an overview of how things will unfold. I recommend writing both a 1-2 sentence logline and a 2-3 paragraph synopsis that summarizes your entire story to help you see the big picture as you outline and write.
If you need help crafting your logline and synopsis, this blog post will walk you through both exercises step-by-step, with examples.
But the cool thing is that if you know your story’s content genre, you’ll be able to get a really good idea of how your story needs to unfold. For example, in a mystery story, there’s a crime in the beginning (usually a dead body), the middle is all about tracking down clues, and the end is all about exposing the criminal and bringing them to justice.
I’ve done a lot of the work for you already by breaking out the key scenes of each genre, so check out this blog post (and scroll to the bottom) for links to each of the genre breakdowns.
Now, when you write your synopsis in particular, I want you to keep an eye on the middle of your story to make sure it’s not vague. I see this happen with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writers where the middle of their synopsis doesn’t contain enough meaningful conflict. So, this is why I really wanted you to brainstorm the conflict that gets in your protagonist’s way—specifically in regard to your antagonist. And it’s also why I want you to go look at the key scenes of your chosen genre.
You really need to make sure that you can see the specific and escalating conflict that your protagonist will face throughout the middle of your story—and you can definitely see if it’s’ there (or not) by writing a synopsis. If you find that there’s not enough specific conflict, you can spend the time to develop that and flesh it out a bit more before you start outlining or writing.
So, that’s step five—brainstorm what will happen in the beginning, middle, and end of your story—and write it out as a 1-2 sentence logline and a 2-3 paragraph synopsis. If you feel good about your logline and synopsis, move on to your next step, whether that’s outlining or writing. If you don’t feel good about your summaries, work on crystalizing them a bit more before taking the next steps.
And there you have it! Hopefully, you feel much more confident about starting to write your science fiction or fantasy novel. I hope this episode has helped you see the power of your story’s content genre and how it can help you make so much progress when it comes to writing your science fiction or fantasy novel.
If you want me to walk you through writing your science fiction or fantasy novel (and give you access to all of my genre cheat sheets!), get on the waitlist for my Notes to Novel course. Doors will be opening again soon!