How to Write A Science Fiction Short Story

Updated on August 5, 2016
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Do you love science fiction and want to know how to write your own stories? Whether it's for an assignment or you aspire to be a writer, you will find some helpful tips to writing amazing short science fiction below.

Short stories are an easier way to start writing than trying to dive straight into a novel. A short story can be a less daunting task. And there are actually more opportunities out there to sell short stories and enter contests as opposed to longer pieces.

Writing a short story may seem easy. But writing a great short story takes skill. Aspire to writing a story that will leave readers wanting more rather than a story no one wants to read.

Learn the basics of short stories and how to craft them. Then how to incorporate science fiction elements into a story will be discussed. With these tips and guidelines, you will be on your way to becoming a stellar science fiction short story writer.

Writing Short Stories: The Basics

The approach to writing a short story is different in many ways from the technique of writing a novel. The difference comes down to one key word—short. Short stories have a limited number of words and that dictates how they should be written.

In a novel, the author can take the time to develop plot, characters, background, and story. With short stories, space is limited. The author has to get the story rolling and can't take the time for scenic detours.

The Elements of a Short Story

limited number of characters
succintly described setting
1-2 plot conflicts
one point of view
one tense throughout the story
strong beginning and end
clear point or theme

These are some basic ideas to keep in mind when writing short stories:

  • Hook the reader right from the start. If you don't do that, the reader will just flip to something else. A strong beginning in a short story will make the readers want to know more.
  • Don't start at the very beginning in a short story. Get straight into the action. Background and pages of buildup aren't necessary.
  • Description should be limited in a short story. You will start losing the audience's attention if you go into lengthy descriptions. This goes for character descriptions as well.
  • Establish the setting and the characters, and then move on to the problem. The plot is what the readers will care about most.
  • Keep the number of characters to a minimum. Too many characters will make the story too complex and the readers won't be able to tell them apart.
  • Dialogue and action will drive the story forward. They will also keep the reader involved in what is going on.
  • Focus on one or two ideas in a short story. More than a couple of plot conflicts can make the story too muddled and confusing.
  • Make every word of the story count. Don't add details to fluff up the story. Keep it simple and eliminate anything slowing down the story.
  • Know what the point of the story is and direct the story to it by the end. When the reader knows what the point is, that should be the conclusion.
  • End the story in a way that readers will remember. It doesn't have to be a neatly-tied-up happily ever after. But the readers should know what the point of the story was or they will be dissatisfied.

Think of a short story as being like a trip across town and a novel like a road trip. In a novel, the readers will become invested in the characters and what happens to them. In a short story, the reader cares about the conflict and the point of the story. It is something to read during one sitting.

So trust the readers to pick up on what's going on without unnecessary flourishes. Grab the readers' attention, get them to the point, and then finish it up.

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The Mechanics of the Story

Here are a few more technical things to think about when writing short stories:

  • Pick a tense (typically past or present) and stick with it through the whole story.
  • Use one point of view throughout the story. If you start off inside the character's head, stay there. The same is true if you use third-person point of view. Avoid speaking from multiple characters' points of view in short stories.
  • Outlining or mapping the story can help clarify plot details and better organize the story. This can help if you are having writer's block or are stuck at a plot point.
  • Follow the basic rules of storytelling, at least in the beginning. Having a clear grasp of story crafting is essential. Then down the road you can bend the typical story rules artfully.
  • Proofread and edit the story when you are done. No one likes to see errors. It jolts the reader out of the world of the story.
  • Have someone critique your work. Pick someone who is knowledgeable about storytelling and who will give you good constructive criticism. A writing group or writing workshop are a great idea for aspiring writers. Critters.org is one of the many writing critique and workshop sites available.

Tips on Writing Short Stories

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Science Fiction Writing

And now that the general craft of short stories has been addressed, here are some things to consider when writing a science fiction story. First, what makes a story science fiction or fantasy?

  • In science fiction, the imaginary elements are typically based in the scientific realm or can be explained scientifically.
  • In fantasy literature, the imaginary elements are usually explained by magic or other supernatural phenomena.

Writing a unique sci-fi story is all about finding your own voice. There is a saying that there are no new stories, only old ones with different words. So writing a creative science fiction story is more about the way you take the ideas and present them and less about trying to create the weirdest new world you can imagine.

Think about some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy stories. Think about popular science fiction stories. Are they the ones that have the most unfathomable worlds or plots? Not at all. They are the ones that describe the old stories in a new way.

For example, dystopian, post-apocalyptic stories have been around forever. What makes the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins such a good story? She took the concept of an oppressive government (like 1984) and blended it with Greek myths and the idea of gladiatorial games. She put it in a more futuristic setting and added the modern day voyeuristic, fashion victim themes. So none of the ideas are really new. What makes it unique is how Collins molded the elements together.

To make a believable and appealing science fiction story, follow these essentials:

  • Stick to general descriptions of the world or sci-fi element of the story. Don't get too technical or you are going to alienate too much of your audience. Mainstream readers are not going to be physics experts or really care to know the exact mechanics of how your imaginary world works.
  • Keep the language simple even if the world or the idea is complex. Practice what Terry Bison says, "The more extraordinary the idea, the more ordinary the language." Very few people want to decipher a new alien language or special jargon just to read your story.
  • Don't try to incorporate too many strange and fantastical elements into a story. One or two science fiction or fantasy aspects are plenty for a short story. Readers don't want to feel way out of depth with too much to try to figure out.
  • Have a character that readers can relate to. The character doesn't have to be a human, but readers need a medium to view the world and a character they can identify with offers this. Imagine real people you know for inspiration.

How to Become a Better Writer

It is no coincidence that the best writers are also the best readers. Reading other people's writing can help you improve your own. It can spark new ideas for your own stories. You can see what works well in a story. You can also see what doesn't work in stories.

Think about what you like to read and why you like it. Notice what bothers you when you are reading and avoid those things in your own work.

Don't give up if writing is something you really want to do. Not everyone will like your writing. Don't get your heart broken when that happens. Bear in mind that you will be rejected and criticized.

But if you want to be published one day, keep at it. Practicing writing and polishing your work until you get a really great story. Then write more really great stories. And one day you will hopefully discover that someone loves your story. And if you are especially lucky, you will have a lot of people who love your story, or in other words, fans.

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    • profile image

      Rylee Rae 12 months ago

      Thank you :) i loooove science fiction more than life

    • Molly Layton profile image

      Molly Layton 21 months ago from Alberta

      Thanks for these great tips!

    • Olde Cashmere profile image

      Olde Cashmere 2 years ago from Michigan, United States

      I write and self publish my science fiction short stories and this was helpful and eye opening. There is always something to learn and it's important to always be on the lookout for inspiration. Great work :)

    • ponder profile image

      Irma Cowthern 2 years ago from Los Angeles,CA

      Thank you for this excellent hub.

    • Sharonlee G profile image

      Sharon Lee Goodhand 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks! I actually write fantasy... but found this very interesting.

    • cocopreme profile image
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      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      Dan Barfield - Thanks! A really good short story can be harder to write in some ways. You are getting into some great writers!

      carlossalinas - You can always write a sci fi love story. Thank you!

      chika-nicholas - I'm glad you have discovered a tool that will help you in your overall writing. Best of luck and thank you!

    • chika-nicholas profile image

      Nicholas Ibemere 5 years ago from Lagos,Nigeria

      Very informative hub! I sure learnt some craft about short-story writing, especially the part of not incorporating too many concepts into a short story. I am a science fiction and fantastical writer just getting my hands into short stories. Currently working on my first novel, I felt something like a creative burn-out. There was a need for a redirection of my creative energy into a new medium. That was when I chanced on, not only short story, but on flash fiction. Telling/showing my story in these two media have helped me in my novel-writing

      Thanks for the hub, cocopreme.

    • carlossalinas profile image

      carlossalinas 5 years ago from San Antonio, T.X.

      Great hub! I write mainly short stories about love, but after your hub, I might try some sci-fi! Thanks again!

    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 5 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Great hub! Succinct and clearly explained. I've only recently started getting into short stories via people like HP Lovecraft, Neil Gaimon and Isac Asimov. I think that is definitely harder to write a good short story than a good novel.

    • cocopreme profile image
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      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      eric-carter - I'm glad you have found it helpful. I tried to structure it so that it could be easily skimmed and absorbed. Thank you!

      M. T. Dremer - It can be difficult to write satisfying short stories as well as read them. I'm sure you will get the hang of it with more practice. Or maybe you can just write novels instead of short stories (easier said than done, right). :) Good luck with your future writing and thank you!

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

      Personally, I find short stories more difficult to write than novels. As you pointed out, the author needs to convey characters, plot and setting, in a fraction of the time. I still haven't really mastered it. Although, I suppose a lot of that has to do with my own personal interests. I prefer to read a novel over a short story because I find it more satisfying. So it makes sense that, without consistent examples, I wouldn't be very good at writing short stories either. But you've got some good suggestions here. Voted up!

    • eric-carter profile image

      eric-carter 5 years ago from Fulham, UK

      cocopreme, thank you for the great hub and mostly for the way you wrote and structured your article. I've read many "How to Write.." articles, but from yours I really understood some basics.

      Best regards!

    • cocopreme profile image
      Author

      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      KDuBarry03 - You are right. Sci fi and fantasy do expand the mind and enrich the imagination. Reading and becoming familiar with the craft is the best way to become a better writer. Thanks so much!

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 5 years ago

      SciFi and Fantasy writing/readings are definitely a great way to express and expand your imagination and story telling! Yes, it is true that the greatest writers are also the greatest readers: Read what other writers have done to see what you can and can't do and work from those ideas.

    • cocopreme profile image
      Author

      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      htodd - Fiction is great. Thanks!

      slcockerham - My real life is pretty full of sci fi (and faction). Thank you!

    • slcockerham profile image

      slcockerham 5 years ago from Tallahassee, Florida

      Cocopreme, a great hub on writing short stories, life is full of fiction, faction, and sci-fi on many levels.

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 5 years ago from United States

      Fiction is really a great..and I did many in the past

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