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Worldbuilding tips for Science Fiction Writers

You’re worldbuilding for your science fiction novel. It’s not fantasy, so you don’t build a magic system. You don’t create a new breed of dragons. There’s no medieval traditions to research.

What do you do?

Worldbuilding tips for our sci-fi friends

Before you create floorplans of science labs and lists of all the strange plants growing on the far side of the moon, we want you to consider three major things that will set the tone for all your worldbuilding. Follow these guidelines and everything else will fall into place.

1. Nail Your Subgenre

Imagine first that you release a book. You’re not quite sure how to classify it because it feels a lot like your wide reading list–aliens, super technologies, a collapsing world, some romance, a bit of ancient prophecy. A reader picks up your book and wonders why your description of the spacecraft seems dated. Or gets upset that you never explain how your protagonist is traveling faster than the speed of light. And is this a romance or not?

This is what happens when a reader is more widely read than an author.

Before you add up all the books you’ve read, consider how many books you’ve read that are comparable to the one you’re writing.

For example, if it’s first contact science fiction, have you read 5 books in the niche? Or 6?

Ok, what about first contact science fiction that takes place in the recesses of space?

And what about first contact science fiction that takes place in the recesses of space with a slant of horror and a feminist outlook?

Readers of specific niches demand certain things. To entice and ensnare your ideal reader, you need to decide your subgenre so you know what else your audience is reading and what they expect.

If you want more examples of science fiction tropes, check out our Favorite & Least Favorite Sci-Fi Tropes.

2. Research to Support Your Worldbuilding

Writers don’t have to be the smartest or most creative in the room to build an effective world. This comes from research–both wide research that will inspire you in surprising ways, and specific research to answer important questions in your text.

And though books and articles are sure to be your first stop, think bigger. Watch videos, take notes while you travel, go on a tour, request an interview, or try an activity important to your story.

Here’s some questions to direct your research:

  • When does your story take place? Near future technology will look a lot different than wherever humanity will be in the far future–if we’re even human then.
  • What societal or global problems might people face at that time?
  • How will your characters do the unthinkable? You don’t need scientific proof that everything you write is possible, but some subtle justification is appreciated by readers.
  • Do you know enough specifics about your character’s career or interests to write believably?
  • If you’re writing speculative fiction that takes place in a real world location, have you visited the place or done a tour on Google Maps?
  • Do you understand how X works? No? Then read about it!

Just be careful not to let this stage turn into an excuse to procrastinate. You can do your reading and notetaking as you draft the first few scenes of your book or build an outline.

3. Remember Your Character's Journey

None of this worldbuilding is going to mean anything to a reader unless it’s essential to your character’s story. Remember–you’re writing a book. And characters are the heart and lens for us to experience any book. 

It may be interesting to know how many moons orbit a particular planet, but if your character wouldn’t actively use that information, you certainty don’t need to spend your time on it.

If you’re now realizing you don’t know very much about your main character, try our post Get Unstuck Creating Your Character.

As you create, let your character be your guide as you explore their world.

Write a great science fiction novel with our Building A Story program. In six weeks, we'll help you build everything you need.

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