5 Things Watching Sci-Fi has Taught Me about Writing

It’s no great secret that my favorite genres to read and watch are fantasy and science fiction. I’ve actually watched a lot more sci-fi than I’ve read (unless you count comic books). But anyway, I’m doing this post as a follow-up to last week’s post about things that Star Trek has taught me about writing.

For this post, I’ll branch out, and draw examples from some of my favorite sci-fi TV shows ever: Babylon 5, Stargate (all the series, but mostly SG1), and Star Trek (all the series, but mostly TNG). And don’t worry if you haven’t seen all or any of these – my point is to illustrate how good writing is good writing, regardless.

Consistency in world-building is vital to believability

This is the most important thing that I’ve learned about writing. Whether you’re writing sci-fi or a YA contemporary romance, a short story or a 10-novel series, you must be consistent within the world of your story. Consistency helps create credibility and believability, even with a fantastical subject matter. In Star Trek, regardless of which series you’re watching, the ships always fly with a warp drive. This is one thing (of many) that the audience can always expect from any story set in the Star Trek world.

Characters are what truly make the story

Citizen G'Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he's also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Citizen G’Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he’s also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Of course people watch sci-fi for all the special effects, the exotic aliens, and the epic space battles. And in books – sci-fi and otherwise – the adventures, snappy action, and rich settings are important. But without fully-developed characters, all you really have is a cool travel brochure of the world you’ve created. For a story, you need plot and characters. Readers and viewers need people they can connect with.

The three sci-fi shows I mentioned – Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Stargate – have no shortage of characters. What makes an engaging story is the relationships between the characters – their friendships, the different ways they handle challenges, their enemies, their likes and dislikes. In Babylon 5, the overarching plot is war encroaching on peace. But what makes the audience keep coming back for the next episode is not just the dramatic space battles and the epic story of the Army of Light versus the Shadows. It’s the characters who make up that Army of Light, the characters who have hopes and dreams and a reason to keep fighting. If the audience didn’t care about the characters, they wouldn’t care who won the war. Continue reading

5 Things Star Trek has Taught Me about Writing

While I could write about this subject at most any time, I thought it would be appropriate now, while we’re still celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek. I’ve posted many times about the writing tips and techniques that I’ve learned from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, but since Star Trek was my first science fiction love, I thought it was high time I give it its due.

So here are five things, in no particular order, that Star Trek (mostly TNG, but really, all the series) has taught me about writing and storytelling:

The importance of supporting characters

Everybody loves the heroes of the story, but supporting and minor characters help round out the world. Whether your story has an ensemble main cast (like Star Trek) or just one main protagonist, you need other characters to serve specific roles and to provide more opportunities for interaction and character growth for your main characters. With a longer work (like a novel, a series of novels, or a TV show), you have the opportunity to expand on the minor characters that come and go, and turn some of them into recurring characters. Continue reading

How to Write Technobabble

I’m not sure who originally came up with the term “technobabble,” but I first encountered it in reference to Star Trek. Technobabble is a staple of a lot of science fiction: the “babbling” on about fictional science and fictional technology to get characters into and out of their fictional scrapes.

So what makes for good technobabble? It needs to be believable and convincing within the fictional world you’ve created, so here are some ideas:

Use real science.

A standard sci-fi technique to fixing a problem. Picard knows what's up.

A standard sci-fi technique to fixing a problem. Picard knows what’s up.

One key element that makes science fiction different from fantasy is the science. Not that every sci-fi story has to be as full of real chemistry and mathematics as, say, The Martian. But science, and along with it, logic and a degree of realism, is part of what makes sci-fi different from magic-based fantasy stories.

Even if your story is set in the far future or in a different universe entirely, learn some basic scientific concepts that will feature in your story. If you’re writing a space adventure with lots of ships traveling around the galaxy, then familiarize yourself with the difference between a red giant star and a quasar. Even if the plot doesn’t hinge on that detail, you’ll likely have readers who do know the difference and might be upset that you have a colony of people living on a planet orbiting a quasar (hint – quasars aren’t stars, to begin with). Continue reading

Strong Women of Sci-Fi – Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

This week I’m going to highlight one more strong female character from science fiction – and I have to discuss my favorite sci-fi show ever, Babylon 5. For anyone who’s watched Babylon 5, you would probably agree that the two main female leads – Susan Ivanova and Delenn – are strong women. But as much as I’d agree with you, and as much as I’d like to discuss either of those characters, I’m going to talk about the character of Lyta.

Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

Lyta is a telepath, and she initially serves as the diplomatic aide to the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon Empire. Throughout the story of Babylon 5, the Vorlons – at first allies, then enemies, but always mysterious – alter Lyta’s telepathic abilities. She becomes stronger than average telepaths, and by the end of the series she reveals that the Vorlons had intended to use her as a doomsday weapon in their war against the Shadows.

I believe that Lyta is a strong character, but unlike Delenn or even Ivanova, she has a negative character arc. At the beginning of the story she starts out “good,” as it were – she’s a good person, she wants to do the right thing, she readily sides with the Army of Light. But through both circumstances and her own poor decisions, her character arc descends from the positive to the negative. By the end, she is hated and feared by her friends, and she herself has become belligerent, distrustful, and a terrorist. Continue reading

Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, then you’ve probably tried your hand at creating fantastic creatures and aliens of all sorts. But inventing convincing aliens or fairy-tale creatures involves more than just coming up with cool looks or inhuman superpowers. If all you need for your story is just a scary monster or creepy creature, that’s fine – but if you want an actual alien race or people-group for a fantasy world, then you need more than just the basics of creature traits.

Here are five questions that you can ask yourself as you’re inventing people, cultures, races, and creatures for your fantasy/sci-fi stories. Continue reading

5 Types of Books to Make You a Better Writer

Some time ago I wrote a guest post about five books that have helped me as a writer. In this post, I want to discuss five types of books (as opposed to specific titles) that I believe can help you become a better writer.

A craft of writing book

This is one category that I need to work on more. I’ve read a few books on the craft of writing, but it’s something that even the best authors can always get better at. If you want to get better at writing, then constantly writing is important – but a how-to writing book can help you strengthen your writing strengths, adjust your weaknesses, and point out mistakes you didn’t even realize you were making.

A people skills book

You know those self-help books about different personality types or how to get along with other people? Those are actually really useful. Even though most of us writers are introverts who would rather just not deal with people at all thank you very much, the truth is that we do have to deal with people. Family, co-workers, and your readers – all are made up of people. Learning how not to alienate your fans or get stressed during a conversation can really make for a nice life.

And secondly, if you write any type of fiction, then – you guessed it – you’re writing about people. Even in more plot-driven genre fiction like sci-fi or epic fantasy, there are characters. Understanding how people work – especially those people who are not like you – can really help you add depth and realism to your characters.

A follow-your-dreams book

Go back to the self-help or inspirational section of the book store and get one of those upbeat books about never giving up on your dreams. Having the determination and the know-how to press through the doubts and rejections and keep going is ultimately more valuable than knowing how to properly punctuate. Writing can be a lonely and difficult thing. Hopefully you have a support network of other writers (whether a local writer’s group or an online forum), but you need to be able to encourage yourself, too.

A well-written book in your favorite genre

If you want to write good science fiction, then you should be reading good science fiction. If you want to write a cozy mystery, then read some good cozy mysteries so you know how to structure the story. This is probably not a difficult task for most writers, because you’re already reading books in your favorite genre, because it’s your favorite.

An important key here is the “well written” part. Don’t just grab the latest free ebook by a first-time author. This doesn’t mean that the book is bad or poorly written, but if your goal is to craft a well-written book, then you need a good example of one. You don’t necessarily have to go for a New York Times bestseller, but take the time to check the reviews, view a sample page, and maybe check the author’s track record or publishing history.

A well-written book in a genre you don’t usually read or write

Even if you’re a fantasy writer, and all you ever intend to write is high fantasy, you should still read the occasional mystery or sci-fi book or contemporary literature. Why? Because you can learn from everything. Character development, foreshadowing, proper sentence structure, proper dialogue tags, pacing – all of these elements that go into making a good story are important no matter the genre. Reading outside of your favorite genre can make you notice elements of storytelling or writing style that you might not have otherwise picked up on because your mind is stretching in a different way. There are excellent writers in every genre, and you might be missing out on some valuable writing tips (or even missing out on discovering your new favorite author) if you never branch out.

And see the previous point about the importance of using a well-written book, not just any old freebie or your teen cousin’s fan fiction. If your goal is to learn, then check your sources.

Do you have any favorite books that fall into one of these categories? Do you have another type of book that has helped you to grow as a writer?