Advice for Young Writers:
The Rules of Science
By Elizabeth Chayne
Copyright © 2010, Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved
Building your own universe sounds like an easy thing to do. Just make up a planet, add a few moons, a sun, some spaceships, and aliens. What could possibly be so hard about it?
Know the Rules
Unfortunately, it isnít quite as easy as all that. Itís nice to have your own world, but unless you happen to be Einstein, itís a good idea to let the science of your world follow some of our rules.
For example, itís all very well to say something like ďMy planet, Mundua, is a jungle planet. Everywhere you go thereís only jungle.Ē Think about our own earth. Itís not one of the biggest planets out there, and yet it has so many different ďzonesĒ on it: the icy Poles, the Amazonian jungles, and so on.
Asking you to take some physics classes may be the same as asking you to go sit on a smoking volcano, but if you can stomach a few science magazines, try reading those.
Being in school gives you a huge advantage over adult writers: you can stop by and ask your science teachers questions when youíre stumped instead of having to spend hours reading related articles that may not even deal with the questions you need answered. That said, the Internet is still a great research tool; search engines can get you hundreds of related websites with the click of a mouse, and scientific forums will usually have helpful members who will be happy to give you the information you want.
Science fiction is not normal fiction. Itís connected to science. You can make your world dissimilar to earth, but you have to know first what earth is like before your start thinking about how dissimilar your own world is.
In other words, you need to know the rules before you break them.
Play By Your Rules
Okay, you know the rules. Youíve also figured out some different rules for your own world. What now?
The next step: stick with your rules.
It may sound obvious, but there are so many writers who change the science of their world to suit their own purposes. In Chapter One the planet has twice the gravity of Earth, and in Chapter Two the gravity is the same as Earthís, for no reason at all that the reader can see. That could get confusing.
Keep track of your worldís stats by listing them on a separate piece of paper (tuck it into your notebook so you wonít lose it); if you type your work, keep the records of your world in the same folder. Every time you want to add something, youíll be able to see if itís contradictory to what youíve decided on before.
Science Fiction Does Not Equal Science
Donít confuse science fiction with scientific articles. That means you shouldnít use your story to introduce a scientific innovation and then leave it at that. A spaceship that can fly at the speed of light is great, but so what?
Fiction deals with characters. That means people, the decisions they make, and the emotions they feel. Show us what happens to the people on the ship. Maybe one of them didnít really want to go on the ship. Maybe one of them has wanted to be an astronaut since he was five.
If your readers wanted to read about the spaceship and what it can do, they would subscribe to astronomy magazines. Itís the characters that make your story science fiction.
Science should provide a backdrop to the action instead of being the action.
Writing Exercise: March
Imagine that the most impossible thing you could think of happened. It can be something silly like piling ten scoops of ice-cream on one cone. It can be something wonderful like winning the lottery. It can also be something scientific like inventing a time machine.
Start the story by describing the impossible. (Donít worry about how it came about for now. Donít worry about consequences for now, either.)
Next describe the reactions of the people directly involved. The girl who won the lottery. The boy who invented the time machine. Try to describe the actions (facial expressions, hand gestures) and the things they say rather than what they thought.
Now describe the reactions of the people not directly involved. The man who sold the girl the lottery ticket, for example. Again, try to write down his actions and not his thoughts.
Lastly, have some interaction between the people directly involved and the people not directly involved. Show how each person views the impossible thing. Perhaps one person thinks of it as a toy while another considers it a business opportunity. Let these differences decide what happens to the impossible event/item and the people concerned.
Writing Exercise: April
Pick one of your favorite songs and listen to the lyrics. (If you like instrumental music, listen to the music.) Think about what the words mean and where the music takes you, then try to write the story leading up the song.
For example, a break-up song could turn into a story about a stormy three-year relationship. A love song could turn into a chance meeting between two people who havenítí seen each other for years.
Elizabeth Chayne works as a writer and writing tutor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org