How to write a book

3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories

The Hills Are AliveYou could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.

1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to

You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.

This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.

Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.

You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.

2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices

I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.

Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.

Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)

So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)

3 Be precise with description

I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.

Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr 

Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss

nyn2 2014 smlI’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…



44 thoughts on “3 tips for writing watertight fantasy, science fiction and time travel stories

  1. Great points! LOL on the twirling statue–I find I have to be careful how I word things in sci-fi and fantasy. Normal sentences that you can get away with in a contemporary setting don’t necessarily work, because people try to take them literally, thinking it’s part of the worldbuilding. Such as someone “flying” off down the hall, or “revving into gear” or “dissolved inside.” LOL

  2. Nice job of covering the basics. I believe #1 is the most important because it influences everything else. The only thing I have to add is this: the limitations are just as important as the abilities. Having a device that can melt rock is fine if it takes forever to build and burns out after one use.

    I faced many challenges when I developed a new magic system for my swords & sorcery fantasy series. I thought hard about how I was going to put limits on the system and prevent sorcerers from being all-powerful. Everyone solves these problems differently, which is what makes the genre so rich with variety and creativity.

    I have to admit that I was excited to see a post from you on a SpecFic topic. I look forward to reading “Lifeform 3!”

    1. Hi Daniel! Good point you’ve added there. Powers are better if there’s a downside or a price has to be paid – otherwise they’re too convenient or they make the world impossible.
      As you say, the way we choose to handle these limitations is one of the things that gives writers such scope to exercise their imaginations. It is indeed a rich genre, a genre of ideas and ingenuity.

  3. Good post. I agree with your three points but let me just add three more terms that might attack this from another angle, the angle of hard core or literary SciFi/Fantasy: kink, atmosphere and ethics. a) Kink = good sci-fi or fantasy writing has to distort our reality: the bad stuff lacks that distortion. SciFi and fantasy should always be a little surrealistic. The kink might be: in my world there is no empathy at all, or in my world everyone can read each others minds on Tuesdays but only on Tuesdays b) Atmosphere = which is closely tied to the kink. The atmosphere is needed to make the kink work. It is a working through your own three points, but it also needs the appropriate poetry so that we can not only “see” the new world but breathe its atmosphere as well c) Ethics = the best SciFi/Fantasy has a deep philosophical basis. To write in this genre without philosophy is a crime against the genre itself. It is through philosophical thinking that the author will find the paradoxes and be able to create the kinky logic that is required for good SciFi. And find the ethical questions: the real meaning behind hard core science fiction.

    1. Excellent points, Paul, and I like your terminology.
      Especially the idea of the ‘kink’. Distorting our reality is essential, and it’s not just about changing material facts. It’s about distorting lives, creating new dilemmas and pressures and using them to see what humanity is made of. The best SF has – as you point out – this philosophical or emotional dimension. At its heart it’s about us.
      I’d also add some paraphrased wisdom from Bob Shaw. He said that if you can take the SF elements out and not change the story, the SF didn’t need to be there. So the SF must create the problems.

  4. I do things like the twirling statue all the time! It’s so easy, somehow to write something that makes perfect sense in your head, but just doesn’t pan out later.

    I’m going through my urban fantasy at the moment working out those exact sorts of kinks. It’s a contemporary world, but my vampires are a blend of traditional and my own brain child, which means I need to be even more certain in the bits that people might not expect. I have to make sure that it is all clear for the readers who don’t have the background knowledge I have.

    Tricky, but I’m enjoying every moment. More than I ever have before. ^_^

  5. Wonderful and helpful post.

    I’d also consider adding in that there is a very difficult balance to strike when it comes to the new elements for the story. As writers, we have been thinking and writing about these elements for a long time, so they make complete sense to us. However, readers will become confused if these things are piled on too fast or in batches. You also don’t want to write it as if the audience are stupid. Striking that balance can be very difficult.

    Again, awesome post!

    1. Thanks, Chele! Great point there about the explanations. You can’t info-dump unless you can make it so entertaining the reader will indulge you. And even if you do, you have to make sure they’re ready to absorb all that stuff – without, as you say, patronising either.

  6. Great post. On writing my fantasy novel, ‘Fastian,’ spending time creating a magic system (which is a rare gift, even among the inhabitants of Edgeweir, and is therefore not overly prevalent in the story) was something I put a lot of time and effort into. But I have to say, it was thoroughly enjoyable. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to things like that. Nothing annoys me more than when reading a fantasy novel, and the protagonist breaks the rules laid out in the magic system, or suddenly discovers something new at just the right time to help him out of a sticky situation. Grrrr! Deux est Machina.

    1. Thanks, Jay! Readers like to feel the writer is playing fair – and won’t pull a cheat in order to extricate characters from a sticky situation. And they like to feel there is a solid base to any made-up stuff. With Lifeform Three, I invented way more than I actually used in the story, but none of it was wasted because it helped me understand how the people in the story lived.

      1. Plus, it’s fun to create worlds and everything that goes into that. Even if some of the ‘rules’ of the world only remain in your head and not on the page so be it. All part of the process. Or so it should be.

  7. Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
    I agree, plausibility is very important, as is consistency. If someone can cast magic what are the limitations? What can they actually do with that spell? Can it be countered? If someone has a raygun, how is it powered? What armour is effective? Keep it consistent. If the spell turns someone to ash the first time, why does it turn someone to ice the next? Readers aren’t stupid, they will notice. If you aren’t sure of your world, as a writer, don’t expect your readers to be sure.

    1. Thanks for sharing my piece, Alexandra! You’re right, we need to put a lot of thought into our gadgets and powers. With my novel, I spent a lot of time scribbling notes on details of the world and considering consequences. I didn’t necessarily use all of them, but – as you say here – they gave me a bed of consistency to write with confidence so that the reader would feel they were in safe hands.

  8. Readers aren’t stupid, they will notice if something is inconsistent or implausible. You cite Star Trek, as much as I love it there are a lot of inconsistencies in ST. Willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far.

      1. Yes, fantasy and sci fi may have a wider scope for what is possible but gravity is still gravity, for example. I’ve read books and been thrown out of the story because of something which simply didn’t work. If the main character suddenly develops a power to get him out of trouble then never again uses it, or has a weapon which appears once then disappears then the reader will notice. Also don’t assume the reader knows as much about the world as the writer, with her pages of notes. Try not to info dump but don’t assume anything. Personally I like a good back story and well built world. If you create a world the CREATE it, don’t cut corners but don’t overwhelm the reader.

  9. Very true on the world building. I had to remember that in the Ontarrin Galaxy, they had never heard of humans, hence the terms “man” and “woman” are not used and do not exist. I did fudge a little and use “mother” and “father” simply because it would be too difficult to concoct a new term that a reader could remember and understand over the course of 4 books. However, in book 3, “Space Available,” I introduced a certified “Earthling” so I could have him use earth words and phrases that would bridge things together for the readers. So far it’s worked and the “Space” books have been doing well.

    Great post!

    1. Gosh that’s thorough, but that shows the depth of thought you need to put into a novel of this type. Not only that, you have to find solutions that won’t take too much explanation or be too difficult for the reader to grasp – unless your aim is to take them through a challenging process as part of the story. You’ve made a great point here about terminology!

  10. Timely post for me to encounter. I’ve been in the trenches with a time travel story called Time Lapse ( since last spring and it’s been challenging to work out the logic of the timeline. With a story like this, unintended consequences abound, so it’s particularly important to address them before they get out of hand. Lots of questions to answer so that I, as the writer, am satisfied that I truly understand how all the pieces fit together. Striving for cohesion!

    Thanks for your thoughts,

  11. I’m about to begin editing a young adult time travel novel. Since I don’t write in this genre myself, I found this list helpful! Thank you for these tips. I’ll be keeping them in mind as I edit.

  12. I’m a fan fiction writer and planning a series of stories (an indeterminate number at this point) taking a group of characters into an alternate universe. I’m still planning at this stage and although I’m atheist I use the term ‘bible’ for the thick notebook I use to create character profiles (what powers they have, under what circumstances they can use certain powers, motivations, etc) and rules about the AU I am creating. This his given me a few tips to think about, such as a common vocabulary among the characters.

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