In the following, we’ll look at 10 major science fiction elements (or beats, if you will) to consider when writing science fiction.
To set the stage, or perhaps more appropriately, to prepare for launch, let’s ask, What is science fiction?
Science fiction, above all, is speculative fiction concerned with society, and particularly with the interaction of people and technology within society, presented through the lens of scenarios that span space and time.
The main divide in the genre is between hard and soft science fiction, between “hard” sciences like physics and “soft” sciences like anthropology. (For further reading, see Fictionary-Certified StoryCoach Editor Lisa Taylor’s post “What Is Hard Science Fiction”: https://fictionary.co/journal/what-is-hard-science-fiction/.)
Brief aside: since we’re on the topic of science fiction and science fiction elements, please don’t ask me how many times I saw Dune (2021) in the theater. It’s simply too embarrassing. (A much younger me also saw Dune  in the theater, but only once.)
The 10 Science Fiction Elements (or Beats)
In his look at the science fiction elements in The Anatomy of Genres, John Truby maintains that science fiction is the broadest story form and therefore the most difficult for identifying universal story beats. He does, however, explore the following 10 beats for science fiction.
Another aside: What are “beats”? Beats are plot events that determine the genre’s story form.
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #1: The Story World
World building is essential when discussing science fiction elements, covering such considerations as rules for space-time and for traversing vast distances, for addressing physical laws and the consequences of breaking them (rarely good).
Building out the story world in terms of physical rules, society/culture, and technology is essential for exploring science fiction themes. What are the building blocks of your world(s)?
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #2: Weakness-Need—Unevolved
In the process of story building across the vastness of space and time, it is easy to lose the character whose arc will allow the reader to understand the implications for the greater system at play.
The protagonist’s moral flaw can therefore illustrate the society/planet/universe’s moral flaw. Microcosms and macrocosms are especially important in science fiction.
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #3: Minor Characters—Creating Society and System
As much or more than anything else, minor characters allow writers to flesh out their story worlds, show contrast with the protagonist, and illustrate their greater themes.
Whether the same species, different species, an alien, or a machine, android, or robot, minor characters will account for a large part of the success of your story.
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #4: Desire
Infusing the protagonist with a strong desire is another technique that can prevent the character from being lost amid space and time, and is another important consideration in our discussion of the science fiction elements to include in sci-fi stories.
Truby talks about desire in two types of science fiction: positive and negative. Positive science fiction desires include exploration, winning a conflict, and saving something (perhaps a planet). Negative desires are usually manifested by escape from a dystopian or oppressive society.
Takeaway: give your protagonist a strong goal.
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #5: Opponent—Authorities
I can hear Zendaya’s striking voice-over at the beginning of Dune: “Why did the emperor choose this path? And who will our next oppressors be?”
Pitting your protagonist against an opponent who represents the negative system will drive to the heart of your story themes. The contrast between the protagonist’s vision and the opponent’s will further illustrate these themes.
Since the most powerful opponents sit atop vast empires, your character will often have to fight a succession of lesser opponents as they work their way toward the main opponent.
Food for thought: Why does the Western combine so well with science fiction?
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #6: Plan
It might sound obvious, but your character needs a plan for fulfilling their desire, and it’s not always easy to see this clearly amid the vastness of the world(s) created.
What is your protagonist’s plan, and how do your story lines converge on this plan as you reach the tale’s climax?
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #7: Plot—Subworlds
Characters can pass through trials in various subworlds in the course of achieving their goal, with each subworld serving to advance the overall story.
When creating subworlds, think about how the defining characteristics of your subworlds contribute to the greater story. Does the ordering of the subworlds your character advances through best serve your story goals?
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #8: Reveal
Reveals in science fiction often involve the opponent but are also especially effective when they are a self-revelation about your protagonist.
Presenting your characters with choices is always a powerful tool writers can employ, especially when the choice is between two seemingly bad options. How does the choice align with your character’s story arc, and what does this reveal to your readers?
Food for thought: How do fantasy tropes align with science fiction elements?
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #9: Battle
Battles of any kind are the stuff that climaxes are made of.
Truby observes that the vastness of time and space in your science fiction story worlds often requires attention to bringing together battles in vortex points where pace increases in the lead-up and “fighters” converge.
Important to note is that considerations of the Battle beat may involve characters finding a way to avoid the battle or brewing confrontation.
The Science Fiction Elements – Beat #10: Self-Revelation—Public/Cosmic
This self-revelation involves the protagonist’s vision for the evolution of their society. This is often a moral vision for a healthier, more harmonious society.
The vision is entwined with character change over the course of the character’s arc. Think of Paul Atreides in… oh, you knew there’d be one more reference, right?
Final Thoughts on the Science Fiction Elements Every Sci-fi Novel Needs
Recently, implications of AI (most specifically embodied by ChatGPT) have consumed discussion in writer and artist communities. What are the themes fueling your science fiction?
Taylor, Lisa. “What Is Hard Science Fiction.” https://fictionary.co/journal/what-is-hard-science-fiction/. Accessed February 6, 2023.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Genres: How Story Forms Explain the Way the World Works. New York: Picador, 2022.
Article Written by James Gallagher
James Gallagher is a Fictionary-Certified StoryCoach, copy editor, and proofreader. James has worked on more than 250 books and particularly enjoys horror and romance. An active member of the editing community, James loves to help authors bring out the best in their stories.
More about him can be found at https://castlewallsediting.com
Want to tell stories guaranteed to delight readers?
Sign-up for you 14 day free trial of StoryTeller today!