Hacking Writing: What Makes a Science Fiction Short Story

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

Here at Adafruit we love science fiction. What makes something science fiction is pretty clear: robots, space ships, futuristic settings, aliens, that sort of thing.

But what does science fiction look like from the perspective of a science fiction writer?

Legendary science fiction writer Terry Bisson set out the rules of short science fiction (and fantasy) from a writer’s perspective in The 60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy), a classic from The New York Review of SF, reprinted by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

The article is an absolute gem of advice, and should be memorized by all beginning writers.

A lot of the rules are great general short story writing advice:

2. The novel’s timeline is folded into the reader’s real time. The short story is itself a real-time event. That gives the form a certain “Hey, you!” authority, like a fire or an arrest. Use that authority.

18. One POV is enough. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.

28. Know who is telling the story, and why. This can be the hard part.

30. Polish. Short stories are like poems in that they may be read more than once. A really good short story will be read several times. Beware.

43. Symmetry is more important than plot. A short story must make a pleasing shape, and close with a click.

But many of the aphorisms on the list shed light on what makes a science fiction story in particular work:

3. The SF reader is a gamer who brings a problem-solving intelligence to the story. This is the SF writer’s one great advantage. Use it.

8. One world only. Dreams are out of place in a short story.

9. Fantasies are out of place in Fantasy.

10. The stranger the idea, the realer the world must seem to be.

11. A few objects make a world, the fewer the better. William Gibson’s good at this. It’s called art direction.

16. Genre is a matrix of expectations. They are yours to grant, deny or delay, but you must know what they are. Don’t be writing SF if you haven’t read it.

17. One idea is enough for a story. Two is more than enough. Three is too many.

39. Misdirection is interesting. SF readers like puzzles.

But isn’t a list of rules antithetical to the iconoclastic, genre-busting, experimental world that is contemporary science fiction?

59. Ignore these rules at your peril.

60. Peril is the SF short story writer’s accomplice, adversary, and friend.

Read more

Terry Bisson

Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America


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