This is a guest post by Savannah Cordova. Savannah is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She loves science fiction and fantasy.
5 Worldbuilding Mistakes to Avoid in Your Sci-Fi Novel
The science fiction genre presents us with almost unlimited possibilities. No longer bound to the science and logic of life-as-we-know-it, sci-fi writers are able to let their imaginations run wild. In the worlds of our own making, anything goes, right?
But wait just a moment — there are still some ways that your sci-fi world can fall flat. If you want to learn about some of the major pitfalls (and how to avoid them), look no further than this article! We’ll start with the mistake that annoys me the most…
1. Lack of consistency
In order for readers to truly invest in your world, you need them to suspend their disbelief. Therefore, the aim of the game is to have as few plot holes as possible. I mean this down to the last detail — you must remember precisely how you described the cyborgs in chapter two if you’re going to reference them again in chapter eight. If they can suddenly fly where they were previously earthbound, that’s not going to look great for you.
It’s definitely a challenge to remember every detail of your science fictional world, but you can always use an Excel sheet or a similar program (any organizational writing software will do) to record the finer details of your universe. This might include the names of characters and places, the language, the history, and any other pertinent information that affects how you describe your world or how your characters interact within it. And do try to be imaginative and creative with your names!
As long as you’ve kept track of everything, you can go back and check any detail you’re unsure about — not to mention you can pass it along to your editor as a reference sheet. This will allow your work to remain consistent, and your eagle-eyed readers to stay satisfied.
2. Irregular tone or mood
Besides plot consistency, you also need to consider the tone of your novel — if it’s incongruent with your intentions, then it likely won’t have the impact you want it to. Yes, this is true of all creative writing, but it’s particularly important to nail down in sci-fi, as you’re often building a brand-new world without as much of a tonal precedent as books set in real life.
To that end, be deliberate with mood-setting. Ask yourself what kind of tone you want to strike and work to articulate it as specifically as possible. Do you want to relay the lore of your world in a scientific, analytical manner? If so, you’ll require a more detached tone, which could be especially effective if you want your work to be vested with seriousness.
But if your story is for children, or not very high-stakes, then this kind of tone could feel out of place. In that case, you’d probably want the worldbuilding to be less “cold” — you’d instead aim for something more visual and descriptive, or even comic.
3. Removal from reality
Science fiction is necessarily fictitious, but your worldbuilding will fall flat if your descriptions aren’t remotely tethered to reality. Say your story is located on a battleship, but you have no idea how battleships actually operate. Even a standard reader (i.e. someone who’s not a battleship expert either) will be able to sniff out vague or totally inaccurate descriptions.
So before you attempt to instruct your readers on the minutiae of life in space or the technicalities of firing an intergalactic cannonball, you’ll need to brush up on your facts. This will help you write more authoritatively about the ins and outs of how something works, or about what life may be like in a fictional world inspired by a real-life society.
The research process for this could simply mean scrolling through Internet forums, or you might need to consult some more serious literature. The aim is to write with an air of confidence that will “sell” the world to your reader — to whatever extent you can.
4. Insufficient character development
Writing a novel is a bit like cooking in that it requires a fine balance of many elements: adequate description, a strong narrative arc, and great style, to name just a few. This doesn’t mean you have to be a stickler for rules — but if one of the core story elements is not solid enough, your sci-fi novel isn’t going to pack a punch.
On that note, one of the biggest mistakes sci-fi writers make is putting too much time and energy into worldbuilding, without painting a full picture of the characters that inhabit the world. Of course, plenty of sci-fi writers have had great success because people love their characters — think Princess Leia, Buffy, The Witcher. But how do you write characters like these?
In sci-fi, it is good practice to flesh out a character through the features, customs, traditions, and habits of the sci-fi world they inhabit. For example, is your protagonist powerful because of a certain hierarchy in your kingdom? Do they have an identifying feature that signals their abilities? Does their appearance mesh with the natural environment of your fictional world? Is their backstory connected to its history in some significant way?
By filling in these details, you will simultaneously add color to the broader world they inhabit. Two birds, one stone (or should I say, two starships, one asteroid?).
This might seem to go against everything else I’ve suggested, but sometimes, loosening the reins is just what you need to create a truly original world. Thinking about what comprises your fantasy world is a necessary (and rewarding) part of writing any sci-fi book — but planning out every single intricate detail is arguably over-egging the pudding.
By outlining too many aspects of your book in advance, you risk painting yourself into a corner. By this count, you also forfeit the opportunity to take your narrative in unexpected directions. If you spend too much time planning your world, you’re not only wasting time that could be spent pen to paper, you’re also making it more painful to scrap ideas further down the line. And often you need to cut things to make way for more effective writing!
Hopefully, you now have a clearer sense of what not to do when writing your sci-fi novel. But really, as long as you have faith in your ideas (and have thought about them a good amount before writing), you can’t go far too awry!