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How to Write Compelling Fantasy and Science Fiction Short Stories
A closer examination of short form speculative.
EVERY FICTION WRITER MUST REACH a point in their creative journey where they realize there are no more books on the craft of writing to be read, no more writing conferences to attend and no more writing groups to join, which will magically graduate them from amateur to professional. Only through the act of writing, and willfully subjecting themselves to sometimes brutal public ridicule, or scathing silence, will they evolve. It’s no different with writing genre fiction, especially speculative short stories. While the following tips will strengthen an existing framework, only by consistently writing will the solid walls of fantasy and science fiction be built.
If you’re new to writing short stories, I suggest you first read my essay “Short Story Tips from the Masters”, published on the Fictionistas Substack.
While not as popular and enlightening as On Writing by Stephen King, or as comprehensive and revered as The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, it will provide an introduction to the art of telling short stories, as communicated by literary masters. Don’t worry, you won’t be led down a deeper rabbit hole, some quasi-alternate dimension of eternally nested links. It’s simply a primer. If you struggle to understand the essence of short stories, it might be difficult to leap from literary fiction to any number of speculative sub-genres.
This leads to my first point.
Respect the Genre
HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO describe a difficult concept to a child? The questions are often simple, but the answers are full of difficult to explain facts, surrounded by assumptions and opinions. How does a plane fly? Well, little one, a plane flies because it has wings and an engine. But how does it get off the ground? It uses fuel to power the engine. Yes, but what makes it go? It’s called thrust, a mechanical force generated by accelerating a mass of gas, sort of like your father after a bowl of baked beans.
The refinement down to genre is similarly linked with increasing complexity and nuance. Writers first learn to write and understand the differences between nonfiction and fiction, navigate literary formulas, incorporate storytelling devices, plot novels with deep characters, lean into the short story as shorthand for it all, and then land on genre. Mastering genre within the short story requires a special touch.
Understanding how a genre impacts readers is key, since some of them are hardcore fans, experts at least in what’s been done before, and what’s likely to offend common sensibilities. Even though readers can’t often point to exactly why they love a fantasy or science fiction short story, it’s apparent when the author did little to understand the genre. This starts by reading the genre in which you write, practicing constantly, getting feedback and ends by dazzling an audience of expectant readers.
Fiction Substacks or online outlets that promote short form fiction are a great place to start. I recommend Clarkesworld Magazine, Uncharted Magazine, Daily Science Fiction!, Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine.
Keep It Grounded
ONE OF THE TRICKS TO writing genre fiction is learning how to ground supernatural and otherworldly subject matter in reality. Even when characters are traveling among the stars, fighting trolls or jumping through time portals, it’s important their responses are measured against the circumstances. In some worlds those circumstances are more familiar to the characters than the reader, and in others those circumstances should elicit the appropriate measure of awe and wonder. This is where your voice and experiences become important.
Have you ever lost a pet dragon? No, I suspect you haven’t, but have you ever lost a beloved family pet? We had one dog growing up, a beautiful Golden Retriever named Murphy, and he loved to chase rodents, which was his undoing. Excited to prove his worth, he attempted to retrieve a squirrel, chasing it onto the busy street in front of our home. The car that hit him had no chance of stopping. Our furry friend didn’t suffer, but the experience has been indelibly ingrained in my memory, and that emotion is relatable and transferable to fantasy creatures. It’s grounded.
In almost all of my speculative short stories, I try to ground the narrative with a slice of real-world experience. My most popular story is called “Vanilla Dreams”. It’s about a woman who dreams only of starting a family. She has no other aspirations. I don’t know what it’s like as a man to want to have lots of babies, but I know women, friends, who have wanted to start families and couldn’t. That exposure translates to Erin, the protagonist. She and her husband finally decide to adopt, but realize adoption comes with its own unique struggles. Both of my children are adopted and I’m intimately familiar with the process. I haven’t even told you yet that it’s science fiction and includes interplanetary visitors.
One word of caution is that you want to avoid a self-insert. You don’t want a cookie cutter clone walking around your short story. What you’re after is lived experiences, but your characters should have their own unique personalities. Also avoid replicating in their entirety family and friends. It makes for very uncomfortable holidays.
Focus the Narrative
SHORT STORIES ARE SUPPOSED TO be short, and with fantasy and science fiction short stories that means there is only so much room to invest in worldbuilding. While you may think it’s important to unpack all of the rules in your magic system, catalog an entire ecosystem of new creatures or describe the sordid multi-millenium history of an alien race, your readers won’t have the patience. Not in a short story. This is a trap that novelists trying to write a short story fall into by mimicking the serial volumes by their favorite authors.
The supernatural, magical and technological aspects of the story are meant to help advance the plot and put your characters into interesting predicaments. These speculative devices are not meant to become the focus of the story. Genre readers are attuned to patterns, and the most voracious of them have been exposed to all manner of fantasy and science fiction. It’s unlikely, especially in a short story, that you could invent a world so interesting that it can carry the entire plot. This takes discipline.
In my fantasy short story “Deep Roots”, a young girl is forced to make a decision that will have a significant impact on her future. Her mother is sick, and she knows the cure will come with a great deal of sacrifice. It’s a coming-of-age story, where the protagonist Milena must accept her father’s poor life choices, which is ultimately why she has to become the adult. Her journey is steeped in a bizarre societal norm that associates an individual’s worth with the number of teeth they still have. There’s a great deal of magic and mystery that surrounds the village that I leave to the imagination, and it works better as a result.
Avoid the Obvious
WHEN I STARTED WRITING AGAIN after a long hiatus, I knew immediately that I wanted to write fantasy and science fiction. My favorite movies and books were filled with supernatural beings, cryptids and creatures, aliens from outer space and a host of popular storylines that are a mainstay of the speculative genre. I tapped into that immediately and tried to emulate what I thought should work well, but found my short stories to be an amateur rendition. Some of that had to do with my capabilities, which were raw at best. However, the real cause of the mediocre writing was that I added nothing original.
Genre fiction is rife with clichés and done-to-death tropes. If you ever considered submitting to a traditional publisher of short form speculative fiction, then you’ll recognize they each have their own list of “hard sells”. These are the stories they see repeatedly that regurgitate the same themes, characters and speculative devices: talking animals or swords, objects of mysterious origin discovered in a (field, cave, waterfall, etc.), damsels in distress, and dystopian overlords that happen to have all of the characteristics of the present political administration — you get the point.
There is a method for including these devices without dipping into a well of stale water. Don’t make them the focus of the story. They’re secondary to the primary conflict. The speculative elements can push and pull characters and the plot, but in order for them to be appreciated, even if they are familiar, then they have to be a bit player in the short story. An example of this is “The Gift,” a short story I wrote about a man who loses his wife to cancer, is visited by an angel, and given the power to heal any one person within 24 hours.
Visiting angels or spirits and wish fulfillment are commonplace in stories. It’s why the real focus is on the protagonist’s relationship with the living when he can’t deal with the death of his wife. He knows he should use the gift, but struggles to understand why some people are allowed to live while others suffer and die. I tell the story through my own personal lens, which almost ignores the gravity of being given such an opportunity, but it works because that’s not the sole focus.
Establish the Rules
I’VE SPOKEN WITH SEVERAL WRITERS, even those with plenty of excellent literary short stories under their belt, who struggle with writing fantasy and science fiction because they fear it’s too open-ended. The boundaries of real life provide a set of fundamental rules that govern us all. Within the realm of speculative sub-genres, it’s believed there are no boundaries in an open world of endless possibilities. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding and it’s only through the application of constraints that speculative truly works. With short stories it requires extreme discipline.
While in fantasy this is often associated with magical systems, it applies to a wide range of science fiction devices as well. The most well-known is time travel, or the multiverse, and personally I disdain them both because they have been so abused and misused. Made a mistake? That’s easy to fix, just go back in time and fix it. Did some catastrophe occur that decimated humanity? Just kidding. That was in the other universe. These are cheap gimmicks that demonstrate an author’s unwillingness to embrace limitations, especially in a short story, where boundaries encourage creativity.
“What Would You Do?” is a short story I wrote with a premise that screams for a limitless imagination to be unfurled. It’s about a young boy named Aaron, who discovers he has the power to control fate and to bring anything into existence. Aliens, asteroids, dinosaurs, killer clowns, etc., you name it, and he has, too. That’s a fun story to write, except that it requires limitations. It needs to be a controlled chaos, so I introduced a single rule. Aaron can’t terminate life. He can’t simply vanish something out of existence. Once it exists, only another life form can bring it out of existence.
There are plenty of examples that prove how effective rules within speculative fiction create a more interesting story. Vampires are immortal but can’t go out in daylight. Ghosts can haunt a house, but they can’t follow you down the street. You can travel back in time but meeting your past self creates a time paradox. Robots are sentient, but they can’t harm their human creators. Short stories also demand that these rules are easy to understand and follow, and are introduced naturally in the telling of a tale.
WRITING FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION can be incredibly rewarding. Once an author begins to recognize the unique nature of the speculative sub-genres, it’s easier to craft short stories that entertain and unleash reader’s imaginations. If you have other tips for your fellow authors, be sure to share them in the comments. The Lunar Awards is dedicated to promoting speculative short form fiction, and we’re excited to build a community that does the same.