The Hard Stuff – Ten tips for writing “hard” science fiction


1 – You don’t have to make a declaration, and you can mix things up.

Be careful about making statements about the veracity of the science in your work. If you declare that you are writing realistic, hard science fiction, then your readers are going to take this as a challenge. There’s no rule that says that you can’t keep things fairly realistic in one area but much softer in another, just be aware that this might make it harder for your reader to suspend disbelief regarding the softer stuff. It’s easier for readers to overlook this, if it’s done between fields. For example, soft science space travel combined with hard science terraforming.

2 – Strict Science tends to change the type of story that you can examine.

Hard science tends to make some particular tropes and types of story very difficult. DNA mutation, dogfighting spaceships, short ranged space combat, last minute reset buttons, psychic powers and human like aliens, and many other things, become much harder to include. You still have plenty of options, but it’s a good idea to think about this before you start writing.

3 – Hard doesn’t mean boring.

Hard science can come across as very dry, but it doesn’t have to be. Science is fantastic; there are all sorts of mind boggling things that you can still examine. Beyond the science, no one is going to give you points for accuracy if your story sucks.

4 – Hard Science is harder.

If you want to shoot for hard science, then you are probably going to need to do more research. As always Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. Don’t be afraid to contact scientists working in a field if you think they could help you, or you want to run an idea past them, you may be surprised how accessible and helpful they can be. Just don’t expect them to do lots of work for you for free. Message boards are often an excellent source of people willing to talk about your ideas, be honest about why you are asking. Stay away from the academic papers and resources, unless you are really writing on the cutting edge, because…

5 – Hard doesn’t mean infallible.

You will never be absolutely right, and you are wasting your time trying. Quite frankly, no one cares if the leading authority on a subject can see glaring holes in what you are writing. If you have to choose between the science and the story, the story should come first.

6 – Hard science should never be too hard for the reader.

Think about who is going to read your books and what they want to get out the story. No one wants to read something that makes them feel stupid. Even if your readers are capable of understanding very complicated concepts, doing so is quite literally exhausting (your brain uses a lot of energy when it’s thinking). If your entire story reads like a textbook then even very smart people are likely to give up, because reading it just isn’t any fun.

7 – Explaining science is just as important at getting it right.

If you are writing about complex stuff then you probably need to spend at least as much time thinking about how to get the concepts across as you do researching them. Some of the best science fiction writer are the best because they are particularly good at this. Think about what enthuses you, and then try to convey that enthusiasm to the audience. Carl Sagan is great at this, both in his fiction and none fiction. Richard Feyneman is also particularly worth looking up, as his lectures, if somewhat dated now, represent some of the finest science teaching ever recorded and are a master class in explaining some insanely difficult concepts.

8 – But, you don’t have to explain everything, so don’t get carried away.

Just because you can explain something doesn’t mean the story will improve if you do. And if you need to excise a chunk of story, don’t let the amount of work you did researching it stop you. Injecting large amounts of information into a narrative without damaging it is a huge writing challenge, so make sure that you don’t do it unless you need to.

9 – Near future hard science is usually more difficult.

Long term hard science can still invoke “indistinguishable from magic” super technology, as long you don’t get carried away with it. Short term stuff can’t rely on that as a crutch. Try to avoid starting a book that will be obsolete before it’s published.

10 – Hard science dates quickly in some respects, but the story doesn’t have too.

The harder the science, and the more explicit you are about the workings, the more likely that real science will catch up with the specifics. However the actual story may stand up better if it’s been grounded on a more realistic framework. The early cyberpunk stuff stands up remarkably well today, as long as you don’t delve into the specifics of the technology described.


So, thanks for reading guys, I’d love any feedback you might have. If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in the next one, offering another set of tips for writing looser “soft” science

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