Science fiction writers create imaginary worlds. These might literally be new worlds, i.e., an invented planet. Or these might be our world in the future, or with some innovations (for example, that humans have evolved to breathe underwater).
The way things work in your imaginary worlds will be based on actual science. So it’s important for you to be familiar with the scientific principles and inventions that are related to your creation. For example, if you’re writing about humans living on a planet with zero gravity, then you need to know the effects of zero gravity on the human body and the kind of technology that would be needed to compensate. If you write a novel that takes an existing scientific discovery one step further, then you have to understand the actual discovery.
Then you have to figure out the exact rules of your imaginary worlds. And you have to follow them.
If humans have evolved to breathe underwater in Chapter 1, your heroine can’t drown in a swimming pool in Chapter 3. If your robots write poetry but not fiction, then you can’t throw a novelist robot into Chapter 8. Or if you make these exceptions, you’d better have a convincing explanation for your reader.
The issue here is maintaining your reader’s trust and what is called suspension of disbelief. That means the reader is willing to pretend along with you — if you say that humans can breathe underwater, then she’ll take your word for it. To maintain this suspension of disbelief, you have to let readers know what kind of reality they’re in and then follow the rules of this reality consistently. If you start out with an ordinary detective novel and then throw in someone breathing underwater in the 6th chapter, you’re reader’s reaction is, “What the h…?” The imaginative spell is broken. You’ve pulled out the rug from under the reader and startled him out of his imagination. The same thing happens if you change the rules halfway through. “What the h…?”
Once you’ve lost the reader’s trust, you may not be able to get it back again.
Part of your preparation work for the novel is to map out its worlds for yourself in great detail. Decide:
* The history of its worlds (if your novel is about a new version of our own world, then figure out how this new version came to be).
* The geography (if different from the current world)
* What possibilities does it offer that aren’t offered in our current world? What are the limitations, things your characters can’t do?
* How everything works in this new reality.
* How all of these factors affect the way your characters think, feel, and react to things. For example, if you have invented a world where people live to be 1000 years old, then characters will take a longer view of the future. And maybe a 10-year space flight will seem like no big deal to them.
You don’t have to tell your reader all the rules or present her with an extended fact sheet in the first chapter. But you have to let readers know enough to feel oriented and understand what’s going on. And you definitely have to know the rules yourself so that you can follow them. This also allows you to work out logical problems and contradictions before you start writing. Maybe your book is going to be about a mutant race of half-humans, half-birds. But you also want your characters to breathe underwater. Neither humans nor birds breathe underwater, so how will you explain this? Decide it ahead of time.
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