How do you begin to develop a plausible world and start plotting your sci-fi novel? Here’s how the Now Novel PATTERN system can give you the blueprint you need for well-plotted, well-developed science fiction:
Worldbuilding is a crucial aspect of writing science fiction. Your world must seem plausible to the reader, and careful worldbuilding ensures that is the case. The world you create is also an inherent part of characterisation and plotting. Your plot will be bound up in aspects of your science fiction world such as the physics, environment and the types of exploration available to your characters. For example, if your world is an anarchic post-apocalyptic wasteland with only a few small pockets of civilisation, your protagonist will face a very different set of challenges compared to one living in a far-future space-faring society or a totalitarian state.
Use Now Novel’s PATTERN system well before you have a plot in place because the PATTERN system can help you develop a plot. By asking yourself questions about different elements of the science fiction world you’re writing about, possibilities will both emerge and be narrowed down. The system consists of seven elements of a sci-fi novel. Making notes on each element will help you flesh out your plot and the world in which your story takes place.
P is for ‘physics’
People talk about ‘soft’ science fiction and ‘hard science fiction,’ but the boundary between them is often not nearly as solid as this distinction suggests. Science fiction writers differ in the degree to which they ground their writing in current scientific theory and the degree to which they embellish the theory.
Physics is particularly ripe for extrapolation. Leaping off from hypotheses/claims of physics, science fiction writers can posit the existence of parallel universes, wormholes in space that allow travel across great distances, and perhaps even time travel. Some people argue that the way in which concepts such as these are treated marks the difference between science fiction and fantasy. In other words, if a writer makes an effort to come up with a scientific explanation for time travel or alternate worlds (even if this premise appears far-fetched rather than believably scientific), the book is more likely to be considered science fiction than a book in which people simply fall asleep or step through a doorway and finds themselves in another time or place.
The first question a writer must ask is whether physics and physical laws largely resemble the world we live in today or if there have been major changes. Even if a writer’s answer is initially that things are basically the same, it is worth running through the questions below to see if they spark creative inspiration. In some cases, the answer to these questions can launch a ‘what if?’ scenario that provides a premise for your entire novel. For example, in Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Darwinia, people wake up in early 20th century North America to find that the people and landscapes of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa have been replaced by land masses that appear to have taken a different evolutionary path.
Asking questions about the physical laws of your science fiction world might reveal similar possibilities. Keep in mind that the characters themselves might not be aware of differences in physics until they experience the consequences of these changes. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your SF world:
- Do parallel universes exist in this world? If so, can they be accessed, and how? How numerous are they, and what do visitors find there?
- Have there been significant breakthroughs in space travel? For example, is it possible to use faster-than-light speed or other approaches to travel across great distances?
- Is time travel possible, and if so, how is it done?
- Has our understanding of the formation of the universe changed, and if so, what has followed the Big Bang theory?
- Scientists often talk about achieving a unified theory of physics. Has this happened, and if so, how has it changed things?
A is for ‘adventure’
Another consideration is what the protagonist will explore in the novel. Those familiar enough with science fiction to want to write it know that exploration in science fiction goes far beyond space travel. In a broad sense, it might be said that exploration in science fiction is either about inner space or outer space. Inner space would be science fiction that deals more with the mind and states of consciousness such as the fiction of Philip K. Dick. Some classic cyberpunk might also be considered ‘inner space’ science fiction.
Outer space need not only refer to extra-planetary environs: the same term can be used for any exploration of the world outside the protagonist. In some science fiction, the exploration of outer space leads to an exploration of inner space. A classic example of this would be Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an astronaut has a profound experience that speaks to the very nature of existence.
Start figuring out the parameters of your protagonist’s world and what is available for exploration with these questions:
- What is the setting of your novel? Are you writing a galaxy-spanning space opera or a study of a protagonist’s confined life in a totalitarian future dystopia?
- Is it possible to explore parallel worlds?
- How much does the protagonist and the protagonist’s society know about the world around them? For example, your protagonist might be part of a space-faring civilisation that is spread across the universe, or one passenger on a generation ship filled with people who no longer know where they are going or why, or a resident of a tiny village of survivors after an apocalypse who are afraid to venture out due to gangs of marauders and threats of nuclear radiation.
- What is the character permitted to do? Are there restrictions on travel?
- Does your society have a strong military or a similarly-structured organisation that is dedicated to exploration?
T is for ‘technology’ – pleasures and perils
Technology as a source of wonder and fear is as old as the science fiction novel itself if we look back to its origins in a book like Frankenstein. Fears of artificial intelligence and computers taking over is a preoccupation of modern life for many (for example factory workers who stand to lose jobs to robots), as well as a trope of science fiction. It is essential to figure out the role of technology while plotting your sci-fi novel, how advanced your society is and the relationship of your characters and society to that technology.
Keep in mind that even if a book fits the science fiction genre, that doesn’t automatically mean its characters will have advanced technology. For example, characters in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world might have very little access to technology. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the world technologically ahead of ours or behind ours? If it is behind ours, why?
- Is the world dystopian, utopian or neither, and what part does technology play in this state of affairs?
- Is there a class or political division in what types of technology are available to different people? If so, what effect does that have on the society? For example, in the Hunger Games trilogy, the wealthier people in cities and the government have access to technology that poorer people in the outer districts do not have.
- What role, if any, does artificial intelligence play?
- What is the relationship between most people and technology? On balance, has technology improved their lives?
- What technologies exist that might be particularly exciting for the reader and important to the story?
Transportation – the second ‘T’
Transportation may be a subset of technology, but it is also potentially so important to the story that it deserves a separate set of notes. A story in which people can jump between solar systems will unfold in a very different way from a story in which people have been reduced to primitive forms of transport.
In some science fiction stories, transport may underlie the entire premise of the story. Spaceships might be nearly sentient or might be entire life support systems for people who travel continuously for generations. A hard science fiction novel might revolve around solving a problem related to transport.
These questions can help you start thinking about how your characters move about in your science fiction world and how that affects the story:
- How different or similar is transportation to what we have now? Is it easier or more difficult to get to other places? Have new scientific breakthroughs resulted in new methods of travel?
- How long does it take your characters to travel to various locations within the story, and what challenges might this present?
- As with other forms of technology, how does access to transportation differ among different groups of people? For example, settlers on a new planet or people in outlying space colonies might travel very differently from people back on their home planet.
- What are the implications of the types of transportation available? For example, the need for gas in our present world drives much of our political and economic policy. How do similar needs play out in your science fiction world?
‘E’ is for the environment
As with technology, physics, and transportation, environmental change can serve as the premise for a novel. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is all about the process of terra-forming Mars for human life and the civilisation that arises there. A science fiction novel might be built around how a society deals with an environmental disaster or handles building a new environment following an apocalypse.
Writers should also keep in mind that there are few limits when it comes to designing a science fiction environment. For example, the classic science fiction novel Solaris is about astronauts visiting a planet that contains a sentient ocean.
Asking questions about the environment will ground your novel in a place that feels real even if the plot does not depend on your imagined environment for the forward motion of the story.
- How has technological progress affected the landscape your characters inhabit? What are the environmental challenges or benefits of this new landscape?
- What is the characters’ relationship to their environment? Are they living in an environment that is primarily hostile to them or one that is friendly?
- How different is the environment from that of the average reader? This will let you know how much description and explanation you need.
- Are the characters dealing with any type of climate change, and if so, how?
- How accurate are the characters’ perceptions of their environment? For example, characters might be exploring a planet they believe to be largely benign when it is actually a very threatening environment. Alternately, characters who have banded together for generations following a nuclear war may have inaccurate information about which areas still have dangerous levels of radiation.
- How do the limits of the environment affect the plot and the characters? Are the characters very confined in their environments such as those in a spaceship, an isolated galactic outpost or a small sealed environment after an apocalypse? On the other hand, they might be free to roam across an entire universe.
R is for ‘risk’ – the danger zone
You’ll need to consider the types of risks your characters will face. One thing to keep in mind is that if you are going to push the limits of believability, you need to establish this early on and return to it throughout the novel in order for it to be successful. For example, if you are writing a fairly realistic, low-key, near-future science fiction novel, your reader is not likely to follow you if you suddenly introduce outlandish physical feats, extremely narrow escapes or bizarre psychic flights of fancy. However, if you are writing a rollicking space opera, your readers may accept more outlandish action. In a novel focusing on ‘inner space,’ the risks may have to do with the character’s sanity or other aspects of the mind.
- What types of risks do characters face in your world?
- What kind of risks will exist given what you have established about the physics, technology, environment and other aspects of the world?
- As a generalisation, given the society that you have created, how risk-averse or likely to embrace risk are your characters?
- Are you going to stretch the limits of credibility in your novel? If so, how will you lay the groundwork that will allow your reader to suspend their disbelief to an appropriate degree?
‘N’ is for ‘neologisms’ – imagining how language has evolved
You can change the language your characters use to a greater or lesser degree. Even if you decide to do very little to suggest altered linguistics, you’ll still probably need to invent names for science fiction concepts that do not yet exist in our world.
Some writers take extreme approaches to language. Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker is written entirely in a dialect from southern England, an imaginary one that has evolved over a thousand years. Others mix standard English with invented language. Characters in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess also speak with slang that readers have to pick up as they read along.
Language in science fiction has sometimes become part of the everyday speech of people who have never even read a science fiction novel. George Orwell created ‘Newspeak’ for his novel 1984, and some of the words and concepts, such as ‘thought-crime’ have made it into popular consciousness. The science fiction writer William Gibson invented the term ‘cyberspace’ in the early 1980s.
Toying too much with language is risky for a writer because there is always the danger that the reader will simply find it too much work to follow. However, when crafting new inflections of language is successful, it can help to immerse the reader in your future world. To refine the linguistic world of your novel, ask:
- How has language changed or evolved? Is this something you want to explore extensively in your novel?
- What new inventions in your science fiction world will need new words?
- If you are using many new words, how will you put them into context to demonstrate for the reader what they mean?
- Has technology or anything else caused new concepts to be created that need words or phrases to describe them? For example, the phrase ‘uncanny valley’ refers to the stage where a robot appears so lifelike that it becomes unsettling for humans to look at it.
- How does the type of your novel you are writing affect the amount of jargon that you can use? For example, readers of a hard science fiction novel might be more likely to accept technical jargon while readers of science fiction with a largely anthropological component might be more accepting of language to introduce new concepts.
Putting it all together
Once you have answered all these questions, you may find that you have created a well-realised and plausible science fiction world. You may have the keys to your plot and who your characters will be. You may have come up with more questions and answers along the way, and you will probably know which of these elements will be dominant in your science fiction world. With the Now Novel PATTERN method, you have the blueprint that you need to start writing your own fully developed science fiction world.
What are some questions you have asked about your science fiction novel that have helped you develop your plot and the world?