Whether you’re working on your first fantasy or science fiction story or have multiple under your belt, you’ve likely started to realise that there’s no ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ stage of the process. Every step of conceiving, constructing, and completing a story has its own rewards – but also its own challenges. That’s why we’ve put together this post on the top five challenges of writing fantasy and science fiction, along with some tried and true ideas for overcoming them.
1) Choosing a central plot/premise
One thing fantasy and science fiction have in common is that inspiration often comes in the form of an idea for a character or a world (or a change to our own world). Rather than playing ‘What if this happened?’ with the ready-made game pieces of reality, speculative fiction writers carve their own pieces, asking ‘What if this existed?’ That can make it all too easy to flesh out your world or character then arrive at the blank page with no concrete premise or plot for your story – or too many ideas emerging as offshoots from your new world’s history or character’s life.
If you have no ideas
Try coming at conflict and plot from the angle of what you already have in front of you.
If you love character-building, let your characters help you figure out the plot. After getting to know a character, you probably have a good sense of what kinds of problems they have in their life. Perhaps you’ve even imagined a few specific incidents that led them to become who they are today or have thought about the relationships between your characters.
Those pieces are where your story is.
Ask yourself: What do you know about your character that you could use to create conflict and give them an opportunity for growth, building a plot in the process?
For example, if you know that your character is an alcoholic and a winged-lion racer, your story – or at least this one character’s arc – might be about their struggle to overcome get sober in time to compete in a big race that, if they win, will help them regain everything they lost to their addiction.
Look for the points of conflict inherent in your characters’ life stories, personality traits, and passions. Make the most compelling character the main one; flesh out your cast with the other most interesting ones.
Are you more into worldbuilding than character-building? Same thing. Look for inherent conflict in the parts of the world you’ve built – a war, the disappearance (or return) of magic, a collision of worlds, a world-changing pandemic, a first contact with extra-terrestrial beings. Once you’ve chosen a focal event, think about the kind of people who would be most affected by and involved in it. You now have an idea of your plot’s central conflict and your cast.
If you have too many ideas
On the other hand, you might struggle to choose a central conflict/plot because you have too many ideas vying for top billing in the same book. This can be just as paralysing as having no ideas at all.
(1) Always put the part of the story that gets you most excited at the heart of the plot. All the better if the main character is as interested in it as you are, so you can use them as a lens to show the reader how interesting the topic is.
(2) Note which of your ideas holds the most inherent conflict. All of the ideas you have might contain some possible seeds of conflict, but not all will be equally strong in their conflict potential. Choose the strongest ones. Remember, story is conflict.
Worldbuilding presents many challenges all on its own, especially for fantasy writers creating secondary worlds. But perhaps one of the biggest is balancing originality, which stimulates readers’ minds and makes the world your own, with familiarity, which allows readers to see your world in their minds based on their previous experience. Your world has to be original without alienating readers, familiar without being clichéd.
The need for a fantasy world to feel both familiar and fresh to readers is one reason I advise fantasy writers to adopt a ‘model setting’, or combination of model settings, for their world, such as in Step 3 of this guide). While another writer’s fantasy world can serve as a model setting to help you flesh out your own world, our world’s history is often a better source.
Why? For one thing, as discussed in the guide mentioned above, that’s what many of fantasy’s greatest writers did, and we can see how well that worked and why it worked: they gave us a world that was easy to visualise because we had prior associations with similar eras and places in our own world. For another, in many ways, history is actually richer and more varied than the fantasy genre. Many fantasy writers imitate a handful of old greats, so the worlds of most published fantasy novels are arguably rather same-y in the grand scheme of things. Learning about somewhat overlooked corners of history and cultures is often a much stronger starting place for creating a world that feels both real and exotic.
With this approach, your story also becomes easier to sell. You can market your world as ‘a [specific culture/historical period]-inspired world’ and get people interested that way. Then, in the context of your model setting(s), you’re always free to bring in well-worn fantasy tropes from other writers’ worlds, and they automatically feel fresher when placed outside their usual contexts. ‘Dragons in a medieval-India-inspired world’ already looks more original in your mind’s eye than ‘dragons in a medieval-Europe-inspired world’, doesn’t it?
3) Avoiding rabbit holes or too much detail
When drafting your story as a fantasy or science fiction author, you’re often exploring your world – and the plot and character possibilities it generates – as you write about it. This process of discovery can be exhilarating. But it can also lead you down rabbit holes that result in over-description of details that ultimately aren’t that important to the story. These tangents can leave you feeling unfocused while writing your scenes and your readers feeling confused or bored reading them.
It’s a skill that can take a long time to build, but one of the best remedies for getting side-tracked while drafting is to really, truly understand scene structure. Scene structure is mostly about knowing the real point of each scene you write. When you’re not clear on what the scene is supposed to achieve (in other words, what its conflict is and how it moves the story forward), it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the details, take your characters’ conversations on aimless detours, insert random explosions and obstacles, etc. If you know what your scene is there to do, you’ll have a point of focus to come back to when you’re tempted to drift in an irrelevant direction.
With that said, it’s often best to go easy on yourself about this in the early draft(s), when you’re still figuring out your story. Most of the time, knowing the point of a scene requires you to have a clear sense of where your story is going in general, which you won’t entirely know until you’ve gotten to the end and it all starts to feel coherent. Some of your rabbit holes may well be explorations of your characters, themes, and subplots that will end up making your story richer. When you get to the later, editing drafts, it will likely become clearer which parts are actually moving the story forward and which are cluttering it. And you can use your knowledge of scene structure to cut some parts and expand others accordingly.
4) Using authentic-feeling language
When reading speculative fiction, you probably notice when the language feels off – too modern, too slangy, too scientific or too unscientific, too elaborate or too terse. But when trying your hand at writing your own, you’ll likely find that knowing what words your characters and narrative would or wouldn’t use doesn’t always come naturally. After all, there’s no clear standard against which to judge what goes on in a world you yourself created!
Particularly for fantasy, this is one good reason not only to adopt a ‘model setting’ to guide your worldbuilding (see Point 2) but also to read historical fiction, historical fantasy, or other novels that take place in that setting. You’ll take in – usually by osmosis rather than memorisation – how other writers have described the general kind of setting you want to create. You’ll gain a vocabulary for your own story world. That can prevent you from automatically reaching for words your characters wouldn’t use – and from getting stuck and disrupting your writing flow when you struggle to think of any good alternatives.
Nonfiction research also helps. Immerse yourself in scholarly studies and books of lore that will help you write your story, but pay attention to the language used rather than the content. To prevent yourself being distracted by simply understanding the material, consider rereading or re-skimming sources you’ve already read once so you have more attention to spare for language. Nonfiction is especially helpful for science fiction, since immersing yourself in the disciplines related to your story can give you a feeling for only technical terminology but also how real experts in these fields talk about their work.
5) Bringing it all together for a satisfying ending
This is especially challenging for sprawling, multi-point-of-view stories, which are very common in fantasy and science fiction. The stories in these genres are rarely small in scope, so keeping track of the story’s threads and characters and making sure they all contribute to the big finish can be a daunting task. All the more so if you’re writing the end of not just one book, but a whole series!
As an editor, what I usually recommend to authors whose endings don’t quite satisfy is to study or review story structure. There are quite a few frameworks to follow for this out there, and even more interpretations of each one. Find one that makes sense to you and for your story. Just nailing down your basic plot points (inciting event, pinch points, midpoint, etc.) and making sure…
(1) they’re all related to each other and
(2) each actually progresses the story
… can really help. Making sure the plot points are related to each other means that you and the reader stay on the same page about what the book is ultimately about, which means both you and they know what dramatic questions need to be answered before the story is truly ‘done’. A satisfying ending has a lot to do with fulfilling the expectations your beginning planted in your readers’ minds. If you set them up for a war story in the inciting event by showing how each protagonist is affected by the start of the war, but your climax is about them all coming together for a heist long after the war has ended, readers are likely to be a least a little put off just because they didn’t get the type of ending they spent most of their reading time envisioning. (This doesn’t mean your ending can’t surprise readers; ideally, it will. But the surprise usually lies in how the ending is reached, not in switching out the conflicts you started with for new ones.)
Meanwhile, making sure that each plot point progresses the story means that the stakes, intensity, and action build up over time. (In other words, the main plot points are not just a handful of random obstacles thrown in the characters’ paths). When you allow the story build up, your climax is guaranteed to be the most explosive part of the story, helping you to avoid an ending that feels ‘too easy’ or ‘pat’ – another common source of reader dissatisfaction.
Another piece of bringing all your story elements together is keeping track of what’s happening with different plotlines and characters as you write. If you’re not already using some sort of visual aid – a chart like this one, an organiser like Scrivener or Trello, or physical notecards on a bulletin board – I highly recommend giving it a try. As you’re writing, it can help to see at a glance what needs to happen by what point in the story, or where you last left off with that character you haven’t visited in several chapters. For many writers, it’s not enough to scroll through their draft or to refer to an outline or synopsis; both of these mix the whole story together, with no clear signposts. A visual, chart-like approach can help you more easily make sense of your story’s moving parts by splitting them up.
In the end…
You may have noticed that many of these challenges apply to all genres, not only fantasy and science fiction, though possibly for different reasons. And that’s great. It means that even though there are benefits to seeking advice and feedback from writers, editors, and readers with specific experience in the nuances of your genre, every story and every craft resource you read, regardless of genre focus, has something to teach you about tackling the biggest challenges of storytelling.
Do you write fantasy or science fiction?
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