Your Top Ten Biggest Scifi Writing Mistakes

You. Yes, you. Stop right now and jot this down. There was a thread over at /r/scifi that listed out the biggest mistakes in scifi and I couldn’t help but take note. You should too, because these people are our readers and when they talk, we need to listen with both ears. To keep it super-simple, I compiled some of the best ones into a handy Top-Ten format. I want to keep this for my future reference and yours, too.

Good scifi cannot save bad writing. I think we all know that. At the same time, bad writing can be forgiven under certain circumstances (Looking at you, Ready Player One). Ideas, premises, tech that would interest a PhD cannot be mated to sixth-grade prose, just like you can’t expect to run an F1 car with a toddler at the wheel. We know that, too. So the question is, how to you write good-sci-fi? I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, here are some ways to avoid writing bad science fiction. Let’s look at the top ten worst offenders, in no particular order:

  1. Bad science, if they are using real science – A million examples spring to mind (Hello, Independence Day and the famous Mac virus?) but let’s not focus on them. You’re smart. So are your readers. Don’t insult their intelligence, or your own. We’ve outgrown things like …
  2. Lazy science MacGuffins – Ultimately, we’re reading science fiction to think about the implications of new technology on the human experience. Sadly, most sci-fi tech is used as a MacGuffin – a means to advance the plot – in a story. We’re never allowed to think about what this tech might do to our concept of life and frankly, that’s a bit frustrating. If something as simple as a smart phone could change the world in 2006, what would a functioning transporter do to us? The mind wants to wander, but the story won’t let us. Those MacGuffins sometimes pop up as …
    1. Time Travel. Just in general.
    2. “[L]ands on X, raises helmet visor because air … see also: every scifi movie or TV show from Star Trek: TOS to the entire Star Wars franchise.
    3. Teleportation/beaming/other similar technologies: Also Star Trek, Stargate, Quantum Leap, Buck Rogers, The Fly, etc.
    4. Incompetent ship design / crew members / etc – Galaxy Quest skewered this trope again and again, making fun of how unnecessarily dangerous their capital starship had become. It’s obvious that they want to give an opportunity for a character to make the ultimate sacrifice (Hello, Spock in Star Trek II) but it has to be done with some care and precision. Don’t be lazy about it.
    5. When the Captain of a ship goes on every dangerous mission even though his/her/its job is to command the ship: Also Star Trek! I don’t want to spend any more time on this. If you’re going to use the tech, let our minds play with that. Otherwise, it’s an itch that your story doesn’t let us scratch and you’re going to kill our enthusiasm. Let’s continue …
  3. Stupid characters – For all the 3D graphics in scifi, there are a lot of two-dimensional characters. Why is that? Is it because you’re afraid your story is too complex to suffer a complex character? Don’t be. I could explain why but then … *waves at Netflix*. The entire premise of science fiction is to take real people and throw them into fantastic situations, so make your characters real: Bad breath, dirty underwear, and all. Of course, there’s a subset to this that includes …
    1. Supposedly smart people that have been meticulously screened prior to going on a mission making incredibly stupid decisionsYou know who you are. You’re going to tell me that you’re the most qualified person on the planet to execute a mission and then get all catty with your fellow space-people the second you’re in microgravity? This kind of crap doesn’t happen to the ISS, folks. Stop it.
    2. Too many plot threadsI’ve already griped elsewhere about this. Just don’t. I get that you’ll have more than one plot line in a good story, but if it resembles a plate of spaghetti, you need to simplify. That reminds me; don’t use …
  4. Alien names that are so weird you can’t read the book – Looking at you Iain M Banks. And while we’re on the topic …
  5. Alien civilization have only one common culture / language – This has been around for like, ever. Spacefaring novels always manage to land on a planet filled with aliens (and don’t get me started on how they’re usually humanoid – hello, Avatar!) who have a single language or culture. I know you don’t want to spend your entire novel discussing the aliens or their culture, but at least pretend they exist, okay? Otherwise, we’ll think you’re being lazy. Of course, this is only one thing that turns me off. Another is …
  6. Creepy / Perv-y stories or characters – Looking at you Robert Heinlein. I realize we’re all sexual beings with issues we need to work through, but please talk to your therapist about this and leave it out of your stories. Don’t randomly introduce a controversial sexual topic without warning us. For every person that is okay with this, there are a hundred going “ew …”
  7. Bad, clunky exposition that masquerades as “world-building” – Yeah, this is something I fear. The last thing I’d want is to be accused of this. You can’t make your book a lifestyle catalog. At the same time, you can’t *not* let us see with your words what it looks like. How do you do this correctly? Go read William Gibson again.
  8. In the future where you have every nation to choose from, every character is American and every location is in America – Yeah, because that never gets old, right? That reminds me, I also dislike …
  9. Too much / too little story – It stinks when they take a small short story and turn it into something that has *nothing* to do with the original book. It also stinks when they take a deep, interesting novel and reduce it to two hours of VFX and ‘meh.’ Think about ‘Ender’s Game.’ People love that book, partly because of the scifi tech, but mostly because of the deep emotional connection they feel toward Ender Wiggin. We’ve all felt alienated, and alone. Card captures that emotion well in his first books. Everything else he wrote, well, YMMV. But the point is – don’t make a smart book into a dumb movie. It’s irritating. Let’s wrap up with …
  10. Bad Endings – Ugh, yes. Nothing worse than ending an entire novel of action and intrigue with two pages worth of ‘pixie-dust’ as one Redditor called it. Agatha Christie was lampooned for this, why are you doing it in your novel?? Stop that.

Some ‘writing mistakes’ are forgivable, IMO. One reader disliked the fuzzy science of Spock watching Vulcan get destroyed, or Kylo Ren watching the Death Star shoot fireballs across the sky. My point then, and now, is that some choices are there to fulfill ’emotional consistency,’ versus ‘logical consistency.’ Your audience probably won’t care about the logical inconsistency of fireballs and light-time, but they *will* care about the emotional consistency of seeing the bad guy preside over the destruction of a planet. Emotional consistencies are all throughout stories and well, yeah. *waves at Star Wars and pretty much every scifi movie, ever*

Storytelling is a craft, at the end of the day. We use words to paint a picture in our readers’ heads. There are no mistakes, as Bob Ross says. There are only happy accidents. Of course, he wasn’t advocating that you light your canvas on fire and call it art, either. His point, and mine, is that you should try to adhere to the craft of your art and take every opportunity to learn how to do it better.

I’m not saying that I’m great at this, or terrible. All I can do is try to identify the right ways (and the wrong ways) to do this job effectively. When I learn something, I try to share it here so that we can learn together. That’s how Bob Ross did it, and so that’s what I’m going to do, too.

PS – I’d like to thank the following Redditors for their contributions to this list:

greg_reddit, panzerkampfwagen, Starrystars, Puggymon, Gentianviolent, Ericus1, TheRiddler78, eternal_mutation, TheOriginalSamBell, orange_fudge, and Simon_Drake

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