How to Write a Science Fiction Short Story

If you want to know how to write a sci-fi short story, there are many elements to get accustomed to. These range from understanding the fundamentals of storytelling and prose fiction, to specifics about how the science fiction genre can be used to explore exciting concepts and ideas.

Learning how to write a short story is a skill that can be improved by learning the basics, reading plenty of examples, and most importantly by writing as much as possible. Read this guide for advice on the key elements for writing your own short science fiction story.

Know how to start a science fiction short story

One of the most important elements to get to grips with is how to start a sci-fi short story. The beginning of your story needs to capture your reader’s imagination from the outset by bringing them into the world you create.

With a short story, you have limited time to establish the usual elements of a story, such as characters and the setup for your narrative, but you also need to bring your readers into the world of the story.

When writing science fiction, there’s a similar challenge as with fantasy short stories because of how much needs to be achieved in the opening passages. Moreover, all the necessary information needs to be relayed to the reader in a way that doesn’t rely on info-dumping. 

Long sections of unbroken exposition don’t make for interesting stories, so make sure that details are brought up naturally throughout your story.

A blue and purple alien planet with bubbles and stardust in the foreground

Different ways of start a science fiction short story

You can approach the beginning of your short story in different ways. One traditional method is to straightforwardly establish your main character, what their usual day looks like, and bring in the inciting incident that forces them to leave their comfort zone.

But this isn’t the only way of doing things, and with a short story it’s not always the most economical way to use a limited word count. Plus, if you don’t do it well it even risks becoming boring.

Instead, you can start your story in the middle of action. Skip the pages of buildup and get straight into the exciting stuff that readers actually want to read. Certain stories require different approaches, so make sure the method you choose works best for your narrative.

Focus on your setting

What sets science fiction stories apart from other literary genres is their ability to create exciting new worlds. One of the first things to do is establish the setting for your story.

This means deciding on the location, era, and what sci-fi elements actually exist within your world. The genre can be very broad and, as a writer, you have infinite options when you’re flexing the full extent of your imagination.

Your sci-fi short story can be set anywhere from an alien planet in the distant future to an alternative reality Earth in the 20th century. But, whatever you decide to go with, it’s crucial that the setting works with the actual narrative of your short story.

Create a compelling story

While your worldbuilding is important, focusing solely on your location doesn’t make for a compelling short story. As much as you might enjoy creating your world, you need to have a narrative within it.

Most importantly for the plot of your short story is that it should work within your science fiction world and be influenced directly by the sci-fi elements which you have established. 

If the plot doesn’t need that world to work, then your genre is just an aesthetic quality that lends no weight to the story overall.

Find a theme for the core of your story

All short stories will have a theme, or multiple themes, at their heart. This is what makes them interesting to readers, beyond the surface level plotline.

Fortunately, science fiction provides a wealth of possibilities. Because of how much scope you have in your worldbuilding, you can craft a story that delves into any possible theme.

Even seemingly straightforward narratives can allude to more complex ideas. For example, an action story might be written to immediately engage the reader, but it could also explore deeper themes, from the futility of war and the fact of mortality, to the horrors of colonialism and the exploitation of the military-industrial complex.

Read lots of short sci-fi stories

Understanding the breadth and depth of the science fiction genre is easiest if you can read as many examples as possible. Seek out a range of short stories to get a grasp of the potential for different worlds, characters, and themes which can be inspiration for your own writing.

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Examples of short sci-fi stories

You can find lots of examples of science fiction short stories online that are free to read, but here are some of the most famous and influential examples:

  • ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster
  • ‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov
  • ‘I Have No Mouth, and i Must Scream’ by Harlan Ellison
  • ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury
  • ‘Billenium’ by J. G. Ballard

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