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Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.

“If the story is only about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people.”

The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid)…the problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually mighty boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!

But but BUT, Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! Yes, it SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.

Your novum is nothing without…

All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce.

But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family.

It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.

…a powerful EMOTION at the heart of the story.

How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyers, about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring?

Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is only about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people.

Why? Because the novum is only intellectually interesting.

Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem — the HUGE problem — for science fiction, is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.

So, what’s the solution? How do you make big novumy ideas compelling to the emotions?

Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that interesting, or any other novum, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your inner emotional being.

The question is, what about the novum is triggering your emotions?

Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum (novi? novae? novumss?) that inspire you. What is it about a portal that connects all worlds that connects to your emotional inner world?

Maybe it’s that a portal might give those who step into it the chance to be a different person, living a different life.

Now that’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day become a story to shiver your audience’s soul.

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Originally published at on August 3, 2018.