Writing Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror For Dummies
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
Getting started with your sci-fi, fantasy, or horror story can be a daunting challenge. When you’re writing speculative fiction about other possible and impossible worlds, there are a thousand different details to think about. These easy-to-use tips and questions can help launch your writing process in the right direction and focus on the things that matter for your story.

Pre-world-building questions for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers

Writing sci-fi, fantasy, and horror all share core techniques for creating story worlds that both offer the audience cool experiences and serve the dramatic needs of your narrative.

Whether you’re sending your characters rocketing to a distant star, on a quest through the faerie realm, or into a crumbling manor house on the moors, answering the following questions can help shape your worldbuilding process before you write your first word.

Who is the audience for this world and how are they going to experience it? The most important things about your story world are the parts of it your audience experiences. A five-novel series can benefit from deep history and complex sociopolitical systems and intricate rules of magic. A short story probably won’t. A comic book, film, or television story will benefit from striking visuals, and a game requires interactive elements. Thinking up front about how your audience enjoys your world will shape your creation in important and useful ways.

What makes this story world uniquely yours? Audiences are spoiled for choice with story worlds to choose from in every genre and medium. Yours needs to stand out in the crowd and hold both your and the audience’s attention. The best way to help ensure that is to build off your own personal passions and interests. What fascinates you? What are you an expert in? What from your own life can inspire the story?

What causes conflict in this story world? Conflict drives stories forward and creates drama. What’s important to characters in this world? What ideas or locations or resources do people disagree about? What’s uncertain and worrisome in life? Solar flares knocking out the radiation shields? Goblin raids from the faerie realm? Werewolves prowling the moors? Knowing the core conflicts in your story world will help you focus on the parts of your story world that are vital to your story.

Who is most affected by those conflicts? Your story world won’t work if the story doesn’t have great characters whom the audience hopes and fears for. Who in your world has the most to gain or lose in its core conflicts? Who is most committed to making change or fighting for the status quo? Your protagonists and antagonists come from one of those groups — their personal story arc will mesh directly with the world’s core conflicts, and the story will be stronger for it.

A frightening formula for writing horror

Horror story audiences come in looking for scares and thrills, and it’s your job as a horror writer to deliver what they want. The specific emotions run the gamut from a quiet chill down the back of the neck to the pulse-pounding terror of a slavering monster attack to the gross-out gut reaction to a bloody mess.

No matter which specific scare you’re after, this four-part formula for fear can help you craft your narrative for maximum impact:

  • Introduce the unknown.
    Evolution has primed humanity to worry about the unknown. Horror story audiences are not only primed to fear the worst — they’re expecting it. Begin your cycle of fear with some small and unnerving mystery that the protagonists are trying to solve, such as the following:

    • What’s that eerie noise in the basement?
    • Where did the neighbors disappear to in the middle of the night?
    • What’s in this locked puzzle box?
  • Build anticipation and dread.
    With a mystery to solve, build dread and anticipation by showing the protagonists struggling to find the solution. Each new clue likely makes things more worrisome, not less:

    • That growling in the basement is coming from under the floor.
    • The neighbors seem to have vanished in the middle of eating breakfast.
    • The puzzle box’s previous owner died with the key to the lock in their stomach.
  • Up the dramatic stakes with a revelation.
    Release all that dread and anticipation with a revelation — a moment that changes the direction of the story in a significant and dramatic way.:

    • The growling monster bursts forth from the concrete floor and attacks!
    • The family next door reappears the following week but have all aged a dozen years.
    • The puzzle box contains the previous owners’ eyes, and they stare hypnotically into the protagonist’s gaze.
  • Repeat as needed until the story’s climax.
    A short horror story may play out in just those three steps; the monster in the basement eats the poor protagonist . . . the end. But most stories repeat the cycle with ever more dreadful elements. The revelation has raised a new unknown that needs investigating. Anticipation builds as the protagonist takes more and more desperate actions to find out what’s really going on. That leads to another, bigger revelation; the returned family are now psychic vampires and must be stopped!Eventually the cycle ends with the final horrific revelation and resolution; obsessed with the eyes, the protagonist plucks out their own eyes and implants the haunted orbs from the puzzle box and sees everything in a new and terrible light.

Creating monsters and aliens

Whether you’re writing sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, populating your story with the right type of creature can make the difference between a successful story and a yawner. What makes a creature the right one for your particular narrative? Those creatures may be haunting the shadows, vying for resources, or doing things that seem bizarre, but they need to be compelling and meaningful.

To put it more plainly, your creatures must serve a purpose by enhancing the conflict, drama, and themes in your tale. If you’re not doing that, you’re missing an opportunity to elevate and deepen your story.

Here are some questions that can help get you on the right track:

  • What is the monster or alien’s role in the story? Why is it here? How does its presence impact the characters?
  • When and where and through whose point of view does the audience encounter the creature? How does this choice affect how the reader reacts to and thinks about the creature?
  • How fantastical or realistic is the alien or monster? Does it conform to the laws of physics and biology, or does it operate under realty-breaking rules of magic, dreams, or the spiritual?
  • Where did the monster or alien come from and what is its habitat? Where does it live, hunt, and perform its monstrous duties? What motivates it?
  • What kind of connection — if any — does the being have to real-world creatures? Or creatures of myth and legend?
  • What is the being’s mind like and how does it relate to other sentient beings? How do other creatures and people interact with it (or not)?
  • How does the monster or alien provoke responses of fear, awe, wonder? How do the characters feel about the being? How do you want your audience to feel?
  • What does this monster or alien reveal about the nature of the story world and how it’s different from your audience’s reality? Is the monster from that story world, or does it have another origin? If so, where is that? Why and how did it get to the story world?
  • What does the monster or alien want in within the context of your story? Is it trying to conquer the world? Does it want to establish contact with the protagonists? Is it very, very hungry?
  • What moral and ethical questions does the alien or monster and its goals present? If your creature was the embodiment of a single theme, what would it be?
  • What is the creature’s physical presence? What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like? Yes, and even taste like? (Okay, that last one might be a stretch, but you never know.)

Becoming a successful writer

Although it’s vital for writers to know their genres well, it’s just as important for them to embrace the best practices and key principles that professional writers employ. Here are some of the top things successful writers do:

  • Read, read, read. Read within your favorite genres and read well beyond it. Read for pure enjoyment or to learn about things you’re curious about. But as you read, note what you like and ask that all-important writerly question: How did they do that? The answers you come up with can inform your own writing.
  • Write, write, write. Try and write some every day or at least every weekday, even if it’s only 500 words. Even if it’s only 100 words. Ultimately it’s about getting words on the page and working with those words until they shine. Then doing it again and again.
  • Revise, revise, revise. A first draft isn’t done. The first draft of a story is where writers are figuring out how to tell the story to their first-ever audience — themselves. The goal of every subsequent draft is to figure out how to tell the story to everyone else. Write as many drafts as it takes to make your story the best that it can be.
  • Get help, help, help. You don’t have to do this alone. There is help for writers at every stage of the writing journey. Find someone to read what you’ve written and give you feedback. Find someone who wants your feedback and give it to them. From writing classes to critique groups to freelance development editors and proofreaders, if you ever need a second set of eyes, the input of a smart person, and/or support and guidance, it’s available.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Rick Dakan and Ryan G. Van Cleave, PhD are professors at the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, where they teach such courses as Writing Science Fiction, Writing for Video Games, and Writing for Shared Worlds. Both of them have ended a D&D campaign with a single well-placed fireball.

Ryan G. Van Cleave, PhD, is the author of 20 books, including creative writing textbooks, an illustrated humor book, a young adult novel, and a bestselling memoir.?He lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he works as an international speaker, a freelance writer, and the creative writing coordinator for The Ringling College of Art + Design. He has taught memoir writing at numerous universities as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth programs.

This article can be found in the category: