Sci-Fi Story Elements That Really Hook Me!

For well over a year now, I’ve been spinning my wheels on a sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. Despite the well-known writing advice that the first draft will be crap and you just have to power through it, somehow the three drafts I’ve started and scrapped so far seemed to have more wrong than merely being ordinary first-draft crap. Something really fundamental felt like it was missing.

So I finally took a break from trying to write the fourth do-over and decided to just freewrite about what I love in the sci-fi novels that I read. I analyzed my very favorite speculative fiction novels for common threads, and tried to distill them into individual motifs. The results were enlightening, and subsequent work has helped me re-plan and restructure the work-in-progress to better align with the elements of speculative fiction that I find exciting.

Motif 1: Ideas

This is where my love for Hard Sci-Fi — science fiction that is well-grounded in science — finds it’s root. Now, I’m not the kind of sci-fi fan to yell at the screen or page if the space physics aren’t realistic enough, but a heavy touch of realistic physical constraints, attention to scientific or engineering principles, and speculation on the impact of potential sci-tech breakthroughs on people and society definitely bumps a story a few notches up in my estimation. I’d guess my lower limit on Moh’s Scale of Science Fiction Hardness is about a 3 for real enjoyment, with a sweet spot between 3.5 and 4.5 and an upper limit of 5.

It doesn’t help that the Hard Sci-Fi subgenre in particular has been host to a virulent subsubculture of “purists” that have projected an extremely jingoistic, xenophobic, and ultra-libertarian worldview that has caused me to drop many a started novel in this subgenre. Thankfully, plenty of contemporary Hard Sci-Fi authors are providing counter-narratives. Kim Stanley Robinson, Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Karl Schroeder, and Anne Leckie are just a few examples.

The thing with cool ideas though, is that they don’t stand on their own to make a good story. If the rest of the elements are flat or cliche, the ideas better be pretty damn mind-blowing, or the story is going to have a hard time keeping my interest. The authors I mentioned and enjoy not only reject the ultra-conservative worldviews of “pure” Hard Sci-Fi, but also blend this motif well with others I like, including the other two on this top three list.

In general, this motif answers the question: “What is the backdrop against which my favorite sci-fi stories are set?”

Motif 2: Wonder and Awe

If the ideas of Hard Sci-Fi form the solid bedrock of a good story in my estimation the spice is a heavy splash of Space Opera. Mind-boggling advanced physics! Worlds upon worlds of cool planets or settings! Giant fleets of starships! Bizzare aliens! Big things crashing into bigger things which then explode!

On the surface, these subgenres might seem like polar opposites. How can a story simultaneously have a scientifically rigorous foundation and yet include such dazzling, imaginative elements that are just plain awesome? I think the key is audacity — in other words, the willingness of the author to tackle settings and topics of enormous scope and scale. Anne Leckie’s Hugo-award-winning space opera trilogy beginning with Ancillary Justice is a great example. The trilogy is set in an interstellar empire called the Radch, at the core of which is a massive Dyson sphere the size of several star systems, and the protagonist is a multi-bodied starship AI out for revenge! And yet despite featuring nearly all of the awesome elements of space opera, I think the stories still ring in between 3.5 and 4.0 on the hardness scale.

In general, this motif answers the question: “Where are the characters in my favorite sci-fi stories going to go, what are the types of things they will do, and how will they do them?”

Motif 3: Identity

This motif comes straight from non-genre literary fiction. Simply put, characters, especially protagonists, who are comfortable with who they are really bore me. I like to see a struggle for meaning and identity, preferably on the context of changing social systems or in conflict with broader social values and norms. Inner character arcs, particularly for the protagonist, should involve a significant measure of agency and personal change, which could come in the form of new realizations about self, others, or the universe, or becoming, willingly or not, a new person.

Enter scifi novels like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Not only does Haldeman successfully blend my first two favorite motifs, but he does it through the eyes of a veteran solider who is estranged from society as a result of relativistic time effects. After multiple deployments across star systems, traveling at near light speeds in between, the protagonist has aged only a few years when he returns home to find that generations have passed and he can no longer relate to anything or anyone. Not only is this a really cool hard sci-fi mechanic, but it also makes for a pretty powerful commentary on how we treat our soldiers both during deployment and after returning from war.

Here is where most futurism sci-fi tends to fall flat for me. They have a frustrating tendency to focus myopically on the future of technologies, to the exclusion of thinking about how real people will think, feel, and act in response to those technologies in the context of overlapping individual and group identities, which drive a huge part of human behavior and psychology. (See my recent review series of Visions, Ventures and Escape Velocities for examples and notably brilliant counterexamples of this phenomenon.)

In general, this motif answers the question: “When it comes down to it, what are my favorite sci-fi stories really about?” While ideas and wonder are certainly foundational to good sci-fi, great stories in my mind are ultimately first and foremost about people, not things.

Motif 4: Myth/Ritual/Infinity

Here I draw a thread from the fantasy genre. I am fascinated by myth, religion, spirituality, systems of tradition, and/or ritual, especially as it relates to (you guessed it) social structures and identity. This motif can take various forms, from mystical orders such as the Jedi of Star Wars or the Grey Wardens of Dragon Age, to simply facing aspects of our universe that are beyond human comprehension, as in Carl Sagan’s Contact, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End. It can also be straight up exploration of religion and society: I love, for example, the puzzle of the religion of the alien Amarintin from Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space and the powerful spiritual and ritualistic aspects of the Fremen society in Frank Hebert’s Dune.

I put this one last because there are many stories I like that don’t include it at all, or to only a small degree. However, it seems exceedingly difficult for a story to make it into the uppermost echelons of my estimation without this important element. I want to be given the sense that I’m part of something bigger, and then be immersed in it!

In general, this motif answers the question: “How do the characters in my favorite sci-fi stories relate to the infinite and their place in the universe?”

Putting it All Together

As a reader, I want all of this. As you might imagine, the stories I love best tend to be novel length (it’s really hard, but not impossible, to get all these motifs into a single short story), grand in scope (if the whole point of the story is a cool new technology or idea, I’ll probably never finish it), highly imaginative (staying near-future? there better be really awesome twists and novel ways of looking at things), and imbued with a curiosity about how things work (technology, societies, people, etc).

That might seem like an impossibly tall order, but there are several novels that manage to do it all, and it should be no surprise that they are my favorite sci-fi novels of all time. I’ll probably write more blog posts later going into a little more depth about each, but the works I’ve mentioned in this post are a subset of those that hit all of these motifs in some way to some degree.

I also frequently come across novels that are strong enough in one or two of these elements to make up for only indirectly or barely touching the other elements. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, for example, is relatively lean on Motif 4 in any direct sense, but is so strong on Motifs 1-3 that it makes my top sci-fi list anyway.  The converse is also true. For example, most Neal Stephenson novels tend to be really strong in Motifs 1, 2, and to a lesser extend 4… but have a gaping black hole where Motif 3 should be, leading me to invariably put them down unfinished. (In fact, the only Stephenson story I’ve ever finished is Anathem, and that only because in addition to being astronomically high on Motifs 1 and 2, the book also spent more time on Motif 4 relative to his other works.)

I should also point out that it’s not as though I dislike fiction that doesn’t include all of these elements; however, stories that don’t score at least moderately high in all of these areas are going to have a hard time making it to the top of my favorites lists.

These Motifs in the Red Soil Series

Red Soil Through Our Fingers was my first novel. While I’m glad I wrote it and published it, I’ve learned a lot about both writing and publishing since then, and I don’t think it reflects who I am as a writer now. Among the things I would do differently is spend more time in revision, particularly in the area of adding additional layers to the core storyline. This would have been an opportunity to work in aspects of these motifs that I now realize would have made the book more enjoyable for me (and I presume others) to read. In summary, Motifs 1 and 3 were very strong, Motif 2 was sorta there but not really, and Motif 4 was pretty much non-existent.

It follows then that as I’m trying to write this sequel, part of why I have been feeling constrained and uninspired is the lack of elements that I find most compelling about the books that I myself love to read. Seems kinda obvious when stated that way, but… it took a lot of introspection and self-analysis of my tastes to distill the precise nature of this dissonance between what I love to read and what I end up writing myself.

Recently, I heavily revised much of my pre-work for the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. While the story stays rooted in the events that happened on Mars in the first book, I’ve “zoomed out” to include more of the solar system and it’s imagined societies and technologies. to up the “wow” factor of Motif 2. I’m also spending a lot more time thinking about the sociological factors of what these cultures and subcultures might be like in terms of what they would believe and how they would view themselves through the lens of tradition and shared rituals of a community. And finally, the third big change is re-aiming the “camera” to bring to the forefront characters who have the most identity and inner struggle at stake in the plot premise.

On the one hand, it sucks to throw out about 25,000 words of prose… but no words are wasted, those were words duly spent on thinking about the story and the world. And it sure feels good to be feeling good about the project again. Hopefully, this is the spark I’ve been needing to buckle down and finally power through this first draft. It’s a long road from there to a published book, but just getting that draft zero down and complete in the first place seems like the hardest part in my experience.

As a bonus, I now have a much more coherent idea of what I like in fiction and why! This should strengthen not only my writing, but hopefully my reading and reviewing as well.


  1. I’m now recalling that the podcast Writing Excuses built their Season 11 ( around the idea of “Elemental Genre”. I’m not sure that they define elements like Wonder and Idea the same way I do here, but nevertheless there is a lot of great food for thought about how to think about stories.

    January: Introduction
    February: Wonder
    March: Idea
    April: Adventure
    May: Horror
    June: Mystery
    July: Thriller
    August: Humor
    September: Relationship
    October: Drama
    November: Issue
    December: Ensemble

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