The First Rule of Writing Speculative Fiction (SF): Be Internally Consistent

Writers of SF have to show their readers the way.

Writers of SF have to show their readers the way. (Disclaimer: the picture is not of my wife, a clone, or a life-size inflatable replica.)


Readers love to discover new things, and so speculative fiction (most commonly the genres of science fiction and fantasy) offers writers a great opportunity. Good SF will grip you by the ****** with the setting, while it punches you in the head with its plot and characters.

With most genres, set as they are within either an historical or contemporary setting, the reader has a whole host of commonly held assumptions to draw on when interpreting the author’s meaning. They know if someone drops a hammer on their bare foot, they will break a toe. In a modern setting, they also expect that when a male character pinches a female colleague’s bottom then they will be going on a trip to Human Resources, probably followed by an escorted exit from the premises. (For some reason this doesn’t seem to work the other way round. ‘Equality’ is a strange beastie.) Readers live in, and have been taught about, the real world. They know how its physical laws work and the written and unwritten rules of the society in which we live. Writers use this knowledge to efficiently and smoothly guide them through the story.

When a writer sails out onto the waters of speculative fiction they are taking the reader on a voyage into the unknown. Go far enough and all reference points are lost. The only way a reader can navigate now is to follow the map and compass the writer gives them. It’s the reader’s utter reliance on the writer to explain even the basics of the imagined world that is a unique attribute of ‘pure’ speculative fiction. This makes it imperative that the writer is clear and consistent in the way they describe their world, its cultures and characters.

If a writer deviates from what has gone before, there had better be an explanation offered that fits within the world. To be readable and suspension-of-disbelievable, most fictional worlds need rules and norms of their own, and a writer capable of communicating them without overwhelming the story with facts, figures, and observations. Break your readers’ belief in the setting and you break their immersion. Game over. If there is a contradiction in the way the world seems to work in one part of the book compared to another, you can bet that the readers’ first response is going to be, ‘This book sucks. No way am I reading the next one.’ I have to get this right.

The Elite: Dangerous universe offers a unique opportunity to write in a varied and rich, communally developed, setting. The difficulty for me is that it is not my setting. Ensuring internal consistency with reference to an external source is proving an interesting proposition. The difficulty for Frontier is that we writers are (hopefully) creative and imaginative beings with our heads in the clouds and only one foot on the ground. Ensuring that they give our imaginations enough freedom to fly can conflict with the constraints imposed by their other development goals and the need to maintain some kind of order. This week we have been hammering out the possible contents of the closing chapters on the anvil of *insert your metaphor of choice here—personally I like the sound of the anvil of promiscuity, but that doesn’t make any sense*.

And the outcome? Negotiation and, finally, mutual accommodation. It’s like being married, really. In some cultures having multiple wives is considered a positive. I love my wife dearly, but I never wanted a second. (I’m sure she would say the same about having another husband.) The trouble is, Frontier has made me a bigamist. There was the sussing-out period, the initial infatuation, the proposal, and the entering into of a long-term binding agreement. There was the glow of mutual acceptance and affirmation during the honeymoon. For a while, life was simple. Life was wonderful. Then the real work started. In any relationship you have to learn to live with each other’s foibles, and live within your own and each other’s limitations. You must learn to communicate and reach a mutual understanding, without either party needing bandages, eye patches, or a wig to cover the torn-out hair. It’s not always easy. But it is worth it. The sense of sharing a goal and being part of something unique and special easily outweighs receiving a few minor scrapes.

Now, I’m broadly green-lit for the final scenes. There’s a lot of backstory, and not all of it will fit in. There’s lots of things to tie up and new things for me still to discover. It’s going to be an interesting journey, especially with both my wives telling me—one in each ear—not to drive too fast, watch the old gentleman with the zimmer, and not to be too proud to ask for directions if I get lost. Ah, bless ’em, they only do it because they care.

(Image, ‘Business Woman’, courtesy of arztsamui, hosted by

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2 Responses to The First Rule of Writing Speculative Fiction (SF): Be Internally Consistent

  1. John Harper says:

    Sounds like you and your second wife need to down a bottle of gin and head to town for the night. Leave the first wife at home. She’ll just complicate things.

    My wife is completely disinterested in science fiction so I don’t need to worry about any interference there

    • TJames says:

      I’ve got a funny feeling my second wife it waaay too busy to go out for a night on the town. Besides, she would never be able to choose an outfit:

      ‘Do I go for the jumper, or beard ensemble? Which do you think makes my bum look big?’

      I’d lose too much writing time.

      As for my first wife complicating things, the opposite is actually true. She’s an avid reader, and has been into detective and murder mystery novels for years, as well as regularly doing editing as part of her job. The fact that she is willing to give up her spare time to feedback on, and error check my work, is a huge blessing. I still have to ask permission from my second wife for everything I do though. ‘Yes, dear’ seems to be working so far.

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