Writing Science Fiction vs Fantasy

I think I’m a pretty good fantasy writer.  (That’s right, another writer with an ego bigger than his sales).  What I’m not so sure about is my ability to write science fiction.  Yet here I am, six months in on an SF project.  And you know what?  It’s every bit as hard as I thought it would be. 

I’ve always read more SF than fantasy, mostly because I tend to hold fantasy to a higher standard.  I will happily plow through poorly written space opera (I still love E.E. Smith), but I’ll throw bad fantasy across the room (or, if it’s bad enough, out the window and into the street to get run over by a bus) the moment the prose starts to flounder.   

My standards for my own writing, however, are as high for SF as they are for fantasy.  I may like reading E.E. Smith, but I’d cut my throat if anyone called me out for writing characters that flat or dialog that stilted.  No matter how good the story backing them up is.  I may read SF solely for the narrative or the cool ideas, but if I’m going to write it, I want the words and characters to work, too.  Trouble is, SF requires a different voice from fantasy (at least the SF I’m trying to write (please don’t tell me how different kinds of fantasy require different styles and voice – I know that – ultimately every book requires its own voice – but certain genres generally work better with certain styles)), and I’m having a hard time finding that voice.  Evoking an imaginary past (which I think is what most epic fantasy of the sort I’ve been writing tends to do) is a lot different from evoking an imaginary future. 

So I’ve been struggling with the voice of my WIP, and writing scenes over and over again, and almost threw it under the bus a few times.  The writing has to be more modern than what I’ve been doing, quicker paced and more to the point.  Which means that, instead of writing a ten page scene and cutting it down to five, I have to cut it down to two.  While conveying the same amount of information. 

It’s hard.  But I think I’m getting it.  I’m still nowhere near the end of the tunnel, but at least I’m starting to understand the tunnel’s size and shape.   

Anyone else out there have this sort of problem when they switch from writing one genre to another?  Or do folks think one size fits all? 

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  1. 1. SMD

    My problem with switching genres is that I get bored of fantasy very easily. It get to a point where I feel like I’m just telling the same story that’s been told for the last 60+ years and I just lose interest. Science fiction? Not so much. It’s illogical, since I’m sure I repeat stories in SF too…

  2. 2. Laura

    No. One voice, nor one style does not fit all, even in the same genre.

    My currnt WIP is writing our company’s D&D adventures and translating them from actual game play to story.

    Now I have each character’s voice because they are all role played by actual people. I have the world because it is already established by the D&D game.

    I know the plot because we’ve played it and I even know where the adventure is going because I sleep with the DM.

    Sounds easy doesn’t it?

    If you said ‘yes’ you’d be right, however writing it as an actual adventure story is extremely hard. There is just so much to translate, (like the status of injury based on dice throws), and then you have to fill in the background which isn’t roll played out loud, but is in everyones imaginations.

    My very wordy point is, until you actually start the writing process, I honeslty believe you don’t know what style you are going to need. You start out with one because it worked well last time. But it doesn’t mean it will do for this project.

  3. 3. Liane Merciel

    Yeah, it is really different. Obviously there are some blurred areas in between (the epic voice works for certain types of SF in the Dune/Star Wars vein, where exotic worlds and mystical religions are emphasized over actual hard science), but generally SF requires a very different approach and skillset.

    This is one reason I’ve not yet been tempted into crossing genres. Have enough trouble being barely-passable in one style; I’m not near ready to tackle another just yet.

  4. 4. Harry Markov

    I am sadly not a SF writer. I stick to the darker corners of fantasy, on the border of Horror and like to stay day. What I do find hard is the voice and style for different lengths as to how information is conveyed. Or whether a certain story needs to be told in detail and what to skip and how to summarize.

    Not exactly the same as the post’s topic, but in the same vein.

  5. 5. Doug Hulick


    It may be genre dependent, too. I write Fantasy and really have no desire to do Science Fiction. That may change, but given I don’t read much SF, probably not (unlike you, I have little tolerance for bad SF, and that seems to be what I keep picking up). And you’re right: I think trying to do one would be very different than the other.

    But crime story/mystery? That I think I could switch over to. Not because it is any easier, but because I am very familiar with the style, and even use a bit of noire sensibility in my own fantasy (don’t worry — it’s not a send up or spoof of noire, just gritty first person). Of course, that’s easy to say since I’m not actually writing contemporaty crime stories at the moment.

    Other genres? Maybe Steam-punk (is that considered a sub-genre of SF, or is it becoming it’s own thing now?). I can’t see me doing romance or para-romance or the like. Alternate history? Maybe, since I have the background (couple history degrees), but maybe not because I can see myself getting too picky about the details (couple history degrees ;) .

    In the end, I think it comes down to the writer and both the comfort and expectations they have for themselves when it comes to the new/other genre. There are certainly plenty of people who can hop fences, but plenty more that are happy staying in their own back yard. But one thing is for certain: pushing yourself to grow (whatever form that may take) is never a bad thing for a writer.

  6. 6. Daniel G.S.

    There is not a real diference between SF and Fantasy. The voice of the narrator and the voice of the characters usually are different, independently of the writing tradition we are immerse. But if you are looking for a profound difference between SF and F, here it is:
    Fantasy requires a certain number of laws to regulate magic, and those laws influences everything else in the world you create. For example, in Harry Potter the only real law of magic is that if you do bad things, bad things happens to you (magically speaking). Black magic is ugly and messy and generates a lot of secondary problems to the magician; etc. In other books, like The Name of the Wind, the magician has to pay a price, magic is not for free. The novels that has magic for free and people that do great things without consequence, are those you should send through the window. I hate deus ex machina.
    Science Fiction only law, for me at least, is that everything has something to do with humanity.Whatever I write, even a hard story about a creature that lives in deep space eating black holes, has something to do with real people and their reactions, the story is about them, the creature is secondary and exists in my story only to allow me to tell that story.
    At the end, your writing style and how you put the story in words, is the great value of the final text.

  7. 7. Doug Hulick


    I think your definitions are overly basic, in both instances. That’s not to say they don’t work for you, but more and more it doesn’t have to be all about one or two key things defining a story. There are some very low-magic or magic-as-sideline fantasy novels that deal with humainty, and some SF novels that seems all about the tech/idea, while the characters and humanity have very little to do with it. So, it would be just as easy to say that fantasy is about character, while SF is about defining the tech for the story, but I don’t buy that reveral, either.

    Good writing is going to be about characters and ideas and change, no matter what the genre. Fantasy tends to take a look at those things from a more neo-historical/slightly modern (if you include the paranormal stuff under the heading) setting slant, while SF is usually working either in a more tech-centered, or possibly dystopian, near/far future. Each of those kinds of appraoches are, by definition, going to influence the story. But good work in either field is going to dig beneath those basic tappings and get down to the meat of the story and the people/ideas within it. You may like one approach and the themes it embraces more than another, but I don’t think it is as simply as Magic vs. Humanity when it comes to drawing a distinction between the two. That may be reflective of what you tend to read and pull out of both, of course, but I’d argue it isn’t universal by any means.

  8. 8. Chrystoph

    I agree with Doug, but I would like to make a couple of minor clarifications.

    First, I feel that Fantasy, no matter how epic the scope, tends to deal with a smaller set of characters. The interactions in toto also tend to be much more personal. I believe this to be a matter of the scale of the venue. Travel, even with magical teleportation, is usually localized to a kingdom.

    One of the staples of space opera is that it provides mutliple “sites”. This allows for separate, interacting, casts. They may or may not come into each others’ sphere of direct influence, but they interact indirectly. The conflicts tend to be more convoluted, because there are generally more agendas on the table.

    Second, on the topic of the “voice” of your work, I think that the analogy I would use is a vehicle. Sometimes, you are on a country road, enjoying the scenery (slower or more involved writing, often background or interpersonal situations). Others, it’s a mad dash down the highway to the hospital and the speed limit be damned (combat, physical actions or charged emotions).

    Yes, the timbre of SF is different, but there are times and places for everything. How you pace things as a writer also will depend greatly on whether the book is a stand alone or first in a series, or whether you are working in an established universe where you can take certain background knowledge as a given for your readers. I know how faster than light travel works in the David Weber universe, so you can just tip your hat to it and run with the story.

  9. 9. Missy S

    You could always use your fantasy voice to your advantage and create something different in your story. A character whose thought patterns feel more like that. Or a differential for your elder characters. It could end up being the one thing that makes your SF stand out.

    But good luck! Break a leg! And can’t wait til it’s done!

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    SMD – I think that is one of the problems you can encounter with fantasy. A lot of it seems repetitive. SF, because it’s more often about cool ideas, can sometimes hold a reader that way regardless of how well written it is.

    Laura – A lot of people don’t realize how difficult the transition from game to novel can be. You point out a lot of the possible problems. I think some aspiring writers think they can simply transfer the story from their gaming sessions to their writing sessions, without realizing that much of what’s implied in gaming has to be explained in the writing.

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Liane – Yes, things can get blurred quite a bit. Is Dune a fantasy or is it SF? Entire panels at cons have been devoted to this question. Nothing is ever cut and dry – ultimately the voice you use to tell a story depends on the story you want to tell.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Doug – You’re right – familiarity with different genre can be very helpful if you switch back and forth between them. Unfortunately in my case I’m very familiar with SF, but I’m also very familiar with mainstream literature, the techniques of which are much more applicable to classic fantasy than they are to SF. That’s the switch that’s been hardest for me, trying to turn off my classical training and open up to the more free-wheeling aspects of SF.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Daniel G.S – I’d argue that there’s an immense difference between SF and Fantasy. I’m not necessarily sure I could easily define the difference, but I tend to know it when I see it.

    And, yes, books where the magic has no cost are exactly the ones I throw out the window.

    Doug – I might have said to Daniel G.S. that SF is about ideas and Fantasy about character, only you pointed out that it’s not that simple. And you’re right. It’s not only about genre; it’s also about different stories needing to be told different ways. Some SF can be very character driven (think Connie Willis, Heinlein’s juveniles), and some fantasy can be full of Big Ideas (Daniel Abraham’s recent tetralogy).

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Chrystoph – I actually used the travel analogy (leisurely or breakneck) in my first draft of this post. Great minds think alike, eh?

  15. 15. S.C. Butler

    Missy S – Thanks for the encouragement. I can’t wait till it’s done, too!

  16. 16. Andrea K Host

    A great deal of SF is science fantasy, but I think I find that there’s a broader variety of settings available in SF than is often found in fantasy.

    Magic which requires a “price” or consequence from the caster is often an exciting system (I think of that as ‘karmic’ magic, where the universe is balancing out what the mage is theoretically getting “for free”). But I’ll happily enjoy magic systems where the consequence of magic is merely physical exhaustion, potential danger, or unintended side effects. Or where the consequence is on the world, rather than the individual. As long as it all ‘rings true’.

  17. 17. NewGuyDave

    For me, voice comes from the depth I know the characters. Even with stats and histories and personality quirks, until I start writing them for some time their voices seem to all be generic and thus the voice of the story suffers. I find that as my drafts progress and the characters start to come alive to me, the voice of the story grows simultaneously. I’m trying to plan my stories but I think there’s something of a pantzer lurking inside.

    Maybe your story’s voice will develop if you worry less about it and keep writing, pushing forward until the voice grows from within. That might lead to lots of re-writing, but when is there only a little?

  18. 18. Daniel G.S.

    Yeah, I like it simple. Maybe my explanation of the differences was too naive.
    To put it more simple: the difference in *writing* SF and Fantasy, for the writer, is zero. You can write love novels and will be the same scenario.
    If the goal is to create a SF novel, then you should use certain narrative structures in the story so the reader will know is reading SF. The same for Fantasy. Anyway, your style as a writer shouldn’t change, no matter what genre you are in to.
    My readers like the way I write the story. Some times they don’t like the story by itself, but they keep reading it because of my style. Is the same to some great authors, people buy their books because of them and the story, but over all, because of the author style.

    I’m spanish native speaker, so probably what I intend to tell you is not what you are actually getting. ^_^

  19. 19. Ira Nayman

    Interesting question.

    I write primarily comedy. However, at different times I have mixed it with horror, fantasy and most recently science fiction (my last two books in print were sci fi). I think that, despite the genre (and, indeed, medium, since I also create cartoons and screenplays), my works have sufficiently common threads that they could be identified as my works. This has to do with voice.

    Voice includes such issues as: what themes are you trying to develop and how do you use language to develop them? (What are you trying to say and how do you say it?) Every genre has its own requirements, but these are (arguably) fairly easy to figure out. Once you have an understanding of the genre expectations, the question becomes: how are you going to use them as a vehicle for what you want to express?

  20. 20. S.C. Butler

    Andrea K – I agree that SF seems to have a wider range of settings than fantasy, but there’s no real reason why that should be. Is it reader preference? Editorial preference? I have no idea.

    NewGuyDave – That’s exactly what I’m doing – rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

    Why am I doing this again?

  21. 21. S.C. Butler

    Daniel G.S. – Yup, maybe there is a language problem here, because I’m a definite believer in different kinds of stories requiring different styles. That doesn’t mean a writer should write different kinds of stories, only that if they do they should find the right voice for them.

    Ira – You make an excellent point about a writer maintaining a common voice through all the different genre and media they write in. Publishers certainly prefer that – it makes an author more identifiable and more marketable. Stephen King writes across all genres, but his books all scream out that they were written by Stephen King. I’m fairly sure my inner voice will manifest whatever I write, but the structure and pace of the SF book I’m writing now will be very different from my fantasy.

  22. 22. Andrea K Host

    >I agree that SF seems to have a wider range of
    >settings than fantasy, but there’s no real reason
    >why that should be. Is it reader preference?
    >Editorial preference? I have no idea.

    I think because it’s often categorised as something else if it’s outside what people consider a fantasy setting. “Urban fantasy” has settled in as a genre label, but fantasies which are set in a futuristic setting are liable to be classified as science fiction. For instance, take Andre Norton’s “Catseye”. Because it’s in a futuristic setting, the ability to talk to animals is classified as “esper talents” and the book is considered sf. Take exactly the same story, but remove the flitters and stunguns and put it in a world which doesn’t have a futuristic or modern setting, and it would be a fantasy story and we would not think of those abilities as esper talents, but some kind of magical ability to talk to animals.

  23. 23. S.C. Butler

    Andrea – Your point is a sore one for many lovers of SF who don’t like fantasy. There’s a lot of SF that’s basically fantasy (Dune is probably the best example). The fact is, any SF story with FTL spaceships is, according to th current science, a fantasy.

  24. 24. e.lee

    fantasy is about what can never happen
    sci-fi is about what *could* happen

  25. 25. S.C. Butler

    e.lee – Good point.


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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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