This is probably an unpopular opinion–and perhaps a less-than-stellar writing tip–but every detail in science fiction and fantasy doesn’t need to make sense. I’m talking about characters, world building, traditions, landscapes, magic systems, etc. Granted, of course most of your story needs to. Like 95% of it and certainly the most essential parts. But every little detail doesn’t require an origin story or explanation.
I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy (SFF) for over a decade now and reading it for much longer. Over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in word counts escalating, and while I love large books as much as the next SFF reader, it’s often unnecessary.
You can have a fantastic, vibrant magical world without dedicating 700 pages to it.
The way I write SFF might be a little different than others, but I tend to focus on my point of view (POV) character and plot before I flesh out my world. I mean, of course I know the basics of my magic system, but I don’t get into the nitty gritty until I know exactly what’s needed for the actual story to take place. In fact, I tend to write my first draft without much of my world figured out, not only to see what literally happens but also to get to know my POV character. It’s important to understand what your POV character would truly know. Yes, even about their own culture or circumstances.
Look at your own world.
Do you know why daylight savings started off the top of your head? Where wedding traditions stemmed from? How the border of your state or country was decided? What about why your neighbor is rude one day and sweet the next?
No one knows everything, even if they love random fact-checking.
Your science fiction or fantasy novel needs to make sense just enough for the story to suspend disbelief. Yes, some readers’ standards are going to be higher than others. But you’re not writing to satisfy every reader out there. You are writing the best story that you can. Sometimes that means cutting back and focusing on the elements that are most important. In fact, I’d love to see more SFF that is as quick and light as a cozy mystery. I want to flip through a SFF book in one afternoon and be blown away. And I know it’s possible.
Look at The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells or Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (both published by TOR.)
We need shorter, quicker SFF. Not only for fun, but for accessibility, too. Not everyone can undertake a 700-page novel. Not everyone wants to.
Allowing space for shorter, quicker SFF stories may also allow publishers to take more risks on genre mash-ups. Bigger books are more costly to print and shelve. With shorter books, we could experiment and see if readers would love that quiet fantasy that takes place in a fairy’s coffee shop. That coming-of-age story about a tech geek that invents a pet robot and then loses it. A fun rom-com in space. Graphic novels are already doing this. Check out Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill. I desperately want more novels like these.
Science fiction and fantasy doesn’t have to be dark. (Perhaps another post for another day.) It doesn’t have to be 700 pages either. Readers deserve variety in tone, length, and more. In order to achieve this, we need to remove the pressure of explaining every little detail in our stories. Readers and authors alike need to be open-minded to exploring novels with lighter structures. If we do that, I think we’ll see new genres emerge.
The possibilities are truly endless.