I've been recently spending my free time writing fiction. In order to improve, I picked up How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card.

I found it an interesting read, and introduced me to some concepts that have helped me realize mistakes in my speculative fiction stories. On the other hand, there is a lot of material addressed at professional writers, on what to read first, where to publish and what conferences to attend.

I am writing this summary for people who want to engage with the writing advice - of the publishing and sales advice I didn't pay much attention nor bothered checking which parts were up to date.

Here is the advice I enjoyed the most. Most of it is common sensical. But there is value in separating common sensical good advice from common sensical bad advice.

Show, don't tell

This is commonly repeated advice, but I think I didn't quite internalize it until now - at least as it applies to introducing technology and magic to the reader.

Essentially it boils down to never, ever have expositional dialogue. As long as your rules of magic / science are self consistent, you do not need to explain them in detail. Instead, Orson Scott Card recommends to expose through implication.

Here is one example in the book:

The classic example is Robert Heinlein’s phrase “The door dilated.” No explanation of the technology; the character doesn’t think, “Good heavens! A dilating door!” Instead, the reader is told not only that doors in this place dilate, irising open in all directions at once, but also that the character takes this fact for granted. The implication is that many-perhaps alldoors in this place dilate, and that they have been doing it for long enough that nobody pays attention to it anymore.

Another piece of advice is to give the exposition in pieces. You do not need to fully flesh out the world at the beginning. Better to begin with the action driving the story, and let the exposition trickle in through implication.

Keep your promises

This is fairly basic advice. However I realized I was butchering it.

Basically, Scott Orson Card invites us to think of story telling as making a series of promises. If you mention a new term like a "seed village", the audience expects you to explain what that is before it becomes relevant for the plot.

The most important promise to keep is the promise you make in the first few pages - what the story will be about. If your story starts by an event that gets resolved in page 15, the story will feel like it drags on. Why would the reader continue reading?

Orson Scott Card gives as example four archetypes of speculative fiction stories: the MICE formulas.

  • Milieu stories are about travels through a strange world. They start when a character is transported to a foreign land, and finish upon their return home. An example is Gulliver's Travels.
  • Idea stories are about the process of the characters resolving a question. They begin when a question is asked, and they finish when the question is resolved. An example is a classic murder mystery, which finishes when the viewpoint character finds the culprit.
  • The Character Story is a story about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to them. They begin as the caracter becomes uncontent with their situation, and they end when change happens.
  • Event stories are about an event that alters the order of the world and throws it into a period of change. They begin when the character most crucial to establishing a new order for the world becomes involved in the struggle, and they end when the new order is stablished. An example is Lord of the Rings, which begins as Frodo becomes involved in the Fellowship of the Ring.

Personally I didn't find the taxonomy itself very useful. Yet the core advice of starting a text with the story you intend to tell is solid.

Motivation and intention ; cause and effect

Another piece of very basic advice. For each character in the book, you ough to ask why they are acting the way they are acting, both in the sense of what drove them to action  (their motivation) and what they hope to achieve (their intention).

For events of any kind, one should similarly ask why they happened, how the unfolded and what effects they have in the world. Emphasis on the plural - events rarely have a single cause or a single effect.

Asking a why and resolving it is the way to drive a story forward. 

The protagonist, the hero and the viewpoint character

In Orson Scott Card's terms, the protagonist is the character whose choices drive the story forward, the hero is the character the audience wants to suceed, and the viewpoint character is the one through whom we see the world and the unfolding of events.

They do not need to be the same character - in Star Wars, Luke is the hero and viewpoint character, yet Darth Vader choices drive the story forward - he is the protagonist. Orson Scott Cards recommends keeping the distinction in mind when resolving the story - Star Wars ends when Darth Vader rebels against the emperor. 

I feel like I didn't quite understood the point of this particular piece of advice.


Make your sentences short and clear. Avoid both slang and overly formal prose. Use the language choices of different characters to cement their characterization. 

Coming up with ideas

Orson Scott Card says that the best story telling comes from combining unrelated ideas. He explains his process, mulling over ideas for years until he finds the right combination.

He says some people like writing scenes with their ideas, to see if they work well in practice. And continuosuly drop and refine the ideas, until they find a story they are excited about telling.

To generate the ideas in the first place, he uses as an example brainstorming sessions, where he would put forward creative exercises with explicit restrictions (eg "an alien species which cannot talk"). He would then cull the cliches ("telepathy is too obvious") and ask follow up questions to flesh out the most promising ideas ("Why did this species evolve the capability to share memories as chemicals? Do they keep memory chemicals stored in libraries?").

Finding a wise reader

Orson Scott Card recommends finding readers who will report on their experience as they read, to help you identify problems rather than propose changes or solutions.

He also emphasizes that most readers can only give feedback on your stories once - it is hard to engage honestly with an edited version of something you had them read before.

In summary, Orson Scott Card's book contains some very useful writing advice.

If I was to pick among these the most useful, I would stick to the idea of exposing through implication and the idea of starting the book with the main story you intend to tell.  

Would I recommend reading the whole book? I am not sure - there was a lot of advice for professional writers that was very specific, and I wouldn't be surprised if Orson Scott Card's magazine subscription recommendations haven't aged well. And other parts where he covers very particular things, like how warp speed has been portrayed in fiction, that arent really about writing good stories.

I think the compromise is that if the ideas in this post intrigue you, I would recommend reading chapter 2 section 1 on generating ideas, chapter 3 section 2 on when stories begin and end, and the entire chapter 4 on exposition and language use. Those are the parts that contain, in my opinion, the most useful writing advice, illustrated with examples from modern books.

Chapter 1 and chapter 5 are about how to get involved in the speculative fiction community, and selling books. The rest of chapter 2 and chapter 3 will be interesting for some, and overly specific for others.

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:31 PM

I really like the idea of Promises and just barfed my thoughts below. :)

Very intriguing! I also really like the concept of Promises, how the opening event is a promise for how the story will develop, and you shouldn't fulfill that promise on p15. This can relate to every aspect of storytelling, from the character's motivations and intentions (thinking of these as promises unveils what the character arc's purpose is; eg. character is grieved by death of a loved one, what promise is made to the reader and what is the fulfillment?) to events (guard is shot with an arrow to the knee; implied promise might be that the guard wants revenge (motivation), or learns to forgive and has revelation of the way the world works; fulfillment of that promise might be for the guard to return to the story at a later point and attempt an assassination with only one working leg). Practically, this might encourage an author to begin the story with as large a promise as the book intends to fulfill; the inciting incident. Then a series of smaller promises (like introducing character flaws or side-quests) until the midpoint or crisis event, after which should come the payoff for as many of the promises as possible or useful. Sequels can start from unfulfilled promises introduced in the first story; trilogies are written from a promise that is larger than the first book can accommodate.

Thanks for the summary. A minor copyediting note: the sentence «They begin as the caracter becomes uncontent with their situation, and» cuts off part way.

Thank you! Now fixed :)

I interpreted it to mean that uncontent characters change things in the words (i.e. that character stories are likely to lead to event stories).