For some of us, reading is the perfect way to escape our current world. What better way to explore what-if’s and secret universes than to crack open a book without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home? speculative fiction offers such an opportunity.
Much in the same way that books are a great way to escape, they’re also a great way to speculate.
Sure, it’s true that all fiction is speculative—-none of it really happened. That’s kind of the point. But some fiction specifically considers possibilities outside of our real world and understanding. That’s speculative fiction, and it’s what we’re here to talk about today.
What is Speculative Fiction?
Speculative fiction is what’s called a mega-genre. It encompasses almost all of what we consider to be fiction, so it’s hard to get a fine point on what exactly qualifies as speculative fiction. But, broadly put, speculative fiction is fiction that imagines a world unlike our own.
Under this definition, all sci-fi and fantasy qualifies as speculative fiction, as does dystopia and supernatural fiction. Anything containing fantastical, magical, or supernatural elements technically qualifies as speculative fiction.
Here’s another way of looking at it: speculative fiction tends to ask ‘what if.’ What if we woke up one morning encompassed in a giant dome? What if there was a world controlled by an evil warlock?
Like I mentioned before, all fiction is going to speculate by nature. But speculative fiction is going to speculate about things that don’t currently exist.
This definition is a little broad, and it makes this subject tricky to talk about. Thankfully, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has a theory that can help us out.
Margaret Atwood argues that speculative fiction can be distinguished from other genres. The way we distinguish between speculative fiction, she says, is to consider whether the events of the novel could conceivably happen.
In other words, speculative fiction considers a world where the events depicted haven’t happened… yet.
Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of speculative fiction under this definition. Everything in it is rooted in real-world issues, real-world technology, and real-world people. The idea is that if things continue a certain way, this is how it could go.
Another great example of speculative fiction is George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 considers a world in which the existing surveillance state is expanded until it’s completely and entirely inescapable—-the world is far-fetched, maybe, but it comes from a tangible, understandable place.
You might notice that a lot of sci-fi and dystopian novels still fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. That’s totally normal—-speculative fiction under Atwood’s definition is usually going to also be either science fiction, dystopia, or both.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be using Atwood’s interpretation of speculative fiction!
How to Write Speculative Fiction
We know what speculative fiction is, and we’ve got a few examples. We’re ready to write our own! I’ve outlined five major tips for making your next speculative fiction a success.
Find a Premise
When it comes to writing any kind of fiction, you want a strong premise. What if an alien crash-landed in the middle of a soccer field? What if a boy accidentally stole a famous painting during a tragic explosion at a local museum?
Speculative fiction depicts what could happen if an issue is left unresolved. Remember our earlier examples—-The Handmaid’s Tale considers women’s issues, and 1984 takes a closer look at the surveillance state and the effects of late capitalism.
Find an issue that’s important to you. Maybe it’s animal rights—-what could happen if animal testing were expanded in some horrible way? Ask yourself questions about these issues, left untreated, and go from there. Speculative fiction is rooted in real-world problems, so pull from existing issues.
Do Your Research!
Since we’re pulling from real-world issues, it’s important to make sure you’re doing your research!
Not only can it come off as insensitive if you approach a sensitive subject without reading up first, but it’ll also distort your book. If Margaret Atwood didn’t know anything about women’s issues, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale probably wouldn’t have been as poignant and impactful as it is.
You don’t need to become a top expert in your field. Using our animal testing example, it’s not vital that you become a veterinarian or labs expert. But reading up on the current state of animal testing, what it involves, and what the current risks are will help you in a few ways.
First, it’ll give you an idea of where the problem is currently going and what the current dangers are. This basically tells you where to take your story and makes it urgent and impactful, so you don’t want to skip that. Second, reading about your subject will give you the tools you need to write about the issue effectively.
So don’t skip your research, and make sure you’re getting your info from reputable sources.
Keep Your Worldbuilding Consistent
Speculative fiction may be rooted in the real world, but it’s going to be distorted somehow. Neither 1984 nor The Handmaid’s Tale is an exact replica of any current city—-that’s kind of the point. It’s about a different universe that will exist if our current universe doesn’t get it together.
That means you’ll need to do some worldbuilding. What does this universe’s government look like, and why does it look that way? How does life look to your average person? Who are the privileged in your society, and who are less so?
The answers to these questions will come out in your premise. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, it’s obvious why the society is set up the way it is, and it’s clear how it got there. You won’t have women in power in a story about women having no power. Similarly, you’re not going to have a socialist or care-free government in a story about a late capitalist surveillance state.
Take your premise, expand it to all aspects of your world, and make sure you’re staying consistent!
Map Out Your Outcome
To build a compelling narrative, it’s helpful to know where you’re going. That’s true for whatever you’re writing, but it’s especially true for speculative or dystopian fiction.
What’s the thing that will happen if the issue is unresolved? That’s what you’re writing about, so it’s helpful to have it in mind.
It’s also good to know who wins in the end. It’s not required that speculative fiction have a message of warning, but the reason why these sorts of books tend to have downer endings is because the authors have taken the philosophical question to its logical extreme.
Sometimes dystopia ends in revolution or justice, sure. But it depends on the world you’ve made, and it depends on the issue you’re dealing with.
Who ends up in power by the end of it? Why? If power changes hands, how does that happen, and does that actually solve the problem? The Hunger Games does a great job of showing us how a revolution and change of power could actually just refresh the problem instead of solving it.
What Not to Do in Your Speculative Fiction
You want to make sure your world is consistent. Like we mentioned earlier, this should all be rooted in reality, and even if your world isn’t the one we currently live in, it should still have its own internal logic.
Say your premise is that all pets are taken by the government and subject to animal testing. It would sort of ruin it to then introduce a family who has several dogs running around and have no one say anything about it. It would weaken the impending threat, and it would confuse the reader.
It’s okay to have characters break rules in the universe, but there should be consequences for it. Make sure you know what the rules are, even if the reader doesn’t, and make sure you’re sticking to them.
Just because speculative fiction takes place in an imaginary world doesn’t mean that it should be unrecognizable.
You want your world and characters to be relatable. It should make sense how the world got to be what it is, and it should be comprehensible to the reader. A super complicated government system full of complicated made-up names and complex tech might be a little overwhelming.
This is something you’ll have to mess with a little. Some people love super dense, elaborate worldbuilding, and some people are more interested in the story and prefer to keep all that stuff as simple and clear as possible.
Know who you’re writing for and write for them. If you’re writing a hard sci-fi speculative novel for hard sci-fi fans, let loose with your intense descriptions of the city’s futuristic sewer system (if it’s relevant to the plot, of course). Just have some people read it to make sure it’s not so complicated that it distracts from the story.
If you’ve picked up anything so far from this article, it should be that speculative fiction is about what could happen if a given issue goes unresolved. This means that while you’re definitely taking some creative liberties with science or how things work in the real, present-day world, you’re probably better off not disregarding them entirely.
Let’s consider The Martian by Andy Weir. The Martian is interesting because we watch the protagonist work with the materials he’s got. Sure, it’s a little bit of a stretch, but he’s using actual science to solve his problems. It would be a way different and maybe less interesting story if potatoes started magically growing from the ground.
This goes back to what we talked about with doing your research. Figure out what’s what and use that to explore your subject. It’ll make for a more believable read!
You’re ready to go!
Now that you know what speculative fiction is, how it works, and how to write it, you’re ready to pen the next terrifying dystopian novel.
What’s your favorite speculative novel? Do you have any fun premises for speculative fiction? Let us know in the comments!