The One Question Required to Write Speculative Fiction

I don’t talk a whole lot about genre in this space, mostly because I think it’s difficult — and not altogether necessary — to fit stories into neat little boxes.

Genres cross and overlap all over the place, and the water gets even murkier when you throw in the hundreds of hyper-specific sub-genres readers can find now.

So, as with any other theoretical discussion, if I’m going to talk about Genre, I’m going to start at the top.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is the giant umbrella genre notable for encompassing fantasy, science fiction, and horror, in particular, but other genres can also fall within this sphere.

Annie Neugebauer has an awesome little diagram of what spec-fic covers in her article about the genre.

But essentially, speculative fiction is any form of fiction in which the possibilities and/or realities of the story’s world are changed from our own.

Which brings us to the main question.

The One Question Required to Write Speculative Fiction

What if things were different from the way they are?

That’s it. Any spec-fic story can be boiled down to this one question. Looking back over my early days of storytelling, this question is apparent.

As a preteen and young teen, I always had a sketchbook. I was never very good at drawing, but I liked the doodle characters and worlds. I also designed battlefields and laid out military strategies on maps as an avid Warhammer 40,000 player, but that’s a different story.

As I flip through the pages of my sketchbooks now, I can see the questions I was asking as I doodled.

What if squirrels were sentient and lived in tribal societies that were — for some reason — antagonistic towards humans?

The Downfall of Man, Black and red ink on paper, c. 1999

Note the larger squirrel body-slamming some poor dude trying to escape the tunnel. Classic 11-year-old boy’s adventures.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have dozens of scenes like this playing throughout several sketchbooks. I have no idea why. The squirrels travel through their underground burrows and plan surprise attacks on the humans, and sometimes the humans try to attack them with bulldozers and heavy machinery. There was never a whole lot of narrative depth to these running stories, but I loved creating them.

The Importance of ‘What if?’

When world-building for my first novel, I relished the hundreds (if not thousands) of What Ifs I could ask myself to create my own fantasy universe.

What if people lived in a forest protected by an owl spirit? What if that owl spirit spoke through dreams? What if these people’s myths and legends were true?

These questions fueled countless pages of notes and snippets of text that will probably never see the light of day, and they continue to fuel my stories now.

Without this simple question, speculative fiction would not exist. I would go so far as to argue that civilization as we know it wouldn’t exist. Isn’t every significant discovery or invention borne out of someone wondering and asking what if…?

Elon Musk has been asking these questions and finding answers. What if cars could run entirely on electricity? What if space travel could be cheaper and more efficient? What if trains could travel hundreds of miles per hour?

Asking what-if is not merely a tool for a storyteller. It’s a tool for anyone who looks around at the world and sees something they can change, something different they could say about it.

‘What If’ has defined us for as long as we have had the cognitive capacity to understand the self.

So ask What If, and then keep asking it, because the moment we stop asking that basic question, is the moment we stop telling our human story.

Steve D

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