Write "Science" Stories
The Editor of "Scientific Detective
Monthly" Tells How to and How Not to Write Them
Edited by Gary Westfahl
Introduction. The following article, which
originally appeared in Writer's Digest (10:27-29, February 1930), surely
qualifies as the first article ever published on how to write science fiction. To my
knowledge, the only critical reference to the article occurs in Sam Moskowitz's Strange
Horizons: The Spectrum of Science Fiction (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976); it is not
listed, for example, in H. W. Hall's Science Fiction and Fantasy Reference Index,
1878-1985 (Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1987; 2 volumes).
As introductory comments indicate, Gernsback was
primarily interested in recruiting authors for his magazine Scientific Detective
Monthly, and many of his comments focus on the subgenre he hoped to establish with
that magazine, "the Scientific Detective Story." However, much of the advice
here is relevant to writing all forms of science fiction. It is not surprising to find
Gernsback repeatedly stressing the importance of scientific accuracy and logic; but he
gives at least equal attention to the qualities of effective fiction, even advising,
"Don't fall into the misapprehension that, because your story has plenty of science
in it, a plot is therefore unnecessary." And, by patiently explaining available
resources and possible strategies for writers who are unfamiliar with science, Gernsback
demonstrates a willingness to employ writers who lack a scientific background. The article
thus serves to correct some common misconceptions about Gernsback's editorial philosophy
"How to Write `Science' Stories" also
exemplifies a possibly valuable but underutilized source of information for scholars:
articles by science fiction writers in The Writer, Writer's Digest, and other
magazines written by and for working writers. At a time when fanzines were not published
regularly and there were no in-house forums like The Bulletin of the Science Fiction
Writers of America, these magazines were the only way for science fiction writers to
communicate directly to other established or would-be science-fiction writers; and some
took advantage of the opportunity. For example, Henry Kuttner contributed two articles to Writer's
Digest, "Selling the Fantasy Story" (18:29-33, March 1938) and
"Selling Science Fiction" (19:34-38 October 1939), and Ross Rocklynne offered
the same magazine "Science Fiction Simplified" (21:25-30, October 1941). Such
articles could provide important information about the attitudes and approaches of science
fiction writers of that era; the problem is that copies of these magazines, of limited
circulation and not collected by libraries, are exceedingly rare.
I present the text exactly as originally
published, making only these few corrections:
2. Hyphen after "dictum" replaced by
5. Comma added after "apparatus."
7. "0n" added after
13(5). "A" added before
17(a). The first letter of "look" was
improperly italicized in the original text.
26(j). "Msot" corrected to
26(j). "Buried deep in public
ignorance" replaces "buried deed in public igno-rance" ; other possible
readings would be "buried dead in public ignorance" or "buried indeed in
30. "Yet" before "your
How to Write "Science" Stories
IN modern detection of crime, the X-ray
machine, test-tubes, bunsen-burners, the microphotograph, the spectrograph, the
spectrophotometer and the polarizer are preceding the baton and police whistle in
usefulness. As the pioneer in publicizing these advances in criminal-detection, and in
educating both police and public, Scientific Detective Monthly is performing invaluable
The primary aim of this magazine is to interest
and entertain. Apart from the fact that all material must deal with scientific detection
of crime, no editorial foibles and policies exist against which the writer so often
battles in vain. There is only one editorial dictumscientific accuracy. That
accomplished, the author can give his imagination free reign.
Realizing that Scientific Detective Monthly,
published at 96 Park Place, New York, is exploring a new field of action, I have prepared
for the readers of WRITER'S DIGEST the following lengthy treatise on the Scientific
LET it be understood, in the first place, that a
science fiction story must be an exposition of a scientific theme and it must be also a
story. As an exposition of a scientific theme, it must be reasonable and logical and must
be based upon known scientific principles. You have a perfect right to use your
imagination as you will in developing the principles, but the fundamental scientific
theory must be correct.
As a story, it must be interesting. Even though
you are making a description of some dry scientific apparatus, invention or principle, you
should never bore your reader by making your description dry or uninteresting. A really
good writer arranges descriptions so that they will always be interesting.
The rules that are given here are recommended for
your careful consideration.
Scientific detection of crime offers writers the
greatest opportunity and most fertile field since the detective first appeared in fiction.
Radio, chemistry, physics, bacteriology, medicine, microscopyevery branch of science
can be turned to account. The demand for this material is large, the supply is small. But
authors who wish to capitalize on this new source of income must be careful to follow
certain well-defined principles. These may be explained by setting forth a list of rules:
What To Do, and, as the colored character in Octavus Roy Cohen's story says, "What To
Here are some hints that will increase your remuneration
very materially, and will insure your manuscripts a thorough reading and prompt report.
(1) A Scientific Detective Story is one in
which the method of crime is solved, or the criminal traced, by the aid of scientific
apparatus or with the help of scientific knowledge possessed by the detective or his
(2) A crime so ingenious, that it requires
scientific methods to solve it, usually is committed with scientific aid and in a
scientific manner. Therefore the criminal, as well as the detective, should possess some
scientific knowledge. You will see that this is not an absolute essential to a good story;
a scientific detective can use science in tracing the perpetrator of an ordinary crime,
but judicious use of science by both criminal and detective heightens the interest because
it puts the two combatants on a more equal plane.
(3) As most of our readers are scientifically
minded, the methods used by criminal or detective must be rational, logical and feasible.
Now, this does not limit the author's imagination; he can develop many imaginative uses of
science, provided they are reasonable. For example: one author sent us a story of a man
who rendered himself invisible by painting his clothes and face with a non-light
reflecting paint. By explaining some of the laws of light and color he made this
accomplishment sound plausible, as indeed it is. But he forgot to mention the shadow which
is naturally cast by any object standing in the light, whether or not it is visible to our
eyes. Readers of our magazine pick us up on these little details. To avoid such mistakes
in writing, which really arise from lack of thought, consider your story from every angle
before you write your final copy.
(4) What description of clouds and sunsets was to
the old novelist, description of scientific apparatus and methods is to the modern
Scientific Detective writer. Here again the author must remember that his work will be
read by competent scientists among our readers; and, without careful reference to the
encyclopedia, no descriptions of scientific instruments should be included in your
stories. If you are not in touch with a Public Library, it is advisable to buy a few
really good reference books. Criminoscientific fiction has come to stay and your
investment will pay you dividends.
(5) A scientific crime is, ipso facto, a
mysterious one. Do not underestimate the value of mystery and suspense in your stories;
but remember that it is not necessary to commit wholesale slaughter in order to obtain
these effects. A story is a good story when the reader can imagine himself threatened by
the same peril as the characters in the tale. I can imagine myself killed by a diabolical
bacteriologistI find it harder to visualize wholesale destruction by a mythical
organization. The latter is less personal and individual. Your object is to project
scientific diablerie into truthful settings.
(6) For your own sake, avoid hackneyed
characterization. Keep clear of fair-haired, blue-eyed Irishmen; long, lanky, keen-eyed,
dark-complexioned clean-cut Americans, et al. Although good characterization helps a
story, better none than poor ones.
(7) With the advancement of science, the
criminal-in-fact is turning scientific as well as the criminal-in-fiction. Therefore we
prophesy that Scientific Detective fiction will supersede all other types. In fact, the
ordinary gangster and detective story will be relegated into the background in a very few
years. It is worth your while, then, to study this new development carefully, devoting all
your time and efforts towards turning out good stories of this type. Literary history is
now in the making, and the pioneers in this field will reap large rewards.
A FEW Don'ts must be remembered if you are to
turn out a good story. Here are some:
(a) Don't look through your old manuscripts and
tack scientific endings to them. A Scientific Detective Story is a particular type, in
which the scientific atmosphere is coherent and permeating right through the tale. To
write really good fiction, saturate yourself with the required atmosphere. Read scientific
books, visit chemical laboratories and electrical engineering shops. When you are charged
with scientific enthusiasm, then sit down and write your stuff.
(b) Don't make your professor, if you have one,
talk like a military policeman or an Eighth Avenue "cop." Don't put cheap jokes
in his mouth. Read semi-technical magazines and reports of speeches to get the flavor of
(c) Don't drag in television. It is worked to
death and there are so many better appliances you can use in your stories.
(d) What you are not sure aboutlook up at
the library. Don't make your criminal or detective sit down at a table and twirl dials and
snap switches without an explanation of what these are for, and why they are operated by
the character. Your readers want to know about this; and it gives you a good chance to pad
your story legitimately from a scientific text book. Scientific Detective Stories are easy
to write once you grasp the swing of them.
(e) Don't fall into the misapprehension that,
because your story has plenty of science in it, a plot is therefore unnecessary. The
science improves the plotnot vice-versa.
(f) Break up your story into action, dialogue,
and description. So many lines of one, so many of another. If you have a long descriptive
passage to write, interlope some action, as, for example:
machine works best in an atmosphere of seventy degrees." The Professor crossed the
room, closing the copper contact as he passed it. "The higher level of the atmosphere
is cold," he continued quickly: "When the machine
(g) Don't underestimate the importance of
properly-prepared manuscripts. Not only is the easy-to-read manuscript favored by editors;
but care in typing and layout will induce careful and orderly thought in your actual
writing. Short lines are easier to read than long ones; this is due to a well-known
optical law. Therefore, leave a wide margin on the left-hand side of your page. You will
find it much more remunerative to write one story well and carefully, than three rapidly
and carelessly. Therefore edit and retype before submitting manuscripts. Clean the type
bar of your typewriter. Triple spacing is even better than double. Give an accurate word
count on the title page. Don't put in your own captions or chapter heads; we do this after
the story is in type. (h) Don't imitate other writers. Many a story is rejected simply
because it is too "close" to another one.
(i) Don't name your characters after those in
well-known books. Since Van Dine's books appeared, Adas and Sibellas are appearing in
every editorial office. We wish to be introduced to some other ladies.
(j) Don't "splurge." Our office is full
of stories that are the "greatest, most terrible, fearful, mysterious, world-shaking
mysteries of the age." These stories are usually bad; because, in order to make them
sensational to the editorial staff, the author has gone beyond the limits of reason.
Besides, we cannot fill a book with superlatives. Many (in fact most) scientific murders
are little known, are buried deep in public ignorance. Write stories of which the reader
will say: "By Gosh! that might have happened right in this town, and no one heard of
it." If you have a good idea, in scientific detection of crime, your story will
interest us and our readers. That is all we want.
(k) Don't think that Scientific Detective Stories
are hard to write. You are working on virgin ground. The whole field of science is your
oyster to open with your pen and extract the pearl of steady work and good pay.
Finally, before you mail your manuscript to us, submit it
to some local professor or authority on science, or to a physics teacher, to check the
scientific principles involved. If you have studied a text book before writing your story,
your theme will probably sound logical and sensible.
Remember that short stories should run from 8000 to 20,000
words; serials 50,000 to 60,000 words. The rate of payment is from one-quarter to one-half
cent a word, depending on the value of the story. Higher prices are paid for exceptional
When you have finished the first draft of your manuscript,
hold it for a few days. Then read it over carefully and see if you have left any points
unexplained, and threads tangled. Although you must try to avoid "giving away"
the secret of the mystery at the start, your finale must clear up everything completely;
so that the reader understands just what has happened.
The whole secret of scientific fiction lies in reading
about your subject before you start your story. Get an idea of what the murderer is going
to do and how he will do it before you even put a word on paper. Then think out what clues
the detective will find, and what scientific apparatus or methods he will use to trace the
criminal. If you have a mental vision of your story before hand, and the scientific
details at your finger tips, the story will almost write itself as you work.
I have gone through this subject at length, because I am
very much interested in having our writers become successful. As time goes on, you will
see certain writers forging steadily to the front and gaining a reputation and a
following. Those are the authors who have spent a good deal of time and effort in the
construction of their early stories, making them works of art from every point of view.
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