Thursday, August 3, 2023

“10 Ways to Survive an SF Story” • by Travis Burnham

So, you find yourself a character in a short science fiction story. You’re not in a novel, so you have less time to act. Here are some ways that the writer of your tale won’t tire of you and kill you off. Pay close attention and you might live to the end of the narrative by following these tips:

  1. Embrace Paranoia. When your neighbor, a plucky, precocious high school student tells you, “The Narvomian Polymorphs have infiltrated our federal government! It will only be hours before they take control of the country’s nuclear weapon arsenal and eliminate all our major cities,” why not take her seriously? It certainly couldn’t hurt to email a few of your old military buddies who work in internal investigations or NASA.

  2. Don’t Be a Jerk. If you show off your winning dialogue and how you get on swimmingly with other characters, you might avoid an untimely death. If you say something like, “I kicked Baxter, your puppy, to teach you a lesson that there’s no such thing as aliens,” who isn’t going to want to see you die? Might I suggest: “Why, Heather, that’s a handsome pup you have. Let’s check on some of those clues that you’ve uncovered about an alien invasion.”

  3. Be a Catalyst for Motivation Before Disaster Strikes. Does anyone close to you have a whole bunch of power that they’re just letting go to waste? Do you work for an organization that just can’t seem to get themselves together? Would your death offer them motivation? If you can picture your friend shaking his fist at the sky and saying, “If only I’d taken you seriously about the alien invasion. Now I’ll join the fight and make those Narvomian scumbags pay!” then that’s bad news. Now that you’ve seen the wisdom of being a motivator, you have a choice. You can be an alarmist whose mad rantings will most likely be ignored, or you can carefully gather evidence and present an airtight case. Choose wisely.

  4. Be Useful! Have you kept your fighting skills sharp? Do you have a degree in extraplanar physics? Do you keep up with your firearm practice? In short, don’t be the extraneous character. Be Johnny-on-the-Spot, the one able to say: “You need me to fix that? It turns out that Bose-Einstein Condensate Alien DNA Detectors are my specialty! And with the evidence you brought me, it looks like you might be right about that invasion!”

  5. Play the Long Game. Look for your growth areas and have a character arc. Everyone loves a redemption story, so find whatever faults you’ve had in the past, and change them as fast as you can and still remain sincere. “I knew how to hot-wire that van we just stole because I used to be a thieving, murdering criminal, but I’ve changed all that seeing the inhumanity of those evil Narvomians!”

  6. Don’t Hurt Animals. Seriously. Never. Even if you’re driving at breakneck speed and you need to swerve off a cliff to avoid hitting that squirrel. You can always jump from the car before the cliff. Dogs? If you’re in a story, hurting a dog is like committing suicide. Quintuple your odds of surviving by being the one to say: “I took the plasma blast for Baxter because that’s the kind of empathy that separates us from those damn aliens! We’ll still get to the launch center on time!”

  7. Be Brave, Not Stupid. Have a sense of agency, but don’t take idiotic risks. If you’re the martyr on the front lines, you’ll only be the cannon fodder that gives other characters a reason to continue on. “We could charge the main gate and fight our way through the Narvomian Death Squad stationed there, but I think it would be better to sneak in through the backdoor that I saw on the schematics.”

  8. Be on the lookout for foreshadowing. Do you see a Red Ampere Laser Rifle on the wall? If it’s not going to be fired, it wouldn’t be hanging there. Quietly tuck it beneath the couch cushions so that only you know where it is. If you can’t remove it, take the clip out, so if you happen to find yourself on the business end of the rifle, you’ll only hear a click when someone pulls the trigger. “The laser rifle that was above the mantel? I can’t say that I’ve seen it anywhere.”

  9. Closely Examine Your Dialogue. If you’ve given a smarmy smile, followed by a comment like: “The alien overlord would surely kill us all on this dark and stormy night, Heather, if it weren’t for this trusty Red Ampere Laser Rifle that I have cunningly hidden here, in my customized shoulder holster with gold sequins,” then you’re in a bad SF short story. Prayers and luck are your only weapons in this scenario as you may be offed for shock value, or just to make people sad. You can always hope for resurrection, which is rife in bad stories! Addendum: Be very cautious in offering wisdom to young, naïve characters. Mentors often don’t last—don’t be a mentor! See also #3.

  10. Do Some Soul Searching. There’s one last possibility. Does it seem like you can’t trust the people around you? Having trouble thinking of the last time you performed a random act of kindness? Maybe you recently said, “You’re a fool, Johnny Dux, to think you could ever prevent me from entering the launch sequences because I am ridiculously more powerful than you. Luckily, you don’t have your Red Ampere Laser Rifle, the only item that could possibly defeat me.” If that was you, you’re probably done for. Sorry to break the news, but everyone loves to see a villain get their just desserts. And let’s face it, fiction where the villain wins just doesn’t sell.



Travis Burnham is an SF&F writer and science teacher. His work has or will soon appear in Far Fetched Fables, Hypnos Magazine, South85 Journal, Dream of Shadows, and Stupefying Stories, of course, among other places. His most recent previous story for us was “The Vagaries of Losing and Finding.” If you have not read it, you should check it out.

Originally from New England, he’s lived in Japan, Colombia, Portugal, and the Marianas Islands, and currently teaches science at an international school in Malta. He’s a bit of a thrill seeker, having bungee-jumped in New Zealand, hiked portions of the Great Wall of China, and gone scuba diving in Bali. He’s got some novels currently looking for homes and can be found online at, or infrequently on twitter @Darwins_Finch




Robert said...

This is hilarious.

Pete Wood said...

Really good stuff, Travis! I laughed out loud a lot during this story.

Deborah L said...

Excellent advise! Looking forward to your next work.

Anonymous said...

How very clever