Space Operas: What They Are, and How To Write Them
Space opera is a love letter to space exploration and to the melodrama of the universe.
I don’t know if it’s obvious from my personal writing (a sci-fi novel about a sentient AI on a spaceship that falls in love, and short stories about aliens and hyperspace travel), but I’m a massive science fiction nerd, and one of my favorite subgenres of sci-fi is the space opera.
No, I don’t mean a bunch of people singing about being in space - although admittedly that would be awesome - I mean the genre inspired by the very human trait of loving space and wanting to see every inch of it and interact with everything it has to offer. Space opera is a love letter to space exploration and to the melodrama of the universe.
What is space opera?
So, let’s start with the basics: why is it called “space opera?” What exactly does that mean?
Opera, as in a stage production where the story is told entirely through song, has existed for centuries as an art form. It’s a classic theatrical format that generally includes dramatic, intense stories with big personalities filling out major archetypes - the dashing hero, the damsel in distress, the world-dominating villain, etc. Obviously, actual operas themselves are widely varied and can be incredibly cleverly written and entertaining, but because opera has long been accessible only to the very wealthy (due at least in part to exorbitant ticket prices and the conflation of free time with wealth), the format became synonymous with over-the-top melodrama nearly to the point of parody. Opera was seen by many working-class folks as rich people playing at acting rather than being true art - which is sad, but here we are.
So, in the early part of the 1900s when the Western genre was getting popular, people who wanted to deride the genre started calling it “horse opera,” saying that all of the stories were the same and that they were overdramatic and boring. When radio shows became popular, long audio dramas were often sponsored by soap companies, and because of their dramatic nature, they were often derisively called “soap operas.” By the 1940s, when science fiction was first becoming popular and people were creating the first stories set in outer space, Wilson Tucker, a popular American mystery and sci-fi writer himself, condemned the over-the-top romances and big-battle stories in the genre by comparing them to these audio dramas and Westerns, giving them the name “space operas.”
Fortunately, as with the other genres, the term didn’t stay derogatory for long. Writers in the genre fully embraced the camp and spectacle of their stories and took the title of space operas for themselves, creating a sci-fi subgenre that’s still ridiculously popular today. From its humble beginnings with Flash Gordon and other serials, space operas now have a firm place in pop culture.
What are the elements of space opera?
That’s the history of the genre, but what does a space opera actually look like? You’re probably already familiar with it: space operas are epic tales set in, at minimum, full solar systems and at maximum, entire galaxies. These massive, far-future settings are populated by a wide variety of alien races and civilizations who either work together under some massive interstellar governing body or are constantly at war with each other - or both. There are always grand vistas full of beautiful life - plant, animal, and sapient - that the reader or viewer can explore; that exploration is often part of the storyline.
Speaking of, our story usually revolves around a small group of people who are either running from, working for, or living under a massive organization (such as said interstellar government). This group usually follows the theory of the five-man band or the golden trio, and almost always includes a dashing hero and a resourceful and beautiful heroine. The team often finds themselves interacting with strange planets and people, exploring faraway reaches of the galaxy, falling in love, and fighting for what’s right. Usually, everything turns out alright in the end.
Space operas are defined by their absolutely huge scale in everything from setting to character personalities to conflict and story arcs. They’re essentially what would happen if you put a high-fantasy setting in space and replaced most or all of the magic with vague pseudoscience. That’s an important note as well: space operas differ from hard science fiction / speculative fiction in that they almost never offer proper explanations for how the spaceships, hyperdrives, phasor beams, and teleport decks actually work - it’s enough for us to know that they do work. These stories use technology as means to an end, usually placing focus on exploration and characters, unlike cyberpunk, where technology and its impacts have a much stronger emphasis. The focus of the story is on the people and their interactions rather than on the logistical function of their worlds.
Examples of space operas
Here are some examples of space operas that you might be familiar with.
One of the most famous space operas of all time happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars, originally released from 1977 to 1983, has all of the classic dramatic elements that make the genre great. The Empire controls the majority of the galaxy, with a small rebellion brewing. Princess Leia, our “damsel in distress” (though she’s significantly better written than most damsels and has much more agency), reaches out to her old mentor, who brings heroic farm boy Luke Skywalker onto an epic quest to save her and the galaxy from the evil Galactic Empire, led by Darth Vader and the even more insidious Emperor Palpatine.
The original trilogy is a fantastical odyssey through various alien planets and cultures, full of dashing rogues, massive battles, epic (laser) sword fights, and the triumph of good over evil. It even has a classically soap-opera-esque reveal at the end of the second movie, with Darth Vader suddenly revealed to be none other than the assumed-dead Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s Jedi father and hero.
The story of the Skywalkers and their effects on the galaxy grew so much it expanded the series into nine movies and several spin-off shows, books, and games.
Yet another pattern for the space opera genre is Star Trek, especially the original 1960s series. This story, about the crew of the USS Enterprise exploring deep space while getting into mischief that is definitely causing intergalactic incidents galore, has spawned a subgenre of its own.
What sets this apart from military science fiction is that we never really learn how Starfleet functions in its entirety. In fact, the rules keep changing. For example, the Starfleet uniform colors are notorious for changing from series to series; in the original series, redshirts were cadets and low-ranking officers in various departments, while in later series, red is the color for security or engineering. This was never a big point of contention in the show, however; the focus was almost entirely on the characters themselves. The suave Captain Kirk with his melodrama (thank you, William Shatner) and his long suffering first mate, the calm and intellectual Spock, present a dynamic that’s been repeated in countless books, movies, series, and games since then. Not only that, but the Star Trek universe itself has only grown and expanded to follow the next generations (pun fully intended) of Enterprise crews through their journeys.
This classic sci-fi series is actually the source of some of the first modern fanfiction and examples of modern fan culture, with Trekkies creating fan zines and conventions since the debut of the first season of the original series. It has even inspired some modern technology, including automatic doors and cell phones!
Frank Herbert’s Dune
The Dune series, by Frank Herbert, is another famous genre-definer. In this space opera, we’re following Paul Atreides as he navigates the interplanetary politics of a corrupt empire dependent on “spice,” a powerful drug and fuel source found only on the planet Arrakis. The six original novels and their numerous sequels explore the settings of various planets full of familiar and alien species and cover stories of love, loss, war, addiction, corruption, and destiny.
Film adaptations of the series have always had trouble capturing the pure scale and spectacle of the books; the first film adaptation in 1984 had extremely divisive reviews, with fans and critics either absolutely adoring the camp or despising it completely. The modern interpretation, released in 2021, has also had intensely mixed reviews from dedicated and casual fans alike. While some would rather the series focus on the people and their relationships, others claim that the setting and background lore is more important, and still others would rather the focus be on the political and social struggles. With a series this complicated, it’s going to be difficult to please everyone.
Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
On the more comedic end of the space opera genre is the five-book trilogy (yes, you read that correctly) of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally written and created by Douglas Adams. This series actually began as a radio show on BBC 4 in 1978, but was converted into a book in 1979 and spawned many, many spinoffs including television shows, movies, and video games.
This slightly ridiculous story follows the strange adventures of Arther Dent, an Englishman who escapes the destruction of Earth by a bureaucratic race of aliens who are constructing an intergalactic bypass in its place. Arthur meets up with Ford Prefect, who tells him about the guidebook he’s writing about interstellar travelers with all kinds of strange advice, including a tip that you should always bring a towel with you on your travels. He even learns the meaning of the universe from a hyper-intelligent supercomputer - simply the number 42.
Adams’s world is focused entirely on its wild and fantastical people and societies, with most of the technological marvels explained away with passing pseudo-science or simply left unexplained, even when characters ask for clarification. The humor comes largely from strange social interactions and poor Arthur haplessly wandering into cultures he doesn’t understand, which intentionally make no sense to us Earthlings.
Need even more space opera in your life? Check out these frequently recommended titles:
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
The Skylark and Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith
Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (though some may consider this more military sci-fi)
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga
The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett
The Revelation Space series, by Alastair Reynolds
A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge
Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series
How to write space opera
With all of this grandeur in mind, how do you even begin to write a space opera? Well, there are a few things you need to keep in mind - mainly, your story scaling and setting.
Keep story scale in mind
As I’ve said, one of the defining features of a space opera is its sheer scale. These stories are epics; they span huge spaces literally and figuratively. So, it’s a good idea to keep the grand scale of the story in mind as you write. You might choose to explore big themes to keep up with the big settings. Some of the classics are
- The role of the individual versus the collective
- Whether freedom or safety is more important on a societal scale
- The power of fate versus personal responsibility and decisions
- The power of love in all of its forms (romantic, platonic, familial, etc.)
Build your world and stick to it
Worldbuilding is one of the most important aspects of writing a space opera. Not to be repetitive, but once again, these stories span multiple planets and sometimes even multiple solar systems. So, having clear, consistent world-building can help you define your setting and keep readers from getting confused. Space adventures require having some method of space travel. Do your characters use spaceships that travel faster than light? Travel via wormholes, or ancient alien artifacts like the Stargate from the movie and TV series of the same name?
Authors Drew Williams and Arkady Martine noted in an interview with Publishers Weekly that they tend to world build backwards. “I start with the situation I want,” said Martine, “and then figure out how to make it plausible and what rules I need to set for myself.” Williams agreed and added that he tends to rely on internal consistency when it comes to establishing these rules, commenting, “so long as it’s consistent—so long as I know, for example, roughly how long it takes to cross from one solar system to a nearby solar system in hyperspace, and that remains true across the novels—I don’t really try to wring my brain out with the physics.”
I’d highly suggest creating a detailed series bible for your space opera long before you set about writing the actual stories themselves. This can help you keep individual characters and larger structures like governments and planetary systems clearly labeled and documented, so that you always have somewhere to look for a reference and your story remains consistent from book to book. You don’t want to be hundreds of pages deep and forgetting where you wront down the name of a character’s homeworld.
Tell big stories in small pieces
So now to go in the complete opposite direction from the previous two sections, I have this advice: to tell a big story, break it into small pieces. Space operas cover a lot of ground by following one person trekking (pun fully intended) through it. Whether you consistently follow the same character from book to book or tell each story from a different perspective, try to frame your stories from one point of view at a time. This can help keep your readers from feeling overwhelmed and as if they’re being asked to follow the entire universe at once.
A good way to do this is to use the classic trope of the naive protagonist to your advantage. Naive protagonists are intentionally sheltered from certain aspects of your world until their adventure begins, at which time they have to be shown how things work and how they fit into the larger scheme of the story. This is convenient because it gives you a way to explain how the world works and how it’s set up without exposition dumping, which can get boring really quickly. The protagonist acts as a proxy for the audience, asking the questions they probably have so that the audience can get the answers and explore alongside the protagonist.
That being said, you don’t necessarily have to take this approach; you can always choose to drop your readers in the middle of the story and reveal what’s happening slowly over time. Just make sure to leave enough breadcrumbs in the story so that they can follow the trail and keep up with the plot.
Space operas are, in my opinion, a drastically underrated genre. They’re extravagant and silly and fun, and while that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea all the time, the sheer size of the stories means that there’s at least one small thing for everyone to enjoy about them, from the impressive technology to the varied cultures and exploration. Space operas offer the same melodrama and intrigue as their earth-bound predecessors with a revamped, open setting that can be expanded and adjusted to match our ever-growing curiosity about the worlds beyond our own.