An introduction to writing space opera for children and teens

1024 577 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

Umm, what is this ‘space opera’ of which you speak?

You probably hear the genre title ‘space opera’ and think huh? What on earth is that? Well, they’re not set on earth for a start! But you probably guessed that from the name.

Space operas – a subgenre of science fiction – aren’t literal operas where characters stand around in fancy dresses singing their dialogue (more’s the pity) but they do borrow the art form’s sense of melodrama and unlikely storylines just like TV soap operas except they’re set in outer space. The term was first used in a rather derogatory fashion by author Wilson Tucker to describe what he called the ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn spaceship yarn’. Ouch.

Thankfully the term gained legitimacy and respect over the decades and, in their 2007 book The Space Opera Renaissance, sci-fi editors David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer redefined it as

colourful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues and very large-scale action, large stakes.

They’re usually epic stories set in the distant future and they see characters travelling between locations in space such as from galaxy to galaxy in a sprawling, boundless battle. Famous examples of space operas on screen are Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Flash Gordon. Hit space opera novels include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers. 

Where’s all the middle grade and YA space opera at?

It’s no surprise that space opera can be a really fun landscape to play on when writing for children and teenagers: all that colour, melodrama, angst, fast action and hopeful endings (unlike, for example, Lovecraftian horror which is typically pessimistic about the future) is perfect for young sci-fi fans. That said, it doesn’t feature on middle grade book lists terribly often, making it a harder sell than some other genre fiction. That’s probably partly down to the fact that a lot of young readers don’t recognise the term ‘space opera’ yet so categorising books this way may not result in high sales, plus military themes aren’t as common in middle grade as in YA and adult fiction. That said, most agents and publishers won’t just dismiss an entire subgenre and some are actively seeking it, so if you’ve got a brilliant middle grade space opera you’re thinking of querying, go for it! You may find that, if it gets picked up, it ends up being marketed under a more generic science fiction label.

In Encountering Enchantment: A Guide to Speculative Fiction for Teens (a book aimed at helping librarians understand fantasy subgenres), for example, Susan Fichtelberg lists recommended YA space opera authors under the ‘science fiction adventure’ heading:

  • Kat Falls
  • Catherine Jinks
  • China Mieville
  • Alexander Gordon Smith
  • Amy Tintera
  • Sean Williams

Here are some other MG and YA space operas to check out:



Ready to write space opera for children and teenagers?

#1: Ease readers in gently

Most young readers probably won’t know what space opera is. There are certainly lots of passionate readers among this audience who spend time on blogs and Goodreads devouring reviews and learning the landscape and they’ll be more likely to recognise the more obscure subgenres of fantasy and science fiction, but certainly the majority of 8-12 year olds won’t be familiar with the term. That’s exciting for you because you get to introduce them to space opera! But you might want to ease them in gently so they’re not scared off by confusing terminology or strange scenarios straight away. The same goes for most science fiction: adult readers will recognise the tropes of the genre and won’t need their hands holding as they dive into your world, but children who are new to this area of fiction won’t know what to expect.

Tip #2: Balance world building with story

Any science fiction can be a tough sell for younger readers, particularly those that often require lots of world building and backstory like space opera, because it’s hard to get all the necessary detail of your world across without dragging down the pace. Can you fill readers in on the politics and history behind your story’s interstellar conflict but still jump quickly into the action and keep things dramatic and high stakes?

Tip #3: Make your character relatable

You also need to balance character development with plot. Space opera is a loud, zippy genre on a big scale and while middle grade readers do typically enjoy fast paced, exciting stories they also need to connect with your main character. Whatever strange, exaggerated scenario your hero finds themselves in, there still need to be universal, accessible character traits and emotions that readers can relate to. Your protagonist might be leading an inter-galaxy battle or protecting themselves from alien fire on a colony spaceship but they should be experiencing worries and concerns your reader recognises from their own life like fear of failure, a need to prove themselves or a desire to protect a sibling. Unrealistic, over-the-top plots can still feel believable on a character level.

Tip #4: Remember genre conventions and tropes

Although children may not be as familiar with space opera as adults, it’s still useful to consider the tropes and reader expectations of the category if you want your novel to sit alongside the big names in the genre. Tropes (common plot elements or narrative devices) can be really important for making readers feel comfortable, like they’re on familiar ground. If your young reader is just starting to read space opera, recognising plot events from other books they’ve read in the genre can be reassuring and grounding for them.

Read more about space opera

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes