To the majority of folks out there, sci-fi is just sci-fi. And sci-fi is, well, anything based in space. Pretty simple, right?

You can probably guess that our hypothetical question means that no, it doesn’t end there. There’s a surprisingly long list of subgenres within sci-fi. One of the most notorious of them all is space opera, a subgenre that you’re probably more familiar with than you realize.

How does a space opera differ from the sci-fi pieces we know and love? What do people love about space operas? And if they’re so popular, can you write your own? We’ll tackle all of these questions (and several others) in this guide. 

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What Is Space Opera?

It’s an opera based in space, right? That would be awesome (and likely hilarious), but this subgenre’s name isn’t quite so literal.

The typical space opera, in fact, puts very little emphasis on space and the technologies that enable humans to get there. Instead, space operas are typically set in a space-inspired version of the future, and the biggest plot points focus on conflicts between civilizations, political conflicts within civilizations, and over-the-top love stories.

Space operas are also not operas. In fact, space operas more closely resemble your favorite soap operas. If you love tension between star-crossed lovers who are literally traveling across the stars while fighting a war, you’ll probably love space operas. 

How Does Space Opera Differ From Sci-Fi?

The biggest difference between space operas and sci-fi is the emphasis on science. While some plots might be over-the-top, authors of sci-fi books and movies are meticulous about making their themes and environments as scientifically realistic as possible.

Space operas, on the other hand, are entirely unrealistic. As we touched on before, space operas are based in an environment inspired by actual space—and they’re better known for their relationship arcs, epic battles between people of different planets (many of which are fictional), and the ongoing struggle of good versus evil. 

Space Opera Books

As you’ll see later in this guide, some of the best-known examples of space operas are movies or television shows. However, space opera aficionados would also tell you that their favorite pieces within the genre are novels.

While you won’t have a hard time finding dozens of Top 12 Space Opera book lists across the internet, let’s talk about a few essential space opera books that newcomers should start with.

Honor Harrington Series by David Weber

David Weber’s work raised the bar for aspiring space opera novelists. In fact, his adaptation of Europe’s political drama from the 1500s to the 2000s in his Honor Harrington series was considered groundbreaking, and many space opera writers still emulate it today. 

The first book of the series, On Basilisk Station, sets the foundation for the anthology. Our protagonist, Honor Harrington, has been exiled to a ship known as the Basilisk. Even worse, her crew on the Basilisk is at its wits end with her as their leader. 

Dune by Frank Herbert

Space operas are commonly set in inhospitable places for humans to live. One of the earliest examples of this is Dune by Frank Herbert.

dune books
Source: flickr
Frank Herbert’s Dune tells the stories of several families living on an inhospitable planet covered in sand dunes.

Dune tells the story of Duke Paul Atreides, who has been cast away by his people and left for dead, only to find a way to survive (what a twist!). The rest of the novel takes readers through a journey in which Atreides reclaims what belongs to him.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Here’s one that you might have read without knowing it was one of the most famous examples of a space opera. It was also developed into a film that you might have seen, albeit not a very popular one.

enders game
Source: flickr
Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” evolved from a short story into a novel and eventually into a film.

Ender’s Game began as a short story that Orson Scott Card developed into a longer novel about a boy named Ender who is fighting his way through an intensive space training program. Eventually, Ender and his classmates find themselves as the last hope in the middle of a war that their people are on the verge of losing. 

Space Opera Movies

The characteristics of a typical space opera translate very well to the silver screen. The subgenre has also produced some of the most classic films across any genre. 

Let’s quickly review some of the most notorious and celebrated examples, some of which might be sitting in your streaming queues as you read this article.

Star Wars

This one probably needs no introduction. Star Wars is one of the most critically acclaimed and lucrative movie franchises in history. In terms of the typical elements of a space opera, Star Wars set the bar extremely high with unforgettable characters, complex romantic plotlines, epic battles in space, and political tension that often reminds viewers too much of reality. 

luke fighting darth vader
Source: wikipedia
The Star Wars franchise is among the most famous across any genre of film.

Star Wars fans have no shortage of opportunities to relive their favorite memories from the films. In addition to rides and attractions at Disney theme parks around the world, fans can also immerse themselves in the movie franchise at museums, during conventions, and on a dedicated National Star Wars Day that’s best known by its tagline “May The 4th Be With You.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek is another infamous space opera series across both film and television. Although this franchise is still cranking out movies, the most notorious of them all is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

This film is celebrated for several reasons, but its most infamous scene is quoted by folks who haven’t even seen the movie. Ever want to break an awkward silence at a dinner party? All you need to do is imitate William Shatner hollering, “Khan!”

How to Write a Space Opera

Inspired by what you’ve seen so far? We’d be surprised if you weren’t.

If you’re like most creatively driven people, you might have gotten to this part of the article and thought, “I bet I could write a classic space opera, too.” And you’re right! Who’s stopping you?

To help you get your movie or book off the ground, let’s talk about a few key components of a typical space opera. While rules are meant to be broken, it’s important to know what makes a space opera a space opera.

Put Your Characters In Peril

Most, if not all, space operas would fall flat if there wasn’t some kind of crisis for your main characters to face and overcome. In fact, if your story is simply about a few people traveling through space, you might end up writing a sci-fi book or movie.

And by “crisis,” we’re talking about world or life-ending peril. Perhaps your main characters are stuck on a planet that’s about to be taken over by a series of black holes. Or maybe they’re stuck on a ship that’s without power and has recently been invaded by an exotic space creature. Be creative about the type of trouble your main characters are in—but don’t forget to put them into a good amount of that trouble.

Give Your Characters a Quest

Again, if your characters are just traveling through space for the sake of traveling through space, you might end up with a more traditional piece of sci-fi. Instead, give your characters a quest to complete. They’ll face the aforementioned peril along the way, but typical space operas are rooted in either a mission or goal that the protagonist has to complete in order to prevent the galaxy from imploding on itself

Introduce a Few Space Creatures

Want to create a mess of trouble for your main characters? Come up with a few unique space creatures for them to interact with. 

As you might have seen in Star Wars, not all space creatures are bad. Some are goofy companions that help the main characters complete their quest. Others are just like folks you’d see in the supermarket. Think through the type of environment you want to create—and then introduce some seemingly strange space creatures as if they’re just your neighbors. 

Bring It Home With a Happy Ending

Some genres are comfortable with leaving films or novels unresolved or with bad outcomes for the protagonists. Space opera is not one of those genres. These stories actually tend to be pretty idealistic about how good always overcomes evil, no matter the circumstances. Take some liberties with the aspects of a space opera that we’ve discussed here, but make sure it wraps up nicely at the end.

A New Frontier Into a Popular Genre of Art

Space operas are some of the most appreciated novels and films across all genres. They pack a unique combination of tension, space combat, and saccharine romantic plotlines that satisfy what most people are looking for in art. While the bar has been set fairly high, there’s nothing stopping you from adding your own book or movie to the genre—and since there are so many elements to play with, you might even come up with something that redefines what the term “space opera” means.

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Written by:

Richard Moy