Creative Pathways: Self-Paced Science Fiction Workshop
Welcome to Creative Pathways! This will serve as our home page for the workshop. Like all Pathways in STEM programs, Creative Pathways is free and 100% virtual.
The purpose of this workshop is to challenge your abilities as a science fiction writer. We are also considering hosting a Science Fiction Contest for high school students in the Fall 2020. If you are interested, please select the option on the registration page. This will help us fund and implement the project in the Fall.
This workshop focuses on aspects of story writing not covered in the traditional English Lit classroom. We will dive deep into world building, tension, and character. Stay Tuned!
We will begin posting content and assignments June 15th, 2020 on this webpage until July 31st. The assignments are for you to try out if you want to stretch and flex your writing muscles.
This page will experience small updates daily but major updates will occur mostly on Fridays. We will skip Friday, June 26th and Friday, July 10th.
We hope you have fun!
Quick Schedule Of Topics:
Week 1: What is Science Fiction? and Crafting a Story: Researching for Science Fiction
Week 2: (7/3) Crafting a Story: Character Crafting a Story: Strategies in Beginning a Story
Week 3: (7/3) Crafting a Story: World Building
Week 4: (7/15) Crafting a Story: Plot
Week 5: (7/17) Science Fiction Topics: Extraterrestrial Worlds
Week 6: (7/31) Science Fiction Topics: The Fate of Customs and Social Norms in Future Worlds and The Body
Week 7: (7/31) The Future of Science Fiction
Week 1: What is Science Fiction (and why write it)?
By Arpi Grigorian
Science fiction is a collection of works that study how individuals and society respond to changes in science and technology. New ideas change the ways that people interact and challenge existing moral codes.
Science fiction is much than just fanciful thinking. As the rate of scientific innovation increases, we need to ask questions about these new technologies and analyze how they will change our lives. Science can challenge social norms: core beliefs shared by a society. These beliefs are usually answers to the following questions: How did the world come to be? Is there purpose to our lives? What is life? How will everything end?
The mere existence of LGBTQ+ people has challenged existing social norms. We are able to see outside the boxes and labels we were brought up in. Science fiction is a fantastic way to exercise that viewpoint while analyzing how technology can change the world.
Science fiction generally takes place in a world where our understanding of physics holds. That means that the "change" is not mystical in origin but has a probability to exist in our world. It has scientific underpinnings. Science fiction writers often consult with scientists or crunch the numbers themselves to simulate how their technologies can be created or how they would be put into practice.
I cannot tell you how to begin a story. Often, a story idea begins with an image, a vague plot, or a character. However, in science fiction, an idea generally begins with a new (often nonexistent) technology.
What technology do you want to write about in your science fiction? Do you know everything there is to know about its working principles? Do not worry about the plot, character, or themes you want to explore yet. Sometimes, thinking about those things a priori can pigeonhole your understanding of the technology you want to explore. Science always surprises.
Exercise 1: Finding a Topic for Your Sci-Fi Short Story
By Arpi Grigorian
There is no formula that tells you how to begin writing a fantastic story. Sometimes you get the idea for an interesting character. Sometimes the seed of a story is a hypothetical question. Sometimes it is just a setting or image.
This is also true in science fiction. However, sometimes you have a writers block and do not know where to start. Idea or no idea, you can count on the fact that at some point in your sci-fi story you will need to understand how a particular technology or scientific idea will shape an individual or a society.
When writing science fiction, my recommendation is to choose this STEM idea, research it, and ask questions about it. So, for your first exercise, you will choose a STEM topic that will shape the characters in your story.
This STEM idea forms the backbone our your sci-fi story. Without it, you have something other than science fiction. If you choose to include it, you should not treat it superficially, but make sure it supports characters, plot, and setting. All these elements will be influenced deeply by the STEM idea, so it makes sense to start from there. There is no law that states you cannot write a story where technology only has a minor, superficial role. However, doing so limits your story’s potential to analyze the impacts of STEM on people, especially in the sci-fi genre.
So, how to you choose a STEM topic? Some of you might already have a STEM topic in mind; in fact, it might be the reason that you knew you wanted to write a science fiction story.
Many of you have been exposed to plenty of science fiction and are aware of the more common topics: mind control, top secret experiments on people, galaxy spanning empires, and first contact to name a few. These are all mighty fine topics. However, before committing to one of these topics, I challenge you you think about topics in STEM that are smaller in scale or closer to your lived experience. You have lived through so much change. Recently, there has been a global pandemic. Computers have evolved rapidly during your lifetime. Also, there has been tremendous environmental change that has impacted communities and there is no sign of this change slowing down.
You might also find inspiration by browsing science news websites such as Science Daily. There are many advances in STEM that are far from the usual sci-fi repertoire that you might not even know about.
There are a few topics that are more difficult to translate into a science fiction story than others. The details of sub-atomic physics generally do not impact people on a day to day basis. However, in the hands of a good writer, most science fiction topics are story worthy. There might be topics that you feel people should know more about (I know I do) and that is why you choose to write a story about them. But, in the end, the real success of your story is not the topic itself but how you develop the topic into a finished work.
Luckily, once you pick a topic, I can give you a guide on how to research it. First, start small, especially if you are writing a science fiction story. You still might be itching to write about that galactic empire where people live forever, have cyborg babies, and go to black holes to vacation. I completely support your detailed, extravagant imaginations. However, as a beginning story writer, you still have not mastered the art of developing the elements of fiction (character, setting, and plot) and starting with a complex STEM topic will confuse you. It will also make it difficult to form a priority hierarchy of your idea. Even complex stories benefit from having focus. The Expanse is a first contact story (albeit a beautifully detailed one). In my above example, what is the most important idea? The babies? The Galactic empire? Black Hole vacations? If I introduce them all at once, I am really not sure. But, if I choose one, like cyborg babies, I can start asking deep questions about it and develop my world from there. We will talk more about world building from a seed idea in a couple weeks, so bear with me! From my experience, a seed idea can be incredibly rich, so it is a bit foolish not to question it as much as you can.
Second, you can start with this question: how would this STEM idea or tech impact me? What would I do if I had the option to make a cyborg baby? Keep questioning yourself until you run out of ideas. Then, choose a character: it might be someone real, that you know, or a character that just resides in your head. How would they react if they had this tech? What would they do? Write a detailed list of everything that might happen.
Then, ask yourself how the action of these characters might manifest on a larger scale. in other words, how will it impact social interactions?
How will your technology impact different social groups?
The great thing about starting from tech that is on the forefront of being realized or an idea that an expert in the field puts forth is that you know it is actually possible.
As you ask yourself the questions above, take a bit of time to educate yourself on the science of your STEM idea and how it might work.
However, do not get lost in the process. I do no think that science fiction writers know exactly how the STEM in their stories function and that is okay. I do know that once they come up with a tech idea, good science fiction writers thoroughly research how their STEM idea will impact people and society.
There are some other pitfalls you should avoid. I would not worry about how original your idea is. If there is a striking similarity between your story and another story’s character, setting, or plot, definitely acknowledge the author, but besides that the “newness” of you idea is not important. There is a very low chance that someone will come up with the same characters, setting, and plot as you even if the premise is similar. Also, do not concern yourself over whether your story will accurately predict the future. We are not acting as physical or social scientists here.
Writing is a practice; it takes commitment and persistence. There are a lot of tedious elements in writing. Be patient but have fun!
Week 2: Character
By Arpi Grigorian
There are many types of written fictions. You can design a narrative that follows a fictional history, ecology, or really any other social or natural science. You can also write what I like to call a traditional story or narrative: a fiction that follows the evolution of a set of characters. For the latter, developing character is crucial for a successful story. Here, we are going to work on some strategies to develop character. I am excluding works that are non-fiction, like memoirs or actual science research.
What is a character? Usually, we like to think of characters as individuals within a story. I like to define character broadly as an element of the story that can express a goal or that reacts to some event. This includes non-human or even non-individual characters, such as an ocean, a planet, or a ship. Characters do not have to actually be sentient. The narrator is another character. Writers are absent in the story; even if you refer to yourself in the book, you become a character.
Why is character so important for a traditional story? Previously, I asked you to explore ethical and moral questions about the science or technology you want to write about. Characters are the elements of the story that will communicate these dilemmas to the reader; that is their goal. Some characters will be more important to this mission than others, but they should all work together to communicate the messages you intend the reader to learn. Character is also what is human about your story. People have desire and pain and we want to read about entities that encounter the same triumphs and difficulties. If you set out to write a traditional story, you owe it to the reader to seriously develop character. One mistake early science fiction writers make is to develop a beautiful world but leave the characters underdeveloped.
There are many types of characters. I have not run into a guide yet that categorizes these types of characters in ways I think are useful so I have invented some names from them. On the first level, we have environmental characters, physical characters, and unphysical characters. Physical characters are entities that have a body they can use in the story. Unphysical characters do not have a body but exhibit signs of sentience. Environmental characters are part of the setting of the story (and can have or not have sentience).
Generally, your story will feature at least one physical character. There is no single method that will help you create the seed of a good physical character; the best way is to follow your gut and your imagination. However, there are some steps you can take to develop your character and make it ready to be featured in your story.
Physical characters should have desire and should encounter events or other characters that become obstacles to fulfill that desire. Think about what motivates your character, what the character wants in the story, and what gets in the way. Make sure you are exaggerating these struggles; writing good fiction will bring out your sadistic side. These desires or the conflicts to that desire should tie into the moral questions about science the work is asking as a whole. Another thing that writers sometimes forget is that characters can have multiple goals and desires.
You should also know more about your character than what you provide to the reader on the page. The easy steps to “fleshing” out your character is drawing or describing what the character looks like. This is not necessary and, sometimes, it is even undesirable for you character to have a defined body or face. The difficult step in fleshing out your character is understand how your character will react to a variety of circumstances. It is a good exercise to introduce your character to obstacles that they will not encounter in the actual story and use several hundred words to explore how they will behave. Some writers suggest that you write down a list of physical items that reveal something about a character. For example, if a character cares about their appearance, they can walk around with a full cosmetics bag everywhere they go or frequently check their reflection.
Characters need to be consistent but they also need to surprise. You want to entertain the audience with twists, but also make sure that when they finish the story the actions of the character make sense.
Unphysical characters have less requirements but still need care to develop. As a writer, you should control if an unphysical character has a goal or not. There is always one unphysical character present: the narrator. Other unphysical characters might be individuals who have influence over present characters yet do not make an appearance in the text. For example, the memory of a dead loved one can influence one of your living characters.
Lastly, we have environmental characters. Traditionally, environmental characters are buildings or natural elements. The exciting thing about sci-fi is that environmental characters such as planets or space ships might actually have the capacity to have goals if they are powered by artificial intelligence. Environmental characters often have a singular goal, and the goal conflicts with the main character’s desires or goals.
Week 2: Beginning a Story
By Stefanie Oke
One of the scariest, but also most exciting, parts of writing a story is the beginning. It can feel overwhelming to have the entirety of a project and a blank page before you, but if you are struggling to get those first couple of words down, there are a few things you can try.
First of all, it’s important to know what kind of a writer you are. Some writers are planners and write best with a lot of planning and an outline, while others are “pantsers”, who work better writing spontaneously off the seat of their pants. Of course, most writers use some combination of these methods. If you find yourself struggling a lot with one of these methods, try the other for a while. For example, I used to believe I couldn’t write unless I had everything planned out, and would spend years gathering background for my writing. This past year I finally finished my first novel by forcing myself to just write without planning, no matter how bad or disorganized what I wrote turned out to be. It actually wasn’t that bad! Granted, there were a lot of spelling errors and even some plot holes, but that’s what editing is for!
Remember that your rough draft is supposed to be just that: rough. You may feel bad about your writing if you compare it to the published books you have read for fun or in school, but, remember, published books have usually been through multiple stages of intensive editing and revision, polished up by multiple people. The important part of beginning a story is just to get words down on paper before your idea is gone, so you have something to work with later. That work later is what will turn your raw ideas into something more artistic and polished.
When you are first starting a story, it can be difficult to decide where to start. Often, we feel compelled to start at the beginning of what we know, and give the entire backstories of our characters or our worlds. Unless you know this works well for your particular story and for you, I would urge you not to do this. It can be a lot easier to gain momentum and stay motivated if you start instead at the first scene of excitement, where things are beginning to change for your character. For example, rather than starting on the farm where your character’s family is like any other, have the story start with the glare of lights from the first ship of the alien invasion. You will instantly build suspense and draw your reader in, and we can get to know a lot about your characters from the way they interact with that initial challenge. It doesn’t even have to be as big as an alien spaceship- maybe it’s an argument, or a stressful life decision. This is not to say you shouldn’t know your character or world’s backstory. That’s important too! Write down quick notes about that to reference later, and reveal it as the story goes on. And if you need to go back and add more background to the beginning later, do it! Again, editing will be your savior.
If you aren’t sure how to begin your story, write down a short list of exciting events you would like to see happen, and use that as an outline. It also helps to write down some information about your characters. Take your main characters, and write down what they believe, what they want, what they need, and what they fear. Then, compare them to each other. Write a short passage about what it would be like if these characters interacted. Would they get along? An easy way to build tension is to make one character’s goal an obstacle to what the other character wants, or to make what a character wants an obstacle to what they need. Play with this. Have fun creating tiny conflicts that you can reveal and exploit later in your story, and create situations that specifically trigger your character’s growth. You want your characters at the beginning of the story to have something standing in the way of what they want, usually in both a literal and more personal sense. For example, in Finding Nemo, Marlin needs to find his son, but what Marlin really needs is to learn how to balance his fears for Nemo’s safety with Nemo’s need to grow and be independent. Give your characters space to grow, and the pressure they need to push them forward!
Above all, the most important part of beginning a story is to have fun! Let your imagination go wild. Let yourself fall in love with your characters and your world, and get excited about your plot. Even if you are unsure about your idea, tell yourself that you can do this, and it will be great! Do not write your first draft for your readers. Write your first draft for yourself.
Exercise: Planning and Pantsing
For this story, let’s try a combination of the planning and “pantsing” methods. Get out something to write with and open a new document or page of your journal, and write out some quick notes. Write down your main characters (protagonists and antagonists), listed with their beliefs, wants, needs, and fears. Write a short passage comparing each of these characters to each other, to discover points of conflict or harmony. Also write down your setting, and the most basic/important ways the world in your setting differs from our world, whether that’s a specific technology, or you’re setting this on another planet. Write down a list of five possible conflicts your characters will face in your story. Then, take the earliest one, set an alarm for five minutes, and write a first scene about it until your timer goes off. If it goes off and you have more to say, keep going! You’ve beaten the terrifying blank page!
Week 3: Worldbuilding
By Luca Bonarrigo
Worldbuilding is oftentimes the hardest part of writing a story. For some authors, it's incredibly easy to get lost in worldbuilding and forget to actually write the story. For others, it's the opposite way around. The key to worldbuilding is finding a balance; building a rich, believable setting for your story, whether it be on modern day Earth, in the past, or in a galaxy or other realm of your own creation, while also ensuring the setting intertwines with the plot and characters in believable ways to make a well-rounded story.
First thing's first: it is usually easier to build your world around your story rather than the other way around. If you have a solid story idea, then start thinking about setting in its most basic terms. Does this story make more sense in past, future, or present day? On our own planet or another? In a world entirely different than ours? Most times, when you already have a story idea in place, it is easier to come up with setting ideas.
Research is also a very important part of worldbuilding. Whether your setting is inspired by modern-day Tokyo or medieval Europe, or you’re simply creating a whole new galaxy, you’ll have to do research to figure out what kind of history would influence the way the cultures, peoples, and geographies are set up during the time of your story. It’s especially important to do research if your story is set in a real setting you didn’t grow up in, so as to be able to responsibly and accurately portray it, its history, its people, and its culture as an author.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few classic worldbuilding topics to consider:
- Technology - what sorts of technologies does your world have?
- Magic system - this one is more prevalent in the fantasy genre, but can be present in sci-fi as well.
- Culture - believable worlds will be host to many different cultures. Take Star Wars, for example. The culture on Coruscant and the culture on Tatooine were very different, and yet much of the cultural aspects were taken from various cultures on earth. Languages go along with this as well.
- Politics and government - again taking Star Wars as an example, look at the different governmental systems that were in place (especially in the prequels) and how they affected the world.
- Religion - what religions are present?
- Geography and land - knowing distances between different places, planets, etc, as well as other geographical marks and locations, is essential to worldbuilding. However, it’s usually not a good idea to start your worldbuilding by drawing a map (as tempting as it may be) because it limits your imagination before you’ve come up with the other more important aspects of your world. If you want to have a map, do it later.
- Flora and fauna - are the animals/plants in your world the same as ours?
- Society - are there social divides and differences? What jobs are there? How do people interact?
This is by all means not an exhaustive list of elements of worldbuilding. There is so much that can be explored when creating worlds. However, keep in mind that not every aspect of worldbuilding needs to be heavily built upon and detailed, or even considered - it really all depends on the story you’re writing and how relevant that specific aspect of worldbuilding is. For example, if you have a character that speaks a different language, you do not need to create that entire language from scratch. By all means, you can (J.R.R. Tolkien spent years creating the intricacies of the Elvish language before writing Lord of the Rings), but if the characters will only use a few words from that language in the story, it’s not necessary. Keep in mind that you don’t have to go into every little detail about your world, as long as you have touched on the things that are important to the story.
There are tons of worldbuilding tools, articles and advice that you can find online. My personal favorite to use is WorldAnvil - it’s free (to an extent), easy to use, and you can go as in depth as you want. My suggestion, if you are struggling to find a place to start with an empty page in front of you, is to make an account on WorldAnvil and start creating a world. Write down just a few ideas broadly summarizing the world and how it will relate to your story, and then narrow it down from there. The more you write down, the easier the ideas will flow.
Worldbuilding takes practice and research and lots of time, but it is just as essential to writing a story as the plot itself. Don’t be frustrated if it doesn’t all come to you in the beginning; you will and should go back and edit, reframe and add to your world as you continue to write your story and new or different elements become necessary. There are plenty of worldbuilding resources out there, so I encourage you to take advantage of them as you grow as a writer! And last of all, worldbuilding is hard, but I personally find it to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process, so have fun while you do it!
Week 4: Plot
The most recognizable element of a story is its plot. The plot can be roughly defined as a series of events in the story. When people summarize a story, they are usually retelling important points in the plot. Due to the proliferation of media, there are some plots that are immediately recognizable (and unfortunately cliche): a distraught princess seeking a prince, a villain scarred by a past trauma, or two societies at the brink of a war that only one person can stop. There is nothing wrong with sticking to a cliche plot. However, because of that same proliferation of media, contemporary audiences are acutely aware of repeated story structures. If we want to entertain these audiences, we want to explore plot dynamics that surprise. Our goal in this section is to guide you on how to construct an engaging plot.
Before we begin, I do want to mention one area of fiction that actually benefits from cliche plots: comedy. However, when a comedic writer uses a cliche, they are aware of that cliche and using it to get a reaction from the audience.
If you want to be a serious sci-fi writer, you need to be a serious reader. Do not confine yourself to sci-fi, or even to fiction; reading how non-fiction writers present their stories is equally instructive. The more you read, the more trends you will notice in the stories. Be very aware of how the author is constructing the story; it is the best way to learn.
As you build your repertoire of stories you have read, there are a few tips to keep in mind to construct the plot. First, the plot should be character driven. Remember the list of reactions your characters will have to the technology you present in the story? These are actions that the characters can take. Second, you should never leave the reader with all the answers on the table. There always needs to be a mystery or a lack of closure. Otherwise, the reader will think that your work is done and move onto other things, even if there are hundreds of pages left.
There is a myth that the author needs to know all the answers to the questions in the story. Octavia Butler’s fantastic story “Amnesty” provides a counterexample to that claim. In the story, Noah, who works for the alien Communities, tries to recruit a group of humans to join her. The other humans see the Communities as evil, yet they stay to listen to Noah because jobs and food is scarce on Earth. They debate whether the Communities are good or evil; in the end, the author never fully answers that question.
In fact, the best stories are stories that explore questions without finding answers. Ultimately, time is limited and people need to make a choice. Understanding how characters face these dilemmas is entertaining because we are forced to make choices all the time without understanding the dilemma completely.
A benefit to constructing the plot around how your character reacts rather than trying to just follow a series of events is that you are less likely to force a character to do something that does not align with their goals or personality. Forcing a character to act out of character can leave the reader confused.
By Emily Majluf
Writing a story involving an alien setting can feel, well, alien. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult to imagine a world with rules other than our own. However, that is exactly why your reader wants to delve into your written alien wonderland! Here, we will explore methods to create an engaging, alien world.
Keeping it Sci-Fi
Science fiction is all about exploring possible futures and realities. There is no rule mandating that your alien world be 100% realistic. However, a plausible alien world can be more enticing to the reader. Ignoring basic rules of nature can bring your story into the fantasy genre instead of sci-fi.
Sticking to science might seem like a rigid and uncreative approach to story writing. I can tell you that sci-fi writing can definitely be a challenge. However, the true beauty of sci-fi is when authors mold a world around actual laws of nature.
An example of this from pop culture is faster-than-lightspeed travel. This is not theoretically possible in our world, even if we had the advanced technology to approach it. However, it is possible in the world of Star Trek, where their natural laws allow slightly freer reign than ours, though the characters are still subject to the limitations of their science. Another example: life as we know it needs oxygen and water to survive. But perhaps there is a species out there that can only thrive on helium? Then their planet must be massive in order to have enough gravity to hold onto the lightweight gas. You can keep the rule of necessities while changing the details-- and as you can see, pull on other scientific rules to make it plausible. Perhaps this will even help a conflict develop further on in the story, when characters from two worlds interact, or a condition on the planet changes and creates a domino effect.
Let's get into the specifics now. There are so many factors to consider on an alien world: its atmosphere, geography, biology, probability of life, etc. Fleshing out all of these details will make your world more realistic, whether it is a setting in the backstory of a visiting alien, or an entire destination in your work of fiction. It might be good to decide what place your alien world has in the story before fully constructing it— if it is only referred to in a few memories it might not need as much detail, whereas if the entire story takes place there, it would be great spending some time working on making the readers feel like they're there.
Here on Earth, we have organizations that spend millions of dollars scanning exoplanets and analyzing signals, looking for the possibility of true, alien life. Something to keep in mind when talking about Earthlings finding other life is that most things in space give off signals in certain wavelengths: just a radio burst in space could mean there is a quasar, and infrared activity is present nearly everywhere there are stellar bodies. So, for a signal to be "special" or of interest to someone looking for alien life, it has to be weeded out from a mass of other data coming from celestial objects. If you want to incorporate our side of the search into your writing, I'd encourage taking a dive into researching the organizations like SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and some of their techniques.
Another angle of alien-to-human interaction is that the probability of finding another livable planet with communicating, intelligent life that can send or receive a signal could be infinitesimally small (however, not so small that organizations like SETI don't exist). On this point, I'd encourage you to look up and mess around with something called "the Drake Equation" which helps theoretically calculate this probability. Of course, the inputted numbers are usually based on parameters of life we have encountered, which is why the equation is made to be flexible. This is where you can really have fun. Imagine another galaxy with more examples of life, longer-lasting empires, more astute technology. So now that we might have a basis for contact (which may or may not be an element of your story), we can develop the world itself.
In my opinion, this is the best part. Here is a suggestion: write down different factors that can influence life on your planet (I've listed some at the end of this week's section). Take something like gravity, which in one world may be so immense that people rarely move around their community for more than a few hours a day before tiring out — the planet must be very large then. Are there parts that are still undiscovered yet? — If so, this would likely mean their technology is not quite advanced enough to make it to space. So maybe we're the ones who found them; maybe they do not know about other worlds. Make sure there aren't inconsistencies with minor details like that. Does this planet have a deep history? Do they have internal conflict? Connect these environmental factors to the characters you have already drawn up. What are their opinions on the political or social factors? Even if it is not a part of the story, your character is shaped by their upbringing and environment, just as all of us are.
Reflect on the characteristics that make up Earth. We have immense biodiversity, from deep oceans to dry deserts to tropical islands and high mountains. If your entire story is set on one planet, it might be worth considering the nuances of the habitat. An entire planet of rainforests is plausible, but perhaps it is more convincing if the character has memories outside of the rainforest landscape, if some characters are less comfortable there than others, or if there are sub-communities they encounter in other regions that bring a different setting to the picture. These variations can be a relief in long narratives, but are less consequential in short stories. But it is your world, so go where the story takes you!
We also have people of all different colors and sizes, so you can reflect on that if you hadn't considered more than the uniformly green/purple alien idea. Then go further: are variations in appearance correlated to social standing? If they are not, were they in the past? What are the norms in your alien society? Are they oppressive? Reflect on the norms here on Earth that we resist in our communities, and how ridiculous some of them may seem to another culture or an alien who was never exposed. You can likely make your norms as absurd as possible and they will be believable, because history has proven society to be quite subjective.
Once you get your world set up, it's now time to consider the details. Think of the tiny things that make up our world and how you can add in those aspects to the alien world, even if they don’t necessarily build the story. For example, our skies are blue because our atmosphere, primarily nitrogen and oxygen, easily scatters blue light (this also makes our sun rises and sunsets orange and red). If the atmosphere is made of something else — perhaps you set this up beforehand, or it is a plot device — then what does the sky look like throughout the day? If characters see another large planet in their sky, are the two orbiting each other? If so, do the seasons rotate on a wonky pattern? Does another planetary destination have similar constellations, or is it many light-years away, where their night sky would look different? If you plan this out well, you can add in some allusions early on in the story that don't come out until later, like someone who's been taken captive on a spaceship noticing a familiar constellation from childhood but can never find it again as time goes on; a character talking about the beauty of a painting that has extravagant colors which go unnoticed by another character because they see light in different wavelengths. Deep dive into some niches of physics and chemistry in your research and see what elements you can exploit in your story! Personally, these are the details I love most in sci-fi, and they become even more precious when I experience it the second or third time.