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10 Tips for Generating Killer Science Fiction Story Ideas
Charlie Jane Anders

but troublesome. So here are 10 pretty decent ways to generate your own amazing story ideas. Take the idea of "first contact with an alien race.Science fiction is the literature of big ideas — so coming up with an amazing story idea often feels like the biggest stumbling block in the way of your dreams of authorship. and all the other stuff is just punctuation. most of us can't just have Robert A. They think emoticons are our language. They're giant. but a great idea that lives in your mind and leads to characters and situations that inspire you. They're invading. it's not about finding a good idea — so much as finding a good idea for you. They're super-advanced. We go to them. They communicate using only colors." There are a million possible variations of that idea alone: They come to us. Unfortunately. So what do you do? The trick is not just to come up with a great idea. In a sense. And so on. And it really is true that ideas are dime a dozen in science fiction. They're tiny. They're not using anything we'd recognize as technology. The hard part is finding an idea that sticks in your head and starts to grow weird angles and curves. Heinlein mail us $100 and a couple dozen brilliant ideas. that may or may not be helpful: . They're wellintentioned. personally. So here are some tips.

The bigger and more insoluble the question.1. It's even easy enough to think about some of the obvious consequences. personally. why haven't we heard from other intelligent civilizations yet? And what'll happen at the end of the universe? Why is gravity such a weak force? And so on. the less likely it is your answer will be disproved next week. 2. a living hell." Everybody loves a big. But try to imagine how a brand new science could wreck your life — how it could make your life. as long as it's well done and emotional. Look at the big unanswered questions Like. if we suddenly develop radical life-extension or a "learn while you sleep" process that works. Imagine a new scientific or technological discovery — and then imagine it ruining your life It's easy enough to imagine a brand new scientific breakthrough. audacious idea-driven story. Once you come up with your own weird explanation for a big cosmic riddle. And then try to turn that into a . then you can work backwards from that to create a story around it — and the hard part is probably keeping your story big and audacious. but also finding a way to make it small and personal without resorting to "learning the truth about the cosmological constant also helped me realize something about my daddy issues.

3. Use that fear as a way into a story about something going terribly wrong with the world in general. about a telepath slowly losing his abilities. except that it's taking your personal fears and blowing them up. Take your biggest fear about the future and take it to an extreme This is sort of on a related tip. if not cosmic.) Take your fear about your personal future and make it huge and global. but more science fictional — think Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside. and you'll be one of those people who used to have a decent job and now works at Round Table Pizza? (No offense to people who currently work at Round Table Pizza. Do you worry you'll be alone and unloved when you're older? Or that your career will tank. but whenever I walk past one I notice the staff look utterly demoralized. (Or make it still a personal disaster.story about a fictional character.) Your final story doesn't even need to be . and is instead something kind of weird and personal. (Bonus points if the way that the new invention ruins your life isn't a super obvious way. Maybe it's the weird Arthurian/Italian mixed metaphor.) It's always more interesting to see people struggling with new technology than to watch them just do the happy "yay new technology" dance.

which is what it's all about. Who are we. Clarke would tell us. too. 4. and so on. . who created us. try sociology or philosophy or theology As Arthur C. science fiction has the ability to get really cosmic and massive in its explorations of the big questions. or about the exact fear you started with. Why does time run in only one direction? Why is there only one technological species on this planet? Is it ever possible for there to be empty space. because physics is dealing with the big existential questions.depressing. or is space a thing? What makes someone a good person? As we've covered recently. a lot of philosophers are moving into territory formerly occupied by physics. So you. But that visceral dread can lead you to something personal but universal. where do we come from. can leave behind "hard" science and get into the big questions about meaning — and the result might actually be purer science fiction than if you just stuck to the actual science questions. Instead of speculating about science.

it's human nature to imagine yourself doing things so terrible. all the time. it may be a way in to the character. they make you do a whole-body cringe/shudder.) Maybe there's some science fictional reason why your main character has to stab people in the face — maybe it's even a heroic act. ull size . What about yourself freaks you out? Explore that. and still be sympathetic. But either way. The point is only partly to come up with a clever explanation — it's also to find your own hot buttons and jab at them as hard as you can. So try picking one of those actions. then imagine a sympathetic character doing that act We all imagine ourselves doing terrible things. in some way.5. Depending on how repressed you are. and imagine the protagonist of a story performing it — then try to think of how your protagonist could do that terrible thing. Think of an act you would never approve of. it may come as a shock when the image of yourself stabbing your coworker in the face pops into your head. (Even if this unspeakable act doesn't remain in the story.

Now imagine a scenario where you could have all of those things — and what could possibly go wrong with that. that are not fictional. . have goals that you cannot achieve. in which case please send me money." You can't just wander up to that incredibly good looking person on the subway and ask him or her out. "Please make me the director of a new Hulk movie starring Mark Ruffalo. You. in real life? Chances are. there are goals you can't achieve. Unless you're rich and famous and fulfilled. most of us can't. in reality. At least. You can't just walk out of your boring job and wander down the street until you find Kevin Feige and say. Why can't you just go and get what you want.6. personally.

and write a story that shows how you think he should have done it. is authors trying to one-up each other and responding to each other's takes on the same basic ideas. you might get a really great story out of it. Do not go punching Vernor Vinge in the face and then claim I told you to do that. (Again.7. as a field. Get into a fight with a famous science fiction author Not literally.) . Don't like how Max Barry depicted cybernetic enhancements inMachine Man? Stick it to Max Barry by writing your own take on the subject. Even if you don't prove everybody else wrong. Find something about how Vinge depicted cyberspace everting in Rainbows End. do not actually get into a fight with anybody. get into a fight with Vernor Vinge with your stories. But sure. A lot of how science fiction has advanced.

And so on. The icecaps are melting faster than a lot of people expected. And science fiction. by changing the setting or scale. You can make people identify with someone who's smack in the middle of future water wars. Fiction is really excellent for getting people to confront these sorts of realities that are too insane for us to assimilate. in particular. There may be people alive today. . who will live to see the end of the fossil fuel era. has a lot of ways to talk about uncomfortable. and drive home the likelihood of water shortages without ever lecturing. There are things that we all sort of know. but we don't really grasp them because they're too huge and unthinkable. weird facts without getting preachy or sledgehammery. We all sort of know that we're reading and writing this stuff on computers that were made by people who were working in unimaginably horrible conditions.8. State the obvious The world is full of obvious facts that everybody tries to pretend aren't real.

Come up with five non-obviousconsequences of a technological or scientific breakthrough.9. being ruined. If people had brain implants that let them understand any human language. and focus on one of them This is sort of similar to the "ruining your life" thing — but it doesn't have to be about your life. because people would know when they were being insulted?) But sometimes the most interesting consequence is the one you'd never think of in a million years. . would we travel more? Would there be more international trade? Less war? (More war. Spend an hour or two thinking of all the possible ripple effects from a new miracle technology — and then pick one of the leastobvious to build your story around. Science fiction authors are usually pretty good at wargaming-out the possible ramifications of a new piece of technology. in particular.

It could be a scientific belief. Dan Century. Sometimes. or a religious one. McClaverty. Magazine images via Toyranch. Take all of the energy of your former belief. Think about something youused to believe. plus the distance that comes from your change of heart. Everything from "Santa Claus is real" to "authority figures are always right" to "Alan Greenspan is infallible" to "Classical physics explains everything in the universe. and then imagine what if it was true We all have beliefs we've discarded over the years. recalling a former state of mind can be the easiest way to create a compelling mindspace for a character — and possibly a whole piece of worldbuilding. that's been disproven by events or that you've outgrown for some reason. and try to create a story around that.10. Or else." Pick a belief you used to hold. a character who believes the thing you used to believe yourself. or a philosophy you used to adhere to — and try to imagine a universe where that belief is provably true. . Modern Fred. Mickey the Pixel andUssatule on Flickr.

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