A Science Fiction Idea in Twenty Minutes

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photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg via photopin cc

How to Create a Solid Science Fiction Idea in Twenty Minutes

Coming up with story ideas can be hard, and Science Fiction story ideas are especially challenging. Starting out as a writer, I thought I needed ideas so new yet plausible that I could get a research grant and publication in Nature. After days and weeks and months of pondering and study, I had exactly as many ideas of that caliber as you might expect. Fortunately I had a regular job washing dishes at a soup and salad place, so I didn’t starve.

Almost every writer struggles for ideas at one point or another, but those who stick with it start to notice some things.

  1. Ideas don’t have to be huge to be interesting.

  2. You kill more ideas every day than you will ever need.

Ideas don’t have to be huge: For every 2001 (Ancient aliens created and nurtured life on Earth and elsewhere), and Blindsight (consiousness is a parasitic, evolutionary dead-end) there’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers (scary dopplegangers), or Jurassic Park (bring back dinosaurs).

You can tell a rip-roaring story with a very simple idea. There have been quite a few successful stories that were based on the idea that the Sun is about to set on a world where that hasn’t happened in recent memory.

It’s not the size of the idea that matters, it’s the way you make it mean something to the reader by involving characters or exploring unexpected consequences (more on that later).

Say No To Ideocide: Have you ever come up with a story idea in the shower, or on a drive home or while listening to recorded sounds from some random cafe’? Did you write them down? Good. Did you ever look at them again? If you did, did you tell yourself they weren’t good enough? I thought so. Way to go, killer.

Reading and Writing are asymetric skills. It’s much easier to learn to read and to recognize good stuff than it is to create it. Think of music. It’s easier to say this song is good and that song is Justin Bieber than it is to make music yourself. But just as with music, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

It helps to set a goal to play lots of awful notes, or write lots of awful stories. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.

"All of that is well and good," you say, "but I came here for the twenty minute cure, not twenty hours. And also stop quoting me, I’m just a strawman you created and it’s creepy."

Fine, sure. We’ll get to it now then.

We can talk about all sorts of elements for stories, plot, setting, characterization, theme, but all those things are just tools to achieve an end, and that end is the one and only thing a story absolutely has to have or it will fail.

It has to be interesting: It’s not news when things go as expected, and there’s no drama when everything goes well. If we define storytelling in general as the act of “describing what went wrong and what people we care about did to try make it better or worse,” we aren’t far off from a definition that works. Science Fiction stories follows the same logic plus the addition that some technology or science has to be central to the story. Wtih those things in mind, we have the tool we need:

There’s often a good story in the negative consequences of an otherwise positive advance in technology.

So let’s put that to use with an example. Self-driving vehicles are an emerging technology that is often in the news these days. While they have the pontential for tremendous benefits like reducing the number of traffic fatalities and allowing me to drink a second beer before going home, they are bound to create new problems. Every new idea does. So let’s list some of the potential problems. I’m not going to worry about being deep or insightful. I’m just going to write down the first things that come to mind.

  • Self Driving Cars
    1. Unemployment for Taxi Drivers
    2. Bankruptcy for short-haul airlines
    3. Unemployment for truckers and delivery services (FedEx, UPS)
    4. Remote vehicular crime and assaults committed through software
    5. Ad supported vehicles bug you through the ride and drop you a couple blocks from where you wanted to go so you have to walk past a sponsored business
    6. Small, enclosed, shared vehicles could be a disease vector
    7. Vehicles are tracked by default reducing privacy
    8. Glitches can trap someone in a car going who knows where
    9. A bad actor can easily kidnap someone using software
    10. Roads will no longer be designed for human operated vehicles

The trick is to focus on the least obvious consequences, the more unexpected the better. It’s fine to use more than one and mix them up, and It helps to throw in an extra twist when you’re done. Look for things that have some sort of emotional tug for you.

What jumps out for me in this list is the loss of control. Fear of losing control is a common anxiety we can offer to share with the reader. Even the privacy issues are a loss of control over whom we allow to know what we’ve been up to. What if we mix that anxiety with the kidnapping fear, and stir in a little general crime worry?

Great, there’s the conflict and setting, but an idea needs one more thing to be a story.

The reader needs a way in. One way (not the only way) is to provide a character who can be the reader’s eyes and ears, someone they can care about. Think of Ripley in Alien. Think of Rebel Mudlark in Vacuum Flowers, or Fry in Futurama.

So we need a character. Characters need names, and it’s best if they have problems of their own before you inflict a story on them. For example:

Mira Kozeletski, is a young student studying to be a User Experience designer while caring for her ailing mother and younger brother. She takes an unexpected detour in an autocab and finds herself the prime suspect in a grisly murder. Could the real murderer be her creepy class rival, or is there something much bigger and more frightening going on?

I may just have to write that one.

Now you try. Come up with a promising new advance and then think of how it might go wrong. Ways the technology can fail are fine, but it’s even more interesting to think of things that might go wrong because the thing works, maybe even works too well. Now tell a story about someone who has to deal with that problem even though they have much better things to do.

Just remember:

  1. It doesn’t have to be a big idea
  2. It can’t be a bad (or good) story until you finish it
  3. The only hard and fast rule is keep it interesting.

Now, go write it down.