One of the most difficult tasks we writers face is continually coming up with good ideas for our work. I wonder how many hours I’ve spent over the years, my mind blank, staring at an empty screen or page. This is one of the universal experiences all writers share, no matter the genre of their work.
The times I’ve been at a loss for an idea and turned to articles such as this one for some inspiration did not end well. All I found were some vague guides that really didn’t provide any true insight or help generate a good idea. They offered empty advice like “pose a what if question” and “pick two random things and compare and contrast them.” The problem with the vague advice is that I was still the one who had to come up with the details. I wanted some help with those! I want specifics, damn it!
This article is the first in a series of articles that will provide the blocked writer some concrete, genre-specific methods to develop a good idea for their writing. Today’s genre: Science Fiction.
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. There’s something about a good space story that has always made my imagination run wild. I know not all sci-fi deals in space stories, but my favorites certainly do! Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Z. Williamson are my favorite authors in the genre, though I’ll try anyone’s work at least once.
If you’re itching to write the next great space novel, here are five ways to help you find some excellent ideas for your science fiction.
- The easiest way to get your mind thinking about all the possibilities for a good space story is to talk to a bona fide rocket scientist (or as close as you can get to a real one). Unfortunately, most of us do not personally know any real rocket scientists. Luckily, you do not need to know the people in order to talk to them. Get your Google on and find forums where people talk about space topics. UFO reality sites are good sources of space-based conversation, astronomy forums have a ready supply of space geeks to trigger sparks in your imagination, and Reddit has numerous conversations about every kind of space tech there is. The point is that when you participate in discussions on the topic, your brain will start to get creative with the subject matter. So get social with people who are interested in spacey subjects and the ideas will follow;
- First, focus on humanity’s (or your protagonist’s) downfall and then reverse-engineer your science fiction idea. In other words, figure out what horrid thing will befall humanity in your story, or what frailty of the human condition will be exploited in your story, and then figure out what could cause it. Here’s an example. Imagine you want to write a story about the near global extinction of humanity and the survivor’s fight to live. Think “War of the Worlds,” only that’s been done to death. What else could bring about the end of mankind? Rogue virus (I Am Legend)? What about a parasitic alien species that came to Earth to use humans to replicate themselves (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Puppetmasters)? Or maybe an alien race that wants to use humanity as biological Energizer batteries (The Matrix)? Get the idea?
- I hate to admit it, but not all science fiction stories are space stories. Therefore I must also recommend that you talk to various professionals about some of the worst things they can conjure from their fields. A good example would be to talk to an emergency room physician (or even better, a nurse or paramedic – they typically see and do more than the doctors and have better stories). Sit down with one over a cup of coffee and have them tell you their horror stories from the graveyard shift. Your imagination will be kicked into high gear after hearing what they deal with on a normal day at work! I guarantee you will hear things that you will not be able to un-hear – which is awesome for someone trying to come up with a good sci-fi story idea. And if you think medical-based stories cannot make good sci-fi reading material, try any one of Robin Cook’s many novels;
- Use a story idea that you like and adapt it to science fiction. This is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to come up with a good idea for any genre, not just science fiction. It’s also the most often used method. As an example, consider the movie Titanic. Two young people, coming together against all odds only to lose each other in a tragic shipwreck. Now put it on a spaceship and salt a few malevolent aliens into the mix. You can call it Titania (that’s the name of the spaceship, of course). Actually, you can’t. I just copyrighted it by publishing it here!
- If all else fails, break out your history book. Believe it or not, human history is the source for all our best story ideas. Look at the wars, the continental conquests, the plagues, the people and personalities involved. A history of the twentieth century is nothing short of a primer on science fiction story adaptation. Here’s an example: Ebola Zaire. A virus that has a kill rate greater than eighty percent is tailor-made for a good sci-fi tale. Throw in some malevolent aliens bent on conquering good old planet Earth for the exploitation of its plentiful resources and you have yourself a great story. Put the two together and you’ll have a movie franchise (Independence Day)!
It is highly unlikely that you will find your next great idea via a random word generator website, or an emailed writing prompt. Try these techniques instead! Remember that your goal is to be a great storyteller. Storytelling is a social experience that humanity has shared since we were living in caves and picking lice out of each others’ hair. Get out of your house and talk to people, or push your comfort zone out a bit and join some forums to get your sci-fi geek on and get social with people who love to talk about the same stuff you love. You’ll be amazed at how many ideas you can come up with from the conversations you can have with others. I hope this post helps you find and write the next great sci-fi novel. And if you have some thoughts on how to come up with good sci-fi ideas, please leave them in the comments for everyone to use!