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. Unfortunately, most of us can't just have Robert A. Heinlein mail us $100 and a couple dozen brilliant ideas. So what do you do?
The trick is not just to come up with a great idea, but a great idea that lives in your mind and leads to characters and situations that inspire you. So here are 10 pretty decent ways to generate your own amazing story ideas.
And it really is true that ideas are dime a dozen in science fiction. Take the idea of "first contact with an alien race." There are a million possible variations of that idea alone: They come to us. We go to them. They're super-advanced. They're not using anything we'd recognize as technology. They communicate using only colors. They think emoticons are our language, and all the other stuff is just punctuation. They're giant. They're tiny. They're invading. They're well-intentioned, but troublesome. And so on.
The hard part is finding an idea that sticks in your head and starts to grow weird angles and curves. In a sense, it's not about finding a good idea — so much as finding a good idea for you, personally. So here are some tips, that may or may not be helpful:
Like, 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 bigger and more insoluble the question, the less likely it is your answer will be disproved next week. Once you come up with your own weird explanation for a big cosmic riddle, 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." Everybody loves a big, audacious idea-driven story, as long as it's well done and emotional.
It's easy enough to imagine a brand new scientific breakthrough. It's even easy enough to think about some of the obvious consequences, if we suddenly develop radical life-extension or a "learn while you sleep" process that works. But try to imagine how a brand new science could wreck your life — how it could make your life, personally, a living hell. And then try to turn that into a story about a fictional character. (Bonus points if the way that the new invention ruins your life isn't a super obvious way, and is instead something kind of weird and personal.) It's always more interesting to see people struggling with new technology than to watch them just do the happy "yay new technology" dance.
This is sort of on a related tip, except that it's taking your personal fears and blowing them up. Do you worry you'll be alone and unloved when you're older? Or that your career will tank, 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, but whenever I walk past one I notice the staff look utterly demoralized. Maybe it's the weird Arthurian/Italian mixed metaphor.) Take your fear about your personal future and make it huge and global, if not cosmic. Use that fear as a way into a story about something going terribly wrong with the world in general. (Or make it still a personal disaster, but more science fictional — think Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, about a telepath slowly losing his abilities.) Your final story doesn't even need to be depressing, or about the exact fear you started with. But that visceral dread can lead you to something personal but universal, which is what it's all about.
As Arthur C. Clarke would tell us, science fiction has the ability to get really cosmic and massive in its explorations of the big questions. Who are we, where do we come from, who created us, and so on. 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, 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, because physics is dealing with the big existential questions. So you, too, 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.
We all imagine ourselves doing terrible things, all the time. Depending on how repressed you are, it may come as a shock when the image of yourself stabbing your coworker in the face pops into your head. But either way, it's human nature to imagine yourself doing things so terrible, they make you do a whole-body cringe/shudder. So try picking one of those actions, and imagine the protagonist of a story performing it — then try to think of how your protagonist could do that terrible thing, and still be sympathetic. (Even if this unspeakable act doesn't remain in the story, it may be a way in to the character.) 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, in some 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. What about yourself freaks you out? Explore that.
Chances are, there are goals you can't achieve, in reality. Unless you're rich and famous and fulfilled, in which case please send me money. You can't just walk out of your boring job and wander down the street until you find Kevin Feige and say, "Please make me the director of a new Hulk movie starring Mark Ruffalo." You can't just wander up to that incredibly good looking person on the subway and ask him or her out. At least, most of us can't. You, personally, have goals that you cannot achieve, that are not fictional. Now imagine a scenario where you could have all of those things — and what could possibly go wrong with that.
Not literally. Do not go punching Vernor Vinge in the face and then claim I told you to do that. But sure, get into a fight with Vernor Vinge with your stories. Find something about how Vinge depicted cyberspace everting in Rainbows End, and write a story that shows how you think he should have done it. Don't like how Max Barry depicted cybernetic enhancements in Machine Man? Stick it to Max Barry by writing your own take on the subject. A lot of how science fiction has advanced, as a field, is authors trying to one-up each other and responding to each other's takes on the same basic ideas. Even if you don't prove everybody else wrong, you might get a really great story out of it. (Again, do not actually get into a fight with anybody.)
The world is full of obvious facts that everybody tries to pretend aren't real. 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. There may be people alive today, who will live to see the end of the fossil fuel era. The icecaps are melting faster than a lot of people expected. And so on. There are things that we all sort of know, but we don't really grasp them because they're too huge and unthinkable. Fiction is really excellent for getting people to confront these sorts of realities that are too insane for us to assimilate. And science fiction, in particular, has a lot of ways to talk about uncomfortable, weird facts without getting preachy or sledgehammery, by changing the setting or scale. You can make people identify with someone who's smack in the middle of future water wars, and drive home the likelihood of water shortages without ever lecturing.
9. Come up with five non-obvious consequences of a technological or scientific breakthrough, 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, in particular, being ruined. Science fiction authors are usually pretty good at wargaming-out the possible ramifications of a new piece of technology. If people had brain implants that let them understand any human language, would we travel more? Would there be more international trade? Less war? (More war, 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. Spend an hour or two thinking of all the possible ripple effects from a new miracle technology — and then pick one of the least obvious to build your story around.
We all have beliefs we've discarded over the years. 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." Pick a belief you used to hold, that's been disproven by events or that you've outgrown for some reason. It could be a scientific belief, or a religious one, or a philosophy you used to adhere to — and try to imagine a universe where that belief is provably true. Or else, a character who believes the thing you used to believe yourself. Take all of the energy of your former belief, plus the distance that comes from your change of heart, and try to create a story around that. Sometimes, 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 world-building.