Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, when asked where he got his ideas, usually responded, "Schenectady." It's as good an answer as any; the question can be frustrating because it's hard to explain that great science-fictional ideas are everywhere around us. The trick is that ideas are only the beginning, and the work lies in turning that idea into a functional premise. For example, the inspiration for my novel We Are Satellites sprang from a lecture I attended for my old day job, in which a doctor explained that a certain experimental brain implant had proven to be an ineffective treatment for seizures, but now had other applications. It got me thinking about how frustrating it would be to discover that something developed specifically for your brain could be used by everyone but you.
There are so many places to find the kernels for science fiction stories. They arrive in glimpses of scenes, in misheard lyrics, in a child's "what if?" You can also seek them out actively. Go to an online talk. Open a newspaper's science section or a magazine like Nature, and read past the headlines. Practice asking "what if somebody used this for a different reason than the one intended?"
4 Tips for Developing a Winning Science Fiction Premise
Interrogate Your Idea
An idea, however exciting, is not a novel. It isn't even a short story. It's a seed, at best. So how do we turn an idea like those above into an actual premise? I usually start by asking myself questions. Freewriting in a notebook or a new computer document, I start with listing some basics: who are the people that this idea affects? Are there people who will be harmed by this? Are there people this will help? Age groups, occupations, economic groups?
Are there ways to profit off this? Does it bleed into politics or law or commerce or the environment? We can look at geographic questions too: are there regions that would be particularly affected by this idea? Cities vs rural areas? Schools? Shops? Factories? What are the short term results of this idea? What changes in five years, or ten years, or fifty?
You don't have to find the answers to all of those questions, and you can choose which to ask, but somewhere in your freewriting, you may start to notice that you're attracted to certain aspects more than others. For We Are Satellites, my questions made me realize I was most interested in exploring who gets left behind when "everyone" is getting the latest technology.
Do Some Research
Some people will shudder at that notion and others will clap their hands in glee. It's possible to skip the research step, particularly if you're setting your story far enough in the future that it escapes the bounds of what we know, or if your idea is so speculative that there's not really any research to turn to.
What kind of research? It depends on the idea. It can be as little as a call to a librarian, reading some journal articles, or seeking out someone in the field you're exploring. For We Are Satellites I talked to neurology experts to determine where in the brain I should put my invented implant, and what I could realistically expect it to do.
Identify Characters With Investment in Your Idea
Go back to your list of people from step one. Who has the most potential for story? This will be the people most affected by your idea, for good or for bad. This might be someone with a literal investment of money or someone whose livelihood (or happiness) is tied to your idea. What happens if you give them hopes and wants and fears, at least one of which has some tangential relationship to your idea or its repercussions? What happens if you throw two of those characters into conflict? What happens if you put them in an affected location? Your idea becomes more real as you start to think about the implications to specific people.
This is where readers will connect with your idea as well. I believe that science fiction is most accessible when it happens to well-developed characters. In We Are Satellites I realized I wanted to tell my story of a tech fad through the members of one family; since all of them had different responses to the technology, I could explore multiple sides of the issue while keeping it deeply personal to them.
Decide What Your Story Wants to Be
As you think about characters and your central idea, you may start to imagine specific scenes or images. Jot them down! I wanted there to be a visual marker for people with my Pilot implant, and I pictured a blue light on their temples. That mental image came with some built-in scenes: a graduation ceremony, a darkened theater, a pack of high school boys running.
This is where I usually start to recognize whether an idea wants to be a short story or a novel. If I can picture one single important conflict or scene, I may start thinking about it as a shorter piece. (I may be wrong! It can always be fleshed out later.) If I see multiple points of conflict I may start eyeing it for a novel.
Most ideas have the potential to be any number of things before you narrow them down, depending on your own interests. If you're into political thrillers you may want to explore the societal implications through the people in charge. Mysteries? There's probably someone who would kill for (or with) that technology. Far future society? Spacefarers? Seafarers? The family next door? This is your idea – take it where you want it to go.
At this point, you have an idea, a sketched cast of characters invested in your idea, some potential settings and conflicts, and an idea of what kind of story it might want to be. Your idea has graduated to a full-fledged premise, ready for you to start writing or outlining. Congratulations and good luck!