Every Saturday evening, we get together as a family to watch an incredibly bad (and sometimes campy, though always bad) B-movie. Most of these fall into one of two categories: horror or science fiction. These movies are usually bad for a couple reasons: super boring and/or poor use of tropes.
Now, there's nothing wrong with most tropes in any genre. A few are definitely problematic, but many are useful because they help set expectations for readers. And writers who are trope-aware can subvert those tropes judiciously to great psychological impact. Or just lean into the tropes, knowing that readers love them.
21 Popular Science Fiction Tropes for Writers
Here are 21 examples of science fiction tropes for writers to consider and subvert when writing their science-y, space age, alien, robot, dystopian, alternate universe, mad scientist creations. Write long and prosper.
- Space travel issues. There are a few super common science fiction tropes, and many of them involve space. For instance, people treating space like it has oxygen or as if it has noise, which the original Alien movie exploited in this trailer. In particular, there's the problem of traveling through space (do they move faster than light? do they have some kind of cryosleep chamber? and what about the ever present threat of asteroid fields?).
- Time travel issues. Another super common science fiction trope involves time and specifically time travel. While traveling into the future (and only the future) seems theoretically possible, traveling back in time creates so many issues, especially if an underlying goal is to get back to the unaltered present.
- Alternate universes. While the MCU is deep diving into alternate universes with their current run of movies and shows, they didn't invent the trope. It can be fun when used sparingly, but it can turn off readers if they never feel they can trust something is really real.
- Everything is a simulation. I often think of this as the science fiction equivalent of the "it was all a dream" trope but replace "dream" with "computer simulation." Readers can feel duped if they read an entire story only to find out it was all a simulation, but it can be compelling to reveal the simulation earlier and fight against it.
- Bad robots. If neutral robots are programmed by bad people, are they really bad robots? Well, probably if they're trying to kill your protagonists. Bad robots are especially evil when they're trying to wipe out the entire human species.
- Bad aliens. If aliens appear one day, will they be good or bad? If they're anything like humans, they'll probably arrive with a mission and want resources, whether that's land, food, or some other natural resource. In science fiction, they also often like to use humans as incubators for their eggs (which is kind of eww).
- Aliens are humans. Of course, the aliens could actually be humans from a previous time, space, or alternate dimension. Or they could be robots from that previous time, space, or alternate dimension.
- Pure energy life forms. One interesting trope is that humans or aliens evolve into pure energy. In fact, Mr. Spock is sampled in an episode of Star Trek describing a species as pure energy in this Information Society song, but it's also how other alien life forms have been depicted as well, which opens up the conversation of the pros and cons of having a physical form.
- Secretive laboratory or base. Some kind of government or private testing facility that is up to who knows what. Well, that's what is uncovered in your story.
- Mad scientist. The scientist has some crazed (or perfectly logical) scheme to make scientific advancements. Of course, most people see them as evil and try to stop the mad scientist, who could be working at the secretive base or in their parent's basement.
- Bad artificial intelligence. What makes intelligence artificial? As the philosophers debate that one, bad AI is obviously out to eliminate humans, probably in their robot bodies, but it's also possible they use organic matter as well.
- Cloning. It doesn't matter who is doing the cloning (aliens, AI robots, mad scientists), but cloning creates several issues for the people who are being cloned and the clones themselves (who likely feel like they're not clones, right?).
- Creating monsters. Whether the monster is created intentionally (as in Frankenstein) or unintentionally (as in Godzilla), science fiction is really good at revealing the monsters that can be unleashed with scientific breakthroughs.
- Nanotechnology. I'm not 100% sure what nanotech is, but I'm sure that in science fiction nanotechnology is able to accomplish anything that a writer wants (or needs) to happen in a story. In fact, this is tied to the next trope.
- Techno-babble. There are so many science fiction stories (especially space age SF) that rely on gadgets and devices that have super science-y names (or less science-y names with the word "tech" added to the end). These can be nice, but don't bog down your story in jargontech.
- Dystopian futures. Think things are bad now? Just think about how bad things can get in the future. Dystopian fiction is popular because things can always get worse. (3 rules for writing a better dystopian novel.)
- Utopian futures. Think things are good now? Just think about how good things can get in the future. Utopian fiction is not quite as popular as its dystopian cousin, but they can be interesting mirrors to hold up to current society (and/or reveal the dystopian underbelly of something that seems too good to be true).
- Technologically advanced. Whether dystopian or utopian, science fiction is a hot bed for revealing technologically advanced societies. The conflict is often found in discovering the trade offs (if any, though there usually are some) in advanced technology (for instance, social media connects people around the world and disconnects people in their local neighborhoods).
- Technologically stunted. One way to compare and contrast a technologically advanced society is to prop it up against a technologically stunted society. One good example of this can be found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (find 15 provocative quotes from Brave New World).
- Philosophical discussions. Let's face it: Science fiction is supercharged for larger philosophical discussions by SF readers. However, many SF writers can't help but lead philosophical lectures in their texts to guide the conversation. While these can occasionally be interesting, they're often a good way to slow down what was previously a good story.
- Morals and ethics. Many stories have morals and ethics baked in, but science fiction is a place that often pits humans vs. aliens, technology vs. non-technology, progress vs. traditions, and well, what's the moral? Frankenstein is a great story about a scientist who tries to extend life, but what about the ethics?
Hope this list helps get you started. Feel encouraged to share your own favorites in the comments below.
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