My fantasy version of this post got a lot of love, so I decided it was time to switch up the genres a bit, hitting you with some sci-fi plot ideas that don’t involve space.
When we think sci-fi, we often think of space. Trust me. When I looked up concept art for “sci-fi” for images to include in this article, most of them involved space somehow. So it’s easy to think, “surely you can’t have science fiction without the infinite, endless void of space!”
Spoiler alert: you can…mostly. I’ll show you!
1. The Alternate Universe
The alternate universe is a delightful storytelling trope in that you can make it as different or as similar to the world we know as you want. I saw Multiverse of Madness recently and was oddly delighted by the fact that in alternate New York City, red means “go” and green means “stop.” It’s those kinds of little moments that remind us how much different our world could be if only we’d collectively established even one thing differently. And, if you wanted to be nihilistic about it, it could also remind you of how ultimately meaningless we are because there are countless universes almost exactly like our own (and countless more completely different).
There are plenty of possible approaches to the alternate universe sci-fi plot. You could feature a character capable of traveling through alternate universes (ex: America Chavez, SCP-507) but who perhaps can’t control it or still hasn’t learned how to. What kind of dangers do they face? What do they learn from constantly moving through universes (things to look out for, people/creatures to observe, strategies for laying low) and what are some of the consequences of traveling unprepared?
If you’re writing a story set in an alternate universe, the challenge isn’t just the plot and setting, but also relating all of it back to the universe we know. The reason you’re setting a story in an alternate universe as opposed to, say, another planet, is because the whole point is to have both moments of eerie similarities and moments where the universes’ paths diverge and things are very, very different. And you as the writer have to find the balance between those moments of recognition and pure culture shock. For example, an Earth where everything is almost identical, but everyone has a tail. Or an Earth where humanity never existed at all, and the dominant species is sentient cheese.
Ask yourself some questions about the differences between the protagonist’s “home universe” and the ones they travel to:
- What do the people of this alternate universe value? Would those values be strange to the protagonist, and to the reader?
- Are the people of this alternate dimension human or something else?
- What’s the biggest alternate universe culture shock your protagonist faces?
- Is there an “alternate” version of the protagonist? Is there some sort of consequences if the two ever meet?
- How did the protagonist fall into this alternate dimension? How do they get back?
It’s a lot to consider. But the fun part is that you have a kind of anchor in our original world, one that readers will obviously be familiar with. From there, all you have to do is establish how the alternate world differs and what kind of trouble the protagonist might get into as an intruder from another dimension.
2. The Superheroes/Superhumans (or Subverting Them)
Some may say that superheroes are an overdone sci-fi plot, they’ve run their course, they’re cliché. And to that I say…nah, fam. Nah.
I will admit that I’m bored of superhero movies. Very bored. But it’s important to note the distinction between superhero franchise movies and all media involving superheroes/superhumans. Any plot revolving around superhuman beings lets you to explore so much about power, responsibility, fitting in, proving yourself, and being who you are. Whether we’re talking about a pill or tech that grants superhuman abilities, or a world where everyone is super, the plot doesn’t always have to be “superhero team against big bad” or “young aspiring superhero must prove themselves against a world-ending threat.”
Some ideas for this type of sci-fi plot can include:
- A world where everyone is divided by the power they have, all cogs in the relentless, unending machine that is the empire. What happens when people from all over with all different powers team up to break free of the empire’s chains?
- Very few superhumans exist, but those who do are near god-like in power, and worshipped as such. Are they all corrupt, and if they are, who can stand up to them?
- The world is just like ours, with no superhumans in sight, until something happens that causes millions to develop supernatural abilities all at once. What happens to a normal world suddenly turned super?
I’ve mentioned many times before on this site that my favorite tropes are “mundane uses for magic/powers” and “everyone is a super.” So I tend to think of those a lot when I think about anything involving superheroes. Ultimately, even the strongest superhuman is still a person. How can you use miraculous abilities as a tool for your story, and how can your characters grow when they and those around them are given abilities that make the impossible, possible?
3. The Corporate Dystopia
I’ll let you in on a secret, friends: speculative fiction is and always has been political. This is true of all spec fic, but particularly so for sci-fi. When you’re giving readers a glimpse into societies across galaxies, far into the future—capable of incredible things or fallen to catastrophe—it’s nearly impossible not to be political.
There’s a reason the evil megacorp is a prevailing trope in sci-fi. Commentaries on capitalism are only to be expected when huge corporations can determine the price of life-saving medicine and have more of a say in government than real people. When you’re writing a corporate dystopia, all you have to do is ask yourself what it is about late stage capitalism you’d like to comment on, and take it to its logical conclusion. For example:
- If you wanted to comment on privatized healthcare, what if you wrote about a protagonist living in a world where everyone is actively rotting alive at all times? Perhaps there’s a cure, but the megacorporation that manufactures it only provides it to the extremely wealthy, while everyone else only gets whatever moments of relief they can afford?
- If you wanted to comment on corporate propaganda, hit us with the classic reversal. Maybe the protagonist benefits from this amazing product that they’re assured is faultless and becomes a spokesperson for this new invention, only to learn that they’ve been deceived into helping an evil corporation spread the word about something dangerous. (Fun fact: did you know that Bayer once sold HIV-contaminated products? They knew it was contaminated, but deemed it too great a financial loss to destroy the product instead of selling it. So they sold it overseas in Asia and Latin America instead. Classy.)
- If you wanted to write about the concerning growth and influence of corporations, write about what happens when one such corporation takes over the world entirely. What happens when your enemy is a massive corporation with money and resources to spare?
I like to doomscroll on Twitter until I’m angry. It’s not a healthy thing to do for fun, but it is helpful for finding inspiration if you ever choose to write about the capitalist hellscape that is not so far off.
4. The Time Travel Tale
Like the alternate dimension, time travel stories have a lot of flexibility. They can be romance, alternate history, horror, comedy, or some combination. It’s a sci-fi plot where you can go as hard on the sci-fi as you want, or perhaps focus on the “time/fate” part more than the “time travel” part.
Some types of time travel tales include:
- The Butterfly Effect: explore how a small change, like moving a chair or killing an ant, can snowball into a drastically different future.
- Inevitability/Fate: is there such thing as fate? If a character can time travel and do it all over again, can they escape their destiny?
- Unexpected Timelines: play with history a little. We’re living in an indescribably ridiculous timeline right now, so what other ridiculous timelines could have come to pass?
- Wacky Historical Hijinks: did your protagonist’s shenanigans traveling to the past, meeting important historical figures, and bumbling through the most important events in history, result in the present day we know now?
- Undoing an Oopsie: is your protagonist suffering from a lifetime of guilt after a tragedy for which they blame themself? What would they do for a chance to do it all over again?
If you choose to write a time travel romance, consider the many ways the manipulation of time could bring the lovers together, or tear them apart. Are they separated—literally—by time? For example, maybe one of the pair can time travel, but only temporarily, and they can’t control it. What does it take for the pair to be united even with days, weeks, months, or perhaps even years or decades coming between them?
Or maybe romance isn’t quite what you’re looking for. Maybe you want to write a more surreal, existential take on the meaning of existence, fate, choice, and the inevitable passage of time. Perhaps in the form of an “Undoing an Oopsie,” where your protagonist tries to go back in time to undo a horrible mistake, only to accidentally set in motion a chain of events that cause that exact event to take place, over and over again.
As with any story you write, ask yourself what impression it is you want to leave the readers. How can you use the infinite timelines—past, present, and future—to accomplish that?
5. The Commentary on Technology
Another staple of the sci-fi plot besides space is technology. This point was hardest for me to write about because it’s not necessarily a sci-fi plot, but nonetheless often serves as a vital part of the story. Anything set even in the very near future will probably involve tech more advanced than any we recognize.
But for this point, I’ll talk about sci-fi plot ideas that center entirely around technology. For example, most Black Mirror episodes focus on a particular bit of tech and its unintended consequences: a future where social media determines how well you live and what resources you have access to (“Nosedive”); a future where you can record and access your memories so you never forget anything ever again (“The Entire History of You”); or maybe a future where you can create a digital clone of yourself that is identical in every way and believes itself to be the real, living, breathing person (“White Christmas”).
Ask yourself: what technological innovations make you nervous, or frustrated, or angry? It can be something as mundane (but still insidious) as microtransactions and pop-up ads, or something more blatant and terrifying like a trendy new product inserted into your brain that gives the company full access to your every thought (but you signed the terms of service and the legal jargon on page 92 means you gave full consent).
On the opposite end, if you were going for less doom-and-gloom, what technology makes you hopeful for the future, and how can you incorporate that into your story? Maybe it’s improvements in cities, healthcare, transportation, greater access to education, or being able to interact with people all across the world.
6. The Cosmic Horror
Okay, maybe I’m cheating a little bit, since a lot of cosmic horror has to do with the unknowable void that is space and what may lurk within it.
If you want your sci-fi story grim and hopeless, there are few better options than the cosmic horror tale. Featuring unspeakable eldritch abominations, disturbing and confounding imagery, and cosmic beings beyond comprehension, these are the kinds of sci-fi plots where happy endings are rare. And it’s not just the protagonist and their allies in danger; cosmic horror monsters are often, well, cosmic threats. Beings you can’t even look at or listen to without going mad. Time, reality, morality, all meaningless.
Some things you can consider when writing this sci-fi plot include:
- How did the characters encounter the reality-bending anomaly?
- What’s the “cosmic” part of your “cosmic horror?” Is the strange anomaly or horrifying creature you’ve created some kind of god? A blip in time and space? An alien? And what makes each of those possibilities utterly terrifying? A sleeping ancient?
- Is there hope for the protagonists? Why or why not?
- How can you ramp up the horror by manipulating the readers’ fear of the unknown? When we fear the dark, is it the dark itself, or what we fear may emerge from it?
I recommend this plot for anyone who wants to get real trippy and perhaps real messed up with their writing. If you’ve ever seen that one music video featuring the two couples who go to an indoor pool at night to make out, that is the level of morbid and horrifying that cosmic horror is capable of.
7. The Apocalypse
There’s a ton of different ways you can destroy the world or society as we know it. Several of them are on this list.
Zombies, robot takeovers, plagues, natural disasters, and that covers only a fraction of the many possible sci-fi plots that involve your protagonist navigating the end of the world and trying to build something from what remains. Often, these stories focus not only on the end of the world, but how the characters interact with each other when society has collapsed and it’s every man for himself. They’re explorations of the darker parts of humanity and how fear and desperation can change us (or make us even worse than we already were). Hell, maybe in your tale of the apocalypse, other human survivors are just as dangerous as the lack of resources, exposure, monsters, or anything else the end of the world throws at your characters.
But I’d argue the most fun thing to think about is exactly how you’re going to cruelly destroy the world. Here’s some ways you can do that, and how each disaster will impact the kind of obstacles you can place in your protagonists’ way:
- The Plague: humanity got sick and died. Your protagonist has probably lost loved ones to the illness. They must fear: infection, lack of resources (or potentially contaminated resources), unbearable loneliness, infection (like, not the world-ending plague, but any wounds getting infected)
- The Monsters: humanity got eaten, assimilated, conquered, farmed, or some other unfortunate fate at the hands of monster or alien invaders. Your protagonist must remain hidden from the creatures, seek friendly survivors, avoid less-than-friendly survivors, and seek out resources and shelter
- The Natural Disaster: humanity found out about climate change. Eventually. Hail storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, you name it. Whatever it is, your protagonist will probably have to do a lot of ducking and dodging, escaping collapsing buildings, severe droughts, and other events that will leave the danger high and the resources very, very low.
- The Eldritch God: humanity got a taste of some cosmic horror. Your protagonist risks madness, being devoured by hideous monsters, not knowing who to trust (on account of eldritch creatures screwing with their mind), and being transformed into a fresh new monster—a fate surely worse than death.
Maybe your protagonist (and anyone they meet along the way) can rebuild. And maybe they can’t. Decide how screwed they are, how determined they are to live and keep going, and what exactly they have to fight for when the world as they know it is over.
8. The Story of Humanity When It’s Not Humanity Anymore
What does Earth look like post-infection or invasion? What would the world be like if the creature from The Thing successfully assimilated everyone and everything? Or the aliens from The Body Snatchers? When all of humanity is infected, is it even humanity anymore? How would you depict this?
What if you played around with the concept of transhumanism? At what point could scientific advancement ostensibly created to improve humanity, instead turn us into something we wouldn’t recognize?
When I say “humanity isn’t humanity” anymore, here are some examples of what I mean:
- Technology has grown so advanced that humans can install any number of upgrades—both physical and mental—to achieve complete perfection. At this point, they’re more robot than human, all except pockets of civilization that refuse any alterations.
- Take the “aliens/monsters/virus infect humanity” trope, with one change: there is no human rebellion, no one left uninfected. What’s the world like now, with the conquering, parasitic entity now in charge of it?
- Humanity has been infected with a virus that changes them irreversibly. Perhaps they still behave mostly the same, but have been drastically physically altered (turn into light, warped into eldritch creatures, etc, etc).
This is why I love speculative fiction. This sci-fi plot is arguably one of the toughest kinds of stories to write, because you’re commenting on what it means to be human by speculating on what it’s like to be something that’s not entirely human anymore.
And that’s it! What kinds of sci-fi plots do you most enjoy? Would you consider writing any of the above?
If you liked that, check out the fantasy version!