Writers can use this list of 101 science fiction tropes to add some Zap! to their writing.
Science Fiction is the computer geek of the fantasy genre. It is also filled with tropes.
What is a trope?
A trope is a commonly used literary device. It can be a cliché and it can be used well.
Science fiction tropes are everywhere. For example, ‘beaming up’ to the Enterprise in Star Trek is a trope used by the writer of the show, Gene Roddenberry, to save money on expensive space shuttle sets. It has become iconic and people would miss it if it were taken out of the show.
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How is it used?
Tropes are used as shorthand to explain complicated things. For example, Light-Speed is used to explain a complicated way of travelling through space very quickly. If you do this, you don’t have to waste words trying to educate your reader when you want to get on with the plot.
101 Science Fiction Tropes Writers Should Use
These are very common science fiction tropes used in successful books and series. I have taken them from TV shows you may know and 100-year-old books you probably won’t. Regardless, many of these are used every day to make the books and TV we all love to read and watch.
By reading these, you will be inspired to create your own work. You should add a twist to any old idea to make it seem new. But, old tropes die hard and that’s because they are too good to be forgotten.
- Faster than light is the bread and butter of all space travel in science fiction. Breaking the rules of physics is often the best way to get your character from planet to planet.
- Techno Babble is speaking in high-tech tongues and it solves any problem the crew is currently having. ‘Reverse the polarity, the Glib-Glops are weak to theta radiation!’
- All artificial intelligences are evil. Especially the good ones.
- Chekhov’s Egg is like Chekhov’s Gun but directed by Ridley Scott. If you introduce an alien egg to the story it must hatch and eat someone by the third act.
- Alternative universes want to invade our own.
- Alternative universes contain evil versions of your characters.
- Alternative universes warn your universe of a devastating threat.
- Travelling to distant stars is very difficult and takes generations.
- Travelling to distant stars is very difficult and requires Cryosleep to get there.
- Travelling to distant stars is very difficult and is done by AI and robots while the humans sleep.
- Someone always wakes up to early from Cryosleep. Asteroids are usually involved.
- A ship is found with people who have been in Cryosleep for thousands of years adrift in space. Because they crashed into the asteroid.
- A ship is found where people have forgotten how their technology works and must be saved.
- The people who wake up are evil, but seem nice at first.
- The people who wake up are the last survivors of a once great civilisation and impart wisdom.
- The survivors of the once great civilisation die from the common cold before telling anyone the meaning of life.
- Space travel is very easy and takes no time at all.
- Space travel is very fast, but is very dangerous.
- Space travel is dangerous because it passes through an evil realm filled with monsters.
- Space travel requires a navigator to have magical powers to plot a course. Possibly, to avoid deadly asteroids.
- Space travel requires a navigator to take drugs to see the future. These drugs only come from one planet. Everyone is fighting over them.
- Space travel needs a special kind of computer or droid to plot a course and it takes time to calculate.
- Ships travel faster than light speed through real/normal space.
- Ships travel though hyper-space which is another dimension.
- Ships use Warp gates to travel through wormholes.
- Warp Gates were created by a long dead civilisation.
- Humans discover these gates and have adventures through them.
- Aliens are kind, intelligent push-overs and humans are destroying their worlds.
- Aliens are evil, brutal godlike beings trying to enslave humans.
- Aliens want to eat humans.
- Aliens want to lay eggs in humans.
- Aliens want humans to help them with a problem they are too ‘evolved’ to solve.
- It turns out humans were the aliens all along.
- Humans were the aliens all along but they evolved into a different species.
- Humans use technology to evolve into a post-human civilisation.
- Humans use technology to ascend to a state of pure energy.
- Humans use spiritual nonsense to become beings of pure light and love.
- Humans use psychic powers to become one godlike over-mind.
- Humans once had these great powers, but lost them when the war with the robots/aliens happened.
- They now live under a god emperor keeping them from evolving too fast.
- The god emperor was an alien all along and the humans must rebel!
- The god emperor was a super-computer the humans forgot they made and they must figure out why.
- The super-computer had to do whatever the humans wanted it to do all along.
- The super-computer was keeping them safe from aliens.
- The super-computer was built to keep aliens safe from humans.
- Two species of humans evolve and are at war.
- They are fighting over ancient crimes.
- They are fighting over philosophical points.
- One is racist.
- One eats the other.
- One is technological and the other is super-religious.
- Space is empty and humans are the first species.
- Space is empty and humans start filling up the galaxy.
- Humans make aliens.
- They must fight these aliens. Possibly because they didn’t do a good enough job making them.
- Space is filled with aliens.
- Most are like humans with funny ears.
- Most are horrible eldritch monsters humans can’t even begin to understand.
- Turns out the humans are the real monsters. The aliens were just trying to save our environment.
- Humans and aliens hate each other and do nothing but have never-ending wars. Usually for the god emperor’s glory.
- Humans and aliens live together, drink together and have mixed species children. He becomes the captain’s pointy-eared best friend.
- Humans are less advanced then other races and are treated like children.
- Humans resent aliens for treating them like children and start a galaxy wide genocide using the aliens own technology.
- Humans work hard to be as advanced as the other species and become accepted as part of them. Perhaps in some sort of commonwealth?
- Space is full of Pirates.
- And Smugglers. The Important difference is that smugglers make better anti-heroes.
- Space pirates are a plague and the heroes must fight them.
- Space pirates are cool and help the rebels fight the evil Empire.
- Humans use nano-technology to make very small useful robots that can do anything.
- Oh, No! They became sentient.
- They want to replicate, consuming all matter they come into contact with.
- They want to be more human and build human bodies and start pretending to eat avocado toast.
- The humans defeat them using an ancient weapon left by a long dead race.
- The humans program them to be nice and become friends.
- Humans make copies of their minds.
- Humans clone themselves.
- Humans put their minds in the clones to live forever.
- Something goes wrong. Humans can’t have children anymore because of too much cloning.
- They must find non-clone humans to fix this. But that was thousands of years ago.
- They need time travel to fix this.
- They go through a wormhole/black hole to go back to the past.
- They recalibrate the deflector dish to emit tachyons to travel back in time.
- They can only send their minds back in time.
- Going back in time cannot change the future and they can do whatever they want.
- Going back in time means they have to be careful not to change the future.
- They change the past and come back to a different future.
- They must go back and fix their mistake.
- The space senate has blockaded all time travel.
- The heroes must get past the blockade in a stolen ship.
- The stolen ship turns out to be alive.
- It’s also pregnant and needs their help to save its child.
- The heroes must argue about the ethics of what they are doing until they are forced to take action.
- They turn out to be right and everything works out.
- They are wrong and they just helped an evil space wizard start a galactic civil war.
- The heroes spend the whole show arguing about ethics and nothing happens.
- The heroes decide that other races have different ethics and they should not interfere.
- They say ‘Screw their ethics. Ours are better!’ and interfere.
- This fixes the problem and the space people are happy with their new American constitution.
- The space people start a holy war to kill all humans.
- The space people and the humans fight until they have destroyed each other and nobody left alive remembers what happened.
- The war between the space people and the humans turned out to be a cold war allegory all along. They eventually make up over some red space wine and a plate of gross space worms.
I hope you had fun reading this list of science fiction tropes and that it gives you ideas for your books.
If you’re looking for more tropes, read:
by Christopher Luke Dean (Secretly an alien from a long lost race of time travellers on earth to preserve the space-time continuum by writing listicals.)
Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
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