Science fiction as a genre dates all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818.
The genre has grown and evolved in the last two centuries, but some things remain constant. Sci-fi tropes are common plot elements, premises, and themes that show up over and over.
Science fiction tropes are popular and recognizable. While some sci-fi tropes may feel cliché, there’s always a way to add a fresh spin to beloved motifs.
If you’re running low on science fiction story ideas, take a look at these sci-fi tropes and see how you can spin them into something new. We’ve divided the list into various subgenres of science fiction, but some tropes may fit in more than one category.
Space sci-fi is often the first subgenre people think of when they hear “science fiction.”
Sci-fi movies and TV shows like Interstellar and Star Trek have a huge fanbase. Science fiction tropes set in space may involve space voyages, colonization, and exploration.
Here are some of our favorite space tropes.
- Terraforming a new planet to make it habitable by humans
- In-ship farming on long voyages
- Space stations full of multiple alien species
- Lost in space stories
- A ship gets sucked through a black hole
- Cryosleep, where ship inhabitants wake after a long time
- Space pirates
- Space westerns: colonies similar to the Wild West
- Warp speed or faster than light technology
- Space battles between warring factions
- Wormholes are portals to other dimensions
- A space odyssey or space opera set among distant worlds, like Star Wars
- In the future, space travel is as common as going on vacation
Aliens in science fiction are such a big subject that we decided to group them separately from space tropes. Everything from first contact to advanced alien civilizations remain popular storylines.
Be mindful of outdated alien tropes that are thinly veiled racism and sexism. Refrain from making “different colored” aliens an oppressed group, an intellectually inferior group, or purely evil.
The sky is the limit when it comes to writing aliens in sci-fi. They don’t have to look like E.T. or even be humanoid.
Let’s check out some beloved alien tropes.
- Aliens with a hive mind
- Alien society with a mothership and a large fleet
- First contact through space exploration
- Scientists hear a mysterious alien signal in deep space
- Aliens share advanced technology with humans
- Humans are greatly feared by aliens
- Secret invasions of earth
- Conflicts in learning to communicate with aliens
- Universal translator technology
- A crash landing on earth
- Alien zoos on other planets
- Forbidden love with interspecies romance
- Predator/hunter conflicts
Not all apocalypse stories fall under the sci-fi umbrella, but many do. When science plays a big part in either the cause of the apocalypse or the post-apocalyptic world, we can consider it a piece of science fiction.
Here are a few apocalyptic sci-fi tropes:
- Apocalypse caused by an alien attack or invasion
- A mutant virus or bacteria wipes out most of life on earth
- A robot war wipes out most of humanity
- Climate change forces humans to seek life outside of Earth
- Nuclear wasteland following nuclear war
Science Fiction Civilization Tropes
The fictional worlds in science fiction are always fun to escape into—even if you wouldn’t want to live there yourself! Civilizations can range from dystopian to utopian in science fiction.
Similar to apocalyptic fiction, not every dystopian story is sci-fi. They instead might fall under a larger genre of speculative fiction. But in many dystopian stories, science plays a big role.
Let’s look at some common civilization tropes you might see in sci-fi.
- Advanced surveillance by a fascist government
- The government strictly controls scientific innovation
- Genetic modification and splicing to create new creatures
- A lost human or pre-human civilization with advanced technology
- A utopian Earth that leads the forefront of space travel
- Post-race, post-class, or post-gender civilizations
Military & Superhero Tropes
Military sci-fi is a common subgenre. Often, superhero stories will fall into this category, although some superhero stories are more fantasy or science fantasy. For sci-fi superhero tropes, think of genetic engineering plots like in Captain America.
Because these two subgenres often go hand in hand, we’ve listed the military and superhero sci-fi tropes together.
- Genetically modified super-soldiers
- A regular person gets superpowers after exposure to radiation
- Alien technology used in human wars
- Mecha soldiers (giant robots, often with a person inside)
- Police state/military state with advanced tech
- Government is lying about aliens
- One person uncovers a government cover-up
- The “men-in-black” investigate encounters with aliens
- Child soldiers recruited by government for genetic engineering
- Military space fleet
Robots are another popular feature in sci-fi movies and books. Robot technology is compelling because it’s already in the realm of possibility. Robot science fiction often asks, “What comes next?”
Robots and types of artificial intelligence are also a great way to explore what it means to be human. This is a common literary theme, and many sci-fi tropes lend themselves perfectly to it.
Whether you love robots or you’re terrified of robot overlords, there are endless stories you can imagine. Check out some of our favorite robot tropes.
- Robots plot to kill humans and take over the world
- Human consciousness is implanted in a robot to achieve immortality
- Robot armies
- AI evolving past human intelligence
- Robots as main characters
- Androids who feel more human than technology
- Political campaigns for/against android rights
- AI as best friends or love interests
- A robot begins to experience human emotions
Alternate History and Time Travel Tropes
Alternate history can be several subgenres in science fiction. Steampunk, solar punk, and cyber punk often fall under alternate history, and so do parallel worlds.
Time travel is a tricky subject in sci-fi because the science doesn’t always seem plausible. But there are some incredible time travel sci-fi movies, TV shows, and books out there that manage to still be science-y.
Even Star Trek has touched on time travel in various storylines, and it is a classic example of hard science fiction.
Here are some of the best examples of alternate history and time travel sci-fi tropes:
- An almost identical parallel world exists with an interesting twist
- Someone falls into a wormhole through to a parallel reality
- History changed in a war when the losing side got a new piece of technology
- The main characters get stuck in a time loop
- In the near future, humans can get cybernetic enhancements
- Cyborgs must fight for transhuman rights
- Steampunk story (steam technology) set in the Victorian Era
- Humans solve the climate crisis with solar technology
- Mad scientist builds a time machine to change history
Sci-Fi Technology Tropes
Most of the science fiction tropes we’ve covered have at least some major element of technology. But sci-fi technology ideas are endless.
In science fiction, technology can be something that helps the protagonist or it can create conflict for them. Some writers also use sci-fi to explore themes around the dangers of technology.
We’ve gathered a few more of our favorite technology tropes.
- Teleportation is a primary means of travel
- Materializer technology creates food and other resources with the press of a button
- Nanotechnology eliminates most illnesses and injuries
- The world is actually a virtual reality, similar to the Matrix
- An evil genius creates exciting technology that everyone has in their homes
- Nuclear technology powers spaceships, similar to the core in Star Trek ships
Human Resources Tropes
Human resources tropes refer to taking body parts or energy from humans. Sometimes it’s from living humans, while other times it’s from dead or dying humans.
These tropes often show up in sci-fi horror, weird sci-fi, or post-apocalyptic stories. Books with human resources storylines are often dark with a heavy dose of social or political commentary.
Let’s look at some human resources tropes.
- Humans are captured by aliens for their life force
- Some humans are used as food sources, as in Soylent Green
- Organ harvesters hunt people down in a post-apocalyptic landscape
- The government captures and experiments on certain classes of people, such as the homeless or criminals
- Breeding partners (with consent) in alien romance
How to Use Science Fiction Tropes
Many of these tropes probably sound familiar if you’re a fan of the sci-fi genre. In fact, you can probably think of at least one book, movie, or show that features each of these tropes.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. These are tropes because they are used repeatedly within various subgenres, and fans love them.
You can offer a fresh perspective on many of these tropes. You can bend genres, change the expected narrative, or blend tropes that no one else has.
To learn more about how to write science fiction, join us at our first-ever Science Fiction Week! From August 29, you can attend webinars with bestselling sci-fi authors and connect with other sci-fi writers.
Unlock the secrets for writing, editing, and publishing a science fiction story at Science Fiction Writers' Week, a free online summit taking place August 29 - September 2, 2022.
We have sessions from bestelling authors such as Andy Weir, Nghi Vo, Gareth Powell, and more.