Tropes can be easily overdone, but when applied with care, they can enhance your writing and engage your readers.
In this article, I’ll discuss the definition of the term trope, describe the most predominant tropes in sci-fi, and explain how you can utilise tropes in your science fiction novel.
What Is A Trope?
A trope is a common, recognisable plot feature, theme, and/or premise that recurs throughout a certain genre or subgenre.
Science fiction as a genre is over 200 years old, so there are many sci-fi tropes to choose from.
Tropes are sometimes considered cliché, but if you use them effectively (or add in a twist to keep your readers on their toes) they can help develop and strengthen your story.
Top Sci-Fi Tropes
Here are 25 of the most common, and interesting, science fiction tropes.
Time Sci-Fi Tropes
Time is a key theme and concept in science fiction, as characters often travel backwards and forwards in time, lose their sense of time, and try not to alter various timelines.
This trope has been used with increasing frequency in recent years. An alternate history can involve one specific adjustment to past events (such as if women had been granted the right to vote 20 years earlier) or a myriad of them which all add up to create a society that’s recognisable, though distinctly different from our own.
Using an alternate history can enable you to add lots of different themes to your work, explore the ramifications of making one or several adjustments, and highlight the fact that every action and event affects the ones that follow it.
This is different from an alternate history, as parallel worlds involve different universes and events that are often happening concurrently, and sometimes feature various versions of each individual. Your characters may even be able to travel between these universes.
Whereas, with alternative universes/alternate histories, some of the specifics of a universe have been changed, but the rest is the same, and these two universes are separate entities that do not co-exist.
A time paradox is a classic for a reason. If your characters are travelling through time, any actions they take may alter the past and have unforeseen consequences in the future. This trope has to be intricately woven into the story, as every minute action your characters make will have a cumulative effect, and readers will enjoy looking back at all the clues indicating that things are going wrong.
A Time Loop
The trope in which the main characters in a story get stuck in a time loop has become increasingly popular over the past few years and has featured in quite a few recent science fiction films. This often revolves around characters repeating the same day over and over until they’ve resolved any unfinished business they had, changed their ways, or dealt with a serious life-threatening obstacle.
Many of them feature some kind of time machine or portal that is the key to the characters returning to their daily lives once they’ve resolved the issue that’s forced them into time purgatory. It can be easy for these stories to feel a little repetitive, so try to ensure that you’re still moving the story forward and adding interesting elements to keep your readers engaged.
Science And Technology Sci-Fi Tropes
Sci-fi classics, like Star Trek, often explore our relationship with science and technology, as new discoveries alter our perception of reality.
The mad scientist trope is a much beloved one and is frequently used in sci fi. While the outdated term ‘mad’ is inaccurate and cruel, the meaning behind the phrase is still valid. This trope generally refers to scientists with ideas that far exceed others’ understandings, causing them to be teased until the inevitable revelation that they were right all along. Though they often struggle to come to terms with the unforeseen consequences of their discoveries.
This trope goes hand in hand with all sorts of hijinks, miscommunications, foreshadowing, and character development, so it’s one that you can really have fun with.
Genetic modification is the kind of trope that you can hang your entire plot upon, or use to enrich your world-building. This trope may involve the creation of new creatures, parents having the capacity to alter their childrens’ genes before birth, or a world in which your status is determined by how ‘perfect’ your genes are (as only the wealthy can afford to alter them). There’s certainly a lot to explore with this trope.
Untrustworthy artificial intelligence is a trope that was once scary in a hypothetical sense but is now eerily edging closer to our own reality. This can involve robots that no longer follow commands, AI that is trying to replace and eliminate humans, or robots/machines that are becoming sentient and are being held captive by humans.
This evokes lots of themes about philosophy, morality, free will, consciousness, and what it means to be human. It also explores the rapid growth of technology, and how it can have both profoundly wonderful and irreversibly detrimental effects.
Cloning is another trope which brings up issues of ethics, morality, and philosophy. There are lots of options in terms of who is doing the cloning (scientists, aliens, robots etc.) and who is being cloned.
Nuance is important here, as if one of your characters is suddenly extremely apathetic when they’re usually incredibly enthusiastic, your readers will catch on quickly, and they won’t have the chance to slowly unravel the puzzle you’ve created.
Think about how you can use clones in an unusual way. Perhaps the clone only goes out at night, so it takes a while for them to be spotted. Or maybe they lurk in your protagonist’s home while they’re out at work.
Teleportation as a regular mode of travel is one sci-fi trope that many of us wouldn’t mind making into a reality. Though, of course, there would be implications to teleporting everywhere.
Perhaps humans’ legs are growing weaker as a result, or the government is charging a high toll fee for people who teleport to places outside a 20-mile radius. You could also think of interesting ways in which your characters can teleport. Do they flash neon purple for a second as they teleport? Or perhaps they freeze for half a second before they disappear.
This harks back to the classic horror/science fiction of Frankenstein, wherein a scientific breakthrough goes awry, and a scientist unintentionally wreaks havoc on themselves and the world. Fun.
You could tie this into AI, medical advancements, or new technologies, and play around with your monsters’ horrifying abilities and skills.
This is another sci-fi trope that’s becoming uncomfortably close to our reality. You could make this something that a few people know about, or implement it so that it’s a part of daily life in the world you’ve created.
You could have the government employ one or two surveillance tactics, like facial recognition being installed on all public cameras; or you could decide that the government tracks people’s locations, finances, healthcare data, internet usage, and every other conceivable thing.
Using this trope, and writing about it, may end up terrifying you as much as it will your future readers.
Lots of sci-fi and speculative fiction stories depict fictional worlds in which human resources are running low, and so those higher up in the hierarchical structure receive more access to them. In darker sci-fi tales, this can involve organ harvesters who track people down to steal their organs. This often occurs in post-apocalyptic narratives which take place in already dire circumstances.
Everything Is A Simulation
This particular trope can easily veer into being cliche, especially if it’s used as a plot twist right at the end of the story. If you’re working up to the revelation that the events of your story are all part of a simulation, try to include lots of hints leading up to it, and make sure that it’s an interesting addition to the story, rather than something that the whole framework of your book hinges upon. Ideally, your book should still make sense even without this revelation.
Alternatively, you could have some of your characters aware that they exist in a simulation (think The Matrix) while others are totally unaware, which would enable you to really utilise dramatic irony.
Space Sci-Fi Tropes
With the popularity of space operas such as Star Wars, space-related topics and tropes are generally predominant in science fiction.
Space pirates are the ideal characters to turn to if you want your characters’ trip to space to come with a little chaos. Like their seafaring compatriots, space pirates steal and capture other vehicles (in this case, spacecrafts) and they may kidnap, enslave, or even kill the passengers and crewmembers on the spacecrafts they take over.
Wormholes are another satisfying science fiction trope, though try not to rely on them too heavily. Wormholes are portals that allow you to travel to different dimensions, and they can be an interesting addition to your story both in allowing your characters to make progress on their journeys and in acting as an obstacle if they suddenly stop working, disappear, or if only some characters know how to navigate them.
They can be the tool used by your antagonist to help them ensure they’re always one step ahead of your main characters. Or perhaps they explain why one of the characters suddenly has access to technology and rare plants that the other characters have never even heard of. Not only can you toy around with the types of dimensions your characters enter, but also what the wormholes themselves look like. Are they disguised as billboards? Or perhaps every broken swing in a public park is a well-hidden portal.
Lost In Space
Another frequently used sci-fi trope (often utilised in sci-fi movies too), is the notion of being lost in space. This can refer to an entire spacecraft, an astronaut that’s accidentally left behind, or any other scenario you can concoct. The focus here is usually on survival, the desire to return home (if, in your story, Earth is still there/at all hospitable), and navigating any extraterrestrial conflicts.
Alien Sci-Fi Tropes
Space and aliens often go hand in hand, and in your story, you get to decide whether aliens are technologically advanced allies or the species set upon destroying humanity.
Aliens Crash Landing
The alien crash landing is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all sci-fi tropes. This startling event is often witnessed by a child, elderly person, or someone with a very active imagination, as it is generally believed to be a falsehood until people are met with the irrefutable truth. You could twist this by having a parent trying to convince their child of this unexpected occurrence, or having someone who’s very logical and trustworthy witness it. This trope often goes hand in hand with a mysterious overnight abduction.
The classic conflict of humans vs. aliens is at the heart of many hard science fiction stories. You could write about a world in which aliens have already completely invaded Earth, and humans are forming underground groups as they plan to fight back. Or you could start your book right as the alien invasion begins, and have some territories remain under human control. With this trope, there’s often a discrepancy between the more advanced technology and resources aliens have and what humans possess in comparison, so lots of other tropes weave into this one nicely.
An Alien Signal From Space
Having your characters hear an alien signal from space is a great way to start a story. Especially if it’s the first contact humans have made with aliens.
This trope is particularly effective with soft science fiction, as you can explore the aliens’ capabilities, and build up to a potential meeting, adding in elements of space travel and the potential limits of our own technology as you go.
General Sci-Fi Tropes
There are so many different subgenres and themes in the sci-fi realm, and these tropes can help you explore a different side of your story.
Survivalism is a trope that was once exceedingly popular but is now a little less common. This trope refers to characters being stranded somewhere (perhaps on a foreign planet) or existing in a post-apocalyptic universe where survival is their biggest obstacle. Searching for sustenance, finding shelter and a place to rest, and determining whether or not there are any nearby predators are just a few of the things they’ll prioritise as they navigate unfamiliar terrain. Resilience, adaptability, and the power of hope are all themes which this trope draws from.
Utopias are science fiction tropes that aren’t utilised as much as the others. Idealised utopian worlds are often universes where things like racism, homophobia, sexism, and capitalism have been eradicated. The conflict here could arise from the early stages of development, where these enhancements are being gradually integrated into society. Or, as is most popular, the main issue could be that life in this world isn’t quite as perfect as it seems.
The utopia’s opposite and adversary, dystopian worlds are such popular sci-fi tropes that they’ve become a subgenre in their own right. In this world, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and life is extremely bleak.
To some, this reassures people that things could always be worse. For others, it’s just a reminder of how terrible life can be. If you’re in the latter camp, and your book’s heading in a dystopian direction, might I suggest that you have a list of your favourite songs/things/TV shows etc. to hand so that you aren’t constantly in a sombre mindset during the writing process.
The theme of immortality is present throughout many sci-fi stories, as science fiction authors explore their interpretations of an immortal being. It may be that your book features evil aliens who are unfortunately immortal, immortality is achieved by implanting human brains into robot forms, or, in relation to the genetic modification trope, scientists are manipulating genes in an attempt to create infallible immortal beings.
A Human Gains Superpowers
A much-beloved trope, a human gaining superpowers after being exposed to an alien substance, radiation, or some other species or powerful force, serves as a great inciting incident for your story.
People love an underdog, and with this trope, there’s plenty of room for character development, and you can explore the everyday version of your protagonist as well as their superhero alter ego.
Plus, you can experiment with the kinds of abilities your character has at their disposal, from super speed to psychic powers, and from the ability to heal people to superhuman strength.
Multiple science fiction/dystopian films, TV shows, books, video/virtual reality games and other storytelling formats feature post-apocalyptic worlds. These often take place in the near future, after an environmental collapse, nuclear war, the effects of climate change, a mutant virus/bacteria, alien invasion, or the infiltration of various artificial intelligences etc. Post-apocalyptic worlds are also likely to feature desolate landscapes, totalitarian governments/leadership, government surveillance, and some kind of developing uprising/resistance.
How To Use Sci-Fi Tropes In Your Writing
So, now you know some of the most interesting and commonly used science fiction tropes, it’s time to think about how you can apply them to your own writing.
Here are our top tips for using sci-fi tropes:
- Don’t overload your book with tropes- focus on just a few tropes that will genuinely add to your story and engage your readers
- Don’t feel you have to use any tropes at all- tropes are useful devices, but only include them if it makes sense to do so; if you add them in because you think you have to it’ll seem forced
- Think about how your chosen trope is typically used, and see if you can find a way to subvert the norm
- Combine genres- you could use a trope from a common subgenre of sci-fi (like dystopian fiction) and blend it with another genre; perhaps your protagonist ends up in a parallel world wherein their sister is a powerful sorcerer
Create Your Alternate Universe
Tropes aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s all about how you use them. Experiment with different tropes, see what works best for your story and characters, and focus on the execution.
It may be that researching different tropes prompts you to look into related topics that intrigue you, and soon you’ll be adding a whole host of other planets, wormholes, or aliens to your work in progress.