I recently wrote about the awesome power of science fiction to be predictive. A lot of the work that authors go through is hinged on understanding either the near future, or the far future. these are useful buckets to categorize stories into, because they have significantly different purposes.

The near future predictive stories give us a compelling vision of a thing that may actually come to be within our lifetimes. This can often evoke a sense of wonder; after all wouldn’t it be amazing to live in some of the worlds you have read about?

Far future visions are different. They are not meant to be a 100% accurate picture of the future 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 years from now. Instead they are designed to take us so far outside of “trying to figure out if this is realistic” that we focus on what the story tells us about ourselves, human traits outside of time.

Despite what many people think about writing science fiction, there is no secret innate ability to be able to predict the future in a compelling fashion. It’s all based on hard work, reading widely, and more than a little bit of luck. There is, however, a technique you can use to get your mind to go through the gymnastics required to come up with a compelling future. This technique is not going to make you a storyteller. That part is up to you, but this will at least allow you to imagine future environments. Then you can start asking questions about those environments and the people that live in them-that’s where your story lies.

This technique is called scenario planning. It’s been around for quite a while, and was originally developed by a major oil company in the ’80s. It involves looking at the world in terms of tensions. Tensions are any description you can use to embody a characteristic of the environment that might be low or high. In terms of geopolitics, the ones we classically look at are money and people. You could also look at things that are less concrete, like the populations will to go to war or the ease of access to information for the average person. The more of these different tensions you can dream up the better, I recommend not stopping until you have a list of at least 10.

10 may sound like a lot, but the nature of creativity is that The more ideas you have the more ideas you will have. It’s kind of like a jet engine, the faster you go, the faster you go faster. So keep those ideas flowing.

Once you have a good long list, pick two. I know, all that work and you’re only picking two. But don’t worry you can go back and reexamine the other ones later. once you have picture two tensions you need to draw a quad chart. This is a simple diagram consisting of four squares on a single piece of paper with the edges joined. Take a piece of notebook paper and draw a big plus sign all the way through it. Pick one of these axes as as one of your tensions and write it along the line, leaving the other line for your other tension. These are going to go left to right and bottom to top low to high. See below for an example of what your paper should look like.

Now comes the fun part. Without using any words, that means no writing words on the paper, explain and describe the future environment that might be in each one of those four possible futures. In our example, we are using the will of the people to go to war, and the access to information of the average person. This is going to give you four possible futures. Label them from top left and clockwise E1, E2, E3, and E4. These are the environments. The more time you spend trying to imagine what each one of those environments looks like, the better picture of it you will have.

This technique is a quick and easy way to imagine possible futures. some of these futures are going to be pretty simplistic. In our example a future where there is a low will to go to war and a high access to information for the average person, it’s probably going to be relatively calm and quiet. There’s still room for stories in here, don’t get me wrong, but the conflict is not going to be driven by the environment. A much more interesting future might be a high will to go to war and a low access to information. How did we get there from here? What does power look like? Who is going to wield it? Who does this environment hurt? These are all questions that you can ask to get at the central conflict of a story. From there, develop your characters and go to work. as always I’d love to hear what you have to say about these ideas in the comments, and happy writing!