The future scenario story: why it works, and how to write one

If you’re writing a book about a change in the world, consider including an imagined future scenario. It will vividly bring to life your vision of the future. And it will be fun to write, too.

What is a future scenario story?

If you are writing a book about trends or shifts, you want us to believe that the future is quite different from the present. But what will that future feel like? Statistics about penetration of blockchain or VR gaming are dry (and probably wrong). But stories about people living in that future will communicate the idea behind the shift dramatically.

We are programmed to suspend our disbelief when reading a story. That’s why fiction and dramas work — even if you’re skeptical, you are drawn into the story by experiencing the people and their emotions.

A future scenario story starts with some ordinary people — consumers or workers — and follows them as they experience their day in the future you’ve mapped out. In such a story, you see how the technology or trend changes the world — and how it is utterly natural for the characters in the story. That makes a powerful impression, and disarms skeptics in a way that no statistic or analysis can.

Let’s look at an actual scenario story

I first wrote a story of this kind in Groundswell, my book about social media written with Charlene Li. I’ve since help other authors use this technique in other books.

Here’s the scenario from Groundswell, which was published in 2008.

Imagine for a moment that you’re in marketing at a shoe company. You wake up on December 1, 2015. What will your day be like?

As soon as you wake up, your smart phone tells you things it’s learned from the groundswell, things you want to know. To start, your favorite social network tells your phone that a college friend is coming to town next week on business. You text that you’re interested in getting together— word will get back to her, along with others from your circle of college friends. Next thing you know, a spontaneous mini-reunion is being organized by the group.

Your phone is also telling you that the Federal Trade Commission is thinking of blocking your two top competitors from merging with each other, and that the two hot colors for next spring look like mauve and canary yellow—because you’ve set the device up to bring you information from the Wall Street Journal, Footwear News, and Women’s Wear Daily. The feeds are smart—they watch what you’ve been reading and bring you more of the stuff they know you, and others similar to you, would like to know.

Alongside those feeds are the top posts from and You key in a comment on shoeaholics, right from your phone—can’t let them get away with calling those cute pumps your company just had shipped in from Mexico “cheap.” Downing the last of your morning coffee, you receive an alert that warns the interstate is backed up again—better take the alternate route. You make sure your phone’s GPS tracking system is on so that you can add your own commute progress to the traffic database.

Arriving at the office, you plug the laptop in and check your monitoring dashboard. Mauve is on fire—according to your groundswell monitoring service, shoe buzz is up 25 percent today, and 11 percent of the posts mention mauve, mostly next to positive indicator phrases like “gotta-have” and “;-b.” Canary yellow, on the other hand, is getting dissed with words like “lame” and “ten minutes ago.” The spring color choices need to get finalized this week—this is a big decision. Is it a fad, or is it real? You decide to test the theory.

On your own blog,, you float a trial balloon. It takes just a moment to take some designs from last season and color a few of them mauve. “We’re thinking of something like this for next spring— but with a different strap, something you’ve never seen before,” you post. Then you tweet it to your little cadre of shoe followers. For fun, you do a search on ShoeTube and find the source of the buzz—it’s a video of the twenty-two-year-old singer-celebrity of the moment, leader of the superficial friends, Helena Trampp. She was hitting the club circuit last night in mauve stilettos and a skimpy midriff-baring outfit. You drop a link in your blog and, to supercharge things, ask your pal Manny down in community relations to put a link to your post out on SuperShoe, the private community of shoe fanatics your company runs. Before lunchtime you go to your internal wiki to add a quick note that ties together the files and activities from the morning that have already been uploaded and logged, so that manufacturing and retail relations know what you’re up to.

Lunchtime. Time to drop off the grid. You turn your phone on private so that it stops tracking you and buy a gift for your honey’s birthday in the shop around the corner. The groundswell can wait a moment. You grab a sandwich, and it’s back to work.

By afternoon the word is back. Of the 191 comments on your blog, 75 percent are positive, and they’re going nuts over Helena’s stilettos—ShoeTube already shows nine other videos of Helena wannabes strutting their stuff. The competitors can see this, too, but you’ve got an edge—your designers have already got the heel designs ready, and your manufacturer, in addition to being fast on new designs, is a whiz at color. To top it off, the buzz in SuperShoe is sizzling—sure, that community is filled with out-there shoe fanatics, but they definitely seem to want mauve.

With a great deal of confidence, you place the order; you know the feed of your orders will go straight to your boss and operations, so there’s no need to contact them. Your suppliers and retailers have also subscribed to your order feed, so their start pages and mobile devices will soon be showing you’re on top of the mauve trend, too. You’ll post the news with a little more spin on your blog a week or two from now; Footwear News will probably pick it up, but that’s too late for your competitors to catch up, especially when they’re distracted by their pending merger. You decide to drop a few advance pairs to a couple of up-and-coming actresses you know in Hollywood—you call them your shoe ambassadors—who make a sideline of blogging fashion and commenting on fashion forums. You call one to make sure she’ll be at the movie premiere next February and shoot off the new designs,
appropriately colored, to her phone to whet her appetite.

Just before heading home you see a note that your daughter’s chatter on FaceSpace.soc is way up. But clicking through, you find out she and her friends are talking about . . . algebra. Hey, if that’s how they solve problems in high school now, it’s pretty good college prep.

Time to head home with a smile on your face. Sure, it’s hard to keep up with all that information flowing your way, but the flow of insight to and from the groundswell is crucially valuable to the decisions you make—and it’s manageable thanks to the intelligence built into your browsers, both mobile and computer based. Just another day immersed in the groundswell.

Looking back, that held up pretty well — especially the part about influencers, which were not really a thing in 2008.

It’s pretty easy to get swept up in the scenario and believe what you’re reading will actually happen. Even if you’re skeptical, it’s an ideal way to allow people to experience an imagined future where your trend has actually happened.

In the case of an AI book that I edited, the scenario we wrote was about a transportation buyer using intelligent assistants to make buying decisions. I also edited a future of transportation book with a scenario describing a future commute in a world of driverless vehicles. Neither was in the second person, like the Groundswell scenario — they both introduced characters and followed them throughout their day. And while the Groundswell scenario was in the final chapter, the other scenarios were in Chapter 1 of their respective books — introducing a future that would whet the appetite of the reader to find out more.

Before I go on . . . can you guess who Helena Trampp is based on? Remember, this was written in 2008.

How to write a future scenario story

Here are the steps to write a story like this:

  • Identify a future character or characters who we will follow, like a working mother, a corporate executive, or a future consumer. That character should match up well, not to the audience for your book, but to the customers of the people who are reading your book.
  • Identify all the possible touchpoints when this character interacts with your future technology. Is it when they wake up? When they consume entertainment? When they commute to work?
  • Arrange all those touchpoints in some sort of rough chronological order.
  • Describe the interactions from the character’s point of view. What do they do? Why? How do they use the technology? How do they feel about it?
  • Don’t forget second-order effects. If everyone in society is using these technologies, what does that change? And how does that change your character’s experience?

You don’t need to go into detail about your character (Is she wearing a blue dress? Did she go to Yale? Is she an accomplished piano player? We don’t care!) A quick sketch is sufficient. We’re more interested in what she does and how she feels than her extensive backstory.

A workable scenario is typically no more than 1000 words long. Any more than that, and people will get bored or start to become skeptical.

What you follow the scenario with is important. The next sentences should be something you want your reader to believe. For example:

  • When everyone lives like this, you need to invest in different resources.
  • This is inevitable, you must prepare now to deal with what is coming.
  • Here’s how this will change government/society/business.
  • Here’s what to do about this coming future.

Writing scenarios will take you out of your typical nonfiction writing experience. It will feel different, and freeing, because you can make your characters do anything.

That’s good, because not only will you be able to see your topic in a new way, but your readers will, too.

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  1. Your awesome scenario highlighted a raft of changes in culture tech and society. For people focusing on “why / how MY product will change things” there’s a useful practical section in Crossing the Chasm (Geoffrey A. Moore). Explains how to write “day in the life” of a person without, and then with, a new product.

    (I hope it’s still IN the third edition!)