• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Directed Fiction: Scanning the future with scenario prompts

Directed Fiction Defined:

Directed fiction is a strategic foresight tool designed to simultaneously consider multiple plausible future states. In common practice, people view the future with a bias towards a preferred future state. While there is much benefit in trend analysis and projecting current trends into an imaginary future, the reality is that the future consists of a nearly infinite number of possible directions. The foresight technique of Directed Fiction enables the researcher to compare competing visions of the future and "map out" a probability zone of outcomes. Critical to the process of Direct Fiction is the establishment of recognizable “landmarks.” As the future unfolds into the present, practitioners of Directed Fiction will better understand which imagined vision of the future most closely matches reality. Conducted as an iterative process, the accuracy of forecasting the future is increased, as well as the effectiveness of backcasting to influence a preferred future state. While there is not a single “correct” way for using the tools of Strategic Foresight, a good initial list consists of the following six steps: Framing, Scanning, Forecasting (and Backcasting), Visioning, Planning, and Acting. This paper will examine just the first two steps of the foresight process, Framing & Scanning, which will be employed to transform science fiction into Directed Fiction designed to explore a specific and narrowly defined research question.

Framing the Future

Framing is a critical first step in the Foresight process. You must first decide what subject you are interested in, describe why you are interested in pursuing it, and determine what tools you will be using. Framing has three components:

  • The Domain Description (this should be a single sentence) briefly describes the Focal Issue, Geographic Boundaries, Time Horizon, and Stakeholders involved.

  • The second step is the Assessment. This also has two parts; Expected Outcomes and Measures to Assess Achievement.

  • The third step is Logistics. These are the nitty-gritty details of the project that include team members, duration of the project, relevant timelines, the resources required, and the Foresight Method to be used.

Table 1.

Table 1 illustrates the general process of Framing that can be applied to nearly any process.

What is Fiction for the Future?

Absent the divine inspiration of prophecy, anything written about the future is a form of fiction. Because the future has not yet happened, it is not knowable as fact. This includes stories written merely for entertainment, but also includes strategic plans, many forms of policy projections, and even political rhetoric. The distinction is that fiction for the future is written explicitly for the purpose of exploring alternative futures, or influencing potential future outcomes. The foresight technique of Directed Fiction described in this paper begins with a rapid analysis and categorization of popular fiction novels into one of the six archetypes (Merritt, 2022). Table 2 describes the relative distribution of thirty-six near-future science fiction novels across the archetypal dimensions of Growth & Decay, Threats & New Hopes, Wasteworlds, The Powers that Be, Disarray, and Inversion, according to their underlying themes.

Table 2.

Fictional Scenario

My science fiction novel, The Flight of the St. Paul, takes place in the decade of the 2030s. The setting for the story is a world attempting to recover from the catastrophic events of the decade known as the “Terror Twenties.” Therefore, my research interest is in events that might take place in the Disarray archetype. In the Disarray archetype, “The globe is plagued by the following: endemic crime, social unrest, and disorder, widespread poverty, ignorance, infertility, violent confrontations and war, famines, pandemics, or any combination of these" (Fergnani & Song, 2020, p. 124). In my conception of the “Terror Twenties,” a form of the “Disarray” category of fiction, humanity faces a toxic mix of five major system collapses; a Second Great Depression, the United States engages in Great Power Conflict with two peers simultaneously, a Limited Nuclear Exchange, the Balkanization of the Western United States, and the Collapse of the Education System. To get to the 2030s, all of my characters had to first live through the traumatic events of the 2020s. Therefore, the back-story of individual characters that appear in my novel becomes the frame for my Directed Fiction analysis. In this Fictional Scenario, we meet 'The Rattle' Travis Craigen and the Response Team of the Parousia International Relief Agency (PIRA); they are minor characters in The Flight of the St. Paul. Craigen has been involved in international relief missions for at least ten years. He is very experienced, culturally savvy, and resourceful. You are the Chief of the PIRA Operations Center and have assigned Craigen and his team to deploy to Moldova to conduct humanitarian relief operations for the war refugees streaming out of Ukraine. Prior to deployments, PIRA employs the same strategic foresight process described in this paper to analyze the risks facing the team. It is important to note the critical role that point of view plays in this process. While this is a Fictional Story about Travis Craigen and the PIRA Response Team, the Real World process of strategic foresight can be applied to any organization or situation. You may belong to a business or institution that will also be impacted by the Ukraine War; consider placing yourself as the focal point of view for the exercise in Table 3. How might these developments impact you and the goals of your organization?

Table 3.

Scanning the Future

As the PIRA Operations Center considers the trends impacting the delpoyment, you conduct a Horizon Scanning Workshop. You reminds your staff that even in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment, some things remain constant.

  • “The Star” represents PIRA’s enduring commitment to providing Leadership for the Days of the Lord.

  • “The Mountain” is what we hope to achieve by providing assessments, shelter kits and other relief supplies to Ukrainian refugees.

  • "The Chessboard" represents the issues and challenges the Response Team is likely to face.

  • "The Self" is your personal attributes and efforts to become agile in adapting to a rapidly changing future (Tibbs, 2000).

Table 4. Horizon Scanning

Scenario Prompts

There are literally hundreds of trends that could influence PIRA’s strategic plan that the Operations Officer must consider. With so much information available, how can he be sure he is considering the most important trends? To sort through it all, you decide that the Horizon Scanning Workshop participants will conduct a STEEPLE Analysis: Table 5. STEEPLE Analysis

Brainstorm Responses to the Prompts Below (For this Exercise, the focus is only on the Next Great Depression)

Socio-Cultural: Includes items such as population, attitudes, age structure, or lifestyle.

1: How would the War in Ukraine affect Society? How would this impact PIRA’s operations there?

Technological: Advancement in technology creates new opportunities and dangers

2: How would the War in Ukraine impact technological development? Humanitarian Relief Agencies rely on communication, transportation and medical technologies to operate in austere environments.

Economic: Issues such as inflation, economic growth, unemployment, and interest rates.

3: How would the War in Ukraine disrupt the global economy? Is it possible that the violence in Ukraine is only the surface of a much deeper global economic conflict? How might the US dollar’s position as the global reserve currency be affected

Environmental: These impacts will vary, but pollution and waste are considered negative factors in a general sense.

4: How would the War in Ukraine hurt or help the environment? What are the consequences of massive artillery bombardment, poison gas, or nuclear fallout?

Political: How might current and future policy decisions impact GML’s operations?

5: How would the War in Ukraine alter global political systems? Some nations are supporting the Western NATO powers, others are supporting Russia. As a US –based organization, how might America’s standing be projected onto the PIRA team?

Legal: In some ways closely resembles political. These are the specific laws and regulations to watch.

6: How would the War in Ukraine change global legal systems? What happens when international disputes are resolved through contests of power rather than adherence to treaties, international regulations, and diplomatic negotiation?

Ethical: GML policy is to promote ethical thought and action, but may there be a potential for ethical dilemmas?

7: How would the War in Ukraine influence ethical decisions? During a time of global economic upheaval, might PIRA prioritize team member safety over compassion for refugees? How would exposure to the suffering of countless people damage the psyches of PIRA’s operators?

Probability Zone of Outcomes

Once the specific framing for the project is complete, it becomes possible to categorize the vast amount of information available through trend analysis into categories. It is important to note that the relative value of the predicted future event is entirely dependent on the perspective described in the framing process. The same event may be viewed wither positively or negatively depending on the perspective. For example, consider how differently Putin’s and Zelenskyy’s might view the future events of the War in Ukraine.

Table 6.

Axes of Uncertainty

Framing and Scanning allow you to create another useful Foresight tool, the Axes of Uncertainty. The goal is to assess all of the available trends and to select to overarching, major trends with these two critical characteristics:

  • Trends that will have the GREATEST impact on the subject you have framed.

  • Trends that you have the LEAST control over.

Vertical Axis: To construct the Axes of Uncertainty for the war in Ukraine, the level of violence seemed an obvious first choice. What has more impact in a war than the level of violence, and once a war starts, no one can really predict the consequences.

Horizontal Axis: It could be argued that the second axis is a more subjective choice. I got the sense from my scanning workshop that there may be great power rivalries being played out in the Ukrainian theater. This is of enormous interest to me because it highlights the capability of Directed Fiction to reveal hidden truths.

Table 7.

Landmarks: With both Axes in place, four quadrants are formed. This is where the author imagines plausible future endstates that might emerge in each quadrant. Like signs along a roadway, DISTINCT FUTURE EVENTS are landmarks that provide a map of the future.

Permutations and Plotlines

The number of possible future events is literally infinite. However, some events are more probable than others. By using the Axes of Uncertainty to develop a plausible Probability Zone of Outcomes, it becomes possible to imagine a limited number of future events.

Limiting the number of permutations is necessary, because considering an infinite number of possibilities is not a useful practice. However, it is very common for decision makers to become biased towards a single trend. This tunnel vision often results in poor or even disastrous consequences.

Example: Did Vladimir Putin consider the potential plausible permutations prior to his invasion of Ukraine? Or did he move forward with a biased view that eventually proved inaccurate, with disastrous consequences?

Table 8.

Now that you know the theory, immerse yourself in the story by clicking HERE


Fergnani, A. & Song, Z. (2020). The six scenario archetypes framework: A systematic investigation of science fiction films set in the future. Futures, (124, 102645) ISSN 0016-3287, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2020.102645

Merritt, T. (2021). Airships making a comeback: Solutions for global supply chain disruptions. Retrieved online: Airships Making a Comeback: Solutions for Global Supply Chain Disruptions (timothyxmerritt.com)

Merritt, T. (2021). Disasters, Airships, and Insurance. Retrieved online: Disasters, Airships, and Insurance - Part 1 (timothyxmerritt.com)

Merritt, T. (2021). Airships making a comeback: Solutions for global supply chain disruptions. Retrieved online:Airships Making a Comeback: Solutions for Global Supply Chain Disruptions (timothyxmerritt.com)

Merritt, T. (2021). Helicopters & Hybrid Airships. Retrieved online: Helicopters & Hybrid Airships - Part 1 (timothyxmerritt.com)

Merritt, T. (2021). Race for the New Kingdom of the Sky Retrieved online: Race for the New Kingdom in the Sky - Part 1 (timothyxmerritt.com)

Merritt, T. (2022). Imagining the future: The rapid classification of fiction archetypes. ResearchGate, http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.12922.82884

Merritt, T. (2022). Alternative Futures: The use of fiction to explore competing visions. ResearchGate, http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.21485.26080

PESTLE Analysis. (2015). Difference between STEEP and STEEPLE Analysis. Retrieved from https://pestleanalysis.com/steep-and-steeple-analysis/

Tibbs, H. (2000). Making the future visible. Psychology, scenarios, and strategy. Global Business Network. Retrieved from http://www.psicopolis.com/futurdrome/archivio/futures.pdf

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