So US TV series The 100 started on E4 this week … Well, I say “US TV”, it’s almost entirely populated by Australian and British ex-soap actors playing Americans (but it’s all make-believe anyway, so I’ll let that one go).
Based on the dystopian YA books of the same name by Kass Morgan, the series is set 97 years after nuclear war killed everyone on Earth. Luckily, there were some stronauts floating about in space stations (or something) which they all combined to make “The Ark”, civilisation’s last stand. Now, four generations later, things suck on the Ark and supplies, including life support, is running out. Even the most small of crimes is punishable by death – unless the citizen is under 18. Cue THE 100!
Juvenile deliquent teens who have committed crimes are sent down to Earth, to see if it’s now habitable. Amongst them is Clarke, our teenage female protagonist, whose father was “floated” (executed, by being shot out The Ark’s airlock) for trying to tell the rest of the Ark citizens life support is running out and The Chancellor is thinking about culling some of the population. Clarke was a previously privileged member of The Ark and is pitched against a number of others, most notably Wells, The Chancellor’s own son who got himself arrested so he could put sent to the ground; plus power-hungry Bellamy, who has sinister plans of his own for The 100. (There’s some power play going on in The Ark between the adults too, but generally I found those bits a tad dull).
Overall, I enjoyed the pilot for THE 100 enough to plan on tuning in next week. It’s basically “Lord of the Flies” set in the future and concept-wise, that’s pure gold. It’s nice to see female characters dominating the frame so much, even if the character names are mindcrushingly obvious Sci Fi homages, or the “battle of the sexes” element (especially between the adults: females = GOOD! Males = BAD!) is somewhat overplayed, not to mention the obligatory hottie strips down to her pants within about five seconds of arriving on Earth, LE SIGH:
(That said, a Google search reveals whatsisface from Hollyoaks is going to turn up soon with no shirt on, so yeah … whatevs. WHAT?! :P)
Anyway, regardless of whether you liked THE 100 or thought it was dried-up bobbins, one thing its TV pilot does is especially well is exposition. As I’ve written countless times on this blog, I read a LOT of sci fi features, TV pilots, shorts and novels and writers often screw up their arenas or “world building”. In other words, they will give the reader TOO MUCH or TOO LITTLE background information in order to *understand* the story.
This is obviously a big deal – Science Fiction Arenas & Worlds NEED to be understood, that’s the whole point of the genre – so here are my tips to creating your arena in your screenplay, or worldbuilding in your novel, using THE 100 (TV pilot only) as a case study:
1) Do it quickly!
The obvious one. Whether you’re writing a screenplay or novel, your story and character have to be introduced TOGETHER. In THE 100, we start with our protagonist, Clarke, in prison. Within about 2 minutes, she’s been ordered out her cell, has said goodbye to her mother and is being packed off to Earth. In other words: super fast!
Now, many writers are finally getting the need to be fast like this in other genres, but the Sci Fi spec pile is frequently waaaay behind on this. Too often, a writer will fill the need to give us a horrible dump of information “up front” in the form of a completely extraneous prologue so we know “where” we are in terms of world, time and space. Oi, writers, no! Whether a screenplay or novel, science fiction prologues MUST offer something in terms of character and story and cannot be used simply as “hey, welcome to my world!”
MORE: What’s the Difference Between A Prologue And A Teaser? (screenplays), plus 6 Reasons NOT To Have A Prologue In Your Novel
2) Use Visuals As Introduction
As mentioned in my previous point, THE 100 starts with Clarke in her cell in The Ark, which could have been a very dull, very boring visual to open with. Instead, the pilot opens with Clarke drawing a forest on the floor of the cell, hinting at what is to come next (The 100 LAND in a forest, on Earth), plus the fact Clarke is a bit of a rebel (ie. she’s not supposed to do this). As an added bonus, the picture makes a good visual link between Clarke when she’s departed and her mother Abigail, who ends up in the same cell later on in the pilot.
So how could YOU use visuals? Well, Science Fiction script arenas in particular often use new technology, so a great way of introducing us to the new world is via “The Demonstration” scene. This is when one character shows others *how* something works, which usually fulfils three functions: i) it introduces us to the context of that SF arena (ie.”what’s possible”); plus ii) that new tech will often play some kind of part in the plot and iii) that demonstration will reveal the role function of the character doing it, plus the characters reacting *to* it. MORE: Top 5 Tips For Writing Science Fiction by Robert Grant
Yet Sci Novels need visuals too – something often under or over estimated by novelists. The best writers remember that their readers are more media literate than ever and demand a certain level of divergence between the media they consume – in other words, if your book is like a movie, visually? GREAT! MORE: 5 Top Tips On Visuals For Your Novel by RJ Mitchell
3) Have us find stuff out WITH the characters
In THE 100, the adults have no idea if Earth is safe or not – so the teens don’t either. The Chancellor makes an announcement to the teens via a screen in the shuttle, wishing them good luck and telling them there is a nuclear shelter in some mountain near where the dropzone. When they hit the ground, they discover they’re on the wrong mountain and have a twenty mile trek ahead of them. This leads to arguments over whether they should all go, or whether a scouting party should. In the end, it is decided Bellamy and the others will stay at the dropzone and Clarke and a band of others – including Bellamy’s sister, Octavia, Miss Skimpy Pants – should go and try and retrieve supplies from the nuclear shelter. As Clarke and the others make their journey, they find the answers to various questions *anyone* would have landing on a planet after 97 years, such as “where are all the animals?” and “are we alone”. Crucially however, all of this happens not via talk, but via ACTION. The average science fiction screenplay be the other way around, so it feels very theatrical, like a play; in comparison, the average sci fi novel will pay too much attention to describing everything location-related in minute detail. MORE: Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters
4) Reveal what characters are like via their worldviews
When they land, Bellamy goes to open the door of the craft and Clarke tells him not to, in case radiation will kill everyone, but Bellamy, a fatalist, points out that if that’s the case, they’re all dead anyway. So they open up the doors and … don’t die straight away. Later on, Clarke frets that they may still be dying, just slowly, from radiation. In comparison, since he’s still alive, Bellamy is already making plans to take over the group, by recruiting others to his “side”. In other words then, Clarke may be a brave freedom fighter, but she’s already seen her father “floated”, so she doesn’t want to die: she wants to survive. Bellamy in comparison wants power. They have different motivations, thus this informs their actions accordingly – ie. what they DO in the story. Remember point 3 here, in particular! MORE: Your Character’s Motivation
5) Create group dynamics
In the pilot, lines are drawn in the sand between characters with abandon: the privileged versus the poor in particular, but also those who are “criminals” versus those who are not. This is a particularly interesting choice, because by Ark law ALL of the teens in THE 100 are designated criminals, but as with real life prisons, there is a heirarchy established – those whose “fault” it is they’re in prison; versus those whose heritage or even very existence contravene Ark Law. Finn, seen in the first picture on this post walking behind Clarke, is a “real criminal”, because he wasted a month’s worth of The Ark’s oxygen going on an illegal spacewalk when he was bored. Clarke too is essentially a “terrorist”, having aided and abetted her father. In contrast, Octavia, Bellamy’s sister is a criminal for “being born” (second children are illegal on the Ark, so their mother hid Octavia under the floor until she was discovered and their mother was “floated”).
The great thing about group dynamics amongst characters then is it not only aids characterisation, but plotting as well. Bellamy is filled with resentment at his mother’s execution, which leads him to want to take The 100 for himself, so they never go back to The Ark. In other words, we’re back to this notion of motivation, as in point 4. Yet most Sci Fi screenplays and novels forget about group dynamics as they seek to splurge exposition on how the SF world works all over the place, instead. MORE: 11 Expositional Clichés That Will Kill Your Story
6) Hint at backstory
It’s important to note there are no extraneous flashbacks in The 100 pilot. We never see Clarke’s father or Bellamy and Octavia’s mother getting arrested or floated – we don’t need to. Instead, we hear about these things, via dialogue.
“But WTF?” You say … “Characters are not what they say, but what they do!” Yep, you’re RIGHT. So you don’t SPLURGE it all in one go, but mete it out here and there, disguised wherever possible! For example:
The 100’s shuttle is very old and the teens are not even sure it’s going to make it to the ground at one point as they hurtle towards Earth. Thinking the vehicle is breaking up as it hits Earth’s atmosphere, Wells, sitting next to Clarke, turns to her and tells her that if they’re going to die, he doesn’t want to die with her hating him: please forgive him? She replies that he got her father killed, she DOES hate him and she WON’T forgive him!
This is a great bit of writing because now we understand that Wells and Clarke have “got previous”, but we’ve got the distraction of the (probable) shuttle crash going on around the characters, plus the believability that yes, if you think you might die, you probably WOULD want to get something off your chest like Wells does. In addition, we can also believe that someone like Clarke who values honesty – hence her being on board, even! – would answer like this if she thinks she’s going to die, too.
It’s the same with novels, too. When it comes to backstory, a sprinkling here and there, amidst various “distractions” and/or as the result of good characterisation is ALWAYS worth more than a big solid chunk of chewy exposition. MORE: 5 Ways To Beat Exposition by Jim Mercurio and How Does Exposition Work?
7) Don’t be obscure
This is the thing. Audiences will forgive a little bit of obviousness, but they never forgive even the smallest speck of obscurity. As I’ve already mentioned in this post, I felt certain elements of the story were overplayed like its gender politics, but because enough of the story and characterisation was intriguing, I will tune in again. But this is because The 100 knows exactly who its audience is: we’re talking people have read the books, sure, but also those who haven’t, but may have liked THE HUNGER GAMES or DIVERGENT films and/or novels. As a result, in THE 100 pilot there’s some violence, some threat, but generally it’s not OTT: there’s barely any swearing, though some thematic posturing over the nature of power (which secondary school kids cover in theory in History class). Miss Skimpy Pants might strip down to her knickers and vest, but we don’t even get any lurid close ups of her chest. In short, The 100 is the TV equivalent of a 12A and I’m guessing the novel was too, since it’s YA. whether writing a Sci Fi Screenplay or novel, you need to know too! MORE: Who is your Audience?
So, when attempting your Science Fiction screenplay or novel:
– Don’t be OTT on your SF arena or world’s detail, but be visual
– Introduce character & story “hand in hand”
– Don’t splurge backstory all over the place
– Remember your characters’ motivations
– Remember dialogue and dynamics have their place in good characterisation
– Remember your audience
OH would you look at that: Science Fiction is the same as ANY storytelling! Fancy. Good luck with your projects and don’t forget: all the B2W PDF downloads are now available together, via the main site HERE! I’ll be adding to it as well over the coming months, so make sure you bookmark it and if you like the downloads? Please press the buttons at the bottom to share the page on your social media profiles and/or check out my books. Thanks!
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