There’s a lot more to good science fiction than robots, spaceships and phasers-on-stun. For anyone thinking of writing science fiction screenplays, here’s five tips to turn an average sci-fi movie into a great one.
1) Know why you are writing science fiction
Great science fiction asks big “What if..?” questions that allow us to play with the day-to-day realities of our own world by exploring different realities in worlds we create. It examines big issues and asks difficult questions about things that concern us all – pollution, technology, globalisation, genetic engineering, overpopulation – and does it without pointing directly at an individual or group. Science fiction spotlights issues, bringing them to the attention of the world, and this is especially true of things that are out of our control or not easily changed. What is the big ‘What if..?’ question in your story?
2) Are you writing in a setting or a genre?
Romantic comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, thrillers are thrilling but science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:
• Star Man – is a romance and a science fiction film
• Alien – is a horror movie and a science fiction film
• The Terminator – is an action movie and a science fiction film
• Logan’s Run – is a thriller and a science fiction film
• Sleeper – is a comedy and a science fiction film
All genres have their particular story beats. Know your primary genre and write to the beats of that genre first. If you’re writing a futuristic revenge thriller, make sure you outline a decent revenge thriller first, revealing your sci-fi world through action and character rather than building a sci-fi world and shoe-horning a revenge chiller plot into it.
3) Know your science fiction world
Whether on a newly discovered planet or in London of 1830, the relationship your characters have to where they live and the technology that surrounds them is critical. The two essential world-building elements in science fiction are time and space. Not the year your story is set – all sci-fi is actually exploring the present no matter when it is set – but the social/cultural stage that your world is at, and by extension the kind of space that your characters inhabit. In world stages:
First Stage World – primitive, nomadic, few people with very few tools hunting and gathering to survive.
Second Stage World – small towns or villages with a community, hunting and gathering supplemented by farming, the first technologies arrive.
Third Stage World – Cities filled with commercial enterprises and new ways to trade. Government, military and emergency services as well as law enforcement. Crime, but also leisure time and luxury goods.
Fourth Stage World – Advanced technology is ubiquitous but untrusted. Poverty and crime are rife. Taxes are high but government services are poor, inefficient and corrupt.
Fifth Stage World – Environment destroyed, natural resources gone, air and water polluted beyond the point of recovery. The dying world.
The important thing is that your story will rarely, if ever, sit squarely in one world stage or another. More likely it will take place in-between two of the stages and will deal with the effects that the change has on the characters.
4) Get the science right – or as right as necessary
The science always matters – even if it’s totally made up – but it really matters when you’re depicting things the audience know. If your story features a space shuttle launch you should know the launch procedure. If a character describes a scientific principal, make sure you get it right. Many science fiction films feature a laboratory scene, but the good ones feel like real laboratories and the people in them dress and act appropriately and take their work seriously. Basing your imaginary world on real things in our world grounds them in a way that makes them feel authentic, but this means you have to know a little of what you’re talking about. You don’t need to be an expert, just learn enough to write convincingly, but above all, be consistent. It doesn’t matter if the physics of your world aren’t real as long as they are consistent and you never break your own rules.
5) Don’t write ludicrous and nonsensical dialogue
There will always be jargon associated with science-fiction, but what sci-fi writers must avoid is nonsensical faux-technology and pompous, ludicrous-sounding names for things. If you’re ever tempted to write a line like “They’ve re-interpolated the quantum field transmission data and reverse-engineered the resulting Heisenberg matrix to calculate our vector”, just remember that “They’ve found us!” is easier to say, has greater impact and makes sense to everyone who hears it.
Remember too that character names can be an inadvertent source of comedy. Ixnys Zyxiz may look great on the page but if the reader can’t read it you’re in trouble. The same is true with names like Zorg or Gaxy – it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when their name is Ambassador Zorax, and science fiction films where the characters sport bizarre names typically fail. Miserably.
* Bonus Tip: Write something that can be made!
If you really want to write science fiction, write something that has a chance of being made. It’s easy to let your imagination run wild but interstellar space travel and alien creatures need vast special effects budgets, so unless you’re JJ Abrams or best mates with Will Smith, it’s unlikely you’ll see your film made. instead, look for the small stories, in single locations, with few actors and no special effects and write those. Explore the big-impact issues that effect all of us, extrapolate from current technologies in medicine and genetics and find stories there. Often they’re the stories that are the most interesting, and more importantly, more likely to get made, and isn’t that why we write screenplays in the first place?
Robert Grant is a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, based in London and one of the core team behind The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film. He currently sits on the jury of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the most prestigious science fiction award in the UK and serves as Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON.com. Robert’s first book, Writing The Science Fiction Film (Pub MWP), is out now.
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