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Top 5 Tips for Writing Science Fiction

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I thought I’d kick-start regular posts to this blog by digging a little deeper into some of the topics covered in my book, Writing The Science Fiction Film, as believe-it-or-not, people have been asking me to!

That said, to ease myself into it and make things easy for me, I’m going to start with something I first wrote as a guest post for Lucy V Hay on her excellent blog, Bang2Write, and again slightly differently a little while later for Hayley McKenzie on Script Angel. Given that both of those were at least a couple of years ago, I figure the statute of limitations has probably run out by now so here is the (slightly longer and more rambling) version of that original post.


Top 5 Tips for Writing Science Fiction

Writing the Science Fiction Film

1) Know why are you writing science fiction
It’s important to understand that good science fiction isn’t just robots and spaceships and phasers-on-stun. There’s a reason why science-fiction is often labeled ‘the genre of ideas’, it’s because great science fiction is about asking big “What if..?” questions that allow us to play with and explore the day-to-day realities of our own world by exploring new and different realities in worlds we can create. Science fiction lets us examine big social and societal issues and ask difficult and searching questions about subjects that concern all of us – pollution, reliance on technology, globalisation, genetic engineering, personal data, pandemic, overpopulation – and we can do it without pointing directly at any individual or group, any particular religion or country, any specific corporation or government. Science fiction allows us to shine a spotlight on something, bring it to the attention of the world and say “Look at this! Look what is happening! Look what they’ve done!” and this is especially true if that something is out of our control or something we cannot easily change.

So the key to writing good science fiction is to have something say. Don’t treat it like an excuse to have robots in your story and blow stuff up, you can do that, but do it for the right reasons.

2) Are you writing in a setting or a genre?
Okay, after all that it probably seems odd that I’m now asking if science fiction is even a genre at all but the question isn’t purely about writing, it’s an important question you need to ask yourself so that you can pitch your story properly. Unlike other genres, science-fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic, thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

All genres have their particular story beats and you will save yourself a whole lot of grief and aggravation if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first, then as you re-write, build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a sci-fi world and shoehorning a revenge chiller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

3) Know your science fiction world
Building a world for your characters to live in is about the most fun you’re going to have while writing. All that great stuff that’s been buzzing around in your head for ages can be given life on the page and the only restriction is your imagination. But while you can write whatever you want, effective world-building requires the right level of detail to make it work visually, and well thought out, well-connected elements for it to make sense.

Arguably the two most important world-building elements in any science fiction setting are time and space, but when I say ‘time’ I don’t mean the year in which your story is set – all science fiction is actually exploring the present day no matter the time period in which it’s set – what I mean here is the social/cultural stage that your world is at, and by extension when I say space I mean the kind of space that your characters inhabit. Worlds are generally classed in one of five stages:

First Stage World
First stage worlds are primitive, nomadic and filled with hardship. Few people with very few tools living in basic dwellings, hunting and gathering to survive.

Second Stage World
Far more people and they have settled into small towns or villages with a sense of community. Dwellings are more permanent and hunting and gathering will be supplemented by farming which gives rise to new technologies. The seeds of law and order will have been established.

Third Stage World
The time of the city. New technology is everywhere, as are new commercial enterprises and new ways to trade. People live in smaller, purpose-built dwellings, with less space. Taxes pay for government, military and emergency services as well as law enforcement. There is crime, but also leisure time and luxury goods.

Fourth Stage World
The one that none of us wants to live in, the oppressive, dystopian world of our nightmares. The city totally surrounds us, people live in tiny, cramped spaces that they pay too much for, advanced technology is ubiquitous but untrusted by many and unemployment, poverty and crime are rife. Taxes are high but government services are poor, inefficient and corrupt. Leisure time is rarely taken.

Fifth Stage World
This is the dying world, the final world stage. The environment has been destroyed, all natural resources are dried up and the air we breath and the water we drink have been polluted beyond the point of recovery. Food is scarce and disease is everywhere, A small layer of super rich will have insulated themselves from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people but eventually there will be nothing left to eat or drink or breathe and humans will die out leaving a quiet and desolate planet in their wake.

Whether your story takes place on a newly discovered planet or in London of 1830, the relationship that your characters have to where they live and the tools and technology that surround them will be critical in building your world. But there is one important thing you need to know, your story will rarely, if ever, sit squarely in one world stage or another. More likely it will take place at some point in-between two of the stages and will deal with the effects that going through giant social and cultural change has on the characters as well as the effects on the society at large.

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 about. If your story features a space shuttle launch you had better know what the launch procedure is. If someone describes a scientific principal, don’t ‘think’ you know it, make sure you know it, and then double-check with someone who does know it to make sure you got it right. We’ve all experienced lab work, even if only at school, so we understand experiments and controls, clean room principles and hazmat suits. There are any number of science fiction films that feature a laboratory scene, but the good ones all have one thing in common, they feel like real laboratories and the people in them dress and act appropriately and they take their work very seriously.

Basing your world on real things in our world grounds them in a way that makes them seem authentic, but this means you have to know a little of what you’re talking about. In the same way that you should understand human and animal physiology when creating alien creatures, you should understand other sciences, arts, skills and trades to successfully create your own versions. If you’re going to have huge buildings then you should understand architectural principles so that you get the scale and proportions right. If you’re going to invent a language then you need to know about lexicons, morphology, syntax. You should know your systems of law, banking and commerce, and knowing proper military tactics will lend your armies an air of invincibility.

You don’t need to be an expert, just learn enough so that you can write about it 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. If it helps, draw maps, draw pictures, choose colours and construct mythologies around your world and its inhabitants – whatever it takes to immerse yourself in your world. There’s a good chance that none of it will make it into your screenplay intact, but having these things crystal clear in your own mind will make your description and action sequences come alive.

5) Nail the dialogue
There will always be jargon associated with science-fiction films, it’s inherent in the genre. Anytime you discuss new technology or scientific principles, complex processes or advanced systems it’s inevitable that those who work with them will develop a shorthand based on acronyms and technical terms mixed-in with pop-culture references and slang that only they will understand.

What we as writers of science fiction must be careful of, is the use of baffling, nonsensical faux-technology, pompous and ludicrous-sounding names for things and inaccurate use of real scientific terminology – the world’s worst offenders being Star Trek. Whatever you do don’t go down this road. 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 a much better line. It’s easier to say, easier to remember, has much greater impact and makes sense to everyone who hears it.

It’s also worth remembering that peoples names in science fiction film can be as much a source of comedy as as anything else, if you’re not careful. Ixnys Zyxiz may look great on the page but if the reader cannot read it they’ll dump your script in the trash before they get 10 pages in. The same is true for audiences when presented with names like Zorg or Gaxy – it’s difficult to take anyone seriously, no matter how dramatic the situation, when their name is Ambassador Zorax, and science fiction films where the characters sport bizarre names typically fail miserably.

* Bonus: Write something that can be made!
As a bonus tip, if you’re really interested in writing science fiction, write something that has a chance of being made. It’s very easy to let your imagination go wild, and I’d encourage everybody to do that, but interstellar space travel and huge space stations require vast battalions of special effects people and budgets in the multi-millions to realise, and unless you’re JJ Abrams or best mates with Will Smith, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a green light. Do yourself a favour and look for the small stories, the ones in single locations, with few actors, no special effects and write those. Explore social issues here on Earth, extrapolate from current technologies in medicine and genetics and find stories there. Explore the big-impact issues that effect all of us, 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?

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