Science fiction is arguably the most ambitious genre to write. Think about it. While most scribes have to craft a narrative for their characters to experience, full of roadblocks, pitfalls, and opportunities for personal growth, science fictions writers are tasked with doing all of that AND creating a whole new world in which these characters reside! Even though writing science fiction is a tall order, it’s a genre that if done right, pays off in a big way. Eight out of the 10 highest grossing movies of all time fall into the science fiction category, as do some of the most iconic films of the twentieth century. Whether you’re a softie for the lovable alien E.T., live for the heart-pounding post-apocalyptic action of Mad Max: Fury Road, or prefer a modern romance for the technological age à la Her, the science fiction genre has something for everyone, making it one of the most broad, versatile, and beloved categories of film.
If you’re thinking of tackling a sci-fi script of your own, you’ve come to the right place! Below are the Do’s and Don’ts of writing a genre script that could quite literally be out of this world.
The Matrix. Alien. Galaxy Quest. All of these titles are considered sci-fi, yet they couldn’t be more different films. That’s because the sci-fi moniker usually refers specifically to the setting of the story, more so than the genre. Are we in space? A dystopian society? A high-tech future? Congratulations, you’ve got yourself a sci-fi script. But, while a film’s setting determines whether or not it resides under the larger blanket category of sci-fi, these movies also usually fall into more specific subgenres. The Matrix is sci-fi action. Alien is sci-fi horror. Galaxy Quest is a sci-fi comedy. If you know what subgenre your story falls into, it’ll be easier to write according to the tenets of that particular genre.
The five “W’s” (who, what, when, where, and why) are the principles of thorough storytelling, but as far as sci-fi writing is concerned, there are only three W’s that really count: When, Where, and What if. When and where are essential questions to start the process of world-building that, while important in all screenwriting, is critical to science fiction scripts. Are we on Earth in the not-so-distant future, like in Minority Report? Or a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away? Additionally, the question of what if can be the key to conveying your story in an easily digestible way. Composing your story idea as a what if scenario is a way of articulating the big hook of your film’s premise. It’s simple to impart the premise of most critically acclaimed sci-fi films into what if scenarios. What if, on a routine mission, a pair of astronauts get stranded, free-floating in space? (Gravity) What if humans were able to create dinosaurs… and they turned out to be more than humans could handle? (Jurassic Park) What if we learned that our world wasn’t really ours at all? (The Matrix) Framing your sci-fi idea with a what if question is a great way to see if you just have a big concept or an actual story.
Armed with your answers to when, where, and what if, you can start to craft the detailed world in which your story takes place. Creating a new and unique world is the most fun and imaginative part of writing sci-fi, but also one of the most difficult. Anyone can come up with a cool setting –A commune on Mars! An apocalyptic luxury train! A shanty-town for extraterrestrials! But it’s much harder to endow it with all of the complexities, peculiarities, and order that a fully-fleshed out world requires. Take a moment to think about your own reality. What does your day-to-day look like? What technology do you have at your disposal? What’s your routine? How do you commute to and from work? Think of all the ways in which your world is unique and ordered and alive. Then, you can compare and contrast the real world to the world of your story. What makes your world different from ours? What remains similar? What is society like? Why is it that way? What laws does this world employ that ours doesn’t? What kind of currency is exchanged for goods and services? What would a high-schooler in history class learn about the past? The more questions you can come up with and answer succinctly, the more complete and dynamic your world will be.
Just because the world you created emerged from your brilliant brain doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to play by preexisting rules. While there are no end to good, inventive ideas, there are few that involve wholly original material, and if there are existing resources related to your concept, it’s a good idea to do your homework. For example, if you’re writing a script about life on Mars, comb the web for information on NASA’s exploration of the red planet. If your main character can travel through time and space, it’d be helpful to have a rudimentary understanding of physics. If your story is set five minutes in the future, researching technological innovations that could exist in a few years time could help make your script more insightful.
Any screenwriting book will tell you that the first ten pages of any script is important, but the first ten pages of a sci-fi script are imperative. In those first minutes, you need to introduce us to the world you’ve created, preferably in an inventive, head-turning way. If you need an example on how to do this expertly, check out the opening scenes of Mad Max: Fury Road. In under two minutes, we’ve met our main characters, revealed his demons, clocked the vast, barren landscape and the fact that he’s eating a lizard to survive, AND ignited a chase sequence that not only keeps us on the edge of our seat for most of the first act, but also reveals without a doubt that this world is not our own. It’s definitely sci-fi filmmaking at its finest.
The trickiest part of science fiction writing is conveying the rules you’ve created for your world and characters in a way that doesn’t feel like a lesson. Always avoid the infodump, pushing too much information on your audience without a visual payoff or in a convoluted way. In sci-fi as with any genre, it’s better to show than it is to tell. Don’t tell us that aliens’ kryptonite is water; show us how they react to a child’s glass of water. (Signs) If you can find inventive ways to impart the rules of the world, your audience will thank you.
You’ve crafted a brave new world… now, allow your characters to play in it. Part of the fun of writing sci-fi scripts is the opportunity for literal out of this world moments. It’s a genre unconfined by the limits of time, space, and reality, so let your characters experience that. Think Amy Adams’ scientist playing charades with aliens in Arrival, or Tom Cruise, solving crimes with a wave of his high-tech hand in Minority Report. All good scripts employ a couple of set-pieces, those big, exciting, nail-biting sequences that you leave the theater and tell your friends about. But sci-fi scripts have the opportunity to make those set-pieces even more dynamic thanks to the uniqueness of their setting. Don’t pass up an opportunity to be bold!
People are still people… even if they’re robots. Just because your characters are in a new world filled with aliens or time-travelers or bounty hunters from space, they must still act and react in real, human ways. Screenwriter Ray Bradbury said it best; “Science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” An audience can get behind big, bold settings, but it’s nearly impossible to get behind characters who act in ways that seem inauthentic. Think about Star Wars, for instance. The evil and seemingly unfeeling Darth Vader is motivated by real human emotions like grief and anger. Even space blob Jabba the Hutt acts in the interest of greed and lust. With a world so big, it helps to ground the characters in a smaller, more grounded story.
It’s said that the best science fiction acts as a commentary on our world and culture, even if the story takes place two thousand years from now from a space station on Mars. As long as you have compelling characters, a strong theme, and a grounded plotline, the world of your story has no limit!