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Here's How to Write Sci-Fi Scripts: Answering 'What If?,' 'When?' and 'Where?'

By Robert Grant | Indiewire March 22, 2013 at 9:53AM

Writing science fiction can be difficult and fun -- creating new worlds, predicting new ways of living -- but how do you know where to start? Robert Grant has written a book, "Writing the Science Fiction Film" to help screenwriters out there.
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Writing the Science Fiction Film
Writing science fiction can be difficult and fun -- creating new worlds, predicting new ways of living -- but how do you know where to start?  Robert Grant has written a book, "Writing the Science Fiction Film" to help screenwriters out there.  

Below is an excerpt from the book's second chapter, "Finding Your Story," supplied courtesy of its publisher, Michael Wiese Productions.

For more information and to buy the book, visit its Amazon page here.

“What If..?” and the Vast Pool of Story Sources

Good science fiction is concerned with the state of things now. It extrapolates on current thinking and current concerns and asks the big “What if..?” questions. Let’s play a little “What if..?” right now.

Using my RSS Newsreader I came across this story at DailyGalaxy.com a few months ago and thought it was a tremendous source for a story idea.

According to the piece, plans are being drawn up for a “Doomsday Ark” to be built on the moon by the European Space Agency. The Ark will contain the essentials of life and human civilisation and will be activated in the event that Earth is devastated by a giant asteroid or nuclear war. This lunar information bank would provide survivors on Earth with a remote-access toolkit to rebuild the human race.

Ark 1.0 would contain hard discs holding information such as DNA sequences and useful instructions such as how to smelt metal or information about agriculture. It would be sealed in a vault and buried just below the Moon’s surface, with transmitters sending the data to heavily protected receivers on earth. If no receivers survive, the Ark will continue transmitting the information until new receivers can be built. Ark 2.0 would later be extended to include a diversity of species from the biosphere, natural material such as microbes, animal embryos, and plant seeds and even cultural relics such as surplus items from museum stores. Presumably version 2.0 will also have a social networking element.  

So let’s play “What if..?”

What if we had advance warning of Earth being destroyed by an asteroid? We can’t call Bruce Willis, but we do have sufficient time to deploy a doomsday ark and maybe some people with it. What would it need to contain? What’s important? What isn’t? How do you judge and who makes that call? This isn’t just about what “stuff” we should take, this is about what is the essence of humanity, and frankly, is it worth saving?

What if the only people selected to save were scientists and politicians? What if they held a lottery? What if it turned out they were all white? Would they try to change things around or go with the best-qualified people? What would be the criteria?

Equally important is what we would leave out.

What if we didn’t include information about religion or politics? A new humanity will have enough to worry about without elections and worship, but concepts like government and church can impose order on chaos and help folk make sense of their lives. This is deep, rich stuff for a film to tackle.

Now lets go the other way.

What if the information was wrong or got corrupted in some way and we re-start the human race totally differently to what was originally envisaged? What could go wrong? Were the genetic codes wrong? Did the seeds and embryos we sent up become horribly mutated? Are we leaving a destroyed Earth just to end up destroying the Moon? Is it in our natures to just destroy everything wherever we decide to lay our hats? That’s an interesting theme to work through.

You can see how a simple news item can be the basis of a lot of “What if..?” questions and can lead to ideas for a very interesting science fiction film. But while this film is a more thoughtful film than most, we can always switch it up for a different feel.

What if the survivors split into factions and refused to co-operate? What if someone was murdered and crop seeds were stolen? Could a black market in rare food crops precipitate a thriller?

There’s a lot of different ways to go here, depending on whether our story starts before, during, or after the Ark is launched, but the exercise is the same. Spend time thinking “What if..?” and you’ll be amazed at how many ideas are generated, and the more you dig into an idea, the more rewards you’ll find. Of course none of this by itself will give you a completed story, but enough of these ideas together will give you a great foundation upon which to build one.

Head to page two for guidance on where and when to set your film.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting, Science Fiction






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