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

Indiewire 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 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.


Close to Home or Far, Far Away?

A key part of playing the “What if..?” game while you’re trying to find your story is when your story is going to take place. To a certain extent this is going to be dictated by any initial ideas you might have had, but beyond that the choices are fairly straightforward; do you want to set your story in the present day, a few years into the future, or many hundreds or even thousands of years from now? It may not seem so important right now, but whatever choice you make is going to have a big impact on the world you build, and often, a lot of what can or cannot happen in your story.

"Setting your story in the present day has many advantages; your audience knows the world of the story, they understand the culture, religion, media, science and technology, and that gives you an instant shorthand."

Setting your story in the present day has many advantages; your audience knows the world of the story, they understand the culture, religion, media, science and technology, and that gives you an instant shorthand. It also allows you to tap into the zeitgeist; what are people worried about, what are the current concerns the general populace has about government, education, medicine, science, technology and faith. These are things you can easily tap for story ideas. Everywhere you turn there are scary stories about the power of the media, global epidemics, erosion of our freedoms, obesity, the war machine, climate change, food additives and poverty. These are rich veins for science fiction to tap, but if you add to them the possibility of alien invasion or the coming zombie apocalypse, you can see why setting a science fiction film in the present day has such appeal. No one wants to see their world turned upside down, but we all worry that it might happen and we also think that we’ll be the ones to survive.

Near Future — say fifty to a hundred years away — is probably the hardest place to set any story but can also be the most rewarding. As I write this, the year 2050 is thirty-eight years away. This may not seem like much in science fiction terms, but if you think back thirty-eight years to 1974, it’s clear that there have been massive changes in every conceivable part of our lives since then. Pointing out the technological advances is easy. You can laugh (and I know you will) but when I was a kid in the UK, not everyone had a colour TV and there were only three channels, two of which didn’t start broadcasting till late afternoon. Now we have 500 channels of all-digital, surround-sound, hi-definition TV, 24 hours a day. Technologies have been invented and become obsolete in that time. We’ve gone from vinyl to the cassette tape to the MP3, from VHS to Blu-ray to MP4, from 35mm film to videotape to digital cameras. We’re currently heading from printed books to eBooks and right now the advances in mobile phones and cloud technology pose a significant threat to sales of everything from landlines, to digital cameras and laptops, to wristwatches. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we look at changes to culture, religion, media, health and welfare, work, transport and travel, the law… really, the list is endless and the changes vast, and that’s how you must think if you’re looking at Near Future science fiction.

Far Future  well, you can really have anything here that you can dream up, as long as you can convince an audience of its likelihood or validity (and we’ll get to that). Space travel, robots, sentient animal companions, alien worlds — these are the things we’ve come to expect from far future stories, but they don’t have to be tales of adventure and derring-do. There’s as much drama to be had in the lives of ordinary people and their day-to-day dramas as there is in travelling to extraordinary worlds and shooting everything you see.

It might help your thinking if we bastardise a quote from ex-U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld for some elements to consider in your planning:

The known knowns — the things that we know are almost upon us in terms of new technology, medicine, media, communications, social and political change, cultural points of view, and so on. We can fairly confidently say that these things are coming. If you write present-day sci-fi you will likely go here a lot.

The known unknowns  these are the things that might come along, things that feel like they should be on their way but we currently either don’t know enough about them, or lack the sufficient technology to develop them to say if they will definitely come to pass. That doesn’t mean they won’t, new breakthroughs happen all the time, but we don’t know for certain. Near Future writers will visit here regularly.

The unknown unknowns — this is the stuff that we don’t know about, couldn’t possibly know about, and so we cannot predict any outcome. The real “out-there-like-Pluto” stuff that defines both genius and madman. You will go here occasionally, but, if you have any sense, you won’t stay long.

Any one of these knowns or unknowns can influence your story as a positive or a negative, it’s up to you how you use them. An unknown unknown could be that aliens land in Parliament Square but they bring with them a cure for cancer — a positive story. A known known would be the incumbent government deciding to keep this cure and wield it for political or financial gain, thus your story becomes a negative. It feels as if traditional Hollywood fare will always seek the negative because it provides easy conflict and, as we all know, conflict drives your story. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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