Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
Fantasy and science fiction are the predominant genres in Hollywood these days. Fantastic films have been produced since the advent of cinema, beginning with the wonderfully imaginative and whimsical shorts made by French filmmaker George Melies in the late 1800s and continuing with such landmark works as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the German Expressionistic nightmares of the 1920s; the gothic horror and monster movies and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s and 1940s; the alien invasion films, giant bug flicks, and Ray Harryhausen fantasias of the 1950s and 1960s; and the dystopian sci-fi films of the 1960s and 1970s such as Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.
However sci-fi and fantasy were never mainstream categories. The major studios dabbled in the two genres only occasionally, leaving the production of most fantastic films to low-budget producers whose product appealed primarily to niche audiences. The majority of films produced from the birth of the movies until the mid-1970s were comedies, dramas, and adventures about regular people (or a reasonable facsimile) set in the real world (or a reasonable facsimile). All that changed with the release of Star Wars in 1977. The grand success of George Lucas’s wonderful space opera sparked an unprecedented interest in fantasy and science fiction pictures by mainstream audiences and the major studios that has snowballed to the point where the majority of films made in Hollywood today fall into one or the other category.
Fantastic films currently come in a variety of different packages – straight science fiction (The Martian, Ex Machina), space opera (Star Wars, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy), superhero movies (the Marvel series, the Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men franchises, etc.), traditional sword and sorcery and wizards and dragons fantasy (the Harry Potter and Tolkien series), sf/fantasy action (The Hunger Games, Mad Max, Transformers, etc), horror (every friggin’ zombie and sexy vampire movie made in the last fifteen years) and so on — but the essence of the material is consistent: the adventures of extraordinary people deploying amazing technology and/or abilities in otherworldly or extra-real environments.
Because sci-fi and fantasy are so popular, there are lots of folks out there writing specs in both genres. I’ve read a lot of them – some of which are quite good, but many of which are lacking. Since so many of you are currently toiling in these supernatural or extra-terrestrial fields, I thought I’d offer a few tips for crafting better cinefantastique.
1. Be original
There have been a lot of sci-fi and fantasy movies made in the last forty years and even more sci-fi and fantasy spec scripts written and most of them have recycled a lot (a lot) of the same elements – evil galactic empires, scrappy cosmic rebels, villainous overlords, feisty princesses, space soldiers, the identification and development of “the one,” the “hero’s journey” plot structure, old wizardy mentors, amazing super powers, telekinesis and other mind powers, super death weapons, time travel, dogfights in space, mysterious objects with mystical powers, portals in the fabric of space and time, super-secret government agencies that deal with aliens and/or the supernatural, mechanical exo-suits that give the wearer amazing powers and abilities, laser guns and swords, bug monsters and evil aliens, hyper-drive, tractor beams, genetically-engineered super-beings, robots and cyborgs (both killer and sympathetic), characters who are half-human and half-something else (alien, creature, wizard), and so on. Many of these elements have been recycled because they are essentially to their subgenres and a lot of them have been recycled because of laziness or lack of imagination on the part of the authors. No matter what the reason, we’ve seen most of this stuff before and at this point it’s all pretty tired and stale. So if you are going to write a sci-fi or fantasy piece these days and you want it received positively, then you really need to bring something new to the party – an entirely fresh and new concept or a fresh and new spin on an old trope. Three recent genre films that did this very well were Ex Machina (which took the stock element of a robot who wants to be human and gave it a sly twist by making the robot a sly seductress who uses her extraordinary wiles to outwit her maker and gain her freedom), Guardians of the Galaxy (which dare to make space opera – which has grown rather gritty and grim in recent years – fun again) and Mad Max: Fury Road (which took the post-apocalyptic action subgenre pioneered by its predecessor Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, augmented and amplified it with some really brilliant worlds building and then gave the whole thing an unexpected feminist twist).
2. Don’t make your fantasy too fantastic.
Because its core element is the photography of real people, places, and things, cinema is essentially a realistic medium and viewers will always approach a movie using the real world as a frame of reference. Any move away from the real world will require the audience to suspend its disbelief. Viewers will usually accept one step away from the real world (e.g. a man becomes a werewolf) with relative ease, because there is still sufficient reality for them to connect with as they make their way into the screen story. They will usually have difficulty accepting more than one step away from reality (a man becomes a werewolf… and then travels to Mars to battle aliens) because each additional step requires them to work harder and harder to suspend their disbelief and gives them less and less reality to connect with. If viewers have to work too hard to accept and connect with what is happening on screen, they tend to become frustrated and give up on the whole thing. Therefore, when you are writing a fantasy script, make sure your premise hews fairly close to recognizable reality – include one amazingly fantastic concept in your premise, but not two or three or ten. For example, if you want to do a story about a character that is put under a spell by a witch, make that character a regular human being because viewers will be able to identify with a regular person and that bit of reality will keep them sufficiently grounded so that they will be able to take your flight of fancy without becoming completely untethered. If you make the subject of the witch’s spell a robot or an alien from another planet, then there will be nothing real for the audience to connect with and so they will not become properly engaged and invested in your narrative.
You also have to be careful not to overwhelm your readers and viewers with fantasy. Too many fantastic specs are overstuffed – the writers fill each and every page with newly imagined beings and creatures and environments and customs and languages and tech and abilities and so on. This can be a problem because it takes film viewers at least a few minutes to grasp a new an unfamiliar concept, which is why most successful sci-fi and fantasy films toss only a few such notions at the audience in the course of an entire movie. When hundreds of ideas are lobbed at readers and viewers in quick succession, the amount of time it take the audience to make sense of all of these new things will leave it very little time to focus on the story itself. They can become overwhelmed and confused and this will cause them to check out of the movie.
3. Be sure to include some humanity.
People like to watch movies about people because they are people themselves and so are able to understand other people and emotionally invest in their plights. If your script features only aliens or robots or elves or monsters, there won’t be anyone for viewers to identify with and they will never develop the emotional connection with your characters that is necessary for your script to be successful. Therefore, be sure to include some human characters in your piece. If that’s not possible then be sure to give your non-human characters some human traits so the audience will have something to identify with.
4. Build better worlds.
Every screen story takes place in its own unique world. That world can be a specific time and place (pre-historic Africa, Medieval France, present-day New York City); it can be a particular society, profession, or field of endeavor (the world of Park Avenue debutantes, the world of combat fighter pilots, the world of competitive ice yachting); etc. Whatever world your story takes place in, it must be clearly established in your script.
World building is relatively easy to do if the script takes place in the real world, because viewers are familiar with the real world and how it operates and therefore only the most unusual or unique elements of the script’s environment must be explained (for example, we all know how a toaster works, so that doesn’t have to be explained, but most of us are not familiar with the intricacies of experimental brain surgery or holiday customs on Easter Island, so if those elements feature prominently in your story, then they must be clearly established and defined). World building is much harder to do in a fantasy or science fiction script because in many cases the world in which the story takes place is a completely original one in which every single element – the world’s environment, physics, flora, fauna, technology, manners, customs and protocols—must be dreamed up by the screenwriter. Adding to the author’s burden, the world must be truly original and unique – too many writers of sci-fi and fantasy scripts are lazy or unimaginative and instead of devising an entirely new world for their stories simply take an existing world (Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Nazi Germany, or modern-day New York) — and kit it out in futuristic or alien drag. Or they just recycle worlds they’ve seen in other movies (I can’t tell you how many post-apocalyptic desert landscapes or militaristic space bases I’ve had to read about over the years). The rules the imagined world operates by must be clear and they must be consistent and the whole magilla must be clearly explained to the audience through appropriate imagery, dramatic action, and dialogue without getting bogged down with an excess of exposition in either the text or the speeches.
Too many writers of sci-fi or fantasy specs don’t put enough effort into their world building and as a result the worlds in their stories are not particularly interesting or believable.
5. Solid storytelling is still a must.
Writing about imaginary people in imaginary worlds does not absolve you from following the basic principles of dramatic writing. Many spec writers seem to think that because they are writing fantasy anything goes. That may be true in the creation or characters and worlds and tech, but not for storytelling. The narratives progression still has to make sense, the operating rules of the story’s world must remain consistent, characters can’t just pull previously unestablished powers or tech out of their ass at crucial moments, and you can’t climax your story with a convenient deus ex machina (especially a religious one – for some reason the writers of substandard SF specs always love to have Jesus arrive out of nowhere at the last minute to wrap things up).
6. Be practical.
Fantasy and SF movies are incredibly expensive to make – since you can’t go on location to shoot imaginary worlds, everything in these film has to be manufactured and that costs a lot of money to do. So you have to be practical in conceiving and telling your stories. Many writers of fantastic specs go overboard – telling their tales in many different settings (dozens of different planets, castles, time periods, spacecraft, and so on) that require hundreds of sets and thousands of extras to bring to life and crafting an overabundance of spectacular action sequences that will require millions of VFX manhours to generate. The budgets required to bring some of these specs to life would need to be in the high hundred millions if not the low billions. No matter how good your script is, this will never fly with potential buyers and backers. So when writing SF and fantasy, keep your ambitions in check – in this case less really is more.
7. Explain well.
When presenting your fantastic characters and worlds to the audience, never assume the audience will understand a single thing about those characters and worlds unless you have clearly explained them in the body of your script. Too many writers simply write the name of a piece of technology or a character’s function or a specific behavior or practice into their scripts and just expect the reader or viewer to get it. Here’s an example:
Mugbar is a Fourth-Level Blondarf. When we first see him he is aiming a Fot Stick at a Lemlacian and performing the Ptari Ritual.
What is a Fourth-Level Blondarf (or a one-through-three level one at that) or a Fot Stick or a Lemlacian or a Ptari Ritual? I have no idea, and neither will anyone else unless the screenwriter explains what they are. And by explain, I don’t mean write out the explanation in the text because, unless you are planning to hand out a copy of the script to every person who buys a ticket, your exposition will not be communicated to the audience. By explain, I mean dramatize your exposition in appropriate imagery, action, or dialogue (but not too heavy on the dialogue).
8. Go easy on the description.
Too many writers of sci-fi and fantasy specs get carried away when describing the visual elements of their stories – the set design, costumes, props, visual effects, etc. They go into so much detail on these things that they end up burying the narrative. Remember, your job is to tell the story. It’s important to give a general impression of what you envision on screen, but leave the details to the production and costume designers and the VFX folk.
Dialogue is often a challenge in fantasy and sci-fi scripts. Your characters need to speak in ways that are specific to the imaginary world and culture of your story, but that are also clear and understandable to the audience. In other words, you have to strike a fine balance between the alien and the familiar. Many writers try to solve this problem by having their characters speak in faux-Shakespearian language (“Does thou wishith to go to yonder planet?”) or in exaggeratedly formal English (having a character say “I am going into my nocturnal sleep chamber and initiate eight hours of restorative unconsciousness on my elevated resting platform” instead of just saying “I’m going to bed”) thinking such styles sound futuristic or alien. But they don’t – they just sound kind of awkward and dumb.
10. No trilogies.
One never seems to be enough for the writers of fantastic specs. Nobody wants to tell a single story anymore – it seems that most fantasy or sf specs I receive are always part one of a trilogy or an ongoing series or a shared universe or whatever. I know why – the studios are all franchise-happy these days and most of those franchises are either sci-fi or fantasy so the dream of every fantastic spec writer is to come with their own franchise because they think this will make the studios want to buy their scripts. But it won’t. Studios don’t love franchises because they love multi-part or long form storytelling, they love franchises because they (and their corporate parents) love sure things, which is why franchises are always based on successful pre-existing properties – on previous hit movies (remakes or sequels) or on material that has already been popular in other mediums (comics, young adult novels, games and toys, etc). They are not looking for original material in multiple parts; not ever. If you want to create a franchise, put your energy into writing one good, solid screenplay that a studio might want to make and that has a shot at being a hit. If it is, then you can think about further installments. But before that point, don’t bother.
11. Never, ever use the phrase “Your earth years.”
Almost every bad science-fiction movie has an alien character refer to time using their own measurement (“It took me ninety-nine blovacs to travel to Earth”), which they then translate into Terran terms (“Which is five of your Earth years”). This is a really tired, really dumb trope and I really hate it, so don’t do it.
Live long and prosper!
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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