Sci-Fi Circuit: The Magic of World Building

What does it take to make a sci-fi world real?

As a science fiction fan, I love to be transported into new and fantastical worlds. As a sci-fi screenwriter, I’m fascinated by understanding what it takes to make that happen, and happen well?

It’s not just a pretty gadget

Part of the appeal as fans, I think, is that just like in James Bond movies, we sci-fi geeks love to see new and clever ideas and how they work. It seems to be something of a thing, to have at least one super cool new piece of technology per sci-fi film, like the hand-embedded phones in the re-release of Total Recall (2012).

But clearly a little fancy new technology isn’t the only thing it takes to make a futuristic world seem real.

What else is it?

The kind of world-building I deeply admire is what I’ve seen Joss Whedon doing with his sci-fi masterpiece series Firefly and even with The Avengers. The world-building is all part of the background. It makes sense. We get it. When it comes to our attention, it’s part of the story but doesn’t overwhelm it. Everything serves a purpose. He does a masterful job of showing and not telling.

And that IS an issue with sci-fi.

As Carson Reeves puts it in his excellent book Scriptshadow Secrets, “Science fiction is a memory hog.” He goes on to say, “You know that WHIRRRRR noise your laptop makes when Firefox starts sucking up your memory? That’s the exact same effect sci-fi has on a screenplay. 20-25% of your screenplay will be dedicated to exposition when you write sci-fi. This is due to all the rules and backstory and futuristic shit that needs to be explained… So make sure if you’re tackling this genre, you’re willing to put in the extra effort to minimize and hide all that exposition…”

So how do we build convincing and beautiful worlds while reining in the exposition?

First let’s start with the science, context, and backstory. To answer this question, I dragged out my early version of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card for a look at the ingredients that go into building a world.

Setting the rules

Card lists first coming up with the “rules” for space travel, time travel, and magic.

For instance, pretty much at the outset of Star Wars and Star Trek we see that lightspeed and warp speed work in these universes. Even though the technology for traveling faster than the speed of light is currently seen as highly unlikely if not impossible in the scientific world (classified by Michio Kaku in Physics of the Impossible as a “class II impossibility”, meaning that it “sits on the very edge of our current understanding of the physical world”), we take it as a given that we can whip across the universe at enormous speeds without any time dilation effect.

In other universes, however, like those depicted in Aliens and Prometheus, cryo travel is required to traverse any kind of long distance, the impact of which is clearly seen when Ripley in Aliens asks, “How long was I out there?” and the answer, “Fifty-seven years,” produces a real shock for her character.

Similarly we must convey the rules of time travel — and as the writers of these tales, we get to decide on the rules.

For instance, think of the various ways time travel plays out in movies like The Butterfly Effect, the Back To The Future trilogy, and Déjà Vu. In each of these, we quickly learn the time travel rules for the particular story, such as, do people travel back through time into their own minds? Can they observe their earlier selves from the outside? Affect the past and alter the future? Or does time remain elastic and resilient, regardless of the changes we might try to make?

And even though we usually think of “magic” relative to fantasy stories, many of the sci-fi worlds we see encompass some kind of magic, whether with technology or something like the Force in Star Wars.

Regardless of whether it’s magic or science, from the outset, we have to know the rules.

Detailing the past

We also need to understanding the past, including for example how a particular alien race has evolved to appear the way it has, and how it communicates — at least as the writers of the script. I love how Card describes understanding the backstory for a particular town with a mob led by a demogogic preacher and deeply understanding the kind of people that follow him. He says, “Now, maybe you won’t even use an incident like that in the story. But you know it, and because it’s in there in the history of that town, the people in that mob are no longer strangers to you, no longer puppets to make go through the actions you want them to perform. They’ve come alive, they have souls — and your story will be richer and more truthful because of it.” (Emphasis added.)

In my own work and reading on this subject, even while I am at times tempted to throw up my hands and say, “It doesn’t matter, I don’t care about that!” I find that my work deepens the more care I put into thinking about the world and story behind what we’re seeing.

Understanding language

Joss Whedon’s brilliance shines when it comes to language, which is the next of Card’s world building items. Ever the erudite communicator, not only has Whedon thought through a likely political and cultural evolution for the future of the human race in Firefly, he has extrapolated slang words like “ruttin'” and “gorram” along with the notion that characters will swear in Chinese. Along with subtle Asian cues in clothing, lettering, and set design, we quickly grok that China’s culture has become an integral part of these new worlds.

There’s nothing like a good delivery of language, whether we’re talking Aliens or Much Ado About Nothing to get us well-immersed in the tone and spirit of a particular world.

Designing scenery

According to Card, designing the scenery “… is the part that most people think of when they talk about world creation: coming up with a star system and a planet and an alien landscape.”

Carolyn See writes convincingly about the importance of “geography, time, and space” in her Making A Literary Life. Although I’ve been tempted to ignore such specifics along these lines at times since I’m writing “in the future,” I can see the validity of her point that we can become boring when we try for “universal” by neglecting the details.

I’m again reminded of the beauty of the ship “Serenity” in Firefly, and the careful thought that went into creating it, down to the flowers painted on the dining area walls. If we’re paying attention, we surmise they were added by one of the characters on the ship.

But here’s a question I wonder about: How much of this happens on the set, and how much happens in the writing stage?

As I contemplated that question, I remembered hearing Jane Espenson talk about writing the episode “Shindig” for Firefly. She described coming up with the idea for transportable door knobs that function as futuristic hotel room keys. And guess what? It’s in the script. So the writer does and can play a role at this level too.

And what about exposition?

Carson Reeves suggests that most sci-fi projects need some kind of backstory introduction to help avoid overly expository dialogue. He points out the well-known use of the title card in the Star Wars franchise, but also references voice-overs in Avatar (and the video journaling did an admirable job there too, in my opinion), and the documentary-style footage in District 9.

I love this point from Michael A. Banks from his chapter, “Science Fiction: Hard Science and Hard Conflict” from How To Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction (from Writer’s Digest) about the degree of attention one must give to the science behind the fiction: “More detail is necessary, because you are frequently showing the reader things that don’t exist. You’ll have to depend on intuition to tell you just how far you can go without being a bore. … If the science is to be part of the conflict, you’ll have to take it quite a bit further. Because conflict is so closely tied to characterization, motivation, and the overall success of plot, you will have to give the science behind a conflict as much attention as you would any of the other basic story elements.”

He also says, “The ground rules are simple: Don’t tell the reader everything you know, and don’t dump the information you do use on the reader all at once. … Use only detail that adds necessary color, moves the plot, or helps the reader understand events, characters, or background.

I know that as I’m writing, I’m constantly asking myself, how can I convey this more concisely? How can I show it? How can we feel it? Can I make it tighter or clearer? If it means my reader “gets” my story more clearly, it’ll be worth the effort.

Lest we forget

Last, here’s a point I think is worth remembering, again from Orson Scott Card, about the value and importance of sci-fi in our own world today: “Indeed, one of the greatest values of speculative fiction is that creating a strange imaginary world is often the best way to help readers see the real world through fresh eyes and notice things that would otherwise remain unnoticed.”

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5 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Circuit: The Magic of World Building

  1. Jenna AveryJennaAvery Post author

    K, fantastic to see you writing so much sci fi, and I’m crossing my fingers with you for the adaptation. Sounds great!

    Robert, that’s one of the things I’ve always really loved about Star Trek. Thanks for commenting!

  2. robertswww

    Nice article about the thinking that goes into creating an interesting sci-fi world.

    Regarding your last point about seeing the real world through fresh eyes… Many episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek dealt with social issues in the real world that were transposed onto his characters living in the 23rd century. Audiences were getting social commentary wrapped up in a sci-fi disguise.

  3. K. Rowe

    Excellent article!
    I’m writing the 4th book of a sci-fi series. Books 1 and 2 are published. I’ve taken the second book and written a screenplay from it. Admittedly, it was challenging to take the world I’d built from the books and compress it down into a concise, understandable world for the script. So far, feedback from the couple of producers who have it has been good. Fingers crossed it gets to move on.
    My biggest goof was that I actually started the series with the second book, and then a friend challenged me to write a series. I had to take everything and expand it to fit all the other books. Now I have a big board in my office with the “Ontarrin Galaxy” map on it, half a dozen Word docs with character, planet, language, and specifics for daily life, and photos and drawings of aliens. Now in the 4th book, my characters have ended up in yet another galaxy–more world building to do!

    Space Crazy, Space Junk, Space Available, Space Invaded.

  4. Jenna AveryJennaAvery Post author

    Patrick, I just love the point you made about the world building and how it was set back from the action in Looper an everyday way — that’s exactly how I feel about the Firefly series, and you’re right, that’s how they would be treated in the future, just as part of the background. I will check out the Haruki Murakami novels. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  5. Patrick Mahon

    Great article, Jenna. And I’m a fan of that very same Orson Scott Card book.

    Recently I was impressed with the sci-fi world creation in LOOPER. Although I think the time travel plot had some, er, loopholes, the incidental way the world was created really added to its sense of authenticity for me.

    The futuristic sets and gadgets were set back from the action in an almost everyday sense, which impressed me, as in the future, they would become everyday and normal.

    I read Rian Johnson was inspired to use this technique by the science fiction novels of Haruki Murakami. Although not familiar myself.

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