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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Write a Sci-Fi Screenplay Part 2

Earlier I wrote about writing a sci-fi/fantasy screenplay. I argued that a successful one would be built around a single concept that A) influenced the entire story and imagined world of the story B) was cinematic, visual, and easy to grasp (i.e. High Concept) and C) lent itself easy to Geekiness, role playing, video games, fanfic. But there’s more to it than that. There’s always more.


Let’s start with the biggest problem sci-fi writers have, info dumps and exposition. Those passages where you have to tell the reader what the heck is going on. In a recent scifichat on Twitter we had a discussion on the difference between adult and YA sci-fi. Some argued that the difference between the two was you could leave things unexplained. Having just completed The Hunger Games and Uglies I couldn’t disagree more. Things are most definitely explained in those two books, probably the two best known versions of YA sci-fi. There were definitely info dumps in those books, Mockingjays, Tracker Jackers, Hoverboards, and the Oil Plague were all explained in little info dumps. The difference was they didn’t feel like info dumps. I think, though I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement on this, is that YA sci-fi has gotten good at disguising their info dumps. In regular sci-fi it’s become an accepted practice and hard core sci-fi readers don’t mind an occasional side trip into the imagined history of Planet Mongo. YA readers were pretty new to the genre and couldn’t be expected to wait so patiently, the writers of those books treated their info dumps very carefully. They revealed new info in one of two ways. First as an answer to a mystery. Throughout Uglies we see the results of the disaster that destroyed the old world, ruined cities with lines of rusted cars full of people trying to escape whatever happened. It’s never explained fully until late in the book that we finally learn about the oil plague, a bio engineered bug that infected petroleum and caused to explode. The author didn’t come right out and tell us. He planted the seed in the very beginning and went back to it a few more times before finally giving an answer near the end of the story. This is basically the same technique used in mystery stories like CSI. Nobody thinks of CSI as science fiction (though given some of their resolutions, maybe they should) but it’s a great template for sci-fi script writers in how to deal with exposition and info dumps, make them mysterious. Make the audience WANT to hear the explanation. So a real easy hint is never put an info dump in the beginning of a screenplay. Show its effects and have the audience wonder about it, then explain it later in the story.

Another method of info dumps is to make them part of the story or their own story. In Hunger Games we find out about the deadly bioengineered wasps, Tracker Jackers, when Katniss is stuck up a tree and finds a nest of them. In Uglies we find out about Hoverboards as Tally learns how to use one herself. In a lot of ways the writers treat these imagined creatures and technology no different from real life ones. The authors could have easily been describing a bald eagle or a windsurfing instead of Tracker Jackers and Hoverboards. That gives us the next method for info dumps, namely treat the imagined things as if they were real. When you come to a piece of alien tech or weird fantasy beast, do some research on something real and treat it the same way. Because after all isn’t a UFO supposed to be just a really, really advanced version of 747?


The problem with info dumps is that they can take a reader right out of the story. But it’s an even bigger problem if the reader fails to get on board in the first place. As I blogged earlier, how to begin a screenplay is what stumps a lot of newbie writers. It’s even worse for sci-fi/fantasy writers. Sad but true, many sci-fi specs have been shot down in the first few pages. The writers give gigantic info dumps right off the bat, essentially wasting the first 5 to 10 pages of their script, or otherwise fail to make their imagined world real. That’s the real challenge of the sci-fi/fantasy writer, making it real. The only way to do that is go into this made up world and find something relatable to the real world. This is a technique as old as sci-fi itself. You have to find a Common Point of Entry for your reader. You have to be in territory that’s familiar to a large audience. Take the classic sci-fi novel Space Merchants for example. It features a resort in Antarctica, a gigantic cloned chicken heart, and far off space colonies, but it starts out like Mad Men. The hero is just a typical advertising exec trying to get ahead. That’s the Common Point of Entry (and a prime reason for adapting Space Merchants!) But there’s a problem. Prose writers have a huge advantage over screenwriters in that they can get inside the minds of their characters in just a few short paragraphs. A sci-fi writer may start off with a multi-tentacled Aldarian who’s zorging a Xxanx, but with a just quick peak inside the mind of said Aldraian the writer can define “zorging” as sex, drugs or rock n’ roll, whatever it needs to be. Screenwriters can’t get into the minds of their characters like that. They can’t convey anything other than sight and sound where as the prose writer can engage all the senses and emotions and memories as well. So where does that leave the screenwriter? The pattern over the last few decades for filmed sci-fi is to find their Common Point of Entry in typical activities or even in other genres. The Terminator doesn’t start off with a history of Skynet. It delivers an 80’s action film. The Terminator is just a cybernetic mafia hitman. Or look at SyFy. They’ve made it their signature style to take an easily understood set up then add a CGI monster to it. You’ve got Spring Break with an Ogre in it, a western with giant snakes, a reality show with alien invaders. That’s the extreme end of the spectrum but you can’t go too far from the normal without completely losing your audience. It’s pretty hard for people who specialize in wild imaginings to ground their stories in mundane details, but it’s those mundane details that lead the audience to those wild imaginings. You don’t have to be as simplified as SyFy originals, and I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you’ve got an in at the network, but don’t go all space cadet from the word “go” either.


  1. Ok this is really interesting. I am working on a near future screenplay, I suppose it is sci-fi, drama, dark comedy, dystopia rolled into one. I was thinking about where you enter and how you enter the story. If you're dealing with a human protagonist, then I think you can't go wrong by just keeping it simple and human...don't know how that sounds. But there's no point starting out complex, just have your character doing what humans do, then take it from there. Good article.

  2. Thanks for commenting Alex.

    Best of luck with the script. You're absolutely right. Keep things human, that's the Common Point of Entry. If we can't relate to the characters, then it's a no go. That goes for any genre.

  3. Good article. I've found the most engaging characters are rooted in real world problems. Money, illness, work. Good example would be the mining crew.of nostromo simply.thrown into a science fi epic. Or minority report, where the technology is implemented into a daily routine and explained through a sort of audit.


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