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Journey of a Screenwriter
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
How to Write a Sci Fi Screenplay
What is that one thing?
Well you tell me, it’s your story. What I mean is you have to focus on just One Big Idea and build your story around it. In science fiction literature they call this an Elevator Pitch which Charlie Jane Anders of IO9 explained here. In movie scripts they call this the concept or logline which I wrote about here.
A little genre history lesson will explain how this all came about. Science fiction back in the 20’s and 30’s had very little real science in it and what was there wasn’t integral to the plot. The stories were really just pulp adventures with aliens and rocketships taking the place of gangsters and fast cars. It wasn’t until John W. Campbell took over as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (Later Analog Science Fiction) that things started to change. Campbell demanded more scientific rigor and better literary standards from his magazine and ushered in the modern era of Sci Fi Literature. Writers of the time responded by basing their stories around a single fantastic idea or scientific theory and extrapolating how that would effect the characters and the world as a whole. Where as before we’d have generic space hero X battle generic alien monster Y with generic raygun Z, under Campbell writers like Robert Heinlein wrote stories about what would happen if the country were crisscrossed with moving roads or what would happen if a stowaway snuck on board a rocket as it was about to land. It’s the standard template for a science fiction story to this day.
It’s also NOT the way science fiction scripts are written. It’s similar though. Sci-Fi movies and Sci-Fi literature are two completely different streams that only occasionally converge. Sci-Fi movies have a similar but very different history.
Sci-fi movies and TV began like sci-fi literature, in the pulp stage. More often than not the movies were programmers with stock stories and situations. There were exceptions like Forbidden Planet or the Twilight Zone but most often the only thing distinguishing a sci-fi movie of the 30’s through the 60’s were the special effects or art design. But then everything changed. Gene Roddenberry started it all with Star Trek and George Lucas really got the ball rolling with Star Wars. The first helped create modern Geekdom and the second changed movies and pop culture forever. What did they do that was different? They were the first ones to present The Big Idea in science fiction. In some ways it was similar to what Campbell had done decades earlier at Astounding. But it went beyond that and into the area of High Concept years before Don Simpson codified it. They also created fertile worlds for others to explore and even “live” in for a little while. So a Sci-Fi big idea for movies or television can be one part Joseph W. Campbell, one part Don Simpson, and one part Gary Gygax.
Campbell would have hated Star Wars and probably didn’t have anything nice to say about Star Trek. There wasn’t ANY real science in Star Wars and Star Trek played pretty fast and loose with the known laws of physics. Nevertheless both of these franchises are built off of Campbell’s early insistence on extrapolating a single idea. This is the most important part of The Big Idea. There is something that makes this imagined world run. In Star Wars it’s the Force, in Star Trek it’s the Constitution class starship. And everything about these two imagined universes runs off these ideas. Like Obi Wan said, these ideas surround, penetrate and bind their universes together. The entire plot of the Star Wars movies revolves around the struggle between the two sides of the Force. Every Star Trek movie is based on what you can do if you have one of these awesome ships at your command. You see it other movies and TV shows as well, Lost, X-Files, Avatar, The Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner, Dollhouse, Buffy. All the various bits of tech, all the storylines are really fruits from the Big Idea tree. In this regard they are no different from today’s sci-fi literature.
So why isn’t Hollywood optioning every title in the Sci-Fi racks at Borders? That’s because not every great Lit idea is a good Movie/TV idea. A Big Idea has to do more than satisfy the rigors of Campbell, it has to satisfy Don Simpson. In the 80’s Simpson codified the High Concept, that movies should be based on iconic, easy to visualize stories and conflicts and this applies to sci-fi films in a big way. Sci-Fi films cost more and will always cost more than say a comedy or drama that requires no special effects or bizarre sets. There’s much more pressure on the producers to make back their investment on sci-fi films. Star Wars wasn’t a series of philosophical debates, it was light sabers and dogfights. Star Trek wasn’t an engineering lecture, it was Horatio Hornblower in space. Here’s where sci-fi lit and sci-fi movies and TV go their separate ways. Sci-fi lit, especially short lit either has disposable ideas (Heinlein introduced the moving roads in one short story then barely mentioned them) or ideas that just don’t translate into High Concepts. Steampunk right now is the hottest trend in sci-fi but it’s near impossible to sell a Steampunk script. Most execs never even heard of Steampunk. It’s certainly nothing the general movie audience is familiar with. The closest Hollywood has come was last year’s Sherlock Holmes movie. A great movie idea has to lend itself not just to great visual elements but also to an easy to understand narrative. The Terminator is a near perfect example. The entire plot setup is summarized in just a few sentences. It’s easy to understand and lends itself to amazing action sequences and a terrifying reveal when the metal endoskeleton keeps coming after the heroes.
But even after that you’re still not done. The really great ideas live long after the movie or TV series ends. They inspire action figures, comic books, video games, role playing games. It’s the final one writers should give a little thought about. It’s usually a bad idea to get ahead of yourself, but sometimes a little game thought can help with the story. I remember reading a fantasy script for a contest. The hero and the villain were engaged in a magic battle. It was special effect, special effect, special effect. I couldn’t tell who was winning and who was losing or even what the whole point was. I wrote in my notes, “Think of this as a video game or role playing game. What’s the objective of the scene and what are the opposing strategies?” That may sound a little silly but really that’s the root of drama in any scene, what’s the objective, what are the opposing strategies. The only difference is that the objective might be a mystic gem and the opposing strategy might be a fire spell. The trick is to turn that into drama without losing the gameplay aspect of it. You see games rely on rules, and rules are necessary in a fantasy or science fiction story. You have to re-establish the limits of the universe. You establish that Luke Skywalker can move objects by using the Force but he can’t use it to teleport into Cloud City and thus avoid the trap altogether. The Enterprise can beam Captain Kirk down to a planet’s surface, but if it gets attacked when its shields are down, watch out.
So that’s the One Thing you need to write a sci-fi script, the Big Idea. An idea that is central to your story and universe, one that is visual and iconic, and one that has an organized set of rules governing it. Now you just need to find it.
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