Science Fiction has, perhaps above other genres, developed a reputation for polarising audiences. But it’s true that some of the largest grossing film and TV properties (not to mention books and games) are in the Sci-Fi genre and have expanded their reach into the global psyche. It’s been said that those Science Fiction ideas which have become reality were more inspiration than prediction and there’s a truth to that. Well written Sci-Fi is stimulating the future of our society by holding a mirror up to who we are, where we might be headed, and what we could become instead.
At this year’s Screenwriters’ Festival TV/Radio writer Joseph Lidster (who writes Sci-Fi titles for all ages inc. Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Wizards Vs Aliens and Hetty Feather) joined producer & Sci-Fi London Film Festival founder Louis Savy and screenwriting professor Bob Schultz for an in depth chat about how well crafted Sci-Fi can resonate with audiences of all kinds and to tell us their top tips for making our Science Fiction writing meaningful.
Make it Relevant
One of the most important elements in the Science Fiction Genre is that we reflect the world as it is now. In the wake of two world wars, the space race and the rise of nuclear power sci-fi films with themes of mutants, annihilation, world destruction and mind control became a way to express public anxiety without directly criticising powerful often controlling regimes. The cold war ushered in a golden age of Science Fiction movie making with over 500 Hollywood flicks being released between 1948-1962 and in the Eastern Bloc where many genres of film suspected of anti-communist sentiments were being suppressed Sci-Fi found itself to be fun escapism which also had a social voice about an uncertain future. As times change so too can the themes of a story. Different adaptations of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers have different themes based on the era in which each was created.
Use Distance To Be Objective
To get an open minded view of the present it’s often very helpful to distance ourselves and futuristic and technological settings are a great way to get perspective. Looking back from an imagined future or looking forward to the future we may be creating, gives us a safe space to examine our actions. Similarly topics of our world that may be difficult to speak to children about can find expression and resolution by cloaking ideas that are a little too gritty for young minds within supernatural or technological explanations. For adults too, things that happen in a galaxy far, far away don’t keep us awake at night but we can certainly identify with notions of oppressive regimes and the freedom fighters that oppose them.
Make it Accessible
Loss of logic, paradox, etc. are some of the things Sci-Fi is widely criticised for but only when a story fights against it’s own setting or has an impenetrable plot. World building needs to have a solid internal logic to be respected by it’s audience. Quality of production alone won’t sell an unbelievable story or character action. Far more interesting science fiction is created when we get into the trials of our society instead of merely relying on computer graphics.
Keep It Simple Sci-Fi!
Often the simplest of ideas can be something an audience, particularly a young audience, can latch onto. In Wizards and Aliens a hand marking written into the plot was a small simple thing that the schoolkid audience could draw on their own hands if they wanted. In a Sarah Jane plot about facing fears, instead of lots of boring anxty talk preaching ‘issues’ actual characters were created as a physical metaphor for those fears. A simple thing like making character names and places easier to pronounce makes a story far easier to read, write or talk about. Sci-Fi audiences, all audiences, want to be absorbed into new universes without having to struggle, so even with new languages, the less technobabble the more you will engage and the more the fans will promote the worlds and characters they love by sharing them.
Be Aware of The Zeitgeist
Writers of Science Fiction tend to be huge consumers of the genre also, and one thing to take care about is the quality of production, a lot gets made and it’s not all high calibre all the time, so it’s easy to pick up bad habits from watching too much trash TV, even if that trash TV is hugely popular. On the flipside, knowing and having seen poor TV helps you to avoid the poor bits and habits in your own work. You have to work harder to avoid falling into the easy/lazy/expected way of resolving issues.
Budget Need Not Restrict You
We all enjoy a great bit of computer graphics or special effects, especially as techniques become more realistic. But not every film that’s financed stretches to blockbuster proportions, particularly for emerging writers. However a lot of good sci-fi can and has been made on a budget and sometimes the best Sci-Fi stories are ones that people who are not fans of the genre can still relate to. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn’t need a lot of big effects to wow audiences. Alternate realities are great as they can be filmed in the here and now, just changing the world changes the boundaries of story, and for lower budgets, clever framing can suggest connections of imagery without showing both robotics and movement in the same shot. Sound too is a tool that can add a great deal of emotion as well as introducing elements that could be more expensive to visualise. Tony Stark maybe said it best when Steve Rogers asked him what he was without his robot suit of armour and answered, “A genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.”
To explore Science Fiction is to build your own boundaries and make up universes, it lets you play with any idea you can conceive of, sometimes from multiple angles. It can entertain and engage and amaze, it can tackle big ideas and small ones because the world fits around and serves and enriches the story themes. Telling a good sci-fi story that you want to tell is all that’s needed. Go forth and prosper!