Ever since my family rented the original Star Wars movies from Blockbuster when I was a kid, I’ve loved science fiction. So it’s no surprise that when I was searching for a genre, I chose to focus there.
You could ask ten different writers and you’d get thirteen different answers. In fact, I recently asked this very question to a number of writers on Twitter.
My definition is fiction with elements of science that could happen, could have happened, or may never happen but allow you to explore “realistic” possibilities.
With that out of the way, let’s get to some tips for writing it. Think of these like training wheels to use until you reach your own unique conclusions on the genre.
Before you even begin outlining your three-act-structure model of screenwriting, you want to consider if your science fiction is hard or soft.
Hard sci-fi means that everything is based soundly in science, or at least in speculative science. This allows for a concrete world where most of the rules are firmly grounded in something that people can know. This scene from Jurassic Park illustrates hard sci-fi perfectly. It’s intentionally vague on the details, but contains just enough to suspend disbelief.
Through the microscope.
We see the greatly enlarged image of a mosquito through the lens.
MR. DNA (O.S.)
Using sophisticated techniques, they extract the preserved blood from the mosquito, and – –
A long needle is inserted through the amber, into the thorax of the mosquito, and makes an extraction.
Bingo! Dino DNA!
In fact, according to this article, we’re a few steps closer to making this a reality. Although we need to ask ourselves if we should.
Soft science fiction has less of a focus on the technical aspects of the world and more of a focus on the people. In the original Star Wars they don’t cover how blasters or lightspeed works. Arrival doesn’t tell you how the aliens came to Earth. These stories are able to focus more on the characters. A writer of soft science fiction can bend their world to fit the story they want to tell. You can’t bend hard science.
However, this is a spectrum. Your piece could fall anywhere in between.
If you’re exploring a completely new world with aliens, or even a drastically different world with humans, then you might want to consider making use of one character who is as close to a present day human as you can. Someone to anchor the audience in this new world. In Guardians of the Galaxy that’s Peter Quill (not the talking racoon). While good on its own, this point goes hand in hand with the next one.
Have a way to share the new ideas you want to share. This can involve the classic trope of a mentor sharing their knowledge to the (usually anchoring) younger character. This could also be explained by simply showing. In Dredd we don’t need to be told that his gun can fire an assortment of special bullets–we see him using them. The opening “hotshot” scene, while too graphic to link, is a great example of “show don’t tell.”
Even considering this tip, only show or tell your audience what they need to know for your story. Even if you include some cool new technology, we don’t need a crash course in it.
Be consistent. If you introduce something new or make a rule in your world, you should follow it through to the end. One example of someone not taking this tip into consideration is in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Early on the audience sees that Jedi can run really really fast, but at a critical moment when running really really fast would have been crucial during the duel with Darth Maul, Kenobi runs at his normal human speed. Here’s a short video explaining the scene, and speculating as to why it happened. However, if you keep this tip in mind, you can avoid speculation after the fact.
Read a lot of fiction in the genre. While this won’t give you insight into the nuances of a script, it will show you the tropes of sci-fi, fuel ideas, and—if you read Hugo/Nebula award nominees and winners—key you in to the latest innovations and perspectives in the genre.
Also, watch a lot of sci-fi movies and shows, and read their scripts. This gives direct information on what works and what doesn’t.
A quick search can tell you “the best” of any media, but here are a few recommendations that those Top 10 lists may miss. Embers of war by Gareth Powell, novels & short stories by Octavia Butler, The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. As well as the shows/movies Dark City, Hunter/Prey, Shin Godzilla, Westworld, Tales From the Loop, and The Expanse. Playing video games and listening to certain music can help inspire you, too, as this Arcs and Beats article shows.
Know at least a little bit more than you include in your script. Know your world better than the audience will. This is good for any storytelling, it shows the audience that there is more going on in your world than exactly what we see. You don’t need to worry about what the villain ate for breakfast two hours before the final conflict, but knowing that that villain does things even when not on screen will help you develop how they act when they are.
Keep everything simple unless complexity is a main plot point—and even then only make that plot point complex. The audience doesn’t need to know the inner workings of the engine room unless that is a main point of conflict in your narrative.
Consider introducing new ideas and items slowly to allow the audience time to get acclimated with your world—but don’t introduce the game changing, save-the-day supertechnology right at the very end. Deus ex machina events often remove all tension and rarely leave the audience satisfied. In Pacific Rim, the protagonists are only able to win the final fight because of a giant sword they had the whole time, but wasn’t previously mentioned.
Have it be about more than just space travel and lasers. This genre is full of compelling characters (and here are some tips on how to create those with a real-world psychological profile). Also, sci-fi is a way to separate ourselves from real issues and look at them from another angle. You don’t have to make your tale preachy—in fact, you should avoid doing so.
Though that’s storytelling in general.
Military sci-fi is one of many subgenres within science fiction. Luckily, unlike, say, cyberpunk, the definition is in the name. Fiction that’s based on science and centers around the military. Given my military background, I’ll share a few tips that can often make or break this genre of sci-fi—although any relevant fiction can benefit from these.
Science Fiction writers often ask questions. “What if” or “what would happen if” have been the seeds of many stories. Dune started with “what if humans traveled through space without computers.” The book and Netflix series Altered Carbon addresses the question “what if humans could upload our minds to become immortal.”
You can come up with many questions to ask yourself, but I’ll leave you with one that’s perhaps the most popular in the genre: what if we’re not alone?
Lastly, take a look at what science fiction books, movies, and shows you enjoy and ask what you enjoy about them. There’s a wealth of materials to gain inspiration from, not least of all your fellow writers and directors. They took the very same steps you’re taking now.