How to Write a Compelling Science Fiction Movie
While science fiction movies can be exhilarating to watch, they can be just as daunting to write.
If written properly, the science fiction genre has the potential to do more than elicit emotion and entertain. It can inspire real-world ideas.
As James Cameron puts it in his interview with Christopher Nolan:
“Isn’t that the great virtuous circle of science fiction? That we imagine these things and then fairly competent minds write science fiction and propose ideas and then inspire scientists who then go out and find out what things really are.”
– James Cameron
Yes, that is great. But how does a screenwriter achieve that?
World Building in Science Fiction
It’s tempting to get lost in the glitz and glamour of unique elements and special effects. This is especially true in science fiction movies.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean good storytelling. Setting a world 1,000 years in the future, with epic galactic space ships might look cool. But that doesn’t help the audience in building empathy either.
- Rather, thrilling science fiction movies often establish empathy by building a world that still feels recognizable and draws the audience into saying, “I get that” or “I can see that being possible.”
Take the THE MARTIAN for example:
- Humans are just beginning to land on Mars, but struggling to adjust to its atmosphere and overall environment.
- And that’s understandable. Audiences don’t need to be employed by Elon Musk to grasp what the early challenges of landing on Mars might look like.
- As such, we can empathize with Mark Watney’s struggle to survive on the planet long enough to escape.
Here are some other sci-fi movie twists on current technologies and psychology:
- We know virtual reality exists. So what if it’s turned into a world-wide video game phenomenon? (READY PLAYER ONE)
- AI is in the making, but what if AI was so human-like, we truly felt attracted to one? (EX MACHINA, or HER)
- We all understand the importance of dreams. So what if we could inhabit the dreams of others? (INCEPTION)
Twist modern day phenomenons or technologies to make even the most complex sci-fi world more empathetical.
Establishing Story World Rules: Batman Begins vs Man of Steel
Creating the story world of a science fiction movie also sets the foundation for how characters exist. Their actions and relationships are thus based on the story world’s rules.
- Are we in a world grounded in reality? Do alien-machines govern the world?
Without such rules, the story loses credibility. If broken, the story risks no longer being believable.
For example, in the grounded world of BATMAN BEGINS, Bruce Wayne doesn’t possess unlimited gadgets or perfected training (which was present in previous stylized adaptations).
- Young Bruce Wayne begins with a dysfunctional understanding of justice.
- He needs discipline, training, and control.
- Psychologically, he suffers from trauma as his fear of bats led to his parents’ death.
- When Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham, he doesn’t just become Batman. He uses Wayne Enterprise as a resourceful billionaire to equip himself discretely (Remember, this is a real-world setting. Bruce’s identity as Batman is thus at constant risk of being discovered).
Check out how rules shift in the worlds of MAN OF STEEL…
- The movie opens with Cal-EL inheriting the powers of Krypton as a baby in a more advanced world.
- Within this world’s rules, the Kryptonian race can exhibit their immense power.
- We see advanced spaceships, laser-powered technologies, and unique creatures.
- However, that all changes when Cal EL / Clark Kent is growing up on Earth.
- The world has become grounded and less advanced for Clark Kent.
- He in turn, struggles to channel and embrace his powers while chaotically rediscovering them within the less-advanced world of Earth.
- This ultimately feeds into his internal motivation to find self-acceptance.
By following the rules for each world, David S. Goyer develops credible characters that are believable within the scope of science fiction.
Establishing Story World Rules: Interstellar vs Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Here are two space movies with vastly different rules, but that achieve the same credible standard.
- The space crew doesn’t travel backwards in time or warp through space in light-speed.
- Though INTERSTELLAR is set in the future, the world is not so advanced enough to break away from the current laws of physics.
In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, the rules shift greatly.
- The story world is set in a far more advanced galactic empire with superior technology.
- Here, light speed is possible along with the magnetic energy of The Force.
- Still, characters are not all-powerful. Kylo Ren must still practice as an apprentice to learn powers of the Dark Side. Rey is trained to wield the The Force.
Show the rules to the story world gradually. Allow your character to learn the elements as the story progresses.
And if a new element breaks the world’s rule, write the appropriate reaction or action taken by the characters.
Show Don’t Tell in Science Fiction
But that’s easier said than done for a science fiction movie.
Often times, sci-fi/fantasy screenwriters feel compelled to pile exposition early on in the script in order to get the audience on board with their new world.
However, this can often deflate audiences, especially with massive exposition in dialogue early on.
For example, check out the beats of Jake Sully’s gradual immersion into the world of Pandora in James Cameron’s AVATAR:
- Jake wakes up to floating bubbles (indicating we’re in space).
- He finds himself within a spaceship (audience now knows he’s traveling to a planet).
- When he lands on Pandora, the tires of a massive vehicle have been shot with Na’vi arrows (the audience can imagine possible dangers lurking).
- And Colonel Quarritch (Stephen Lang) has 3 gashes scraped across his eye (more unforeseen danger becomes mysterious and imaginable).
See how each element almost certainly makes the audience beg for more?
The story has gradually introduced Jake Sully, and the audience, to Pandora, with mysteries yet to be revealed.
- Showing every creative element at once can be overwhelming.
- Instead, try gradually immersing your protagonist within the sci-fi world one element at a time.
- By building mystery around these elements, readers and viewer will want to see more.
Story Structure in a Science Fiction
Writing a science fiction movie allows ample opportunity to make a story visually appealing, But that means more than just gripping background description.
A good science fiction movie includes elements that directly shape the story structure of the hero’s journey.
- In Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) starts his hero’s journey when he takes off into space on a voyage to find a new habitable planet (outward motivation).
- In INCEPTION, Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) point of no return occurs half way into the movie. He shares a dream with Fischer (Cillian Murphy) on a plane heading to LA. If he doesn’t plant the idea successfully, he’ll be imprisoned upon landing.
- In EX MACHINA, every time the AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander) triggers a power outage, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) learns something new. He has a self-revelation that shifts his desire from understanding Ava, to wanting to help her escape.
Allowing your science fiction world to affect the protagonist can be an excellent opportunity for plot twists, self revelations, and driving the plot forward in original style.
Prioritize Story and Internal Conflict
With all the elements, sci-fi/fantasy devices, super powers ominously present in Sci Fi movies, it’s all the more important to emphasize story, plot, and character.
Compare the recent DC Universe with their past counterparts:
- In THE DARK KNIGHT, Bruce Wayne wants to lead a normal life with Rachel hoping Harvey Dent can take his mantle. But the Joker’s battle for the soul of Gotham forces him to remain as Batman.
- In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Bruce Wayne must grapple with his fear of death to find a life worth living so that he no longer has to be Batman. To do that, he must stop Bane’s revolution and nuclear-set explosion from destroying Gotham.
- In MAN OF STEEL, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) wants to save Earth from General Zod . But that also means risking his exposure as Superman, against the wishes of his adopted father.
Notice how the DC plots rely less on stylistic or superficial power to drive the plot forward.
Rather, the hero’s internal conflict is shaped by familial relationships, fear of death, or a fatal flaw of possessing catastrophic superpowers.
More Originality in External Conflict
A good movie or screenplay elicits emotion out of conflict.
But in science fiction, unique story elements could now be the source of conflict. In turn, the world of science fiction provides a platform for originality unlike any other genre.
Let’s check out how these movies present their protagonist with dangerous external conflicts using unique sci-fi/fantasy elements.
- In LIMITLESS, Eddie’s pill grants him extraordinary mental capabilities. But it also becomes a paralyzing addiction.
- Hacking into THE MATRIX grants Neo super human abilities. But that also mean being attacked by sentinel machines while being chased by agents and police.
- In ALIEN, a scientific break through of an alien discovery becomes the crew passengers’ worst nemesis.
In each example conflict is not separate from the story elements. They are fused to create original story sequences.
- The creatures in AVATAR don’t just remain in the background to be visually appealing. They shape the hero’s arc.
- Jake doesn’t just land on Toruk Makto. Rather, the great banshee acts as his new opportunity for regaining Neytiri’s trust.
Introduce your hero to phenomenons or technologies that are inviting at first glance. Then twist those sci-fi elements in a problematic way for the hero.
Here’s another example from SPIDERMAN: FAR FROM HOME:
- Peter Parker’s EDITH sunglasses empowers him with Stark Industry technologies and weapons.
- The twist is that EDITH is sophisticated beyond Peter’s control. He inadvertently orders a drone attack on his bus, and can spy on his classmates’ texts.
Science Fiction Movie Villain: Believability
All too often, science fiction movies are inundated with villains lacking genuine motives, desires and fatal flaws. The resulting effect is two-fold:
- A two-dimensional, unoriginal villain seen in countless movies.
- Increased risk of becoming an instant “pass” for an executive, agent, or manager after losing believability in the screenplay.
But villains in a great science fiction movie are never in fact, “fictitious.” At least, personality-speaking.
- The villains in movies such as THE DARK KNIGHT or AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR are not just humanized.
- Rather, their humanity is a source of emotional and compelling conflict that pits the heroes in thematic and moral dilemmas.
If the villains possess values, internal and external motivations, and flaws, then a good science fiction movie can become something more far reaching and profound.
Here’s a set of stereotypical descriptions of science fiction villains that would need to be more fully developed to begin with.
- A vengeful Alien thirsting to destroy human life.
- An evil robotic AI bent on controlling the world.
- A crazed terrorist seeking to wreck havoc in a metropolitan city.
These are characteristics we are all familiar with.
But now check out their actual descriptions based on the portrayal within their respective movies.
- A self-righteous alien committed to sacrificing half of life for the greater good (Thanos from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR).
- A test-AI robot yearning to escape experimentation for freedom (Ava from EX MACHINA).
- A sociopath committed to showing the people of Gotham who they really are (The Joker form THE DARK KNIGHT).
Such villains don’t merely convey being evil. Rather, each possesses an external motivation fuelled by their flaws and internal motivations.
So let’s dive deeper into these 3-dimensional villains to discover their own values, internal and external motivations, and fatal flaws.
Science Fiction Movie Villain: Examples
No one ever thinks they’re “pure evil.” Nor should that be true just because this is science fiction.
Even The Joker doesn’t admit to just “being crazy” in THE DARK KNIGHT. And if anyone still claims they are, it’s usually out of past victimization, mistreatment, or trauma.
Thanos in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR:
- Thanos might have been the Avengers’ most challenging villain. But this is not just because he was pure evil.
- In fact, Thanos genuinely believes his external motivation to sacrifice half of all life is in the service of the greater good. Without this drive, he can’t achieve his destiny (internal motivation).
- And he’s conflicted. To complete his quest, he must retrieve the Soul Infinity Stone by making a sacrifice.
- And so he reluctantly kills his adopted daughter, Gamora, as part of mission to save the universe. And the burden of having to make such a sacrifice is painful, making him empathetical.
Ava in EX MACHINA:
AVA is so humanized that it’s arguable whether she’s the villain at all.
- Caleb tests her in an experiment and Nathan threatens he’ll decommission her when the experiment ends.
- Her fear of death (internal conflict) thus provides AVA with her need to escape (external motivation).
- So to do this, she doesn’t go on a ridiculous evil killing spree.
- Instead, she uses her integrated values of intelligence, lie-detecting senses/scanners, emotional understanding to build attraction with Caleb.
- And he’s consequently manipulated into thinking she loves him. But all for the purpose of her wanting to escape.
Science Fiction Movie Villain: The Joker (The Dark Knight)
The Joker is a memorable science fiction villain. Not because he’s sociopathic terrorist, but because he too has fatal flaws, internal and external motivations, and conflicts.
The Joker’s Fatal Flaw
The Joker’s scar stories, allude to how he is a victim of traumatic experience. We don’t know whether to believe the story about his father or his wife.
And this haunting background makes The Joker three-dimensional as his values are derived from his past victimization.
Thug: …He’s crazy.
Joker: I’m not…No I’m not.
The Joker’s Internal and External motivation
Further, The Joker is unwavering in his values. Deep down, without rules, people would destroy one another. And that’s exactly what The Joker wants to see Gotham succumb to. Chaos.
Joker: …They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see — I’ll show you … when the chips are down, these civilized people … they’ll eat each other. (Grins.) See, I’m not a monster … I’m just ahead of the curve.
The Joker doesn’t see himself as a sociopath either. Instead, he desires the satisfaction of seeing the people for whom they really are under chaos (internal motivation).
Joker: … See, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.
The Joker is dark. But not evil. He’s not demon. Or loose sociopath who kills just to kill.
Rather, it’s the combination of his flaws, values, and motivation that makes him one of the great science fiction villains.
- Identify your villains values by setting them opposite from the hero or heroes.
- This allows the promised battles to be more than just a fight between good and evil.
- Rather, the climax becomes a battle over who’s values are greater.
Theme in Science Fiction
A theme for a science fiction movies is often lost thanks to advanced technology and superpowers being at the forefront of the idea.
One might think INCEPTION is merely about planting ideas through dreams. ARRIVAL is about Earth’s first alien contact. THE MARTIAN is about an astronaut trapped on Mars.
On the surface, that’s all true. But none of those brief descriptions deal with the movies’ theme.
The theme is the author’s overall purpose for telling the story.
So in identifying the themes of such out-of-the-world movies listed above, here’s what might be found:
- ARRIVAL – The idea that communication is the key to coexisting with one and another.
- INCEPTION – Dreams shape our reality.
- THE MARTIAN – The human imperative to help and survive.
Each movie’s theme once again deals with the human condition, or how viewers ought to live and act in accordance with others.
But how do screenwriters achieve conveying the theme of their story to the audience successfully?
You need to avoid lecturing.
- A common mistake is to have a character in voice-over format, or on screen, speak out the theme.
- The resulting effect is a preaching form of dialogue that breaks the fourth wall for audiences.
- Provide your hero and villain with values. Have those values conveyed through action and dialogue.
- Every-time your characters clash, the battle should really be about their values coming into conflict.
- In the final battle between your characters, decide whose values will win out, between your hero and the antagonist.
For example…Let’s examine ARRIVAL to see how theme plays out.
Theme in Arrival
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is the protagonist of the story, an expert on communication, and responsible for identifying what the “heptapods,” (aliens) want. CIA-agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbard) is responsible for military operations.
- Every time their paths converge, a battle takes place.
- This battle is between communicating and understanding (Louise’s value) versus protection with armed forces (Agent Halpern’s value).
- Louise must convince Agent Halpern that the aliens may indeed not be here for war purposes. The true reason for arriving on Earth is to communicate a message with the people.
- In the final battle between the two characters, communications between the global super powers break.
- Fear sets in and Agent Halpern prepares for a military strike.
- Louise violates by trespassing into the military camps parameters.
- She secretly steals agent Halpern’s cell phone to relay a message given to her by the aliens.
- The final confrontation between the two is literally a battle of communication versus force. Agent Hapern threatens to shoot Louise for violating protocol. Louise simultaneously struggles to communicate with the leader of China before they attack the aliens.
- Louise manages to send the message given to her by the aliens.
- China holds off its attacks which causes a domino effect in ultimately ceasing world-wide military protocol.
- And thus, through communication, Louise not only has saved the heptapods but for a brief moment, united all the global super powers.
In the climax, the theme of communication comes to the forefront of the viewers’ mind.
Yes, Arrival is still about aliens touching down on Earth for the first time. But more deeply, it’s a story about how people and global leaders should coexist by means of communication.
Storytelling must continue to be at the heart of any science fiction movie. The genre is more than just about the glitz and glamour of futuristic technology, or explosive super powers.
As in any genre, a science fiction movie is most importantly about a believable story world, character flaws, and a humanizing theme.
A science fiction movie is where creativity and imagination can be utilised to captivating effect. Unlike any other genre, its possibilities are often endless. This can be daunting.
But stick the principles of relatable worlds and characters and your audience will stick with you. Even in reaching out to space, the future or hitherto unimaginable worlds, humanity is always at the core.