So you’re writing a sci-fi screenplay, with your own science fiction universe, or fantasy universe replete with swords and sorcerers and magic. Congrats and a hearty screenwriter shazbot to you, Muad’dib.
Tolkien, Herbert, J.K. Rowling, George Lucas, George R. R. Martin – the literary world lays claim to many renowned world-building writers. Yet the act of crafting a lush imaginary world is no small feat. Not only does the sci-fi screenwriter or fantasy screenwriter have to concoct a myriad of otherworldly details, she also has to connect us with those details in a meaningful way, so that we feel at home in this universe, or at the very least, understand the laws of nature and reality within it.
So how do they do it?
Keep your fantasy world as the stage, and your story as the main actor on that stage
Think of your universe as the primordial muck which gives birth to the characters and situations of your story, but those situations and characters are actually still making choices and taking actions and communicating and conflicting in a way that we understand. Let your story emerge from that muck, and be informed by it, but let the motion of the plot and conflict and choices all stem from easily-recognizable human situations and emotions.
Story first. Details second. That being said…
Details are good; having too many details is bad
Page 1: “The Sword of Kul’Grondahr, built from the Hell Steel of Mulvin Shindraxicon, heir to the Seventh Maenus’Primshin Acolyte Throne of the Wasted Lands of Felmoulbinor Raxus.”
Say what? I just picked up this script and opened it and now you’re asking me to learn a new language? (Ain’t got the time. I’m already learning French and Spanish on my mobile phone app.) A script reader or audience member shouldn’t have to learn 150 new, made-up science fiction or fantasy words just to be able to understand what’s going on in your story.
Pepper your screenplay with your fantastic details, as you would pepper a salad. Keep us reminded of the wonders of your alternate universe, but keep us grounded with real storytelling.
With your script slam-jammed with wall-to-wall pronouns like “Raynor V’c’h’tinghaavus” and strange nouns like “Bikstid and his Vortex Angiotic Neutron Blaster,” the average script reader, who lives in the real world, and who may not necessarily have ever even heard of the book on which your script is based on, nor even have an inkling such a genre even exists, is faced with having to learn a new universe as they read your script. Write your script for those people – the uninitiated. Only when you can get those people to understand and like your script will you stand a chance to sell it, or secure representation, or have it made into a film.
This goes for cop movies and military movies, and really any other story where the world takes on a major role, so to speak. That is, try not to hit us over the head with constant military lingo or cop lingo, even if that’s how it really is in the real world. We’re not paying to see the literal real world; we’re paying to be entertained.
Your world can be unbelievable, but your characters still must be credible
Who’s the main character? What does she need? What does she want? What does she do that’s interesting? If her motivations and actions aren’t believable, and grounded in emotions or intellectual reasoning the audience can recognize and find familiar, it doesn’t matter how lush you’ve rendered your world.
Case study – a guest-submitted screenplay
A. Davis sent in the first 10 pages of their screenplay “R I M /P D X”. Here’s a prime example of a story that thrusts us into a strange new world, but asks, in my opinion, too much of the reader too soon, when it comes to deciphering the vocabulary and situations.
The first 10 pages of “R I M /P D X” fall into the trap that lurks in the dark for many a science-fiction/fantasy screenplay or teleplay: it introduces too many concepts that are never fully clarified. Instead of hooking the audience right off the bat (despite an inventive opening scene), it soon becomes very confusing with verbiage. While visually engaging, showing a dying Irina lifted to the heavens, the subsequent newscast and conversation between Gobi and Hans are often hard to decipher. Trode head, Omni-Net, soul theft… Lots to get bogged down by, as far as how this universe works. It may be lush, but it shouldn’t be this hard to get into a story.
Contrast: How Game of Thrones introduced us to its fantasy world
Below is the very first scene from the very first pilot screenplay for Game of Thrones.
EXT. CLEARING – DAY
Snow drifts across the bodies of the fallen dead. Eight corpses lie frozen on the ground-- men, women, and children, wearing heavy furs. The wind whips through their long hair.
At the edge of the clearing, WILL (20), a young ranger dressed all in black, surveys the grim scene from the back of his gelding. He gathers his reins and guides his horse south.
EXT. FOREST – DUSK
Will rides hard between the towering pines, his horse’s hooves kicking up fresh-fallen snow.
He comes to a halt and dismounts beside two tethered horses.
His comrades, GARED (50) and SER WAYMAR ROYCE (18), crouch beside a stream, filling their skins with cold water. They rise and look to the newcomer expectantly.
Ser Waymar is gray-eyed and graceful, with an aristocrat’s air of command despite his youth. He wears a supple coat of gleaming black ringmail and a lush sable cloak. Will and Gared also wear the black of the Night’s Watch, but their clothes are far less regal, their leather and fur battered from hard usage. Gared wears a hood for warmth.
We should start back. They’re all dead.
Gared offers Will his water skin and Will takes a drink.
Not that I saw.
How close did you get?
Close enough to see they was dead.
If Will says they’re dead, they’re dead. We should head back to the Wall.
Both of these screenplays open in a fantastic world, but the Game of Thrones scene feels more recognizable and easier to understand, despite its time period (or equivalent) being a lot further back in our past than the previous script is ahead in the future. Why?
The terminology, while describing things and places and people in a more archaic context, feels infinitely more recognizable and familiar than that of the user-submitted screenplay. There are very few new words, apart from the spelling of “sir” as “ser,” and the term “The Night’s Watch,” which means nothing to us yet.
In contrast, within the first few pages of the user-submitted script, terms like “VR cloth” and “3D wall cube” and others like it tend to distance us from the story because our eyeballs stop as we stumble on the new, strange words and attempt to parse them via context.
The world you painstakingly create, be it a fantasy world like Game of Thrones or a sci-fi world like Dune, is an act of intellectual craftsmanship. The story you tell must be an act of emotionally moving an audience. One is not the other.
As a closing cautionary word, I’ll say again: the elements of story and character must remain the principle focus at all times, no matter how fantastic your world is.
And, should many, or even most, of your intricate details about your world be forced to fall by the wayside in order to better serve your story, so be it. By all means, ground your story with your fantastic world, and take us to a new, magical place. After all, that’s what moviemaking is all about. But keep that lore in service of the story, don’t overwhelm us, and don’t be afraid to err on the side of real human motivations and real emotions at the expense of all your glorious, fantastical minutia.