See also: [SF Technology]
On this page intro
This section is essentially a course in traditional fiction
writing mechanics but with an SF twist. In reality, plots
should *always* make sense. But, like all mystery writers
know, they delay the "sense of things" (ie, the explanation)
until the very end. But, in the same tradition of the
"suprise writers" (eg, Saki, O'Henry, etc) where the "twist"
is introduced in quite an un-expected way - as SF'er's we
are used to the ideas more along the lines of the theatre
of the Absurd (eg, Beckkett, Ionesco, etc).
But, of course even that *twist* ending has become SO cliche
that when an author (text/film/etc) decides NOT to incorporate
it, we often feel cheated - or even *still* expecting the
"holodeck within the holodeck within the holodeck within..."
ending to be *hidden* from us. As i have pointed out in the
zix cross product LINK HERE on time-travel: The introduction *** TIME TRAVEL LINK ***
of "cusps" (taken from Catastrophe Theory: LINK HERE), we can
create contradictions in the plot that here-to-fore, would
only (or at least mostly) have been acceptable in the the
theatre of the absurd, or the more traditional "it was only
a dream" escape. Note the worst case of this (despite the
beauty and my own personal like of) in film was the "Gosh,
I guess it was all a dream" in "The Wizard of Oz". Our dear
friend the mathemagician Martin Gardner (aka Dr. Matrix) wrote
on this topic as well - Dorthy DID visit Oz, it's only that
the hollywood (of the time ;) couldn't handle (or didn't think
that the "movie loving public" could handle such a LEAP OF REALITY.
Or as i have often said,
"Toto, i have terrible news for you; We're STILL in *(* Kansas!"
So, with me as your (nervously serving as) guide, let us begin...
This section of the pde covers the ideas behind the actual
writing of the text. What we have at hand are:
1) The traditions of literature; Refer to: -[Literature Terms *types*]-
2) Elements of SF (see links); eg, time travel, space ships, aliens.
3) Effects that we might want to use/create.
4) And of course the mechanics of writing itself - pretty much the
same as trad lit.
In this section, we explore not only how we might write SF stories
but also, explore how "the giants" (eg, Serling, Dick, Le Guin,
Pohl, Aldiss, Sheckly, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, etc)
wrote and what they have to offer us in studying their works in
an analytical fashion. I must point out that i'm def a "new kid"
to this area of literate analysis; but i promise to bring my
"odd view" to help illuminate (and de-illuminate) the SF field.
My own feeling is that now that *many* of the techical aspects
have been solved, we lack GOOD writing and GOOD characters.
The plot shouldn't be over-cooked, bland, or too twisty -
unless it's series where we expect the viewer/particpant to
watch/play many times.
COmpare for example the Hyperdrive FX in "Forbidden Planet"
and the "Transporter" FX in "Star Trek (classic)". Once that
barrier had become to be the pervay of FX specialists, the
doors were really wide open. Again, compare the LACK of FX
in the (perhaps) ultimate classic "2001" - stunts, camera
tricks, little or no matting, very little in the way of
miniatures effect (we can't imagine having to make Star Wars
(IV - not the prequels or sequels, but the original) *just*
using what was available in 1968-9.
Thus, in this section we (like any good surgical student
presented with a corpse for disection and learning), begin
to "take apart" and examine the magic that the SF writers
who have come before us -- whose heritage it is our
responsibility to extend and expand in ways that (hopefully)
even they could not have imagined. And *always* remember it
is most proper to pay homage to them by referencing their
works. After all, there is no real reason to imagine that an
actual android will EVER use positrons (anti-matter electrons)
for its mind; but, Gene Roddenberry, et al made that decision.
And well made, methinks, 'tis.
SO, let us begin...
Writing - General
One of the "golden rules" in exposition is:
Tell them what you're going to tell them.
Tell them what you told them.
That is, to tell the story (get the "expository background"
across), we need our old friend of repetition.
In humor, this is refered to as "the setup" and usually
involves the "rule of three"; three usually accepted as
the minimum number to establish a pattern of repetition.
Also, note that in a series of works (eg, a series or a
set of sequels), the thing will probably need to be
repeated more than that; eg, the phrase "Watch your back,
Mr. Garibaldi" in "Babylon 5". Also note that this can be
used as pastich/slapstick when taken to an extreme; eg,
in "The Bishop" by Monty Python - in this case the dryness
of the humor is established by the seriousness of the
subject (a detective show with a bishop as the sleuth)
and the corny-ness of the lines commenting on the ironic
demise of eachn victim. This of course our old friend
"mode mixing" -- just wearing a different hat.
Of course, part of the "twist" element is to show something
and leed the viewer to expect "X" but at the end, it turns
out that "X" is actaully "X2" and then of course, it turns
out to be "Z" instead.
This goes back to the classics of the monster movies: You
can't show the monster until as late as possible - because
it's a monster. But, in SF, we have the idea of "hidden natures"
the same as in tradtional literature. For example, take the
slightly less action/adventure but intriguing mystery film
"Murder at 1600" (1997) the directing and film work are superb
at no time does the viewer feel like there should be something
more - there are a few car chases, shootouts, etc that we've
come to expect, but it's mainly the EDITING and story line
itself that keeps us guessing and thus attached.
- again, the plot twists.
Scene Design - Plot
As Picasso said (supposedly) - "Artists create, great artists steal".
A good source are many of the old B movies. In most cases the
directors knew how to make good films on a small budget, they
didn't need a lot of fancy effects, sets, etc. One example that
i saw recently (2007) is "City of Film" (1959) - ostensibly a man
hunt with a slight SF twist: A thief "Vince Ryker" (played by
Vince Edwards of TV fame as "Doctor Kildare") has stolen what he
thinks is heroin only to be a canister of Radio Active Cobalt!!
As i was watching the film - def a "B" flick - it occured to me
how well it kept me glued to the screen. A lot of it uses stock
and repeated footage (often with *no* variation at all). But,
then the music (very "beat nik", very 50's "film noir" style)
as well as the way that action is handed over from one plot
line to another. Again of course the way that the film is
edited (quickness, hard cuts rather than fades, etc) lend
drama to it - using increasing frenzy as the film moves along.
Note especially that these two elements are due in much part to
Lucean Ballard (photographer) and Jerry Goldsmith (music)!
"City of Fear" (1959), directed by Irving Lerner,
writen by Robert Dillon and Steven Ritch
"Murder at 1600" (1997), directed by Dwight H. Little,
written by Wayne Beach and David Hodgin
Release Date:18 April 1997 (USA) more view trailer
One of the main reasons that film companies are reticent to make SF
films is that the budget can grow astronomically. A comment on this
was made by Frederico Fellini in his classic "Eight and a Half" in
which part of the overt plot is a director who has spent tons of
money on an SF film (sets, props, etc) and doesn't know where to
go with the plot.
For this reason, we go back to how to control the film, without it
seeming cheesy, lame, etc. Unfortunately, other than art films where
the message is more important than the way that it's presented, people
*expect* some fancy stuff in SF - after all it's meant to "fire the
imagination" of the viewer. Towards that end, the writing has to be
aware of things like that. A classic can be found on the official Dr. Who
web pages in their writer's guide. Mainly: Don't introduce a scene that
is used just once but costs a fortune to build.
Consider Lukas' "bar scene" at Mos Eisley Space Port. As it turns out,
the characters used were supposed to be the b/g characters - most of
them have NO articulation of mouth/eyes/etc. And of course the set itself
is less than spectactular - it's a bar. And ALL of this works so superbly
because of the action and plot that are given there and ... (here comes
the bril part) THAT MUSIC!!! Lukas said that he almost wanted to have
some "big band" music as well. Thus, a rather boring and CHEAP set (well,
mostly - Twentieth Century Fox had really clamped down on the $$$'s at
that point and wanted to pull the whole scene) - gave a fine performance
(and i bet you didn't even know that sets "perform" did you? ;).
Thus, we have elments that can be combined with good effect:
1) Essential elements to the plot - ie, where we are listening because
we know it's essential - can be "set" in the most mundane of sets.
Compare for example in "The Fifth Element (1997) (wr/dir by Luc Besson!)
when "LeeLoo" (played by Milla Jovovich_ tells where she needs to go in
(big drum roll here) IN A CAB !! Oooh, woooo, wow!! Overtly a completely
normal conversation for a cab. And note that this occurs after the big
chase scene, so it essentially not only gives us a breather, but allows
us to *cerebrally* focus. The scene is followed by a hard-cut to where
Thus: You don't have to spend $$$ on a scene if the plot exposition is
gripping, essential, or even shocking, etc.
2) Grand elements - which traditionally have been used as "establishing shots"
to set up the locale, spatial relationships, etc - ALL VERY IMPORTANT need
to be carefully engineered and edited. Far too many films lose us, because
the establishing shot doesn't make sense, is too short, or is over-shadowed
by sound, light effects, or other distracting elements. An establishing
shot should be used for that. And again, if a shot is used once, the set
needs to be reasonably priced - in fact many mat shots are done for just
this reason at night. A good example of this is in "Batman" (1989) when
the Joker brings his "Balloon Parade" to Gotham City. It was only necessary
to make ONE giant balloon figure ($$$'s each, natch) since the scene was
very economically shot on a back lot with "city sky scrapers" - that
barely scraped FOUR FLOORS (about 40 feet; 15 metres). And of course
even though this is a major shot, by being cost conscious here the money
could be spent on more important things - like the various "bat wing"
airplanes $$$'s deemed necessary to the plot.
3) Often dimly lit or nigth scenes can be spruced up by cuts to characters
and dialog, etc. For example, again in "Batman", when "Vicki Vale" (played
by Kim Basinger) detects that the balloon is releasing gas. This allows
a break-away shot to and from the main action, and then this also leads
to the "run away!" sequence as well. In the same way, in rather drab
low-cost scenes, the audience can be "bought off", by dialog/humour/irony,
etc. For example, in the re-make of "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
(2005) as the space ships attack a cut-away is to the front page of a news
paper to a scene (held just a bit too little for my taste) that turns out
to be a crucial element in the film. This was rather more well done in the
original (made for TV film (1981) - used to help boost pre-release sales for
the book, and v. low budget; well low for TV, but fairly high for full release
FILMS). Again, the new version is endearing, but the original has much
charm (i prefer both, but always like the originals of everything more so
sue me). And much of that charm is there because the scenes had to use
plot, ideas, and imaginative lines to carry it. This is especially true
of the "teleport" scene in the original when Ford Prefect (played by
David Dixon) is searching for something and pulls out a headphone looking
thing and mutters (with almost disgust/disbelief) "Tele-Psychic helmets!"
which creates the irony when he finds what he's looking for. This bit
was "just" filler for the scene to introduce an important story element,
and was unfortunately lost in the new version). Thus, $$$'s doesn't by
any means mean that "filler" or "segue" plot passages are enhanced.
4) It's the small things that make a scene THAT MUCH BETTER. For example
in the film "Mad Max" (1979) the "Take off your hat" scene has a great
way of building the tension for the action scene to follow. In the same
way in "Murder at 1600" when "Detective Harlan Regis" (played by Wesley
Snipes) takes "Agent Nina Chance" (played by Diane Lane) to his appartment
this goes way beyond establishing the following:
Who is this "detective"?
Who does he think he is investigating the White House?
What's he all about?
What's his L/S (Life Style) like - especially contrasted
with the "A-List" L/S assoicated with the White House?
Yes: Fish out of water (Detective Regis - his first name is used about 1/2
time in the film), Big Stakes (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Murder, etc), etc.
All "falls into place" by this one scene and all of the intricacies of it.
Compare this with the "dinner scene" in Ed Harris' (Dir/Prod) "Pollock" which
ostensibly is "just a dinner scene". In both cases, thinking about the scene
-- both were cheap to shoot (well, except for the "game board" in "1600") and
into it could be BUILT major plot/character/etc elements. And both are
ostensibly things that we can all identify with: A guy bringing a girl to
his home. Thus, the mundane doesn't have a lot of intricacy to it - and
hence allows us to "take in" all of the b/g elements of the characters
in the scene; eg, how the girl responds to how he lives (the old "bachelor's
apartment" thing), what he values (whats in the room, how it's furnished, etc),
and so forth. Thus, allowing us to "see inside" the character's head.
5) And of course these "quiet moments" can allow us to think back on what we've
seen so far. As the late, great indy film maker Fred G. ("Boom Boom") Sullivan
said in his autobiographical film "The Beer Drinker's Guide to Fitness and
FilmMaking and" (aka "Sullivans Carnival") (1987) "In many foreign films
there are pauses that give us time to collect our thoughts and think about
important things" -- def not an exact quote. Also, returning time and again
to the same character in a moment of reveree as the film progresses, we have
"reference markes" to see a lot more into what the character is not only
thinking at that moment, but how the character is being changed (or not) by
the events of the film as it progresses. One of the best examples of this
is in Spike Lee's "Girl 6" (1996) (written by Suzan-Lori Parks) as "Girl 6"
aka "Judy" (played by Theresa Randle). As she is progressively brought down
in life, it's clearly in these moments that we see her drifting towards
oblivion. The ending of the film is all the more powerful from the use of
this NOTHING that was consistently returned to by Spike's telling of the story.
6) And the rest. Sound, music, lighting, and the usual suspects - if the cast,
crew and story are all in sync you don't have to spend $$$'s to sell the idea.
And more important to make a good film/game/etc. Essentially take the classic
elements of great movies and find out what makes them great. For example, the
use of lighting in "Psycho" (1960), the music in "Sneakers" (1992), or even
a "prop" (eg, "Citizen Kane" - the snow globe, "Little Miss Sunshine" - the VW mini-van,
similarities/differences in the actors themselves - especially protagonist/antatonist
(eg, the shortness of Joe Pesci and the tallness of Fred Gwynne in "My Cousin Vinny"),
etc, etc, etc. Find elements like that and use them at just the right level of
These things are of course "just common sense" - but in making a film/game
such minor details can save $$'s and time/effort and give the film the
twist and fill it out much more than the items would be capable of doing.
Just think about the shark in "Jaws" () - it's the "monster" and it's
pretty hokey: But, the "anticipation", the "lurking", etc. and the way
that the cast react to it - make it. Or as Eli Wallach said about his
"minor" role as the bandit "Calvera" in "The Magnificent Seven" (1960)
that he would only be on the screen for maybe 15 minutes and should he
waste his time withsuch a *small* part, "Yes, but then it hit me: All
through the film they keep saying 'yes, but what about Calvera returns?'
-- and such" (not an exact quote by any means). The idea is: Sometimes
the thing not present is as important as everything else. Much like the
role of the gold in that movie as well.
References (this section only)
The Magnificent Seven
Murder at 1600