How science fiction brings us back to Earth

How science fiction brings us back to Earth

We see the truth more clearly among the stars

 

Everybody loves a blockbuster

The fact that I can genuinely enjoy an “artsy” movie like Tree of Life might classify me as a film snob in your book, but at the end of the day, I will always love a good blockbuster. Critics may complain, but who can argue with the sheer joy of Godzilla’s nuclear breath? There’s something about those stories that is just so satisfying.

In recent years, sci-fi movies have done especially well at the box office. A few decades ago, science fiction was the unholy passion of nerds, but today, it is celebrated. Just look at the success of movies like Guardians of the Galaxy or the new Star Trek reboot.

So what is it about science fiction that we love so much? That’s a question I’ve been exploring in depth since last year. After doing research on screenwriting and closely analyzing the sci-fi I consume, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s some deeper resonance in the midst of all the explosions. Rather than just being an escape to crazy new worlds, I’ve found that the best science fiction actually has something important to say about us and the planet we live on.

Finding the familiar in the extraordinary

With over 1,800 short stories and a hefty collection of books, novellas and screenplays, Harlan Ellison is one of the most prolific writers in the genre he calls “speculative fiction.” Speculative fiction is a more inclusive term for stories that would traditionally be called science fiction, but in reality don’t always deal with science per se. In an interview with The Guardian last year, Ellison described it this way:

It is the game of “what if?” You take that which is known, and you extrapolate —and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy — and you say, “Well, what if?”

You can see this function of sci-fi in classics like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, and in popular series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. We are intrigued by these stories because they explore ordinary issues in an extraordinary setting. As much as we are horrified by such dystopias, they end up forcing us to take a hard look at ourselves and our society. We see things more clearly when they are in the extreme.

Dane DeHaan plays troubled teenager with newfound superpowers in Chronicle.
 

For example, we could describe the movie Chronicle as the story of a troubled teen from an abusive home. Sadly, that’s not an unfamiliar story. But in the movie, he has telekinesis and we watch in horror as he spirals out of control, nearly taking the city of Seattle with him. In these extraordinary circumstances, we finally realize just how destructive the turbulent emotions of a psychologically disturbed child can be.

Science fiction as metaphor

If you think about it, science fiction also has a lot in common with poetry. You might laugh at the thought of a blockbuster being “high art,” but bear with me here. I took a class last year that challenged my thinking of what poetry — and by extension, storytelling — really is.

In my class, we discussed poetry as incarnation. In Christianity, the word “incarnation” is used to describe how God entered the world in the form of a man, Jesus. God, who is unfathomable, became Jesus, a tangible presence who could be seen, heard, touched, even smelled.

Poetry does the same thing when using fresh metaphors to communicate a new idea or emotion. By finding a concrete representation of an abstract concept, poetry helps us wrap our minds around complex ideas.

Looper explores time-travel and the theme of violence as a never-ending cycle.  

Looper explores time-travel and the theme of violence as a never-ending cycle.
 

The most powerful science fiction works the same way. It takes something celestial and brings it back to Earth, even if the actual story takes place among the stars.

Probably the best recent example of this is the movie Looper. On the surface, the film is about time-traveling hit-men called “loopers.” But the deeper theme is that violence is a never-ending cycle. By exploring that idea in a world that is structured to reflect it, Looper creates a powerful metaphor. We all understand that violence begets more violence, but this story is an experience that leaves us fully convinced of that truth.


How to write science fiction

Are you feeling inspired? I know I am! The world needs more good science fiction and we’re going to give it to them.

So how do we get started? Well, the best sci-fi has both fresh concepts for a fictional world’s design and a deep message about the real world. But from what I’ve observed in the creative processes of others and myself, people tend to be better at generating ideas for one aspect or the other. Luckily, the two are intrinsically connected, so you can work from either starting point. Let’s take a look at two possible processes:

Process 1: Start with an idea for an interesting character, fascinating setting or even an action-packed plot. Continue exploring and developing your world, and you’ll eventually start to uncover an underlying theme.

My brother tends to use this first approach. For example, the idea for his most recent short film came to him fully formed in the shower. However, he’s still not entirely sure what it means. In this case, that actually works out well, because each person who has watched it has responded to the story differently. The possible interpretations are endless. Take a look:

Process 2: Start with a message — or even better, a question — and work from there. As you think about the theme, you’ll begin to develop a metaphor to communicate it. Eventually, you’ll have unique characters and a world where symbolism is injected into every detail.

I used to think I was bad at coming up with ideas, but in reality my process just looks different because I tend to work outward from topics I want to discuss. For example, my most recent short film evolved from the concept of Third Culture Kids, people who have grown up between multiple cultures and have trouble defining which one they really belong to. I wanted to explore that idea, so I ended up coming up with the metaphor of a shapeshifter to describe it. Take a look at my short:

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what your process is. My brother and I came at our stories from completely different directions, but in the end, we both had interesting ideas to share. The point is to start writing and thinking more deeply about the world we live in. Hopefully I’ve given you some good starting points as you develop your own creative style.

One more thing. Here are a few more resources that have been extremely helpful to me in my storytelling endeavors:

  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder — An excellent guide to screenplay story structure. Although it’s a formulaic approach, it provides some great insights and storytelling tricks that have proven useful.
  • Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald — This book helped me finally understand what storytelling is all about. I read it after Save the Cat and it helped me remember that stories are living, breathing, organic things.
  • JohnAugust.com — Screenwriting advice from the writer of Big Fish, Go and Corpse Bride. Also, check out his Scriptnotes podcast with screenwriter Craig Mazin.
  • Go Into the Story — The official blog of the Blacklist. Tons and tons of screenwriting advice and resources. Or follow @GoIntoTheStory.
  • The Write Practice — This blog offers daily lessons on storytelling, character-building and other aspects of the writing craft.

Happy writing! And if you feel so inclined, share your work!