Editorial: Rules for Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy
Mania from the excellent Star Wars: The Force Awakens refuses to rest. Meanwhile, Teen Wolf is finishing off another great season, and Terry Brooks’s beloved Shannara series is in the middle of its small-screen debut season. The Expanse premiered to deserved fanfare. The new season of The Walking Dead began with a bang, and winter is coming via Game of Thrones (possibly with a new book to accompany the HBO series). Et cetera. Sci-fi geeks like your humble writer are in heaven. Or Valinor, the Undying Lands to the West.
But as The Hunger Games begat Divergent and The Maze Runner, the entertainment industry will almost certainly react to the unparalleled success of The Force Awakens and the popularity of the genre in general with a huge landslide of copycat sci-fi dreck that keeps getting worse as we travel through the wormhole of time.
But it needn’t suck so badly if authors and directors adhere to the following rules for writing science fiction and fantasy. (They apply to all fiction, really, but sci-fi writers seem break them more than anyone else.)
Start with a good story, then develop the special-effects budget and marketing plan. The technological marvel you plan to create is insignificant next to the power of a strong plot— and you won’t sell many Underoos or Jello molds if it sucks. That’s why, right now, you can find original, unopened Anakin Skywalker and Jar Jar Binks merchandise in dollar stores for pennies and not on eBay for a small nation’s gross domestic product.
Give your readers and viewers a little credit, even if they’re children. J.K. Rowling was especially egregious about telegraphing to her readers who the villains were. Dolores Umbridge and Draco Malfoy were not destined to save the day against Voldemort.
And don’t spell out every damned plot point. Snoke didn’t need to tell Kylo Ren that Han Solo was his father. Kylo Ren already knew that, and the densest audience members figured it out before the revelation was verbalized.
You can’t improve upon perfection when adapting an acknowledged masterpiece. In making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, Peter Jackson added a bunch of scenes that weren’t in the books and deleted a ton that were. All of those decisions showed how inferior a writer and visionary he was to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Don’t give your characters stupid, unpronounceable names, and don’t spell common names stupidly. Violating this rule doesn’t make you seem sophisticated. It just annoys all the readers who are trying to enjoy your story and makes them stumble or glaze over characters who should be memorable.
If your character’s name is pronounced Jenny, don’t spell her name “Jeyne.” If you want to call your character Jaqen H’ghar, rethink that name. Any name with more than two consecutive consonants and an apostrophe is probably a dumb name.
If you’re going to be creative with character names, keep them simple. That’s the one thing George Lucas even got right when it came to Jar Jar Binks.
Consider the unintentional homonyms you’re probably creating. While we’re thinking about character names, J.J. Abrams should have come up with something more intimidating for the Imperious Leader in The Force Awakens than Scone or Bagel or whatever she/he/it is called.
Oh, right, the name was Snoke. Sounds like a castrati that J.K. Rowling was smart enough to edit out of her Harry Potter series.
Maybe a better example is Allanon from the Shannara series. Did his parents have a drinking problem or something?
Your poetry sucks. J.R.R. Tolkien, at least for the sci-fi genre, had a remarkable facility for writing poetry and songs, and in languages he himself invented. As the Rosetta Stone for fantasy, Tolkien has deeply inspired every author and filmmaker who followed him. But those who felt compelled to pen original verses for their own works have far more often than not embarrassed themselves. Badly. They’ve wasted readers’ time and pointlessly blockaded the forward motion of their own plots. Stick to prose.
Your personal obsessions are boring and get in the way of the plot. George R.R. Martin is fat because he can’t stop eating. The clues are all over his books: Not a single meal is served in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels (from which Game of Thrones is adapted) without Martin drooling for three or four pages over every single item on the menu. So put down the pickled goose leg fried with duck eggs in bacon fat, pay the damned check, leave the waiter a good tip, and get on with the story. Those who want the culinary details can buy the (admittedly awesome) A Feast of Ice and Fire cookbook.
A little bit of emotion goes a long way. If you don’t develop your characters, then nobody will care about the action in which they find themselves embroiled— but don’t overdo it. That is especially true of “humor” and angst.
When most sci-fi writers think they’re being funny, they’re wrong— witness Jar Jar Binks. There’s also the unforgivably stupid “comic relief” with which Peter Jackson curdled The Hobbit in the scenes he added that featured dorky wizard Radagast the Brown.
And as far as angst goes, heroes don’t mope— they step up and take action. The problem with Hamlet isn’t that Shakespeare set the play in Denmark— it’s that the lead character is a gutless, indecisive whiner, not a role model. Dropping a variation of Hamlet into space or some fantasy world doesn’t make the character compelling, nor does making she/he/it a vampire— and you’re not Shakespeare. We have counseling and antidepressants now, but advanced civilizations with hyperdrive technology and magical lands with wizards and druids don’t have treatments that can shake out the teenage doldrums long enough for a character to escape a womp-rat or orc?
Dance with them what brung you. When The Walking Dead spent an entire half-season perseverating over a swine-flu outbreak, Nightlife officemate Chris Rhymer made the astute observation that fans of the show weren’t there to see a character-driven medical drama— there’s Grey’s Anatomy for that. Science fiction and fantasy don’t exist to obsess over the mundane. Audiences don’t need a two-hour depiction of a quest for toilet paper, or any explanation for how our heroes live without it. Just cover them in zombie gore and make them fight their way across the post-apocalyptic hellscape. You can develop the characters while they do so.
There are probably many more essential points, but as someone who has never written or directed a sci-fi masterpiece, in conclusion I must concede the following: Editors of weekly newspapers are sometimes wrong.