Friday, March 12, 2010

Genre Considerations - Science Fiction and Fantasy

Genre is a powerful tool in storytelling. And every genre has unique considerations and concerns. With that in mind, I’m going to start a series of posts to address some of these special considerations in individual genres.

The first genres I’ll tackle are fantasy and science fiction, which have a lot of similar issues. They may seem quite different because we associate a lot of very specific iconic trappings with each of these genres. However those trappings can be confusing. Some movies that appear to be science fiction are actually fantasy. From a writing standpoint the primary difference between the two is that fantasy deals with magical elements while science fiction deals with realistic projection of technological advances.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (written by Steven Spielberg) are good examples. The “science fiction” alien elements of these movies are not realistic expansions of current technology. The aliens are so advanced that their special powers are more akin to magic. That makes these fantasy movies, not science fiction.

Star Wars (written by George Lucas) is an interesting hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. The space ships and robots are science fiction, but the force and light sabers are really more fantasy.

Science fiction and fantasy share one important trait: both are allegories for the real world. They let us explore political, social and emotional issues in a symbolic way. This allows the audience be more objective, unencumbered by some of the baggage that might come with a more realistic setting or story line. This is an important idea that I’m going to come back to.

First, there are some terms and sub-genres you may wish to be familiar with if you plan on working in these genres:

High Fantasy – The medieval style fantasy of Lord of the Rings (screenplays by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). Usually features an imaginary world, magic, wizards, and alien races like elves and dwarves.

Near-Future – Refers to science fiction that takes place in a time period only a few years ahead of ours so that the world is recognizable. Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby) and District 9 (screenplay by Neill Blokamp & Terri Tatchell) are good examples. Some of this flavor of sci-fi movie are actually set in our current world with a new sci-fi element introduced, such as The Terminator (written by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd) or Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale) or The Fly (screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg).

Space Opera – Refers to movies set in a science fiction universe but that are more concerned with adventure than science. Star Wars and Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) fall in this category. Some sci-fi purists do not consider these true sci-fi movies. They believe real science fiction deals with the impact of technology on the course of culture and human development.

One of the first things you’ll need to be concerned about in a science fiction or fantasy story is the world of the story. Is this meant to be a believable representation of our world with one or two fantastical elements added (Back to the Future)? Is it a near future projection of our world (Children of Men)? Is it a vision of our world projected far into the future that is both familiar and very different (Alien – story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon)? Or is it a complete alternate world (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings)?

That decision will affect how much work you have to do to bring us into the world. In a world we’re familiar with you don’t need much set up. In The Terminator Cameron and Hurd don’t have to explain Sarah Connors’ lifestyle because it’s one we’re familiar with. All they have to do is explain at some point why a robot and soldier have travelled here from the future.

In the Lord of the Rings, however, we’re completely unfamiliar with the world. The filmmakers have to explain how magic works in this world and the politics of hobbits, elves, dwarves and men. That’s a big reason why the films open with a long expository prologue. They need to teach us the unfamiliar history of this world.

You also have to show us the rules of the world, and of the fantastical elements you introduce. The most important thing is that your story have an internal consistency and logic. You get to create the rules but then you must abide by them. Otherwise it will feel like “cheating” and the audience will reject your story.

For example, the technology of Star Trek and of Alien are very specific – and not the same. Teleportation exists in Star Trek but not in Alien. And the conditions required for successful teleportation in Star Trek are clearly laid out. You need a teleportation room on one end and the range is limited. Also, the faster someone is moving the more difficult teleportation is. Space ships also travel much faster in Star Trek than they do in Alien, where crews must enter a kind of hyper sleep to make the journey between planets.

Introducing the rules of your world can be kind of a tricky thing. On the one hand, you can just lay everything out at the beginning, which helps the audience suspend their disbelief. However sometimes we want to hold back some of the information for dramatic effect. For more on introducing fantastical elements in film, see my last post.

It’s crucial to the success of both sci-fi and fantasy that you give us a main character that we care about with a problem that we can relate to. Remember what I said about these being allegorical genres? We may love spaceships and laser guns, swords and dragons, but if we can’t relate to the story those things will quickly grow tiresome.

The way to get us involved is to show us someone we can identify with and allow us to experience the spectacle and the world through their eyes. In The Lord of the Rings we can empathize with powerless little Frodo who must do something very dangerous because it’s the right thing to do – even though he’d rather just go home. And we are moved by the loyalty of his friend Sam. Friendship, duty, fear, and homesickness are universal emotions.

And though an alien space ship hasn’t actually broken down in South Africa as shown in District 9, we can certainly identify with the racial politics on display and Wikus’ growing realization that the government he works for has a hidden, morally questionable agenda.

Ultimately it’s the characters and their journey that makes the best sci-fi and fantasy movies great. The spectacle of fantastic worlds, technology and magic is just icing on the cake.

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