I've seen a couple of scifi films lately that really got me thinking about the key to great stories--scifi stories, specifically. How do scifi stories differ from other genres? What's the key to telling a great story? And how can we improve our stories so that they connect with the audience?
Well, first of all, scifi covers a very broad spectrum of story types. According to Wiki:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction has been used by authors as a device to discuss philosophical ideas such as identity, desire, morality, and social structure.
For me, scifi is about possibilities. What may happen, and what that might mean for us, as humans, as keepers of the earth, and as patrons of the universe. Scifi usually presents the audience with not only a new character, but a whole new world to digest. World-building is a critical element for scifi stories: without it, the world falls flat, but with too much of it, the story drowns.
For me, the key to telling a great scifi story is telling the STORY. Not telling about the WORLD. Take, for example, two recent scifi films, Oblivion and Elysium. Both offered far future Earths with starkly different worlds from our modern one. Both offered characters facing adversity within their world. But neither, in my opinion, provided a story that the audience really cared about. The question is, why?
In my humble opinion, each of these films tried to tell too many layers of story at once. They attempted to present both a big picture story as well as an interpersonal story, leaving the audience with little focus and not much connection. By contrast, films like The Matrix showed us a close-in view of a personal story in the first film, allowing us to peel back the layers of a brand new world slowly, in the context of personal struggle. This allows us to bond with the characters on a very deep level. The world is a backdrop. The character is the story.
Think about your story--what is your character's perception of the world at the beginning? How does that perception change? How does their view of the world broaden? Bringing your audience in at eye level and slowly expanding the character's world view is a great way to get us invested in both your character AND the world. Dumping a lot of information about your world keeps us from bonding with your character AND drains the world-level issues of their power.
Now, some stories work as trilogies, like The Matrix. But not all of us can plan to write three books. Sometimes you have to get it all done in one story. The Fifth Element is a fantastic example of scifi story that works on all story levels. The key, again, is progression. We open with a starkly different world, but what's important is what's happening to the characters in that world. Only as the characters discover the big picture story do we as the audience come to see it. We take the journey with them. That way, we care about them most, and secondarily their cause becomes our cause--by the end, we care about their world, too.
While I don't write scifi (much), it remains one of my favorite genres to read and watch on film. As with every genre, it's difficult to get scifi just right. Show me your incredible new world. Take me on an amazing adventure. Do it all through the lens of your character, and I will love them as well as your world.