How To Write Small Scale Sci-fi (& Fantasy)

If you’re a writer or filmmaker trying to break into the industry, you need to be writing small scale stories. Here’s how to do it.

Why should I write small scale sci-fi?

I’m a screenwriting student. I’ve been studying for years - writing scripts, creating projects, and avoiding getting a ‘real’ job. I like to write small-scale stories. I like them, partly because they are easier to sell, but also because I can make them myself.

The problem is, writers want to create Doctor Who. They want to write epics, like Lord of the Rings or Guardians of the Galaxy. While that’s a fine ambition, they don’t seem to realise that those shows/films are notoriously difficult to make. There’s a huge number of writers trying to create large-scale space operas. The competition is enormous and fierce.

So why don’t we scale it down?

But what does ‘small-scale’ mean?

I hear you ask. From probably another part of the country, if not the world. That’s okay, I can hear you. I have enhanced hearing. (Or maybe I’ve bugged your office space). Either way, I can probably answer your question.

  1. Getting personal

Your typical science-fiction space opera focuses around a group of people trying to save the galaxy. The stakes are huge! The entire galaxy is going to be destroyed/conquered/enslaved by a fascist regime! Only your heroes can stop them, using their powers/high-tech weapons/righteous liberalism!

In a small-scale story, the stakes are still high, but they are much more personal. Your main characters are focused on something that affects their lives specifically. Perhaps something an everyday person might worry about, like losing a loved one, for example, or being alienated from their friends.

The stakes in small-scale sci-fi are similar to the stakes in grounded drama. The difference is, the antagonist might be supernatural. If you’re writing a story about somebody getting evicted, for example, the antagonist in that story could be a loud alien in the attic who keeps the neighbours awake. The hero has to find a way to keep that alien quiet so they don’t lose their home!

Eternal Sunshine: A classic personal sci-fi film

2. Magic meets mundane

Typically, small-scale stories are set in real-world settings (or at least places that look like real-world settings). This is partly because fantasy settings, like magical castles and enchanted kingdoms, are expensive and difficult to make. But also because we want to create a sense of familiarity and realism within the environment. We can juxtapose this realism with something unusual to create an interesting and engaging setting.

Similarly, our ‘magic’ needs to have a sense of realism. This doesn’t mean making it boring and science-y. Putting too much science into a story can have the effect of overwhelming the audience and making your story confusing and convoluted.

Instead, we might think about introducing some rules.

For example:

  • How many hours before your time travel teacup wears off and throws your hero back to the present?
  • How many uses does your magical amulet have before it starts to corrupt your heroine and turn her into a mountain goat?
  • How many days without water contact can your part-sea serpent superhero go before he dries up like an old raisin?

Adding rules to your world not only makes it more believable, but it also makes it more engaging and suspenseful. Just make sure all of your rules are clearly defined at the beginning of your story, otherwise you might once again risk your story becoming confusing and convoluted.

(FYI: The laws of foreshadowing are super important here!)

Inception: How do you know you’re not dreaming?

The final thing to mention about any kind of science-fiction story is this:

3. Well-written characters are more important than your clever premise!

You may have heard the quote “Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything”. This is doubly true in science fiction, where every writer is moping around trying to find the most original and interesting plot. Your ‘multiverse string theory cowboy western’ idea means nothing if you don’t pair it with interesting characters and a well-structured narrative.

Find your protagonist. It’s important to make your character proactive, meaning they make choices and do things to push the story along. If your main character isn’t making any choices, if they are simply waiting around for things to happen, they might not be a protagonist.

Give your protagonist flaws. If your main character is a perfect goody-two-shoes who makes no mistakes and always succeeds in everything, they aren’t particularly interesting. You need to make them clumsy, or give them a dark side, or have them make some very bad decisions. This humanises them and makes it easier for the audience to relate to their character and situation.

The World’s End: Not the cleverest concept, but the best characters

Final thoughts

Small-scale fiction is becoming more popular these days. If we look at shows on Netflix, such as Marvel’s Daredevil or Jessica Jones, these stories don’t revolve around saving the world. They mostly revolve around character conflicts and criminals that drift under the radar. These are the strengths of the series and, in my opinion, are what makes them unique and interesting compared to other superhero shows.

Also, I urge you, as writers and creators, to create stories of your own. If you’re a screenwriter, collaborate with some friends. Pick up a cheap video camera and start making a low-budget sci-fi film. You will learn so much about visual storytelling and will gain a ton of experience!

Go ahead and put your knowledge to use!

Community: This was posted for the hell of it.

Your homework:

Write a premise for a short story/screenplay about a small-scale supernatural incident. Set it in a place you’ve visited.

Ask yourself:

  • Who are the characters involved?
  • What are the stakes?
  • What rules does the magic/technology have in your world?

It must be a story you can make by yourself, with just a videocamera and basic editing software.

If you’re feeling brave, you can post your ideas in the comments of this post.

The best ones will be critiqued in future blog posts.