Writing The Science Fiction Film by Robert Grant (book review).

If you thought all of Michael Wiese Production books used American authors, then this will show different as Robert Grant, the author of ‘Writing The Science Fiction Film’ is British, a Londoner in fact. As with all of the Wiese books, these are designed for use at film schools or for potential film-makers to provide essentially information to develop their craft. For us prose writers, it can give insight into how the other script style lives and their approach to our storycraft. As such, it can be used as a learning tool for all writers and in this case, those who want to understand what makes Science Fiction tick or those who do understand it become better writers.


With this book, Grant from the start makes the assumption that any student scriptwriter is looking at all the genres and that Science Fiction makes the most money at the box office. However, after that point, he gets down to the real nitty-gritty and explains what SF is all about so they get it right and don’t just hack something out. He doesn’t short-change or short-cut. This is a proper grounding, pointing out various examples to enforce his points. If I was reading this at film school, I would not come away thinking I can hack any old junk and call it SF. Whether that would be true when having to change things to appeal to producers who just see bucks isn’t disclosed. Maybe these producers should read this book as well.

Grant embraces the fact of something I wrote in one of my editorials a while back that SF is capable of embracing other genres within itself and that it is the rule structure, often the scientific laws that are changed, that makes our genre unique and how it affects society and people in their activities.

I’m less inclined to believe Grant’s way in that you can only find inspiration for stories from news cuttings. If everyone uses the same way, then even allowing for imaginative variance, then there is likely to be a sameness to the material. Added to that, assuming funding is there, a film takes as long as a novel to be written, about two years. In that time, any news idea is going to become awfully dated. Ideas come from all kinds of sources and it pays to keep an open mind to anything available, including that little thing called imagination or failing that, the one that many a writer has said, ‘I can do better than that!’

Grant’s examination of what makes a lead character inadvertently also explains why so many come out of the same mould ie many of them are experts in something but haven’t been believed until they are needed for a mystery to be solved. Unless you do that, the lead character is not likely to be in the centre of the action. The same can be said for the person with an aversion, bias or prejudice to something having to do something with it. Grant points out ‘I, Robot’, but it also works with ‘Alien Nation’ as well. The common factor is the evolution of the character(s) to show that something significant has happened in their lives. One thing he misses out with the need for a side-kick or companion is the necessity for the lead character to talk to someone or explain what he or she is doing and be the viewer surrogate. I think what he most objects to is making the side-kick the stooge rather than a true character in their own right.

When it comes to names, Grant makes a very interesting point not to have them ending in ‘s’ because of the possessive form. However, real people who do have forenames or, indeed, surnames ending in ‘s’ are going to despair at never seeing a character with a similar name to their own.

Plotting a film is a little different to a book. Mostly because you can show a lot more in the time it takes to write a few chapters and can always re-enforce the imagery. No wonder, film directors can jump in a lot quicker to the action than we prose writers. The adage, ‘Do, not say’ or for film, ‘Show, not say’, can be upheld even more. His ideas on brainstorming should make any writer think and try harder. Working backwards from an ending is one way to work but, well and truly, a lot of the time it depends on what works for you and always be prepared to experiment and try plotting from any direction as long as you get the complete plot structure on paper so you can see how it looks. I do agree with his list of cliché plots and I defy any SF fan to go through them and not identify the films they were used in. Grant also says that if a plot has appeared in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise then it is tainted beyond use. I’m not sure if I entirely believe that and not just because you’d have to watch all the Trek series and films to know which ones to avoid. Also the plot of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ has appeared across all the genres in different formats and TV series and was used elsewhere long before it appeared in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. I hardly expect to see that plot tainted and most of the time it slips through because it’s used sparingly. The important thing is to find a different twist on any plot you recognise and not do the expected solution.

Grant’s views on world-building is interesting and shows how civilisations work up from villages to cities. I’m not altogether sure if I would go along with working out every last detail of the reality you’re creating. It’s too easy to be distracted by the detail and forget that you are also supposed to be writing a story. You would be much better off broadstroking what is there and only go to detail for anything pertinent to the story. In an odd sort of way, Grant objects to how TV centres on lesser detail given in ‘planet-of-the-week’ in SF shows, especially as there are also examples amongst them where there is more than one sentient species on the planet. If anything, the action is centred on what is essential to the plot and you don’t really need to worry much beyond that. The fact that there are ‘planet-of-the-week’ stories in the first place is to allow a quick turnaround of setting and this is often the basis of franchise shows like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Stargate’. If you stayed there too long, it’s far too easy to bore the viewer and that can apply to films as well who do the same thing and leave open plot-holes, especially when it comes to utopia-like societies falling apart.

Probably the most important part of Grant’s book is the two chapters on science, both real and imaginary, an emphasis on consistency with whatever you do. We’re both in agreement in the inconsistency of how the Force works in the two ‘Star Wars’ trilogies. If you’re going to write Science Fiction, having a grounding in the subject is useful, so is being consistent, even if it might feel dated a few years later. As with any research subject, knowing some of the real scientific principles can guide you where to look and keeping up with some of the periodicals out there for what is currently being working on isn’t a bad thing to do.

The second science chapter deals with how science is applied to the various SF tropes. I don’t think Grant knew that the reason what Asimov created the three laws of robotics for was because he was fed up of seeing unhinged robots attacking anything on a rampage without reason. His laws ensured that his robots conformed to a set of rules that would exhibit some logic. Oddly, no one has come up with a better set of rules since. Hmmm…that should get me thinking.

I’m not entirely sure if anyone can survive Mach 34 for long being launched into space from Earth and think he’s got his numbers wrong. I think it’s probably Mach 8 or 10 very briefly, which is why astronauts lose consciousness during take-off. Although Grant points out that the velocity isn’t consistent through the launch, it is the steady speed upwards that ensures it beats Earth gravity drawing the rocket back to Earth.

The lessons in dialogue should make even prose writers think. It’s odd that Grant chose ‘Starcrash’ as one of his examples and forgets to mention a truly bad scene in the film where Stella Starr, allegedly the galaxy’s finest pilot gives directions of in terms of, to paraphrase, ‘Left, left, left, down.’ If you compare, say, to the instructions used to bring the Nostromo down to a landing in ‘Alien’, released around the same time, you can easily tell which sounds the most convincing.

Creating alien languages really is an art and I’m not entirely sure if scriptwriters make the best linguists as Grant suggests how to create an alien lexicon. I’d be more inclined to learn a lesson from Frank Herbert who borrowed heavily from the Arab tongue for all his ‘Dune’ novels. As such, if you don’t want to start from scratch, find an obscure human language and use that as a model. Whatever the language, a lot of it can be inferred by how people say things so, even if you’re not sure of what is said, the emotional intent is there to get the gist. A single word exclamation will sound like a swear word whatever the language.

At the back of the book there is a world-wide list of Science Fiction film festivals, although I couldn’t help thinking that it would be an expensive venture to visit every one of them. The glossary of SF terms is extensive and yet misses out on psionics, telekinesis, precognition and clairvoyance (the last two have been confused in the past) – all of which are mainstays of SF.

Although I got occasionally alarmed by the way Grant wrote as if his way was the only way, the amount of reaction above should indicate that there is a lot in this book that you can learn from. If you’re a potential film-maker, amateur or pro, then there is also sufficient information to point you in the right direction to get started and, indeed, to keep reading to ensure you’re applying the information. From a prose writer’s point of view, you’ll also learn a bit more about putting a story together. An interesting read.

GF Willmetts

December 2013

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 243 page illustrated enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £6.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-136-1)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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