I enjoy science fiction movies, TV shows, and books (I even wrote one). I love a well-written story with interesting characters, a plot I can’t figure out in five seconds, and intriguing ideas about the future. However, there are some overused tropes in the genre that I think we’re all really over at this point. If you want to write an original scifi story, here are a few things you might want to avoid.
Don’t: Alien Races of Perfect, Enlightened, Zen Extraterrestrials
I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of scifi stories where an alien race appears and shows us humans the error of our ways. These aliens come from perfect societies, planets with no war or disease or hunger. But they do have awesome technology, like faster-than-light travel, because those sorts of technological advancements are easy when everyone works together in perfect harmony—the way human beings never do.
I’m not saying the human race couldn’t learn a few things from these imaginary creatures, and spending more time on scientific research and less time fighting with each other would definitely be an improvement. But when I make up an alien race, or even a separate society of humans, I always imagine them to be as flawed as humanity, if not in all the same ways.
In my book, Stupid Humans, I imagined what things would look like if all the intelligent humans escaped Earth—and we’re what’s left. (This would actually explain a lot, if you think about it.) The People are a society of more intelligent humans, who haven’t had to deal with us Earth humans in centuries—until we blunder through a wormhole and find them. While the people have better technology and war is a rare occurrence, they are not a perfect society. They have criminals, troublemakers, and power-hungry politicians. Their increased intelligence leads to some blind spots when they’re forced to deal with their less-intelligent, distant cousins. I believe flawed, human-like characters are always more interesting than shining examples of what we humans could be if we’d just get our act together.
Don’t: Someone Finding Out the Villain is Secretly Their Dad
This was original and surprising once—in the seventies. It hasn’t been since. Yet I keep seeing this trope all the time. Are you writing a soap opera or a space opera? If it’s the latter, surprise us and come up with a story where no one finds out they’re related to anyone. Now that would be a shocking plot twist.
Also, does it seem to anyone else like Darth Vader has a lot of kids he didn’t know about for years? Did he go to a Death Star high school with abstinence-only sex ed? Why doesn’t Yoda offer him some sage advice about using a love glove already?
Don’t: Using Slimeas a Substitute for Writing a Plot
Slime is great if it fits into an interesting plot in a believable way. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a lot of made-for-TV movie writers seem to think slime can be used as a substitute for good writing. In general, there seems to be an inverse association between slime and the skill of the writers—more slime, worse writing. It’s as if someone at a certain network dedicated to scifi shows said to all the original programming writers, “Okay, if you can’t think of a good plot, don’t worry about it. Just add more buckets of slime to the stage directions, have a monster or alien chase people around, and you’re all good.”
Again, monsters, aliens, and slime can be part of great stories—but those stories need to have things like character development and a plot, too.
Do:Focus on Characters and Story
Start with characters and story, then add technology, aliens, and world-building as needed to support the story.
One of my favorite science fiction shows is the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Okay, the writing got a little soft the last couple seasons, but the first few seasons were brilliant. There were no monsters or aliens on that show, just the cylons—artificial intelligence created by humans. With the exception of one episode, there wasn’t any slime. Nobody announced they were anybody’s father in the middle of a huge conflict. Aliens didn’t show up, tell the poor humans where they went wrong, and fix everything. But the show was fascinating, because it had well-written characters with intriguing back story, more questions than answers about the cylons, and plot twists you didn’t see coming a light-year away.
Writing an interesting, original science fiction story should start with the same things that make good stories in every genre—engaging characters whose motivations drive the plot forward. Setting your story in a far-off future or alternate reality with more advanced technology provides more avenues to explore your theme, but those settings should enhance plot and character development, not replace them.
What do you think? What overused plot devices are you tired of seeing in science fiction stories? What would you like to see more of? (Answer in the comments!)
About the author:
V.R. Craft always heard you should write about what you know, so she decided to write a book called Stupid Humans, drawing on her previous experience working in retail and her subsequent desire to get away from planet Earth. She has also worked in marketing, advertising, and public relations, where she found even more material for Stupid Humans. Now self-employed, she enjoys the contact sport of shopping at clearance sales, slamming on the brakes for yard sale signs, and wasting time on social media, where she finds inspiration for a sequel to Stupid Humans every day.