Jenna Avery interviews writer Scott Myers on the ins and outs of the sci-fi spec market, including budget, world-building, and existential questions.
Originally published July 11, 2013
In my ongoing quest to make my sci-fi scripts the best they can possibly be—and help you do the same—I reached out to Scott Myers to get his take on the best way to break into the sci-fi market as well as his perspective on places where he commonly sees sci-fi specs falling flat.
As an experienced screenwriter, screenwriting instructor, and the writer and curator of The Black List's official screenwriting blog, Scott has a finger on the pulse of what's happening in the world of screenwriting. He was kind enough to do this interview with me on the subject.
Scott, thanks for being here. First tell us, in today's spec market, what would you say is the best bet for sci-fi spec scripts, and why?
My advice: Think high-concept, low-budget. Can you write a sci-fi script with distant immersive worlds, scads of spaceships, complex battle sequences and hordes of aliens? Sure. But it will have to be incredibly special for two reasons:
- Cost. The studios will have a hard time justifying acquiring a spec that could cost $100-$200M to produce, especially from a writer who has not proven they can handle all the unique issues related to the genre, such as world-building.
- Studio preference. The studios, for better or worse, are more comfortable working with preexisting material than original material, a situation I doubt is going to change anytime soon.
So the line of least resistance in terms of writing a spec script that can sell is to think of something along the lines of Moon, the 2009 movie from writer-director Duncan Jones, a strong high-concept in a contained environment, and therefore lower budget.
Is there anything particular a writer should keep in mind when trying to write low budget sci-fi? Does low budget still hold a B-movie connotation?
I’d say two things. First, it all depends on the quality of the story concept and the ability to execute it in a simple, but elegant way.
Second, after a decade or more of found footage projects which in effect embrace B-movie production values, audiences are probably well prepared for certain types of sci-fi movies with less special effects and a, shall we say, cruder approach to the filmmaking process.
What would you say is one of the major places sci-fi scripts tend to fall short, and how can we remedy that?
I read a lot of scripts and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually feel something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise.
That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the big story is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.
Fortunately Hollywood has some top-drawer screenwriters who write sci-fi nowadays who really get that, writers like Joss Whedon (Firefly, Serenity, The Avengers), Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek 2009, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fringe), Jon Spaihts (Prometheus), and Neill Blomkamp (District 9).
Advice: Get hold of their scripts, read them, analyze them, read them again, repeat as needed.
How important is world-building in sci-fi and how do you recommend writers go about tackling it?
My own two cents—and this relates to all genres—is to think of the story universe as its own character. It should have a feel, an atmosphere, a unique sense of place, perhaps even an attitude toward the characters, for example, "hospitable" or "dangerous". I believe in character-based screenwriting and I think that can extend to how we approach crafting a story universe.
For more on this subject I highly recommend this terrific interview with Jon Spaihts on io9 in which he specifically addresses the issue of world-building.
What's the most important piece of advice you'd give to a sci-fi screenwriter?
In my view, every good movie posits an existential question of key characters, most notably the Protagonist, and that question is this: Who am I? Throughout the narrative, there is a battle, metaphorical and/or literal, over the dispensation of that question that is only answered in the final act.
One considerable benefit of science fiction is to transplant characters into radically different environments and what that can do is really drive home that existential question. Thrust into extreme circumstances as strangers in a strange land, a Protagonist in a science fiction story can confront the question of self-identity not only in a philosophical way, but in a visceral sense of physical survival.
Putting a central character under that much pressure in a world with significantly different cultural values, behaviors and beliefs is a terrific way to confront what is arguably the greatest single question of our existence.
So I would say make your science fiction story about something, delve into the question of who am I. That’s the foundation of a small story set against a substantial saga that is rife with opportunities to create a genuine connection with a script reader.
About Scott Myers
Since selling his spec script K-9 in 1987, Scott has written nearly 30 projects for every major Hollywood studio and broadcast network. His film writing credits include K-9 starring Jim Belushi, Alaska starring Vincent Kartheisher, and Trojan War starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. In 2002, he began teaching screenwriting in his spare time. He won the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Outstanding Instructor Award in 2005 and currently teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. From 2002-2010, Scott was an executive producer at Trailblazer Studios, a television production company. He is co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class, a unique online resource for writers. Scott is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America, west, and a graduate of the University of Virginia and Yale University Divinity School.
You can follow Scott on Twitter @GoIntoTheStory.
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