I was reading a fantasy series TV pitch recently and I found myself asking a lot of questions about the logistics of the world because I wasn’t given that information. I found myself asking: what’s at stake here? Who are these characters? What is this world they inhabit? How is it different from mine? (And how is it the same?) What is it these characters want and what is in their way? Which got me thinking about fantasy as an umbrella genre and how often, in less experienced hands, these basic questions can be left unanswered.
Fantasy, as a genre, remains a hugely popular choice with new writers. And, frankly, who can blame them? Limited only by imagination, a whole new world and its inhabitants (whatever that world may be) is a writer’s oyster. And with titles like The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones dominating the box office, TV ratings, social media and topping the illegal downloads list (a backwards-facing compliment, I suppose), it would be hard to ignore just how lucrative hitting the right high (concept) note can be.
But before you get too involved in plotting your version of the Hunger Games franchise, it might be good to remember that great high concept is rare and if you want to really create your very own four leafed Cloverfield (argh, sorry) it’s worth remembering a few story telling basics.
Internal logic – what is yours?
It should go without saying that if you want your audience to care about your characters, your audience needs to understand them and the challenges they face. Remember, it’s a world YOU have created – we won’t know what’s possible and what isn’t unless you give us clues – and we need to grasp your world’s parameters to understand what’s at stake and why.
Yeah but what about Lost, that made no sense at all?!
Okay, let’s park Lost for a moment because (a) part of its appeal was in figuring out what was going on and (b) whatever the rule, there’s ALWAYS an exception and (c) it wasn’t entirely inaccessible: the meat of the story involved plane crash survivors in a survival situation with relate-able back-stories. For most shows, guessing what on earth is going on isn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be the main purpose of the story. However, if your show is based on a mystery premise, YOU the writer should know what’s going on and have the answers to hand – don’t write your Baby into a corner.
The question any producer will want you to answer (by the shape of your stories and the characters you choose to focus on) is: what is it about? And why should I care?
As mentioned, fantasy pieces (be they about spaceships, demons, vampires, ghosts, robots or multiple dimensions) work best when they’re not just concept-driven. Whatever your initial concept or hook – teen fights evil over a hell-mouth, humans and robots battle for supremacy – it’s still essentially a platform to explore familiar (and, yes, more mundane) aspects of life: human relationships, big universal themes and/or current issues although through the safety glass of a fantasy.
Take Battlestar Galactica for a moment – and why wouldn’t you? What do you think made the reworking of a slightly hokey 70s movie work so incredibly well and for such a broad audience? Great characterisation? But what do you think made those characters and their storylines so powerful…?
I would say it really punched above its genre weight because of its thoughtful (and uncannily prescient) exploration of themes that went waaay beyond the threat of robot overloads. Storylines explored issues that dominate our headlines/collective consciousness today: ethnic cleansing, immigration, multiculturalism, religious fanaticism, terrorism, cultural identity vs personal, military vs political might and, ultimately, what it means to be human. Does that sound like sci fi escapism to you? It still stands, for me, as one of the most sneakily profound shows to ever grace our screens.
So what’s that got to do with my project?
If you want a bit of an edge, it’s always worth thinking about why you want to tell your story. And why you are telling this story now. What/whom is your story about? And how does it resonate with our world today? However many millions of parsecs in space-time your world is from ours, we need to relate to it or we won’t care. Star Wars is essentially a cowboy film – good guys, bad guys, innocent villagers & they all run around having gunfights. (The Force Awakens whilst essentially treading the same water does bring the franchise bang up to date with a female Jedi and a disillusioned-with-facism Stormtrooper.) Bladerunner is a close cousin to a film noir police drama – it even opens in an interview room. We know what policemen do and so we immediately identify with Harrison Ford’s trials. It is not a stretch for the audience to step into either world – although the rules of each is entirely different regardless of the Harrison connection.
Yeah, I don’t want to be that deep with my show, I just want to scare people…
That’s okay too. Entertaining people is at the heart of what we do but still, have a good think about the parameters of the world your characters move in – and how you intend to let us know what those rules are – without relying on clunky exposition to do the heavy lifting. With fantasy, because anything goes, only YOU can tell us what is and isn’t possible in your world. An unfolding zombie story will change drastically depending on how the zombies move and how quickly people can become infected. (Fast and furious like World War Z or slow and plodding like Shaun of the Dead?) If you don’t make all the aspects of your world make sense then you’ll end up with a story which just makes people notice the gaping plot holes rather than the gaping jaws of your flying shark.
Finally, what about the economics? The chances of selling a script featuring a cast of thousands and lasers is still pretty low – making any film or TV show is risky, making something that is expensive to produce in the first place is obviously riskier. No matter how fantastical your world, do keep an eye on HOW it might be realistically displayed on the screen. New writers are less likely to be trusted with big budgets. Be realistic about what is achievable within your format. I once read a short film script, aimed at a low budget scheme, based in a future world set entirely underground. Needless to say, it didn’t get very far.
So what’s at stake in your world? And how might your characters overcome those challenges? YOU choose. Make US care.
And hey, was there anybody watching Lost, for all it weirdness, who didn’t suspect some kind of after-life/purgatory thing…? Exactly.