Recently, I came across an article on io9 about the future of Star Trek films, and a comment written by was a lengthy discussion on what course a hypothetical film should take. The whole comment is a great read, but these two parts jumped out at me:
‘2) follow ST:IVs “no gunfights, no explosions” rule, and that forces the story to find ways to challenge our characters in ways that let them express their character…
6) No gunfights, no explosions. I really want to stress this, because Star Trek doesn’t generally do action well. Even when the effects are great, you have to come up with weird contrivances to explain why Kirk needs to skydive or why Picard needs to take the dune-buggy out. TWOK, arguably the most “action oriented” of original films, doesn’t have much action, and the space battles are very much in the vein of Horatio Hornblower in spaaaaaaace: they’re slow, they’re about positioning and about the crew working together, about tricks and strategy. Which isn’t what audiences really expect, so hell, for our first outing, just don’t. Sci-fi action these days is supposed to look like Marvel movies, and you aren’t making a Marvel movie. Don’t try. Minimize the action beats, to make room for character and wonder.’
Can you imagine that? Writing a science fiction movie that doesn’t rely on explosions, actions, or gunfights? Such films are so common these days that it’s sometimes hard to find ones that don’t feature them. And the longer I thought about it, the more genius the idea became.
Picture this: You’ve been chosen by a major entertainment corporation to write the screenplay for your dream story. Even better? It’s your favorite genre! You finally have the chance to tell that war story, that monster movie, or finally bring your grade school masterpiece, ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ to the big screen!
But then the studio tells you that you have a tiny budget. Like, really tiny. Think, ‘TV Budget’ tiny. Because of that, you can’t have any explosions, any gunfights, or fancy visual effects in your story (a few miniatures and matte paintings are okay, but that’s it).
Can you write your movie under those constraints?
Now, take that same principle and apply it to a novel: Can you tell your story without explosions, gunfights, or sequences that, if adapted into a television show, would cost too much to make?
Looking at our work with this mindset may seem like a disadvantage, but it can work out in our favor: We’ll have to focus on characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other. They’ll have to use their wits to overcome the obstacles in their path. They’ll have to talk more. Any fights will be with their fists and melee weapons, and not with miniguns and plasma rifles. Battles will be limited to maybe a dozen people, and everything takes place in apartment buildings, deserts, and parks conveniently located within ten miles of the LA area.
While it’s easy and fun to write scenes that would be impossible to film, there’s just one problem with that: if your magnum opus is ever published, Hollywood might pass on turning it into the next big blockbuster movie if the price tag is going to be over $300 million. But if your magnum opus could be turned into a movie that could be made for under $50 million, they just might give it a shot.
Consider the following:
*Instead of your epic space saga about aliens destroying the universe with massive fleets that engage in battles that destroy entire solar systems with a single blast, it’s now about an unarmed scout ship trying to find a way to stop the alien fleet before it arrives.
*Your epic, alternate-universe 1940’s WW2 movie that involves giant monsters and robots is now about two soldiers sneaking behind enemy lines to escape hostile territory and only face one monster at the end (that could be portrayed by a guy in a suit on a green-screen set).
*Instead of ‘The Rainbow Unicorn Saga Chapter 1: Sparkle Forest Massacre’ following an epic war of thousands of Unicorns slaughtering armies hired by evil corporations who want to bulldoze Sparkle Forest and turn it into a sewage refinery, it’s now about two villagers trying to find the one unicorn (who turns out to be an anthropomorphic unicorn that could be portrayed by someone in robes and a mask) who could stop the evil corporations, and have to fight their mercenaries using bows, arrows, and knives in sneak attacks at night.
These three scenarios take unfilmable movies and instead turn them into focused character studies. Any action or big events happen sporadically and briefly, and aren’t the main focus of the story, giving our characters more time to grow, interact, and endear themselves to our audiences, who will become more emotionally invested in their adventures.
For all the fun it is to write books and stories about impossibly huge armies, futuristic societies, apocalyptic scenarios, creatures that defy description, and Michael Bay explosionfests, it might be worth trying to write on a budget. Books let our readers use their imagination to bring the impossible to life, but sometimes having limits can help us narrow, focus, and zero in on what’s really important in a story, and help it reach its full potential.