How to Fix One of Science Fiction's Most Pesky Problems, Relatability

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Science fiction can often be alienating and hard to market to mass audiences. So how can you make it more relatable? 

When it comes to writing and directing genre, science fiction usually presents the most problems for people. The reason being, it takes us so far into the unknown that it can be hard for people to relate to the events in the story or the otherworldly visuals. 

Oftentimes, these films and TV shows will be described as "cold."

When you get your chance to shoot your shot, you want your work in science fiction to be memorable. 

That's why I think you should spend most of your time making sure that makes it relatable as well. 

Today I want to go over two recent science fiction films and show how each of them took typically cold subject matter and made it relatable to audiences, leading to box office booms and great reviews. 

So without further ado, check out this video from Richard DeZerga and let's talk after the jump. 

How to Make Your Science Fiction Relatable

One of the core tenets of science fiction is how the plot and themes reflect on humanity. So, when you attempt to write science fiction the first question you should ask is...

"How does this affect the humans involved?"

The answer for both Arrival and Interstellar is given through the lens of family. 

While the video is determined to argue one is a better film than the other, I think our time is better spent talking about why both are good and what you can use in your own writing. 

First, you can't just add family to make things worthwhile. You have to find actual resonance. Interstellar asks a question of sacrifice. What would a father do to ensure that other fathers would be able to spend time with their kids? That sacrifice becomes generational, as he sees his daughter make similar sacrifices to ensure humanity survives. 

Since this becomes the core of the story, science fiction helps aid this goal. 

In fact, a good strategy when tackling science fiction is to retroactively work out the science, and start from the characters and emotions. 

Arrival does this well too. 

Sure, we have this insane situation with aliens landing, but at its core is a story about language. How communication across cultures and species bond us. Even deeper down, it's about the idea that family and love are worth everything, even tragedy. 

As the old saying goes, "It's better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all." 

So, How Does This Affect Your Writing? 

Adding family can give you a leg up...but it's not a panacea. 

What matters the most is that science fiction is used to service a bigger theme. So, how does your theme reflect on the people in the movie? How does it inform the rest of the story? 

In Arrival and Interstellar, the scenes in their respective stories all have science fiction in them, but the root of each is about their themes. 

That means when you sit to write, think about how science fiction informs each scene, how it builds on the characters, and how you can use advances in tech for your benefitbut never take away from the humans at its center. 

Does your script do that? 

If not, go back to page one and start rewriting

What's next? 4 Lessons from Eric Heisserer on Writing Science Fiction!

The writing of Arrival was an especially fun (but hard) task for Eric Heisserer. Learn how he adapted a story into an incredible screenplay!  

Keep reading!     

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Your Comment


"Science fiction can often be alienating and hard to market to mass audiences" - says who? That's quite a statement to make without a shred of evidence to support it.

"Oftentimes, these films and TV shows will be described as "cold.""

Again says who?

I love both Interstellar and The Arrival but also 2001 and Under the Skin. I don't think this has anything to do with what makes a good film. I'm actually not sure what point this post is trying to make other than "to make a sci-fi film that is about people and family, make a sci-fi film that is about people and family".

The are great sci-fi films that are "cold" i.e. 2001 one of the greatest films in history and there are great films that are "warm" like these two. The are terrible ones that are "cold" and "warm".

March 4, 2020 at 2:12PM

Stephen A van Vuuren

I think a good theme is more important than whether it's relatable to the mass market. I'd much rather make a movie about a theme I really care about than insert family or some other device to make it relatable. There's probably too much family stuff out there these days anyway. What about "work sucks" or "loneliness and the value of friends" or "finding purpose" or "beagles are little creatures from hell despite their cute exterior"

March 4, 2020 at 4:45PM

Anton Doiron

this is embarrassing

March 4, 2020 at 4:34PM


also the comma in the title should be a colon, fire your editor.

March 4, 2020 at 4:35PM


Interstellar was a cringeworthy experience with loads of corny and outright stupid dialogue, even if we ignore the vast amount of other nonsense in that film. But "love transcends time and space" will be one of the most moronic phrases in movie history and may, ironically, transcend time and space itself. The idea to turn your little, half orphaned kids into complete orphans and no relatives other than a grandpa and leave them on a hopeless, dying planet is what, in my opinion, sounds like a nightmare. Then to return and watch her die as an old woman who actually isn't even his child anymore was a pointless gimmick to free him of any burden, no, he then hops off right away to get "pu**y", since Anne Hathaway is stranded on that planet where she falsely sent that time and space transcending love to a man - who isn't alive anymore, for 77 years! McConaughey's character came across to me like an egocentric a**hole who only wanted to have a few adventures, get rid of his two brats and just do whatever the wants.

Oddly enough "Arrival", on the contrary, hit me right in the heart. The story of the main character's future child made me shed a few tears, even though I'm a man who doesn't want kids. But it's very likely due to a tragic thing that happened to friends... But even without that personal connection that subplot felt very tangible to me, it's one of those big "what if" questions and it's consequences to be faced in doing so.

March 5, 2020 at 6:45AM, Edited March 5, 6:49AM


Most sci-fi films and books use the science just as a background for classic melodrama. Sci-fi has to make you think about transcending humanity and Earth. 2001 is a good example. I’m waiting years to see a film version of Rendevous with Rama. I remember Morgan Freeman wanted to produce a version with David Fincher. What happened with this?

March 5, 2020 at 7:03AM

Javier Diez

I have no problem relating to sci-fi stories, I don't know why you think there's a relatability problem. Relatability problem would only exist if the story was about a 100% alien-looking species, with no humans in sight.

March 5, 2020 at 10:53PM, Edited March 5, 10:53PM

Eugenia Loli
Filmmaker, illustrator, collage artist