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Science Fiction Writing - Ten Cliches to Avoid

By: William Meikle

Science Fiction has become so much part of our culture that icons from it are all around us, in film, TV, computer games and music. Adoption into the mainstream makes science fiction both easy to sell, and hard to write without seeming tired and cliched. Here are ten situations you should steer away from, and some variations to consider if you're determined to proceed.

The Never-Ending Spacecraft Flying Overhead

It starts with just a small piece of hardware coming into view. Then it expands as the ship fills the whole screen, gun ports bristling. Still it comes, sound building all the time, until the tail engines, glowing yellow, pass overhead. Star Wars started this one, and it's been used ad-nauseam ever since, giving the model makers a chance to show off. Try a new approach. Why not have the spaceship roll overhead then pan back to find its only inches long? Or how about an alien that can travel through space without a ship?

Saucers Over the White House

The silver saucer hovers overhead while various military types run around saying things like "Now we know we are not alone." and "Hit them with everything you've got." The aliens say things like "Klaatu Barada Nicto." This approach was overdone in the 1950's in Earth vs The Flying Saucers and The Day The Earth Stood Still long before Independence Day came along. The aliens always speak English, supposedly having watched our TV. If that were the case, why aren't they already brain dead? Just for a change, how about having the aliens ignore the major powers altogether? After all, are they really stupid enough to attack the strongest military powers first?

The Multi-Race Bar Room

The barman says "We don't serve your kind in here" There's an evil looking being standing in the corner and a silly- looking alien singing a silly sounding song. Writers love this situation. It gives them a chance to come up with outlandish aliens with equally outlandish names. There are fine examples in Star Wars, and any episode of Babylon 5. If you want to subvert this cliche, how about having an alien town with segregated bars, or even segregated areas inside bars, thus creating plenty of opportunities for tension?

The Meeting of the Galactic Council

Groups of different aliens shout at each other a lot, saying things like "I withdraw my voting block" and "We do not recognize this council" By far the most boring example is in The Phantom Menace, which tried to substitute spectacle for tension and failed abysmally. at least Babylon 5 showed imagination and a modicum of originality, and in Star Trek you can always rely on the Klingons to do something violent.

The meeting is often little more than a chance for the writer to play with metaphors for contemporary politics. And if they're not doing that, they're rehashing King Arthur And The Round Table. Thee is a whole genre of books devoted to galactic councils, empires and federations. If you're going to try it, it's best not to have a recognizable antecedent. Never use thinly disguised Roman Senates or British Style upper and lower houses ... and definitely no round tables. Find a new way of having an intergalactic empire make decisions. Then you'll be getting somewhere.

The Computer That Blows Up trying to Solve a Paradox

The square jawed hero first says to the computer "Everything I tell you is a lie." and then he says "I am a liar" The lights flash, drives whir, and smoke pours from the computer before it blows up. The people are freed and everybody lives happily ever after. The best example of this was in the original star trek series. Of course, anyone who knows anything about computers knows that this never happens. If you ask computers questions they can't answer, they just sulk for a while. Smoke only comes out of them if you pour coffee into the drive in frustration. For something new, how about if the computer sets the paradox? How would your hero handle it?

The Guy Left to Watch the Smoking Crater

A spaceship crashes in a remote township, and there's only one old guy there to watch as it splits open and the aliens start their carnage. This was best done in the 1950's, especially in The Blob and War of The Worlds, but it still turns up from time to time in remakes or with slight variations, as in Stephen King's Creepshow, or the same author's The Tommyknockers.

And then there's the whole alien crash scenario, which has launched a sub-genre of its own in Roswell, Dark Skies, innumerable books and, of course, The X Files. Yo need a new angle if you're going to crash land aliens. How about having the ship hit in a city centre? Or, turn it around and imagine the impact on an alien community of a ship from Earth crashing on their planet/

The Last Minute Rescue

Just as the world is about to be pounded into submission somebody says, "Wait a minute. Why don't we try making them sick?" Whatever rescue method they come up with, t always works. Famous examples include The Day of the Triffids and Independence Day. Maybe you could try having the aliens winning for a change. Depressing I know, but it hasn't been done too often.

Time Travel Paradoxes

Somebody says "The same atoms cannot co-exist in the same space and time" Somebody else says "What happens if I go back and kill Hitler?" You'll recognize this from Back To The Future, Timecop and Seven Days, but it was being worked out in print a long time ago. Robert Heinlein wrote the classic By His Bootstraps which defined the prototype for this scenario. How about turning things around and having the traveller send his younger self back to the future... what happens next?

The Ray Gun Shoot Out

There are a lot of blue and white flashes, lots of debris blowing up in spectacular fashion, and somebody says "You do not shoot that green s**t at me" This one goes as far back as Flash Gordon, and continues in the Star Trek universe, Stargate and Farscape. Most of the time it's cowboys in space, and readers recognized it as such in print a long time ago. Try to find another means of resolving conflict. Just don't go for slo-mo martial arts instead .. The Matrix trilogy did all that needed to be done there.

The All Powerful Computer

Somebody asks "Is there a god?" and the computer says "There is now" Paranoia used to be about aliens taking over people, but more recently fear of technology has been growing, as witnessed in The Terminator and The Matrix. Again, this idea is much older in print, most notably in Asimov's Robot stories. Maybe it's time for the benevolent computer or for a future where computers become redundant and are replace by something much stranger?


If you've seen an idea used before, then an editor will have seen it too. Remember, editors are also fans and, in the case of science fiction editors, sometimes fanatics. They are likely to be more widely read than you and have seen more films than you. They've seen all the cliches so many times that they're sick of them.

Cliches were once original ideas, and only became cliches because they worked so well at one time. All you have to do is take a cliche and twist it into something nobodies ever done before.

Good luck.

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About The Author, William Meikle

William Meikle tries to subvert cliches by mixing genres. See dragons battle giant bugs in his latest novel, Generations, out now on Amazon, or see details at his site
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