When you think of live theatre, maybe a fantasy world with spaceships, androids, or flying cars isn’t what you see in your mind’s eye. Yet through speculative plays, all this and more comes to life! According to Book Riot, speculative fiction “can include literary fiction with fantastical elements as well as hardcore science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” Think: Star Wars or Fahrenheit 451 as examples. It’s possible to take all the imaginative, suspenseful, mind-bending power of speculative stories to the stage. Here are writing tips that transcend time and space.

Your Fantasy World Requires Focus

The first step of world-building is focus. For example, if you’re writing a play about the year 2050, don’t get overwhelmed trying to write about climate change, and politics, and social media, and space travel, etc. 

Narrow your focus to one element of the future or alternate universe for your story. This focus allows you to dive into the topic more deeply and flesh it out more fully. You don’t need to explain every aspect of the world you are creating because doing so slows the story down.

Our current world already has given us a lot of technology described in speculative and science fiction stories. So, ask yourself how this technology might change 5, 10, or 50 years.  The only limit to this exercise is how far your imagination can go! Thinking about storytelling like this often makes it easier for you, and for audiences, to relate to the world of your story.

Fantasy World Main Characters

When thinking about your main character, try to imagine them behaving inside the aspect you’re focusing on. How does you protagonist interact with time travel, or spaceships, or interplanetary war, or whatever element is dominating your story? How do they navigate this world? Is the world supportive of them, or is it hostile?

And the most important question of all, the question that will define your story: what does your character want, and what stands in their way? No matter in what genre you’re writing, some elements of story stay the same. You always want well-developed characters and high stakes.

Speculative plays ultimately aren’t about the future, but about the people trying to navigate it. The idea of stakes refers to how badly the character needs to get what they want. Sometimes characterization involves writing many drafts of scenes that never make it into the final play. These scenes are helpful because they help you figure out the voices and desires of your characters.

Ultimately, a good story is made of central conflict between two things: a character who wants something and the forces that stand in their way. Take our word for it: unique, well-developed characters who want something deeply will hold the audience’s attention, no matter the genre of the story!

A Fantasy World with a Message

Some writers use speculative plays to communicate a message about the world we live in today. The powerful thing about being a playwright is that you can choose which message to convey. Or, you can also choose not to convey a message at all and simply entertain.

No matter which route you choose, remember that the most critical things you need for any story are character and stakes. If you can also share a message that’s important to you, that’s excellent! But “a message” isn’t necessary for your play to be emotionally impactful.

It’s your choice how much to reflect on the world we live in today. Ultimately, it’s the core elements of a story that will resonate the most with an audience.

When Special Effects Aren’t an Option

Playwrights have to be conscious of how their work will look onstage, but writing speculative plays requires a new type of thought. In speculative movies, special effects can fill in all the gaps of the audience’s imagination, but in the theatre, this isn’t always possible. A more minimalistic approach works better because it allows the audience to imagine the world of the story, and it also saves money.

That means that, because of stage or budget constraints, you might not be able to build a scale replica of a rocket, but you can use lighting and sound effects to create the effect of a rocket. Simplicity is powerful in a fantasy world on stage because it shifts the audience’s attention away from the futuristic technology and back onto the characters that drive the story.

The key to creating a believable fantasy world contains a mixture of focus and fascination with the world where you currently live. How will our world look 50 years from now, or 500 years from now? As the playwright, you get to decide! 

Dylan Malloy is a playwright and director who attends Emory University. You can find her on Instagram @dylan_writes.

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