Three Narratively Fatal Sci-Fi Tropes
I love science-fiction. Like, I love it so much. And because I love it so much, I am intimately familiar with it’s tips, tricks, and tropes. Some I love, some I recognize the necessity of regardless, and some are so stale they break my teeth.
To be fair, storytelling is a language of exceptions. There are always times when these are done well, or serve a greater purpose and can be forgiven. But so often, they are used when they don’t need to be, and when used in long-running series, this culminates in ret-conned and watered-down canon that sours longtime viewers.
Here are a few examples of those tropes and why they can be problematic. They probably have more specific names, but I made up my own.
1. The Lazarus Pit
Or, what might also be called, ‘characters coming back from the dead left and right.’ It happens all the time in sci-fi as a way to bridge worlds and reuse beloved or important characters. I get that. I have no issue with a sequel revealing that the original villain didn’t actually die because he was rescued by elves and nursed back to health, or she was put back together with Mysterious Evil Science, whatever. I don’t begrudge the trope of characters surviving impossible things with vague or spotty explanations – that’s part of the genre. The problem is when you introduce into your canon the idea that death isn’t permanent.
Once you’ve let that into your world, life and death cease to matter. And if you do kill a character, audiences will just expect them to come back, and if they don’t when other characters have, audiences will start asking why. If, as creators and writers, you’re picking and choosing which deaths do and don’t ‘count,’ you’ve lost your trust with the audience, and created a black hole where your smaller character arcs should be. This results in trying to overcompensate with larger story arcs. Which leads to:
2. Terminal Velocity of Universe Expansion
Also known as ‘TV shows or book series that have been running so long they are completely off the rails, which is compounded by the already preternatural nature of the show.’
With every installment of a story, the world has to get more complex. The scope of the story has to broaden, and the stakes have to go up. This is gospel, but it’s also risky when you’re dealing with a canon that’s already relying heavily on an audience’s suspension of disbelief.
People might readily accept a world where vampires are real, but six seasons or ten books out, when heaven, earth and a secret alternate dimension are about to collide – what does that even mean? It’s not relatable or character-based. It’s just something the creators expect us to go along with.
In my opinion, there is a degree to which this is inevitable, but the series that have avoided it as much as possible, are the ones that play with how characters perceive their reality based on their increasing difficult experiences, rather than jerking the fabric of that reality around by sprinkling more shock-bombs on the audience. These bombs are often super cool in theory, but not narratively sustainable, and will bog your story down into….
3. Limitation Quicksand
Could also be named ‘writing restrictions into the use of plot devices, only to try and write around them later.’ A plot point is introduced. Maybe a ritual to gain magic powers. But you can’t just get powers willy-nilly, it requires the blood of a certain person and must be done under the full moon with a magic rock facing East. And it only works once every five thousand years. But then, lo and behold, someone else has also gained the magic powers! How is it possible? Oh, they used the double-secret Second Magic Rock that was hidden away by a witch, who cast a spell so it could be used at any time.
I mean yeah, if everything happened according to the ‘rules’, there would be no room for conflict, but you can create conflict surrounding an elaborate story beat without immediately undermining the rules you just explained. If any obstacle can be conveniently written around in order to move on to the next one, why am I even watching? And if you just keep doing it to compensate for the last time you did it, the story unravels. Quicksand.
I guess what all of these things really boil down to is passivity. Things happening to your characters more than your characters are making things happen. This is an especially easy trap to fall into when you’re writing in an unrealistic world that feels like a character in and of itself. And hey, entertainment is entertainment. Throw that shit in there once in a while to move yourself along and get to the good stuff. All stories ultimately come from the same building blocks when you get right down to it. Shortcuts are great. But you can’t rely on them to carry your story if it doesn’t already have a solid foundation of complex, active characters in a world with established boundaries.