5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!

100 Word Story: Little Thieves Are Hanged

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I published a 100 word story entitled The Monster which I had previously entered (unsuccessfully) into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Well, I’ve since decided to publish just one more of my entries here, mainly because I’ve already made reference to this particular story on previous posts and it seemed only apropos to let you read the thing.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be. And so, without further ado, I give you…

LITTLE THIEVES ARE HANGED

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

The junkie was talking before he reached the bus stop. Coming toe-to-toe with another gentleman who was waiting there, the junkie recounted his entire life story, occasionally tapping the gentleman’s stomach; a genial ‘wait-until-you-hear-this’ gesture.

The gentleman put his hands in his pockets. He glanced desperately towards me. I smiled, trying to reassure him.

An eternity passed before a bus finally spirited the junkie away, still talking as he embarked. The gentleman relaxed.

‘I’ve no idea who that was!’ He confided to me as my bus arrived.

I laughed and boarded the bus, fingering his wallet, safe in my pocket.

THE END


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How Many Drafts Should I Write?

I remember when I first came across the concept of writing in drafts. I was in primary school doing some piece of written work (I forget what about) when my teacher told us all to write a rough draft first, then to write a second draft.

Well that’s just silly, I thought (I couldn’t have been more than seven years old). Why don’t I just write it properly the first time?

Because, as Ernest Hemingway (one of the greatest writers of the modern age) pointed out, ‘the first draft of anything is s***’. Now if Ernest Hemingway couldn’t knock out a high quality novel on the first go, what chance have the rest of us got?

‘Okay, okay, I know that already!’ I hear you cry. ‘But how many drafts should I write?’

Ah, well, now you’re asking. The short and somewhat glib answer is, ‘as many as it takes’. In my experience, three would be the bare minimum but no two writers work in quite the same way so if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule, look elsewhere because I ain’t got one to give you. I can only give you the benefit of my limited experience. So, this is what works for me. Feel free to try it out and if it doesn’t work for you, well… don’t shout at me.

Zero Draft (or the ‘Not Technically a Draft, Draft’)

Before I even attempt to write a first draft, I write a zero draft.

‘Well, that just sounds like a load of pretentious nonsense to me!’ I hear you cry.

Well a lot of writers of both fiction and non-fiction use zero drafts and I don’t know whether or not they use the term in exactly the same way I do, but for me a zero draft sits somewhere between free-writing and drafting. I’ll write maybe half a dozen (often more) of these individual, disjointed portions of narrative, without worrying too much about whether it’s any good or not, to help me invent settings, audition characters and generally breathe a bit of life into my ideas and research without worrying about if they will fit into my final project.

This kind of writing is not structured enough to be considered a true first draft but it is more focused than free-writing, which simply involves typing whatever comes into your head even if it’s nothing to do with anything (click here for an example of what free-writing looks like).

Not all writers use zero drafts. They work well for me because, as a half-planner/half-pantser, I need a chapter outline to help me write a draft… but I can’t easily imagine what my characters might do and think unless I’ve already written them into existence. Thus I write a zero draft to help me plan. Then I use the plan to help me write my first draft.

First Draft (or the ‘Tell Yourself the Story Draft’)

This is where I make my first serious attempt at writing my novel/novella/short story/etc in all its fullness. After I’ve completed my chapter outline, story beats, character profiles and all that boring stuff, I should have a pretty clear idea in my mind as to what events should happen and in what order. I know where my story begins, where it ends and the journey it takes to get there. All I have to do is write it, starting with chapter one and ending with the ending.

What I don’t worry about at this stage is my writing style: word choice, figurative language, or even more basic things spelling and grammar. I try to stick to a rough word count, but even then, I don’t let it hinder me. The point of this stage is simply to get the story out in all its fullness, no matter how badly written it may be. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, ‘the first draft is just you telling yourself the story’.

Write it quickly. Don’t edit it. It can be rubbish, as long as it’s complete (note: it should still make sense, however, assuming you’ve done the planning bit properly!).

Second Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Better’ draft)

Congratulations! You’ve completed your first draft. Now go away and do something else for a few days at least.

Done that? Alright, now print off your first draft and read it with a dispassionate eye.

Rubbish right? That’s okay, it’s meant to be. At this stage, I grab my red pen and go through the whole thing picking out everything in the story itself that needs fixing or improving. Shallow characters, unconvincing dialogue, plot holes (though there shouldn’t be too many of those if I planned well in the beginning) and all that sort of stuff. I still don’t waste too much time at this stage thinking about language or style; what matters is the plot, the people and the places that make up my story. Once I’ve worked out everything that needs improved, it’s time to start writing that second draft, slower this time, taking care to apply all the improvements I’ve decided to make.

Note: by ‘writing that second draft’ I do mean writing the whole story all over again from scratch, not simply tidying up the first draft. Keep the first draft safe so you can refer back to it.

Third Draft (or the ‘Make Your Story Beautiful’ draft)

For me, this is the final essential stage of drafting any story I write, although it is entirely possible that I might need to write more if my first ones weren’t up to scratch.

Once I’ve completed my second draft I again set it aside for a little. This time when I come back, I print it off and, using my Red Pen of Editing, go through it with a fine tooth comb working out all stylistic issues. This is without a doubt the slowest draft to create. Every word counts, every sentence matters. By now, I should be fully satisfied with my story (if I’m not, I need to go back and repeat an earlier stage) and am focused purely on turning my story into a work of art. Word choice, turns of phrase, figurative language and all those other subtle things that turns a story into something beautiful.

What you’re trying to say should already be well and truly established. For me, the third draft is all about how you say it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what pickles your onions.

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Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

Last year, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of e-book readers compared to traditional paper books. Well that’s all well and good for reading, but what about for writing fiction? How do you write? On paper or with a computer? These days, it’s not really much of a choice. You’ll have a hard time getting anything published if you don’t at least type up your drafts before you send them to anyone who edits or publishes for a living and (as I recently discovered) manual typewriters are hard to come by these days.

But what about in those glorious early stages, when you’re still figuring out character profiles, chapter outlines and scribbling out rough zero drafts?

My first order of business tends to be to grab my notebook and Bic four-colour ballpoint pen and get brainstorming, (click here for more on how I like to do this). I’ve tried to use the same brainstorming technique on my computer before but… it’s not the same. It’s too tempting to press that ‘delete’ key if I don’t like things and typing doesn’t allow me the same freedom to scribble small notes to myself in spare corners of the page. Scapple by Literature and Latte certainly allows me more freedom to order my ideas any way I like but for me, Scapple comes into its own later on in the planning stage, when I’m ready to start organising my ideas, as opposed to simply coming up with them. Using a lined paper notebook allows me to vomit my ideas out in an orderly but unrestricted fashion. There’s something about working on paper that gives free reign to my imagination in a way which, for some reason, seems to be lacking when I work on computer. Perhaps it’s because coming up with new ideas is so closely related to daydreaming, and they are yet to build an app which does anything to enhance a human’s ability to dream. There’s also something quite natural and pleasant about writing on paper. It feels less like work and more like playing, perhaps because that’s how I used to write when I was a wee boy scribbling out stories in my bedroom with crayons without worrying about how neat or clever it is.

However, once I get past the brainstorming stage, into the slightly more formal side of planning, I find myself far more drawn to my computer and tend to use a combination of the two: organising my thoughts on computer, but still relying on my notepad to help me work my way through any problems I might encounter. I have already commented on my love for Scapple. Once the basic ideas are in place and I know roughly what I want to do, Scapple allows me to organise and structure all my ideas (and identify potential problems) in one place without having to buy my own body weight in post-it notes or scribble all over my bedroom wall. In the same way, Scrivener, also by Literature and Latte (I promise they’ve not paid me to write this, I genuinely just love their stuff) helps me to stay organised by keeping together all my drafts, character profiles, plot outlines and my whole story bible in one neat and tidy place. No loose bits of paper, no losing things, no jumping from notebook to notebook or indeed app to app.

I never fully abandon my paper notebook, however, until I get to the stage of writing an actual first draft (not to be confused with a zero draft; more on that in weeks to come). Once all the planning is done and I feel confident that I can make the story work, there really shouldn’t be much call to come up with any new ideas unless I hit a serious problem– and I shouldn’t hit a problem that can seriously undermine my story if I’ve done the planning stage thoroughly. The bulk of the work is done on Scrivener, although I also use the Hemingway Editor to help me at the editing stage and I will also occasionally use FocusWriter to help me get into the swing of things if I’m having a hard day getting started (though whatever I produce still gets transferred to Scrivener). As a rule, the further I progress with a project, the more I find myself using Scrivener to the exclusion of all other apps (including Scapple), as well as paper stationary.

In a word, then, I tend to begin the story-writing process exclusively on paper and become more dependant on my computer as I progress. Paper is great for helping me come up with ideas. I’m yet to find a substitute for it. It’s the only way I know to record my imaginings in a way which is pure and complete and there’s a great joy to be had in the process of doing it. But when it comes to organising, producing and editing a written work, that’s when the computer/tablet (and the whole plethora of apps for writing that are available) really come into their own. There’s no substitute for the ease with which I can edit my work, the orderliness it brings to my life or indeed the fact that a grown-up publisher might actually read my manuscript when it’s finally done.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ and share this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what boils your egg.

Until next time!

5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers. I’ve decided, therefore, that it is time for another exciting instalment of 5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing, where I share some of the most useful, enjoyable and insightful posts on fiction writing I’ve seen from other bloggers in recent weeks.

As ever, there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I read a wide variety of blogs on fiction and writing and could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently found particularly useful or enjoyable.

So, without further ado and in no particular order:

Emily Herring Dunn – [writing] dry spells can be natural (a little encouragement for when your writing-mojo grinds to a halt)

Melanie Mole – Let’s Have More Writer Love (writing is hard and although we writers are solitary by nature, this post is an encouragement to give each other a bit of support)

Rachel Poli – How To Give Your Short Stories A Neat Ending (practical advice on writing the hardest part of any short story — the ending. I’ve been struggling to come up with an ending for something I’m working on just now myself, so this was a very timely post for me)

JR Creaden – Four Ways to Write Through the Fog (when you get completely stuck with your writing project and it feels like driving through a fog… give a few of these simple tips a try)

Marie Christopher – “Write Something Every Day” (‘Just write something every day’ isn’t always the best advice, as Marie Christopher explains)


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what curdles your custard.

Until next time!