The universe is in danger. There is a quest to save the world, and a hero to undertake it. They meet aliens and exotic creatures, they travel from planet to planet, and fight armies of insurmountable odds to great personal cost, all to beat a powerful and evil villain. The genre is the Space Opera, one of the most beloved subgenres in science fiction. Everyone knows a Space Opera when they see it, but then, not everyone can name what elements separate it from any other sci-fi story set in space. How does one write a Space Opera? And more importantly, how does one write a good Space Opera? Below you'll find some tips to help you do just that...
There's a poem by Brian Aldiss that is often considered the descriptor for the ideal Space Opera, so it can be used as a solid model for writing one. We'll go over it line-by-line.
- The world must be in peril: As a general rule, Space Operas are about The End of the World as We Know It. You'll find exceptions—Cowboy Bebop is one—but those tend to be only marginally considered Space Operas. The "classic" model will present world- or often galaxy-ending stakes. This is often represented by some kind of MacGuffin that the heroes need to protect, retrieve, or destroy in order to prevent the villain's victory. Other times it's simply about leading a charge against The Empire's army to prevent their conquest of the galaxy. Check out Apocalypse How and explore the "Planetary", "Stellar", and "Galactic" levels for ideas on how to achieve this.
- There must be a quest: In order to prevent the End of the World, the hero will invariably have to go on a journey. As mentioned above, it's usually a matter of escorting a MacGuffin across the galaxy to get it to a hiding place or to be able to use it against the villains. The important point, though, is travel; people read and watch Space Operas to see the exotic locations. Popular locales are cities where a multitude of races intermingle, often with a hive of scum and villany, or any variety of Single Biome Planets; ice planets, forest planets, desert planets, cloud planets, volcanic planets...the limits are your own imagination. The only requirement is that you choose a couple of diverse locales to bounce between.
- And a man or woman to meet the mighty hour: At the center of this story must be the main character. Space Opera heroes are rarely very complex; they don't have a lot of moral quandaries, and even when they're a Lovable Rogue, they tend to be just a click beneath your run-of-the-mill hero types, meaning they're a little more prone to being snarky and are open about their selfish interests, even though they're willing to put them aside for the greater goodnote . Most examples of Space Operas tend to feature a man in the central role, but don't let that stop you from creating a kick-ass heroine. On the other hand, it's almost unheard of for Space Operas to star an alien; your story is guaranteed to be marketed to humans, and starring a fellow human makes them easier to sympathize with. Sometimes the humans aren't even from Earth; in Star Wars, despite taking place in a galaxy far, far away, humans that are identical to Earthlings are all over the galaxy without so much as an explanation. In Flash Gordon, Earth explicitly exists, but all the aliens encountered in the story are Human Aliens (with the exception of BRIAN BLESSED's Winged Humanoids), although the titular hero is still from Earth.
- That man or woman must confront aliens and exotic creatures: So we've established that the hero has to be human, but that doesn't mean that the entire cast has to as well. Just as important as the exotic locations are the exotic creatures that live in them, and a good Space Opera has a ton of interesting aliens. Sometimes they'll be the villains, but more often they'll be part of the main character's team, or at least make the background look interesting. Expect the really exotic aliens—the ones who don't look human at all—to play minor parts in the story, often appearing only in a single scene. This is usually for budgetary reasons, but can also be because they will be harder to relate to for the audience. That shouldn't stop you from pulling out all the stops to create the weirdest aliens you can imagine.
- Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher: As mentioned above, Space Operas take place primarily in space. They differ from Planetary Romance by virtue of jumping between multiple planets, as opposed to taking place on a single alien world. Expect to have at least one scene that takes place entirely on the main characters' space ship, probably transitioning into a Space Battle.
- Blood must rain down the palace steps: This line serves two purposes. The first part indicates the stakes of the adventure. Lives will be lost, and there will often be some kind of Big Badass Battle Sequence between the villain's army, and whoever the hero can rally to help him. It's admittedly rare for blood to be shown onscreen, though. The second part mentions a palace, and refers to the fantasy-esque nature of the genre. Space Operas are basically fantasies that use science-fiction elements. Planets are effectively just different cities, in a narrative sense, hence the propagation of the Single-Biome Planet. Many of them still use magic, and castles, and royalty as major plot devices. It's just that instead of elves and dwarves, you have aliens.
- And ships launch out into the louring dark: As mentioned before, spaceships are essential to this sort of narrative. Your characters need a Cool Ship to travel in, and the villains should have a variety of their own, equally cool, but more menacing ships. In recent years, it's become more popular to have the characters ride in a piece of junk—although the ship will invariably look cool to the viewers, the players will constantly complain about how outdated and poorly maintained their ship is. The ship should be treated as a character in its own right; the main cast should never describe their ship as an "it", instead following the long-standing tradition of ships being given female pronouns. You as the writer should develop a design, a history, and a "personality" for the ship, even if you don't end up making it a Sapient Ship. If the ship is destroyed, treat it like a character death, with all the gravity and grief associated with it.
- There must be a woman or man fairer than the skies: Generally the story features a Quest Giver, more often than not in the form of princess, although kings are not unheard of. This character will invariably be someone who stays out of the action, although sometimes they will accompany the hero on their journey, despite being largely unskilled in combat. Just because the trope is implicitly about royalty doesn't mean it has to be; in Firefly, Simon Tam is very much an example of this trope, coming from a privileged background, having to learn from the ground up how to be helpful, and presenting the problem that carries the whole season.
- And a villain darker than a Black Hole: It's amazing that we've gotten this far without talking about the villain. Villains in Space Operas tend to be pretty unambiguous. Just as heroes tend to be all-around good guys, the villains are almost never anti-heroes. They tend to be pretty loose with the Final Solution, and usually stay pretty close to their empire, preferring to send minions to do their bidding. But this lack of ambiguity doesn't mean they're boring; in fact, the villain is sometimes the most popular figure in a Space Opera. Usually a human, but sometimes the evil empire are made up of a villainous alien race. Alternatively, the villain may be a human that commands an army of aliens. Usually ends up dying pretty spectacularly, but if their cause is shown to be at least somewhat reasonable, they may end up redeeming themselves or coming to some sort of peaceful agreement.
- And all must come right in the end: Space Operas tend to be pretty far on the idealistic side of the Sliding Scale, so they almost always have a Happy Ending. The villain is defeated, the hero gets what they wanted, and they get to return home to much fanfare and parades. This is very rarely subverted or even challenged.
As much as the above poem indicates some generalized requirements, by no means are you expected to use all of them. The poem is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Do you want your story to involve the End of the Galaxy As We Know It? That's great! But if you'd rather tell a story about a Ragtag Bunch of Scavengers, traversing the galaxy and stealing from other ships, that's fine, too. And if you're not sure which one appeals to you more, well, why not both?
That's another important thing to note; much like the superhero genre, Space Operas can get boring if you treat them as having a set plotline. Space Operas really lend themselves to Genre Blending, hence the Recycled IN SPACE! gag; it's not hard at all to take something like Macbeth and retell it as a Space Opera. Most Space Operas follow the basic set-up of a Heroic Fantasy, and transmute the tropes into space. You could structure your story as a typical Heist Movie, but instead of a Train Job it's an FTL spaceship. You could base your story on classic Pirate movies, but with the void of space replacing the ocean. Or you could base your Space Opera on a cowboy movie, but then you run the risk of sliding into a Space Western, which is different from a Space Opera. Then again, you could always just combine the tropes of a Space Opera with a Space Western and see how it works out!
There are a couple of easy mistakes to fall into when writing a Space Opera that could totally bog down the story. While the examples that work often become Cult Classics, the ones that don't become known as laughingstocks—or worse, are completely forgettable. Fortunately, those failed attempts give us a good basis for what not to do when making a Space Opera.
One easy pitfall is to spend too much time on world-building. While it is important to figure out the details of how your universe works, this isn't information that needs to be shared with the audience unless it's going to be important. If your characters are going to a planet where the rain is acidic, that's one thing. We don't really need to know every intricacy of the planet's economic system, how their leaders are elected, the history of their major countries, etc. It's good that you, the author, know the answers to these questions in case they come up, but if they don't come up...well, there's a difference between showing your work and dropping an unnecessary Info Dump. World-building should always be limited to what is necessary for the story, and should never overtake the characters or the plot. It's better to have fun characters and an intriguing plot with vague world-building than to create flat characters and a boring plot to show off the cool world you made.
That said, if you do too little world-building, you run the risk of creating plot holes for yourself. As mentioned above, it's important that you know how your universe works, even if you don't disclose it over the course of your story.
Casting DirectorThe cast of a Space Opera—or, honestly, any piece of media—is the most important part. You'll want characters that are unusual enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to be relatable. Fortunately, the Space Opera comes with its own set of character tropes that you can play with.
- The Hero: The square-jawed protagonist of the story. They are usually The Captain of their spaceship, armed with a Ray Gun and a sharp wit with which to outsmart their enemies. This character has a trick up their sleeve for nearly every situation, and is often staunchly just and good, to the point of skirting the edge of being an Invincible Hero. Sometimes they have a background in the military or law enforcement. Traditionally presented as Always Male, but nothing's stopping you from creating a heroine in the same vein. A little harder to subvert is that this character is Always Human; after all, your audience is almost always human, and you want them to be able to empathize with and project onto this character. One popular subversion is to turn this character into a Kid Hero, and have them be a Naïve Newcomer to the larger world of the Space Opera, serving as something as an Audience Surrogate both in that the audience learns about the world alongside them, and the target audience is usually teens. (Examples: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Valérian, Commander Shepard.)
- The Lovable Rogue: Diametrically opposed to the staunch, just hero is this character, the amoral Jerk with a Heart of Gold. They are always portrayed as in it for the money, and don't much care about Saving the World or overthrowing the empire. Expect them to be the coolest character, with the best one-liners and the best solutions to bad situations. If put on the same crew as The Hero, they will often be The Lancer, and the Hero might be presented as less witty by comparison and more of a stickler for the rules. They will almost always be—or, at least, consider themselves to be—an Ace Pilot. This is another trope that is usually male and always human. (Examples: Han Solo, Peter Quill, Spike Spiegel).
- Action Girl: Since the protagonists of these series are so often male, there is often also a badass female character for them to play off of. These characters are often more skilled than the hero, so as to prevent them from being the useless chick, and will often avert the Guys Smash, Girls Shoot trope. Expect them to have some sort of tragic backstory. This trope is obviously Always Female, but is much more likely to be some kind of alien. (Examples: Rey, Gamora, Faye Valentine).
- The Engineer: If you're spending most of your time on a spaceship, you'd better have someone on your crew who can deal with the Applied Phlebotinum that runs it. This character is the Gadgeteer Genius, often far more familiar with the inner workings of a spaceship than anyone else onboard. They tend to be something of a Non-Action Hero, focusing on keeping the ship running. This trope is rarely the protagonist, varies in species as well as gender, with Mr. Fixits being about as common as Wrench Wenches. (Examples: Montgomery Scott, Kaylee Frye, Seamus Harper)
- The Proud Warrior Race Guy: A stock alien character, this guy—or girl, if combined with Action Girl—will sometimes be the Token Non-Human, and provide some world-building through juxtaposing their culture against human culture. Will often be either The Stoic or a Boisterous Bruiser, and will always be The Big Guy. Expect them to talk about their alien culture all the time, and any personality quirks will be related to their culture. Might take their cues from famous Real Life Examples, most likely Vikings, Spartans, or samurai. (Examples: Worf, Tyr Asanazi, Caine Wise).
- The Psychic: Another stock alien, it's pretty common to see alien telepaths as the Token Non-Human. More recently, outright psychics have been replaced with empaths, which are a little less overpowered. When paired with a Proud Warrior Race Guy, they'll often have an Elves Versus Dwarves relationship, with the telepathic aliens serving as the more demure Space Elves, compared to the dwarf-like warrior race. A fun twist on this trope is to have the character be a Cloud Cuckoo Lander, due to their overload on other people's thoughts and feelings. This trope is often female, so you can expect this character to be the resident Green-Skinned Space Babe. (Examples: Deanna Troi, Mantis, Nestor)
- The Innocent Fanservice Girl: Despite being a bit dated, this is a trope that has managed to endure into the modern era. There is some justifiable logic to it; there's no reason why an alien race would have the same taboos concerning sex that humans do, especially when many cultures acknowledge how wonky they are. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking why this character exists; it's because Sex Sells. Usually, the conceit of the character is that she has No Nudity Taboo, and is Culture Blind to human customs of modesty. Personality-wise, they will either have a childlike innocence, or be stoic to the point of emotionlessness. A subversion that's beginning to gain some traction is to combine this trope with the Proud Warrior Race and make the character a little more Hot-Blooded. Obviously, this trope is almost always a Ms. Fanservice, but it could be refreshing to see a male version instead. (Examples: Leeloo, Chiana, Barbarella)
- The Evil Overlord: Where there's a Ragtag Bunch Of Heroes, there's an evil overlord for them to topple. Villains are one of the highlights of the genre, and so their appearance must be immediately striking. Many a Space Opera has gone the route of Evil Is Hammy by giving their antagonist a flair for the dramatic. The risk here is that, by making the villain too flamboyant, they might come off as a Sissy Villain. A good villain must be intimidating, though, and a tried and true method is to use the Tin Tyrant; put them in darkly colored full-body armor that completely obscures their features, and give them the personality of an iceberg. In case you couldn't already tell, this character will often be a Darth Vader Expy. Bonus points for a Badass Baritone or a voice modulator. Consult the Standard Evil Empire Hierarchy for some ideas of who might be working under your main villain. (Examples: Darth Vader, Emperor Ming, Sador of the Malmori)
Set Designer / Location ScoutAs mentioned above, part of the appeal of a Space Opera over any other type of science fiction is that you get to explore all sorts of exciting new planets. If that's not something you think you can have fun with, you might be better off working with a different sort of sci-fi genre. You're going to have to design at least two; if you only design one alien planet and set your entire story there, then we're dealing with a Planetary Romance. If you're dealing with a movie, you might want to rely on the Three-Act Structure to dictate your settings, because many films will have location changes coincide with act changesnote This will leave you with about three planets. If you're working in a more serial format, you'll have dozens of planets, and can expect to create as much as a new planet for each instalment. To make this process easier, you'll probably have to rely a bit on Planet of Hats. This is a good time for the reminder that Tropes Are Not Bad, and a couple of shortcuts like Planet Of Hats or the Single-Biome Planet exist for a reason. If you're only going to be on this planet for a couple of scenes, there's no reason that you have to stress about every single detail of the planet when a nice, memorable gimmick will suffice.
The second thing to remember is that Artistic License exists. While it's always fun to notice scientific accuracy in science fiction, it's not completely necessary. The fun of Speculative Fiction is the speculative part, so feel free to come up with things that are not entirely plausible according to modern science. Don't go overboard, of course, as an idea that's too ridiculous will break your audience's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. One recurring example is Faster-Than-Light Travel; according to basically every law of physics, it's impossible. However, for any sort of interstellar travel to be viable, your characters would need to move faster than the speed of light. Thus, this is considered an Acceptable Break From Reality. There are various other typical sci-fi tropes—aliens, mutants, droids, clones, Slow Lasers—that are popular in Space Operas and aren't necessarily supported by modern science. Don't let reality stifle your imagination!
Costume DesignerWhen designing Princess Leia in the original Star Wars film, George Lucas apparently designed her hairstyle with the intention of creating something that was distinctly outside the fashion of the time, so that it wouldn't inevitably become dated when the '70s had ended. This is the sort of thinking that you'll want to have when it comes to designing your characters' costumes. No one can predict what will be hip in the future, so it's better to come up with something that's out there, rather than rely too heavily on modern sensibilities. If you don't, then a couple decades down the line your Space Opera will be covered in Zeerust. That being said, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a certain charm to an Unintentional Period Piece that's meant to be set in the future, and some of those end up being cult classics.
The other challenge is that you have to design different fashion styles for your different alien cultures. Each race should have a distinct look to their clothing that can be easily identified by the audience. You don't have to adhere too closely to this, especially among your multi-ethnic alien crew, but as a general rule, each planet or race should have their own fashion sense. Fortunately, there are plenty of tropes to help you with that. Do you have a race of Space Elves that live in a pacifistic or so-called "enlightened" society? Well, tradition dictates that they'll wear flowing white togas. If you have a proud warrior from a militaristic race, you'll often find them wearing 24HourArmor. A race that lives in a tightly (often uncomfortably) structured society will often symbolically wear Future Spandex. Nothing says you can't subvert these tropes, of course, or mix and match aspects of each one, but it's good to know where these ideas come from beforehand.
This is also a good place to talk about alien designs. There's a lot of standard alien types that viewers will expect to see. You'll want to have Reptilian Aliens and Insectoid Aliens, which are some pretty typical enemy races. The Greys and some form of Little Green Men are also a solid inclusion, with the former working well as mysterious scientists while the latter makes a good quirky sidekick. Then, of course, you have your Rubber-Forehead Aliens; these are great on a budget, if you plan for your story to be filmed in live-action—a bit of amateur prosthetics is all that's needed. And much like anime, You Gotta Have Green Skin. A Green-Skinned Space Babe is a classic Space Opera trope. Her skin doesn't have to be green specifically—purple, blue, anything works so long as long as it looks alien enough. It's also become common to feature furry, mammalian aliens—Ursine Aliens is the closest tropes, but nothing says they have to be bears. This is without getting into your Plant Aliens and your Blob Monsters and various other types of aliens you can design. The point is to have fun with it, and let your imagination roam free!
Props DepartmentRay guns, laser blades, and anything in the Standard Sci-Fi Fleet are fair game! Generally speaking, though, The Aesthetics of Technology in your work should have an internal consistency of some sort. This means that, if one piece of technology is of a certain design style, be it Raygun Gothic, Cassette Futurism, iPod-like, Cyberpunk, or some mix of all of the above, most if not all tech in your story should fit into the same style, unless you want to create a different look and feel for technology of different races to make them seem truly alien.
Stunt DepartmentEpic space battles between space fighters and warships! Equally epic land battles between footsoldiers and fantastical pieces of machinery! Humongous Mecha fights, in land AND space! Swordfights and gunfights WITH FRICKIN' LASER BEAMS! Anything goes if it's awesome enough.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- While certainly not the first Space Opera, the French comic Valerian and Laureline is arguably one of the most influential examples of the genre in modern times, inspiring some of the most well-remembered Space Operas in recent memory, including Star Wars and The Fifth Element, and providing a near-universal "look" to the worlds that were yet to come. Take special note of the colorful aliens and intricate planets of artist Jean-Claude Mézières, as well as the banter between the main characters as written by Pierre Christin. These elements would go on to be mimicked in many noteworthy space operas.
- Obviously we can't talk about science fantasy without talking about Star Wars, arguably the most successful Space Opera of all time. You'll need to be familiar with at least some of the series, but the wealth of movies, cartoons, novels, comics, and video games that make up the Star Wars canon can be overwhelming. Start with 1976's A New Hope, which is probably the straightest Space Opera of the franchise, then follow up with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Between these three, you'll have enough Star Wars in your vocabulary to write a decent Space Opera, and if you'd like, you can follow it up with the Prequel Trilogy and the Sequel Trilogy. Pay close attention to the balance between science and fantasy, the presence of magic through The Forcenote , the overwhelming reach of the evil Empire, and the division between land-based action sequences, Space Battles, and snappy dialogue between fun characters.
- For a more self-contained modern Space Opera, look no further than Luc Besson's Valerian-inspired The Fifth Element, which is a great example of a story taking inspiration from past works without being overtly derivative. You get a host of colorful characters between Leeloo, Cornelius, and especially Ruby Rhod, a properly evil but no less entertaining villain in Zorg, and some memorable alien designs. On top of all that, the plot is properly grand in scale without overwhelming the heroes' journey.
- To shift gears for a moment, another great Space Opera to delve into is Cowboy Bebop, which presents a very different image of outer space, where things are just a little bit dingier. Whereas Star Wars and Valérian are based firmly in adventure stories and fantasy, Bebop builds off of the Western and Film Noir genres, but setting it in space and centering on a cast that includes a cyborg and a cryogenic time-traveller. Bebop features no aliens, but its main focus is on the banter between its main characters, which makes it one of the seminal Space Operas.
- If any work can be considered Space Opera concentrate, it's Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. This film really captures the feel of the classic Space Operas, but makes use of modern CGI technology to present a vast array of colorful aliens, both in the background and among the main characters, including two of the weirdest characters in the genre; a mutant raccoon and a a walking tree that can only say one phrase. Between these two, and Star-Lord's obsession with nostalgia and Drax's inability to understand metaphors, the film really showcases how weird this genre can be. At the same time, the plot is a great example of a solid MacGuffin story, and the interplay between the various characters, as well as the culture clash inherent in Drax's premise, makes for a great use of the genre's conventions.
- Mass Effect is a great Reconstruction of the classic Space Opera and all its usual tropes: It makes a straight example of Captain Space, Defender of Earth! believable in Commander Shepard and does away entirely with the Planet of Hats trope by making your two closest allies, Garrus and Tali, respectively the same races as the Big Bad of the first game and the creators of the Geth, who in turn are revealed to be Good All Along come the second game.
- The Foundation Series is an early example, dating back from the Golden Age of science fiction, and while it did inspire loads of later space operas (Star Wars is one, Dune is another), but it's unique on its own merits, given how it gleefully deconstructs and subverts common space opera tropes, even before they were commonly used.