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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Eight: What Star Trek Did Right

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode Eight: What Star Trek Did Right


Key points: If you are going to twist a genre or bend expectations for a surprise, do it early. Character climaxes resonate with audiences. A cabbage head character, a Watson, a naive person can help readers learn. Use hooks to help readers identify the characters, but character development to help them identify with them. Characters in conflict with themselves can be fascinating. Paired arcs can cross and support each other. A prosaic setting can help non-science-fiction readers get oriented fast. Use the setting to provide subtle hints to the passage of time. Spock is not a rooster.

[Brandon] We've done a couple of these podcasts before. This is where we look critically at a popular film or book and discuss what writers can learn from it. Note this is not a review. We are not reviewing this and telling you why you should watch it. We are theming our comments toward you as writers and helping you think critically about an episode or a movie or a book so that you can hopefully learn to be better writers.
[Howard] But we did pick a movie we liked.
[Brandon] We will always... usually... unless... we are going to pick things that we think you can learn from in a good way.
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] Things we should aspire to.
[Howard] Otherwise we're just whining.
[Dan] It goes without saying that there is a spoiler warning for this episode.
[Brandon] This episode, we will spoil quite a bit.

[Brandon] Let's get into it. We will break this down as we've done before to plot, setting, and character. Let's start with plot. What did the new Star Trek movie do well with plot
that our listeners should try to emulate?
[Howard] It took our expectations and our understandings and used them against us to surprise us.
[Dan] In what way?
[Howard] We went into this believing... now understand this is something that many writers won't have to deal with... the expectations of the audience going into this is, this is a prequel. This is where I learn how Kirk and Spock and Chekov and all these people came to be. What they did instead was they said we are going to focus on an event that changed the universe, changed history, because... and this is purely mercenary... we need to reboot the franchise because Paramount accidentally killed it.

[Brandon] What can we learn from this? Our listeners aren't probably going to be rebooting a major franchise...
[Howard] No, but they may have expectations...
[Dan] If they are, please cut us in on it.
[Howard] going into what they are writing. If you are writing epic fantasy, there are Tolkein-related expectations or Eddings-related expectations. Working with those, leading somebody...
[Brandon] Not undermining them, but building upon them.
[Howard] Not undermining, but leading somebody along and then surprising them by doing something that forces it to be different. I don't know, I can't think of an example. But obviously how Star Trek did it was they said, "And there's time travel, and the following things have changed. Look who's alive, look who's dead."
[Brandon] One thing about that, that I noticed that they did that I liked was they brought it up front pretty early. If our listeners are trying to twist a genre and do something really cool with it, one of the problems with that is, you're going to have to expect your... the way that a lot of people try to do it, you expect your readers to read an entire book of the sort of thing that they don't like that looks cliched so that at the ending you can say, "Aha, I'm not cliched." There's a danger there. You laugh, but I've seen published authors doing this.
[Dan] There's an author that I won't mention by name because I hated this book so much that totally did that. That pulled the rug out from under the end. I thought I'd just wasted this... my entire book reading this thing that just betrayed me at the end.
[Brandon] There's an author who I won't mention, but I was talking to this author and they said, "Yeah, I'm totally shaking up the entire genre. I'm turning their expectations against them." Then I read the book, and they don't do that until the end of the book. So what happens is 90% of the book is me being forced to slog through a generic epic fantasy of the worst sort of kind that I never want to have to read again to get to this moment where they are... remember people are reading...
[Howard] At the end of the book... the end of the book is not a fun revelation or a satisfying denouement, the end of the book is ha ha, I fooled you.
[Brandon] Yeah. Or even if it is a satisfying, the fact that 90% of the book was a slog to get through to get to that...
[Dan] What that's doing is, it means that the only readers who will get to your twist are the readers that didn't want it, because they're the ones who liked the first 90% of your book.
[Brandon] Exactly.

[Howard] So we talked about one thing about Star Trek. Should we jump back into that?
[Dan] Here's another reason that their plot was so good, is that it focused on character climaxes more so than on plot climaxes, action climaxes. It's ostensibly the story of scary villain comes back and start blowing stuff up. It's really the story of Spock and Kirk becoming friends. That's what made it resonate with audiences.
[Howard] When events were conspiring to make them not be friends.
[Brandon] So it made that emotional connection. Which, depending on your genre, you may or may not want. I always want it in my books because I feel that action is only as valuable as your emotional attachment to the people...
[Howard] Characters need to drive the story, not the plot driving the story.
[Brandon] But there are genres where the plot drives the story. It's not a catchall. There are some great science fiction stories that you don't care about the characters, you just...

[Howard] My one complaint about the plot was that it was oh, yet another Star Trek movie, in which there is time travel. That's hard to get away from.
[Brandon] Except on the fact... with a tangent, my two favorite Star Trek movies are time travel ones. It's a crutch that makes good movies for them. Anything else about the plot that we want to say? I would say it was accessible to an audience who was not familiar with the series and tropes. They did a really good job with the learning curve.
[Howard] It was fairly straightforward. There were no... I'm trying to think if there were any big second act reveals, third act reveals that were surprising.
[Brandon] The appearance... even though we all knew it was coming... the appearance of old Spock was supposed to be one of those.
[Howard] That was telegraphed well enough that...
[Dan] It worked even though you knew it was coming.
[Brandon] But it was a very... when he turned around in that cave, and you said wow even though you knew from the beginning he was going...
[Howard] It didn't feel like a plot twist because it was a fan boy moment. Oh, my gosh, it's Leonard Nimoy.
[Brandon] Right. But it was meant to be a plot twist, and I think for most of the audience who was... the audience who was not made up of Star Trek fans which there were a huge number of for this movie. If you've looked at the numbers, this movie made two or three times what the really successful previous Star Trek movies had made, which were great movies and very successful. This drew in double the audience. So half the people going to this movie had never seen a Star Trek movie or at least had never gone to one in a theater.

[Dan] That's probably a comment that we need to make going back to the first thing we were talking about of subverting genres. They didn't set out to subvert this so much as to expand it. To make it more accessible by adding stuff and taking out a few confusing things rather than... it would have played very differently if they'd gone in and said, "We're going to take Star Trek and totally mess it up."
[Brandon] I read an interview with JJ Abrams where he said, "I was a little bit worried because we are using the Star Trek world. We're not pulling any punches. This is not Star Trek like. We are using still a lot of the technical jargon. We are using this pre-built world." But what they did right was what Dan said, is that they focused on characters and had a very shallow learning curve for the characters even though the world has a steep learning curve. Which drew us into them and let us enjoy watching the movie.

[Dan] One of the tricks they pulled is they started with a cabbage head character. Kirk at the beginning didn't know all the technical jargon.
[Brandon] We had a Watson.
[Dan] In some ways, we were able to learn with him.
[Brandon] We are going to break.

[Stacy] This week's Writing Excuses is brought to you by Stacy Whitman, a professional editor. Looking to take your finished manuscript to the next level? She consults individually with writers on submission packets and full manuscripts. For more information, go to her website at www.stacyl and click on critiques.

[Brandon] And we're back.
[Howard] Character.
[Brandon] What did Star Trek do right, focusing on character?
[Howard] Again, we went into this movie with some expectations about who these characters were. I say we... you've just pointed out that half of the people at this film maybe had never seen one of these. For me, I thought I knew Kirk, I thought I knew Spock. Being introduced to these characters and seeing how they developed and having it be believable... a young McCoy who... he's divorced and he's bitter, that was fantastic.
[Brandon] So what can our readers learn... listeners. I always call you readers. I'm sorry.
[Howard whispering] They probably read.
[Brandon whispering] Okay. Yeah.
[Dan whispering] Nobody can hear us when we talk this way.
[Brandon] What can people who read who also listen to our podcast... what can they learn from that? How do they learn from that?
[Dan] Each of the characters... and this was partially helped by the fact that they were dealing with iconic pre-existing characters... but each of the characters had very interesting hooks for the audience to latch onto. Here's the doctor who's bitter and distrusts technology. Here's the guy who has a weird accent and can't say his name.
[Howard] Here's the captain who is a bossy maverick. Here is the aloof, driven by logic, highly cerebral character. What they did instead of starting with these pre-existing conditions, they said let's talk about how that happened, why that happened, why that's important. We see those characters growing into that or at least [inaudible] it. That's how a good writer is going to need to do it.
[Dan] They didn't start with those, but they didn't end there, either. They didn't leave any of those characters as stereotypes. They just gave them identifiable hooks that we could all identify with and recognize who they were.

[Brandon] They did use a lot of... they weren't actually flashbacks, I don't think, at any point. But they served the same purpose, showing the childhood and the past of the characters. Which kind of worked as flashbacks for us because we knew the characters already.
[Howard] Act One spanned 10 years. No, Act One spanned 18 years.
[Brandon] 25.
[Howard] How old is Kirk when he gets...
[Brandon] 25. I think that's what the...
[Dan] Maybe we should have talked about that in plot, but that's classic epic storytelling...
[Howard] But they showed a huge amount of character development.
[Dan] Your hero starts as a young boy and grows up to be a king.

[Howard] You talked about the character development throughout the movie. If we look at the iconic natures of the characters... I'll just focus on Spock. We see him learning logic at the expense of his passion and his emotions. Then we see him during the body of the action of the film, his logic... he feels bad when his logic fails him. He maintains logic, he maintains that aloofness right up until the very end at which point... when Kirk turns to him and says... I can't remember what it was...
[Brandon] Something about his mom.
[Howard] No, it was the bit right at the very end where he says we should offer to help them or something and Spock's response is, "I'm not feeling that way." We see that he has connected with his emotional side, again, in a way that allows him to function. Because previously when he connected with it, he connected with it by losing his temper and his command. So that was that character arc for Spock.
[Dan] Now you defined Spock's starting point as logic at the expense of passion. Kirk's starting point was the exact opposite. Passion at the expense of logic. He wanted to do whatever the heck he wanted to do, even if it was stupid and even if it would hurt him. Both of those arcs crossed each other as those characters gave the best of what they had to the other one.

[Brandon] So we're talking reversals. Actually, I think what we're talking about a lot here also... listeners can learn from this... is the characters are in conflict with themselves.
[Dan] And with each other.
[Brandon] They are introduced as a stereotype and they...
[Dan] An archetype...
[Brandon] As an iconic...
[Howard] We see them as stereotypes, as archetypical.
[Brandon] And then they put them directly in contrast with themselves... directly in conflict with that archetype, which makes them a fascinating character because they are against themselves.
[Dan] It created conflict within the character. Kirk obviously had to change. He had to learn more logic, he had to learn more self-control in order to become a good captain. That allowed the plot to work better because those two characters could butt against each other, help each other, and change each other as well.

[Brandon] We've only got a couple of minutes left. But this is the one that we probably want to talk the least on. How did the Star Trek movie use setting in a way that was helpful to the characters and plot in a way that our listeners can learn from?
[Howard] The Romulan ship was built absurdly so that you could have balcony fights with no railings and large jumps.
[Brandon] And a big nasty ship that looks like Cthulu reaching out...
[Howard] Looks like the Shrike from Dan Simmons.
[Dan] The setting helped the learning curve significantly. Because it did not take place entirely on spaceships, it started on planets with children on a farm. So the non-Trekkie...
[Howard] Well, it did start with a spaceship.
[Dan] The prologue... but then we went to a kid stealing a car in Iowa. That gets non-science fiction people into your story much quicker if they have identifiable things.

[Brandon] What else can we learn from the setting?
[Howard] The Star Trek setting has been iconic science-fiction for 40 years. The one thing I would point out about it that has changed is that the original Star Trek setting... Roddenberry billed Star Trek to Paramount or Fox or whoever he originally was billing it to as Wagon Train to the Stars.
[Brandon] Space Westerns, long before Firefly was a Space Western.
[Howard] Wagon Train to the Stars, Space Western -- this new Star Trek did not hearken to that at all.
[Brandon] You got the sense that the next movie, when and if they make one, would indeed do that with them flying off out into the great vast nothingness.
[Howard] I don't see that as Wagon Train to the Stars. I see that as Lewis and Clark. That was what I envisioned the original Star Trek as, was Lewis and Clark.
[Brandon] Roddenberry said that he pitched it that way, and then was never intending to do it that way. That's just how [inaudible]
[Dan] He was pitching it at a time when 90% of TV was Westerns.
[Howard] Westerns were big? There's a lesson to be learned there on pitches, now, isn't there?
[Dan] One of the other things that the setting does in the movie is it allowed them to put in really subtle hints to show the passage of time. I'm thinking specifically of the prologue scene that takes place a long time ago.
[Howard] The construction of the ship?
[Dan] The construction of the ship was obviously older. They had... I remember the big kind of plastic things that hung down over some of the doors. There was much more scaffolding and kind of bare-bones structure inside which they didn't have in the later ship. Those are little setting hints that they gave to show time has passed.

[Brandon] We're out of time. I'm scared at what kind of writing prompt we're going to come up with on a Star Trek podcast, but I'm going to give it to Howard.
[Howard] Don't use the word ocelot. Don't use the word Spock-a-doodle-doo.
[Dan] Well, that takes mine out. At this point, we're writing Star Trek [inaudible] fan fiction in which Spock is a rooster.
[Howard] I don't want to give people a Star Trek writing prompt. No, that's good. Start with iconic Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Start with those iconic characters and then make them your own characters with their own justifications. Spock cannot be an elf... or a rooster. Now you're out of excuses. Go write.
[Brandon] Go write.
[Dan] Please tell me we're done recording.
[Jordan] I am.
[Laughter erupts]
[Howard] Spock-a-doodle-doo.
[more wild laughter]
[Dan] Well, that's our writing prompt.
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens.

[Just the writing prompt]
[Howard] I don't want to give people a Star Trek writing prompt. No, that's good. Start with iconic Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Start with those iconic characters and then make them your own characters with their own justifications. Spock cannot be an elf... or a rooster. Now you're out of excuses. Go write.
Tags: cabbage head character, character climaxes, character development, genre twisting, kirk, learning curve, mccoy, science fiction, spock, star trek, watson, writing excuses
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