Writers in the Storm

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August 17, 2012

What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Great Writing

by Kristen Lamb

Writers In The Storm is delighted to welcome Kristen Lamb today. She's a treasure trove of writing, author and social media know-how so strap in for a great post!


Star Trek 2009 ~ Photo from IMDB

I love the 2009 J.J. Abrams rendition of Star Trek. As a writer, stories are my business, so I study them in all forms. Film is a favorite in that it takes far less time and allows me to study the written form in a visual way (a tactic I learned from great writing teacher and NY Times BSA Bob Mayer).

Anyway, I don’t watch movies like most people, much to my husband’s chagrin (he would put tape over my mouth if he could get away with it). This 2009 version of Star Trek did very well at the box office and resonated with audiences in a way that other high-budget fast-paced sci-fi movies had failed. Why?

I believe Star Trek was a wild success because Abrams adhered to some very fundamental storytelling basics too often forgotten in Hollywood and even in writing.

Yes, movies and novels have more in common than you might think. Today’s blog especially applies to sci-fi and fantasy, but I believe all genres can benefit from these lessons I’ve plucked from the silver screen. Today I will address some of my favorite points, because this movie is such a fantastic tool for understanding great storytelling that I couldn’t possibly address all the lessons in one sitting.

Star Trek proved that imperfect characters resonate with audiences.

Audiences LOVE flawed characters. James T. Kirk was deliciously flawed at the beginning. He was on a road to self-destruction believing he could never stand in the shadow of his father’s greatness. He demonstrated how character strengths of a great leader, when not harnessed properly, are tools of great mischief and mayhem. Did the plot really serve to change Kirk? Not really. His attributes were very similar, just refocused in a productive way. The inciting incident really just put Kirk on a path that would make better use of his buccaneer ways.

Time and time again I see new writers become far too fascinated with the too-perfect protagonist (been there and got the T-shirt, myself). The problem with the too-perfect protagonist is that audiences find it difficult to relate. While it might seem counterintuitive, flawed is often better.

Want an illustration from the fiction world? I believe that Twilight is a great example. Bella was deeply flawed and thus readers could easily slip into her shoes. They, too, could look at Edward and long to know what it would be like to be one of the beautiful people.

I think that is why a lot of movies flop. Who can relate to Angelina Jolie? In Tomb Raider she was fun to watch, but we have absolutely no way of connecting with Lara Croft. She is beautiful, insanely rich and lives a life of adventure. The movies would have done better had the writers/directors done something to make Lara Croft real. The first movie did well simply because fans of the video game. Yet, audiences couldn’t connect to this super perfect (and not really likable) character, so the second movie bombed big time. And I am not alone in this assessment. Read Save the Cat by the late screenwriting genius Blake Snyder, which is a great book for all writers to read anyway.

Writers. Can we cast über perfect characters? Sure. But we do so at a risk. Perfect characters easily become one-dimensional and boring. As in movies, we need to connect with a reader, and most of us didn’t sit at that table in high school.

Star Trek perfected showing, not telling.

Star Trek did an unsurpassed job of showing, not telling. Yes, they can info-dump in movies. I gutted through Deadline with the late Brittany Murphy and there were convenient camcorder tapes along the way to info dump back story. There were all kinds of scenes dedicated for the sole purpose of characters discussing a third-party. No, no, no, no, no! Bad writer! Had the screenwriter been in my workshop, he would have gotten zinged.

Virtually everything in Star Trek happened real time. The director didn’t dedicate entire scenes to Spock and Uhura explaining how Kirk was a reckless pain in the tush. Abrams employed scenes that showed Kirk crashing through their lives like a bull in a china shop. There was ONE flashback and it was information critical to understanding the plot.

Star Trek employed parsimony.

One element of showing and not telling is to make the most of your story. Employ setting, symbol and action economy. If a scene can do more than one thing…let it. In the beginning (prologue) Kirk’s mother is pregnant (with him). Bad guys appear, and Dad is left on board as acting captain of the ship. He must sacrifice to save them all.

It is no accident that the director did two things. First, all the battle noises fade away and symphony music rises. Then, the scenes cut from Mom giving birth to Dad giving his life. Birth and death, hope and sacrifice are suddenly in perfect harmony. That was done for a reason. In your novel, do all things on purpose.

Look at your scenes. Can they do more than one task? For some ideas, read my blog Setting—More than Just a Backdrop. Setting can be used for more reasons than to give readers a weather report. Lehane proves my point in Shutter Island (discussed in blog), which is a tremendous example of narrative parsimony.

Star Trek showed character via relativity.

In the beginning we see Kirk as this crazy guy power drinking and zooming around on a crotch rocket. Yet, the director knew he could have a problem. He needed Kirk to be a maverick risk-taker…but he also needed to prove to the audience that his protagonist wasn’t a foolhardy idiot. No one wants to follow a raging moron with a death wish into battle. The director needed to show us someone who cared deeply about others and who was willing to risk everything for his men.

How did he do this?

There is an early scene where they have to do a space jump (think HALO jump). Kirk and Sulu go with a Red Shirt—which means Red Shirt dude is going to die for those who are not Trekkies. Red Shirt guys always bite it. The interesting thing is that the Red Shirt guy is hooping and hollering all the way down like some idiot out of a Mountain Dew commercial. Kirk pulls his chute and begs the guy to open his. Red Shirt is too busy being a thrill-seeking idiot and ends up vaporized. Now we the audience can see Kirk takes huge risks, but we also understand that he cares about others and is not stupid.

Star Trek relied on character and story.

This is the single most important lesson for those writing sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or horror. Tell us a story about people first. Relying on gadgets and gimmicks is not storytelling (if you ever need a reminder, just go check out this post about the Star Wars prequels).

There are all kinds of space movies that had far better special effects than the original Star Wars (the GOOD ones), yet Star Wars endures and will endure to future generations. Why? Because it told a story about people first. I believe this Star Trek did the same and that is why it is a movie that will endure for generations.

I never could get through the newest Star Wars prequels. Why? Because there was so much CGI (computer generated imagery) that I felt like I was trapped at Chuck E. Cheese's and having a bad LSD trip. I felt the computer images were far too distracting. From the comments on on my Star Wars Prequels post, I finally realize I am not alone.

Star Trek, on the other hand, used CGI, but not at the expense of the real focus . . . the stories about the people.

I edit a lot of writers who want to write YA, fantasy, paranormal, etc. and too often they allow world-building to take over. The reader is so bogged down in gimmick that she cannot see the characters or the story. Frequently there isn’t a story.

World-building is something a writer must employ to assist or accentuate the core conflict.

Our goal as writers must be to get a reader to relate and connect. People connect with people, not worlds. Conflict drives stories, not gizmos. Thus, all the magic and myth must be ancillary to the root story. If you have done a good job of plotting, that root story will be very simple and timeless and could take place in Kansas or on Planet Doom.

For those of you who haven’t watched J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek, I highly recommend it (duh :D ) even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi.

What are some of your favorite movies and why? How did the story capture you? Why does it resonate? What are your thoughts on the new Star Trek? What did you like? What fell short?

Kristen Lamb is the author of the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer and is represented by Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary, Inc. in NYC.

Kristen worked in international sales before transitioning into a  career as an author, freelance editor and speaker. She takes her years  of experience in sales & promotion and merges it with almost a  decade as a writer and editor to create a program designed to help authors  construct a platform in the new paradigm of publishing. Kristen has helped hundreds of writers find success using social media. Her methods are responsible for selling hundreds of thousands of books. She has helped all levels of writers from mega authors to self-published unknowns attain amazing results.

Kristen is the founder of the WANA movement, the co-founder and CEO of WANA International a company dedicated to empowering artists of the Digital Age. She’s also the co-creator of WANATribe, the social network for creatives. Kristen has dedicated her life to helping writers and artists reach their dreams and achieve the impossible.

We are not alone.

We Are Not Alone–The Love Revolution

0 comments on “What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Great Writing”

  1. Awesome post, Kristen! I love book/movie breakdowns, but I can never do it myself. I get it when you do it, but I hate to ruin the trick of a story, if I know how they do it. For that reason, I think that Avatar was great, for probably many of the reasons you gave, above, but I'm not willing to break it down, and spoil the magic!

  2. See, and I'm on the other end of the fence from Laura - I LOVE the movie breakdowns. When I'm watching a movie, I don't think of anything but the story. Of course for the Disney classics that I watch 58 times in a month with my daughter, I'm more likely to have time to step back and see it. But in the theater? Not so much...

    Thanks, Kristen! We're delighted to have you here today. 🙂

  3. Kristen, I LOVE this movie. I've seen it close to 100 times by now. I watched it last night in, in fact. 🙂

    Tacking on to your thing about Kirk not being a dumb hick--even in the bar when he's hitting on Uhura and he asks her educational focus--he knows what those subjects she tells him are.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  4. Love the breakdown Kristen. You've made boring writing rules fun! BTW, I heard your talk at the RWA conference at the Women's Fiction Mini-Con and it was great. By the far the best talk on media that I've heard to date.

  5. Great post! My husband doesn't want to watch movies with me anymore because I'm constantly going: "Look! It's the Dark Night of the Soul scene! Gather the Troops! High Tower Surprise! Dig, Deep Down!" He'd probably hide my Save the Cat books if he didn't know it was already too late, lol.

  6. Great advice as always, Kristen. I think too Save the Cat is one book all writers should read. Writing Screenplays That Sell is another amazing screenwriting book that will benefit writers as well--Michael Hauge is an excellent teacher. 🙂

  7. Hi Kristen, so nice seeing you hear. I love a good movie... and a good break down. And "Save the Cat" is saving my ass as we speak, helping me pull all my subplots together, keeping it all cohesive, not losing the narrative flow. And your ideas here are a great reminder.... Parsimony.... (kinda sounds like parsnips, but we won't go there).

  8. Thanks, Kristen. I loved this movie. It was even the catalyst for us to finally get a blu-ray player and buy the movie in that format (no, we're not exactly early-adopters!). Another movie to which the same accolades apply is the recent Avengers. Joss Whedon did a great job of using scene and sequel to show us the people behind the superheroes and play their motivations and backstory against the conflict they found themselves embroiled within. My favorite heart-wrenching moment in that movie is when Bruce Banner admits that he's always angry. He says so much in those few words.

  9. This is one of my favorite movies ever! That first scene was just perfect, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Thanks for breaking it down. Real time. Gotcha. 🙂

  10. I was getting worried about my book. Reading over my outline I thought, 'This could be set on another planet, another country, anywhere at anytime.' I wanted it to revolve around the American Revolutionary War, and was concerned I didn't bring enough of that into it. Now, I'm thinking maybe that's all right. The setting will be important (where else can you get a city under siege, water moccasin infested swamps, and friends and family torn asunder by conflict than Charleston in 1780?), but I'll stay focused on the people.

  11. Hi Kristan
    Excellent post. My favorite movies are always those with strong character development. In star trek it's the one where the people live with a regenerating life ring. Can't remember the name at the moment.

  12. What a great analysis, Kristen! I have to watch it again now, you reminded me of EVERYTHING I loved about that movie. I can't recall another movie where I was in tears 10 minutes into it. I wish more writers and directors of blockbuster movies (as well as writers of novels) would take a page or two out of J.J.'s book. I love stories that kick butt, but in the end, character is everything.

  13. Star Wars (the original trilogy) had a strong “everyman” character (Han Solo) as a foil/balance for the Jedi and the royalty. An everyman the audience could (and DID) relate to. There was no such everyman character in the prequels.

    The 2009 Star Trek movie needs no such everyman character, because everyone can relate to the flaws and struggles of James Kirk.

    1. The audience's empathy for Han Solo made Harrison Ford's career solid gold. From there, he would play a wide spectrum of characters ranging from Indiana Jones (the Raiders Of The Lost Ark movies), Rick Deckard (Blade Runner), John Book (Witness) to fictional US President James Marshall (Air Force One), and the audiences conencted with him the whole way

  14. I've never taken apart a movie like that. I've had "Save the Cat" for a while, but haven't gotten around to reading it. I'll do it now. Thanks for the post.

  15. I love this movie but honestly I have always been a Star Trek fan. Even in the original (short lived) television series it was the diversity of characters that made it so rich and engaging to people. I believe that is one of the main reasons the show has had such a long running success. The series came out in 1966 during a very turbulent time in U.S. history and they placed people from around the world on the Enterprise. They even went as far as to place a woman in a command role.

    The characters were easy to relate to and resonated things that were happening socially around the world (not just in the U.S.) It is a show that continues to amaze because they have never forgotten the richness and diversity of the people that inhabit the Star Ship Enterprise! Thanks for sharing about the focus a person needs to do in character building and relatability to the audience!


  16. [...] Yes, movies and novels have more in common than you might think. Today’s blog especially applies to sci-fi and fantasy, but I believe all genres can benefit from these lessons I’ve plucked from the silver screen. Today I will address some of my favorite points, because this movie is such a fantastic tool for understanding great storytelling that I couldn’t possibly address all the lessons in one sitting.  [...]

  17. Absolutely fabulous observations. I was reluctant about seeing this newest Star Trek, but it thankfully did not disappoint. I get very frustrated when special effects and fight scenes take over character development and story (hello, Matrix and Bourne sequels). I also think sci-fi needs to ask an interesting question and then let the characters wrestle with that dilemma throughout.

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