What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Great Writing

Happy Monday! Last week, we picked on the poor Star Wars prequels. What went wrong? Better yet, what lessons can we, as writers, take away from some serious storytelling blunders? If you missed this discussion, go here, and check out the comments. Some people way smarter than me stopped by, that’s for certain. So, this week, I decided that this piece I wrote about STAR TREK last year might be a nice follow-up to the Star Wars piece from last week.

I love the new 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 (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 most recent 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 last week’s 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. Cheeses and having a bad LSD trip. I felt the computer images were far too distracting. From the comments on last week’s 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 the new 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?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of June, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of June I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

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Winner for June Week Three is Virginia Ripple

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  1. #1 by educlaytion on June 20, 2011 - 1:59 pm

    I’m a Trekkie, original that is. Abrams movie is awesome, one of the few I watched twice in the theater, certainly the only one I watched in a theater twice in the past decade. Star Trek always had such amazing characters. The only question was would a good story be told or not. The new film works, and I love the writing lessons you snagged from it.

  2. #2 by Shéa MacLeod on June 20, 2011 - 2:09 pm

    I loved, loved, LOVED the new Star Trek. Of course, I’m a total Trekkie, so it stands to reason. I thought the rebook was BRILLIANTLY done and I can’t wait for the next installment (Granted, the delicious new Mr. Spock may have had something to do with that. ;-) ) . But I digress…

    Until now I didn’t realize why it was so fantastic. I couldn’t put my finger on what made it sooo much better than the aforementioned new Star Wars episodes. Now I’m all… duh! lol It’s so bloody obvious.

    I love Pitch Black for the same reason. It’s dark. It’s grity. There isn’t much in the way of fancy effects or snazzy tech. It’s about people. It’s about an anti-hero. It’s about redemption. Like you said, it could have been set in Kansas and the story would have been just as brilliant.

  3. #3 by Shéa MacLeod on June 20, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    And I mean “reboot”. (Rolls eyes at self.

  4. #4 by Damian Trasler on June 20, 2011 - 2:14 pm

    Hee hee! Not content with taking on a movie icon last week, this week you’re pitting Trekkies againts Star Wars fans! Ok, I know that’s not your intent, but reading the two posts, you get “Star Wars Bad, Star Trek Good”.
    Despite my Star Wars Fanboy heart, however, I have to agree with you. From a storytelling point of view, the JJ Abrams Star Trek beats any of the prequels hands down, which therefore makes it the better movie.

    I always think it’s ironic that people complain about the CGI in a movie being distracting, when the idea of GCI is always to create something that can’t otherwise be shown – to bring an unreal world to life. When it’s done right, it’s brilliant but you hardly notice – like in “Avatar”, where we gape at the lush environs of Pandora, without really believing it was all shot on a soundstage with green carpet and wallpaper. Then they mention “Unobtainium” and we all fall about laughing…..

    • #5 by Author Kristen Lamb on June 20, 2011 - 2:21 pm

      LOL…it is funny you brought that up. As I was posting, all I could think of was the movie Fanboys and the Trekkers and SW fans duking it out under the Khan statue, :D.

  5. #6 by Paul Anthony Shortt on June 20, 2011 - 2:18 pm

    I loved the new Star Trek. I’d become jaded with the series after the original crew moved on from the films, but this one blew me away.

  6. #7 by Jessica Thomas on June 20, 2011 - 2:34 pm

    I agree, the new Star Trek movie was great. The best one yet. And you’re right it’s about the characters. We love ‘em don’t we? Kirk and Bones…how can you not?

    Interestingly, I saw Super 8 this weekend. JJ Abrams again, but not nearly as good. There were some story issues that made it difficult to connect with the characters…some of what you would call melodrama at the end.

    So, we’ll see how Abrams does on his next one. I’m not sure who wrote the Star Trek script but they had a wealth of characterization and world building done for them at the get go.

    • #8 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 3:39 pm

      JJ Abrams was probably the weakest link in the whole Star Trek Reboot. Given that he favors cheating narrative, it’s a lot better to force him into a finite start-to-finish, straightforward storyline than it is to let him go off the reservation.

      I enjoyed the movie, but I went in not expecting much. For an action/SF movie, it did the job, and far better than much of anything lately.

      But it just…wasn’t Star Trek

  7. #9 by alicamckennajohnson on June 20, 2011 - 2:42 pm

    One of my fav sci-fi movies The Fifth Element- great characters- great plot, and the world building really does support it. I’m writing a YA urban fantasy- a bit easier then building a whole world- which I’m very intimidated to do. I’m such a description whore that I’m afraid if I tried to build my own world I’d drown people in adjectives.
    Great post!
    Alica

    • #10 by Shéa MacLeod on June 20, 2011 - 2:52 pm

      The Fifth Element is one of my faves, too! :-)

      • #11 by Gene Lempp on June 20, 2011 - 3:09 pm

        Fifth Element is an excellent story, well-crafted and fun. And, of course, a favorite :)

        • #12 by tedhenkle on June 22, 2011 - 7:30 am

          Love The Fifth Element! What a wild movie.

  8. #13 by Leanne Shirtliffe on June 20, 2011 - 2:59 pm

    I actually live near Vulcan, Alberta. I kid you not. I might have to go there this summer and blog about it. Here’s the link if anyone thinks I’m fibbing. http://www.vulcantourism.com/

    Great tips. I was more of a TNG gal. I loved Data.

    • #14 by Gene Lempp on June 20, 2011 - 3:11 pm

      Ah to be on Councilor Troy’s therapy couch. *wakes up* TNG was the best series, in my opinion, but this to be a generational taste as much as it a love for a specific story thread.

      • #15 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 3:41 pm

        It was also the last series to have had the full hand and helm of the Great Bird of the Galaxy. DS9 went off in a deliberately alternative direction and format, and Voyager tried new things, but had some arrogance!fail on the part of the new directors. Enterprise…is not discussed in some circles, LOL ;)

    • #16 by Damian Trasler on June 20, 2011 - 8:39 pm

      Hey! I learned about Vulcan Alberta today, through my job as a proofreader. Glad you posted the link – I’m not sure Mrs DIm believed me….

  9. #17 by Gene Lempp on June 20, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    Always been a Trekkie and have to agree that the Abrams version is one of the best. After reading this post I think I’ll have to watch it again, this time from a writers standpoint. The first time I was lost in the power of the story.

    • #18 by Shéa MacLeod on June 20, 2011 - 3:18 pm

      I was thinking that myself! Before I watched it just for fun. This time I’ll watch for some edjumacation.

  10. #19 by RDoug on June 20, 2011 - 3:26 pm

    Even though he got a lot of the elements and science wrong, I loved J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the series. Most everything clicked just as you described.

    Still really ticked off at the scene where the Enterprise is being constructed on Earth, as the series made it quite clear that all starships were made in orbit because they were too big to lift off from a planetary surface. Really infuriating that he got something so fundamental so wrong.

    • #20 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 3:51 pm

      Yes! Yes yes and double yes. Invalidate all the openers of the first movies and TNG with the graceful majesty of the maiden voyage reduced to…yeah.

      I’m glad they termed it a “reboot” because quite frankly, while the movie was good, actiony, and had all the right cues with characters, as Kristen has pointed out…it wasn’t Star Trek. It didn’t follow Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. Also, sorry, but without any KHAAAAAN! in there, its greatest hope is to be Miss Congeniality or second runner-up (because, sorry, but “Captain! There be WHALES here!” is a Crowning Moment of Awesome that the reboot will never have).

      I realize an SF movie where the greatest tensions come from *avoiding* the big-budget explosions in favor of a more peaceful resolution of tensions would not fly with modern audiences (and that makes me more than a little sad).

      One thing you had with Picard was Patrick Stewart’s (sheer hawtness) towering acting ability to bring pathos to the screen and make you absolutely feel as if you and the entire Alpha Quadrant were life-and-death invested not in who had the biggest photon torpedo, but who had the biggest brain to see a way out of a convoluted no-win situation.

      • #21 by Kristie Kiessling (@Narratus) on June 24, 2011 - 3:29 pm

        From a writer’s standpoint, this is fantastic. In connecting the old to the new, opportunity abounds to write other – possibly even better – interactions with characters we have known and enjoyed. This is a *continuation* of what has gone before not a negation. There is a wide vista of Trek to draw from, to see what might have been. Regarding Khan and the Whales, as Kirk said about the glasses McCoy had given him – “The beauty of it is that they will be again.”

        It is a writer’s dream (and a lot of fan-fiction authors are already jumping on that bandwagon). What wonderful opportunities for them and us (as fans/writers/viewers). Because Spock’s arrogant mistake has ‘rebooted’ the universe, Spock himself is continuing to manipulate the time-stream. He thought he could control something uncontrollable and as a result he set in motion a series of events that would negate everything he had known. How mind-blowing for him. He feels he must make it right – what perfectly fallible character wouldn’t – so after insisting that Kirk must be Captain he makes sure to get Scotty back to the ship as Engineer. What else might he try to accomplish? I would not count out such a significant character’s influence on the future installments of the franchise and you can bet JJ Abrams isn’t either. The story isn’t over yet, it has barely begun.

        Old characters are not gone, nor all their back stories destroyed. Kirk’s history was changed and all the lives he touched, yes, as was Spock’s. Yet there were others who are as yet untouched, like Khan. He’s out there, waiting to be found all over again. How will the Spock who knows this deal with it now that he is living in his own past? It is all in Spock’s head and he refuses to forget! How will the alternate reality Kirk deal with Khan – if the writers choose to go there? “There are always possibilities,” someone said – remember? And “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  11. #22 by Orlando Ramos on June 20, 2011 - 3:45 pm

    You know, I feared that I didn’t have enough new gadgets and modern technology in my Sci-Fi story. But as you stated my story is mainly about the people not the details of their technology. It is good to know you’re on the right track.

    It’s funny, as a movie watcher I didn’t like the prequels of Star Wars, although I am a huge fan. I didn’t like them, but I didn’t know why I didn’t like them. As an author and a professional you broke it down into details. Where I, just didn’t see it flow right. The same with Star Trek; I told all my friends to watch it because I loved it. My only problem with it was, since all had now changed due to the time traveling antagonist killings, all that we saw on the TV series no longer exist. I had some difficulty wrapping my brain around that. But I’m glad Abrams staid true to each character rather than trying to reinvent new ones.

    Thank you for bringing us such great lessons to learn from. You’re awesome.

  12. #23 by M.J.Kane on June 20, 2011 - 3:48 pm

    I read last weeks post, enjoyed it and commented. I have to agree, Star Trek was pretty good. I’ve never been a Trekki, but I love SW. The movie was very well written and I really enjoyed it. Abrams did a great job with the story telling. If I’m not mistaken, he had a hand in writing for LOST. I loved that show and the character development/backstory. In fact, that show is what motivated me to write! Thanks for taking the time again to dissect the movies and point out the good, and bad, things that stand out. Like you, I’ve also started paying a lot more attention to the movies plot lines and story telling to pick up on the good and the bad stuff. You can never learn too much! I watched Babylon A.D. last nit and I tell you, that movie is one that makes you want to slap the writer. It was my second time watching it and I still can’t answer some of the questions as to what the story was really supposed to be about. And then the end, it went from the present, to nine months later to 3 years later without giving you a clue that time had moved along! LMBO! Check it out sometime. You’ll have fun dissecting that one too!

  13. #24 by Deri Ross on June 20, 2011 - 3:48 pm

    Yes, yes, and yes! I loved the Star Trek reboot, too. Like many previous commenters, I am a big-time Trekkie, and I went into the theater a little leery of how well this reincarnation would be. I ended up being blown away by it, for all the reasons you mention (although I’m not smart enough to have figured that out on my own, lol). I love that even though this was a prequel, and we kind of know where it’s all headed, the question of “would all these people still be the same if their pasts were altered?” was brilliantly executed. Kirk was still Kirk – a ladies man, a risk taker, and an unfailing friend. Spock was still logical and loyal, Uhura was still spunky, Sulu was still smooth and fearless, Scotty was still a hoot, Chekov was still young and adorable, and Bones was still, well, Bones! They still ended up being the amazing characters we love, while the movies gave us a fresh new storyline to follow. The story took a backseat to the relationship dynamics that really made Star Trek what it is. You could have taken the crew out of space, plunked them in a different setting like an office or a bar, and we would still watch them because it was their interactions with each other that made the show click.

    BTW, I also love your analysis of Angelina Jolie. I also could not figure out what the heck bothers me so much about her, but you hit the nail on the head. Every movie she is in, her characters are flawless, larger than life, and completely unrelatable (is that a word? Angelina would know). I made a comment once about how she always seems to have her nose in the air. My boyfriend defended her (imagine that) saying, “well, that’s how she is, just prim and perfect.” Well, gag me. Perfect is rarely fun.

    • #25 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 4:09 pm

      She sets my teeth on edge. Mr. Athena and I have come up with a theory that many of her movies are “ego movies” – when she feels a little puffy, postpartum, unattractive, or has a new boyfriend, or the domestic life’s got her down, she makes another movie about a tough, perfect, perfectly-sculpted, fearless action heroine-slash-powerful mystery woman leaving a trail of helpless men in her wake.

      The rest of us just get an ice cream cone or some Dove chocolate and a body-shaper and move on with our lives with several million dollars’ less hassle. :P

  14. #26 by Laura Lee Nutt on June 20, 2011 - 4:11 pm

    Totally agree. I would only add that the other reason the movie did so well is because it was respectful to the original series. It was very clear that the actors tried to follow the footsteps of the original cast rather than “making the characters their own,” which, in my opinion, would have ruined the movie.

  15. #27 by Patti Yager Delagrange on June 20, 2011 - 4:13 pm

    Thank you, Kristen, for a blog I needed today. I’m re-re-revising my second novel and I need to keep in mind that the character is foremost and I need to make him/her someone that my readers can empathize with, whether they like him/her or not. There’s world building but it is not the core of the story. The people are. Thanks for the reminder.
    Patti

  16. #28 by Tiffany A White on June 20, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    I always love your writing posts when compared to movies – I think more of us can relate this way.

  17. #29 by Miriam on June 20, 2011 - 4:48 pm

    I love this post! Thanks for the advice, I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

  18. #30 by shawn on June 20, 2011 - 5:29 pm

    Kristen is the trekkie and I’m the star wars nut. But its an apples to oranges comparison, Trek is a more cerebral series, think of it as sci-fi for the educated, vs star wars which is a classically romantic story that anyone can be entertained by. And yes, I really have threatned duct tape. :p

  19. #31 by Sherry on June 20, 2011 - 5:29 pm

    I grew up as a Star Trek fan. Never considered myself a Trekkie. I loved the new version for many of the reasons you mention here. The implications of the huge changes in the Star Trek universe are mind-boggling. Love it.

  20. #32 by Patrick Thunstrom on June 20, 2011 - 5:30 pm

    I’ve remarked about the Star Trek movie before, but I’ll say it again: the usage of CGI in the new Trek was brilliant specifically because it could have easily been replaced with practical effects, something that keeps the effects from taking the viewers out of that happy buzz that great movies create.

    Another point about the flashback, the entire flash back is told from Spock Prime’s perspective, so demonstrates his feelings and thoughts on the situation. For a flashback, it was well done.

    I’m still of the opinion that the new Trek is the absolute best Trek. Chris Pine did an excellent Kirk, and I’m a Zachary Quintos fan in general. But enough gushing, it was an excellent example of how to do pretty much everyt

  21. #33 by foomandoonian on June 20, 2011 - 5:34 pm

    It’s interesting that you chose Star Trek as an example, because the original universe was full of essentially perfect characters. I think it was even stated in the original writer’s bible that these people had essentially evolved beyond the petty problems of today.

    It’s actually one of the aspects that die hard Trekkies hang on to dearly: The Enterprise is the flagship of the fleet, crewed by the best of the best, a model of the Federation’s values, etc.

  22. #34 by Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter on June 20, 2011 - 5:47 pm

    Gack! You liked Star Trek?

    What a complete and utter disaster.

    Now I’m not trying to argue against your points. They are valid. But…

    The Enterprise was built in space, and is not capable of planetary surface take off and landing. If you don’t believe me, read The Making of Star Trek and The World of Star Trek.

    Security wouldn’t let some jerk on a motorcycle ride up to where he could fire a shoulder launched missile down into a shipyard. FAIL

    Um, let’s see. We know exactly where to send the shuttle to dock on the Romulan mining ship. Yeah, right.

    OK, so we take a 1890 cruiser class warship up against a 2010 mining vessel. Guess which one wins? It sure as hell won’t be the mining vessel.

    They are evacuating the Kelvin using shuttles. The Enterprise only had four shuttles, which could only hold eight people each, and which could not travel faster than light speed. Do you see anything wrong with this scenario?

    The movie was terrible. Logic did not exist, just like logic did not exist in the Star Wars prequels. J.J. Abrams is an incompetent, just like Peter Jackson.

    Rant off now,

    Wayne

    • #35 by shawn on June 21, 2011 - 3:28 am

      Got it, but these are details that dont affect the story. It’s not necessary to land an or takeoff a spacecraft, when you have transporters. You can get as close as you need to the enterprise because 1) the earth is not at war with itself because of the formation of the federation, and 2) its called a sheild for a reason. And the whole not knowing where to dock a shuttle, well not hard to look for the door, especially when the technology exists to scan for magnetic variation from doors and the use of tractor beams. Just saying, good writing doesn’t need to tell you, it shows you!

    • #36 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 4:12 pm

      I gave Abrams a pass on that one because of Voyager–anyone who’d seen Voyager would know of the Perpetually-Regenerating Shuttle Bay. ;)

  23. #37 by kldarter on June 20, 2011 - 6:40 pm

    I enjoyed the new movies as well – one of the key reasons stories about Kirk work is due to Spock and Bones. Without them, the character of Kirk just falls flat. I was glad that the new movie kept that relationship intact instead of just focusing on one character.
    And although the whole cast was good, Zachary Quinto totally stole the show, just like he did in Heroes!

  24. #38 by EllieAnn on June 20, 2011 - 8:09 pm

    Great assessment! I adored this movie. =)

  25. #39 by Roxanne Skelly on June 20, 2011 - 8:24 pm

    The new Trek was total win. And yah, it was because of
    Kirk, Spock and the others. Even the Enterprise was a character.
    I knew and loved them in the original series, and I wanted to
    see them again.

    Another movie that really got me going was the Matrix. It was
    about Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and agent Smith. Total character
    development.

    The second and third? The didn’t live up. The four of them really
    didn’t develop, and they threw in a number of other secondary
    characters that just got in the way.

    In those movies, the focus was on special effects…not enough
    to make a lasting movie, IMHO.

    And Avatar as well. All of the new technology developed to make
    the CGI characters expressive totally paid off. The actors could truly
    act, filling out the characters.

  26. #40 by Tamara LeBlanc on June 20, 2011 - 8:27 pm

    Loved this post!! And I also LOVED the Star Trek movie. I’m a sci-fi geek at heart and Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar and Alien make me giddy.
    I too, since becoming a writer, pick apart movies while I’m watching them. I do the same with TV shows. Blake Snider’s book and a great workshop I once attended with the late great author taught me oodles about disecting movies to better my novel writing. So I’m glad you brought him up. Save the Cat did wonders for me.
    I’m also glad you brought up Star Trek. My critique partners and I will be giving a workshop at the upcoming Moonlight and Magnolias conference in Decatur, Ga, and we will be disecting a movie during the talk. We are compiling a list of worthy screen gems to use and Star Trek is a great one. I’m going to add that one to the list.
    Thank you so much for your wisdom!!
    Have a great evening:)
    Tamara

  27. #41 by Evergreena on June 20, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    Wow, how did I never stumble across your blog before? I read this post and loved it so much that I had to read the previous post about Star Wars. As a writer who wants to work in the film/animation industry, I found these articles fascinating.

    I have to agree with you about the new Star Trek vs. the new Star Wars, though I’m a pretty big fan of both “universes.” The first time I saw the new Star Trek, I liked it, but I didn’t really know why. The second time I saw it, I loved it. Aside from the great acting, cinematography, etc, what really makes it work is the writing.

    Some of my other favorite movies are National Treasure, Hook, Secondhand Lions, and virtually any Pixar movie. They’re all very different, but I think they work because of their strong storytelling elements. The characters are “3D”, the concepts are ingenious yet simple, and the stories all flow beautifully.

  28. #42 by Terrell Mims on June 20, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    Reading this blog gives me happy feelings. I love this movie! If Star Wars 1-3, had the same structure as this movie we would have had a new classic trilogy, but alas Star Trek beat Star Wars in this case. My fave movies are the original Star Wars trilogy, Lord of the Rings, The Lion King, and Back to the Future.

  29. #43 by Jane Sadek on June 20, 2011 - 10:35 pm

    Star Trek rules. Thanks for making learning fun!

  30. #44 by Kim Wilson on June 20, 2011 - 10:38 pm

    My Star Trek geeky self lit up when I saw that you posted about writing and Star Trek. Love the movie. Love Star Trek. Love writing. Great tips, Kristen!

  31. #45 by Taffy on June 20, 2011 - 11:02 pm

    I surprised myself when I asked my kids if we could watch the new Star Trek again. And again. And again. The movie was full and action packed. (It didn’t hurt to have some cute characters as well :)).
    You’re right about caring for the characters. I connected with them. I also enjoyed the cracks from past Star Trek movies and how the actor portrayed James T. Kirk sitting in the captains chair.

  32. #46 by Jenny Hansen on June 20, 2011 - 11:29 pm

    OK, now I have to go back to the video store…I haven’t seen any Star Trek movies since the little worm-y monster came out of the Klingon’s ear. The lack isn’t Star Trek related…it’s just the last one I actually got time to get into the theater and see. :-)

  33. #47 by Jami Gold on June 20, 2011 - 11:39 pm

    Yes, the Star Trek reboot is one for all writers to study to see how they had the audience connect to the characters *so* quickly. There was no “Normal World” at the beginning of the movie to let us see Kirk dad and mom being loving husband and wife, or talking about their dreams for their son. It opened right with action and Kirk dad having to make some hard decisions. And even though we barely knew the guy we *felt* for him. I’m not sure I’ve ever started crying so soon in a movie. :)

  34. #48 by Josh Wilcox on June 20, 2011 - 11:50 pm

    Well, again, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this. Funny thing is, I read an interview Abrams did after this movie came out, and he specifically said he followed the “Star Wars” structure. Not the prequels, but the originals. In both the original Star Wars Trilogy and the new Star Trek I found myself thinking, “What is Kirk/Luke going to do next?”to not, “What is going to happen next?” I think what you say about character is totally true. Extremely important. One of my favorites I would like you to direct one day: 300. Love it. Thanks!

  35. #49 by Anne R. Allen on June 21, 2011 - 2:07 am

    What a great analysis of good storytelling. And now I know why I couldn’t sit through more than 10 minutes of Lara Croft. Besides the fact I’m over 12 and female. I’m a long time Trekkie, and I’ve been scared to see the new one for fear it would be all boring computer effects and no plot. Now I know what I’ll watch on Netflix tonight :-)

  36. #50 by Paul Owen on June 21, 2011 - 2:10 am

    I have to lodge a voice of dissent here. I agree that Star Trek was a supremely entertaining movie. I agree that the characters were engaging. I think your analysis with respects to the strength of the writing is sound. It is an entertaining movie, standing apart in its own right.

    But as something of a Star Trek purist, I really never liked that movie in the context of the Gene Roddenberry construct of the Star Fleet universe. I can accept the alternate history aspect of the plot. I can accept Spock indulging his human side. I can even accept the destruction of the planet Vulcan in that alternate history (much as it pains me to admit). What I can not accept is a rogue stowaway being given command of a new starship right out of construction. I can not accept Cadet Uhura permanently replacing an experienced communications officer because she speaks all three dialects of Romulan (and I will ignore that at this point in Star Fleet history, there had been no previous face-to-face contact with Romulans, let alone an opportunity to study language). I can not accept that Commander Spock, Kirk’s instructor at Star Fleet Academy, becomes his first officer.

    My point is that Roddenberry’s vision of Star Fleet was an established, hierarchical, authoritative, credible construct. In the original series, Captain James T. Kirk had legitimacy as a captain in part because he had something like 15 years experience in Star Fleet. I found the plot device in the Star Trek movie – to instantly promote disparate, thoroughly unqualified characters into their “familiar” positions on the Enterprise – even more painfully contrived than Kirk’s demotion in Star Trek: The Motion Picture from admiral to give him command of the Enterprise. Both were ridiculously sentimental, nostalgic indulgences, as though no one else should command that ship. Neither had any shred of credibility in the context of the full construct, history, and breadth of Star Fleet.

    I think Wayne Borean’s objections (Post #28, above) to the bad science are legitimate grievances, but for me, it was the contorted relationships of authority and outright departure from Star Fleet’s organizational integrity that made me wince during this movie.

    I’m no writer, but I do believe that social and organizational context plays a role in a strong story.

    • #51 by Athena Grayson on June 21, 2011 - 4:24 pm

      I’ve posted elsewhere something similar. It was a good movie and well written…but it wasn’t Trek. Roddenberry’s original vision built the Federation as a symbol of humanity fighting against its own baser nature as a theme throughout just about all the series. The Federation would have been an Empire if they were as free with the wild-eyed mavericks and the lasers as modern action movies expect. Concepts like the Prime Directive challenged the characters and the storylines to rise above immediate or personal/small-scale justices to focus on a greater or more long-term adherence to principles.

      I also failed to get the sense that the ChrisPine!JamesTKirk would have grown out of his arrogance to become the leader he needed to be. I blame that on JJ Abrams and his fondness for hand-waving. I could afford to give it a pass because the “alternate future/reboot” excuse could send the characters in legitimately different directions. Interesting and entertaining…but not Trek.

  37. #52 by Tina Thomas on June 21, 2011 - 4:21 am

    I too, loved that movie. I also love how Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Sarek (Ben Cross) interacted together. I feel that the interaction between those two characters is an important part of this film. The scene where Sarek admits to having loved Amanda at the time he married her is an important part of the formation of young Spock’s character. I also thought those flashback scenes to Spock’s childhood were rather interesting in that he also had his share of problems–as the young Kirk did…The relationship between Sarek and Spock had been somewhat strained, but losing Amanda seemed to have brought them closer together. Spock choosing Star Fleet seems to have disappointed Sarek to a degree prior to Amanda’s death, but as Sarek counsels his son, he encourages him to (in a nutshell) so as he feels he must do because that is what Amanda would have advised.

    Yes…I noticed the “red shirt” bit too…My son kept saying, “That dude is gonna die!” AND pointing the red shirted ones out that DID die.

    Great job, Kristen! I’m one of those that would rather read a book also!

  38. #53 by Anne-Mhairi Simpson on June 21, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    I loved the new Star Trek film (and the Fifth Element) and you’re absolutely right. It’s because we care about the characters in both. In 5th Element, even the so-called perfect human had a human weakness – she needed to be loved. She needed to know that there was a point to her existence. The emphasis was definitely on ‘human’ rather than ‘perfect’.

    To go slightly off-topic, that’s why I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is the most bad-ass wizard around, and yet he gets beaten up, he cries, he thinks he’s completely screwed this time, and he consistently gets stomped on by various incarnations of the Big Bad. You gotta love the guy for maintaining his principles and by never losing faith in his own abilities.

    Huh. That might be a lesson for writers, too, not just bad-ass wizards. Oh alright, fictional bad-ass wizards.

  39. #54 by Julie Glover on June 21, 2011 - 4:44 pm

    I was so skeptical when this Star Trek film came out. And I was so surprised how much I loved it! I enjoy the Trek movies and series, but I admit to not being as savvy about the science or constructs as many Trek fans. I just like the characters, the settings, and the cool “what if” plot lines. And this latest movie did a great job with characterization.

    I completely agree with you that readers and viewers care about people not worlds. I contend that regardless of how unrealistic a story (paranormal, fantasty, sci-fi, etc.) is, we can believe it if people behave like people in those worlds — if we can relate and root for them.

  40. #55 by Siri Paulson on June 21, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    Paul Owen, Athena Grayson – YES! Thank you. “It was a good movie, but it wasn’t Trek” — for all the reasons you both mentioned. As compelling a character as Chris Pine’s Kirk was, I couldn’t accept this very young, arrogant, chip-on-the-shoulder risk-taker as a starship captain in Starfleet. Nor was I pleased with all the repetitions of “Kirk is right, Spock is wrong”, which lacked the balance that the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic had — Trek is all about humanity fitting into the universe and learning to work with other points of view, not lording it over the Vulcans (same reason I didn’t like Enterprise, the series).

    Having said all that, the character arcs and action (and, well, what Kristen said) pulled me along while I was watching it — I didn’t think of most of my objections until afterward. My main problem during the movie was trying to accept new actors in the familiar old roles.

  41. #56 by Siri Paulson on June 21, 2011 - 9:22 pm

    I should add that Trek, to me, is also about how the scientific “what if” meets the social “what if” — but I realize that’s a tall order for a two-hour movie that’s tasked with trying to breathe new life into an old franchise while not alienating the existing fans. ;-)

  42. #57 by Marilag Lubag on June 23, 2011 - 7:42 am

    Love Chris Pine in Star Trek. :-) There’s just something about guys who takes a lot of risks but cares for others, too, you know. You mentioned Twilight so I won’t use that as an example. I could definitely see myself in Bella (as the other Twihards do). Edward is just Edward. He’s flawed but beautiful nonetheless.

    On that note, it’s why I love my new obsession: H2O. I know, it’s a teen show but I love how each character has a flaw. In particular, I like the dynamic of Zane and Rikki. Zane is just crazy about Rikki. However, he can’t seem to do anything right but he’s trying. Though he has questionable morals, there’s something about them that makes me want to root for them.

    Also the live action of Sailor Moon. Once you get past the costume changes (that turns a lot of people off), it rips my heart to see Mamoru and Usagi fall in love–but they can’t be together. If they did, the world is going to end. I was rooting for these star crossed lovers who can’t seem to get a break. All they want is to be together but it seems like destiny keeps on pulling them apart.

  43. #58 by Kristie Kiessling (@Narratus) on June 24, 2011 - 1:30 pm

    Kristen – what a way to touch on a chord that resonates with writers. Star Trek! Wow. I was four when I watched my first episode and have been in utter love with it ever since. Some of the series subsequent to the Original (capital O) have been more like red-headed step children than genuine children of the “Great Bird of the Galaxy”, but I would agree with you completely about the latest movie.

    Star Trek has always been about characters in a fictional setting based on science. Science has always been another of my loves. I don’t have the talent for it, though, so I married a scientist instead. Clever of me, don’t you think? The wonderful thing about Abrams version of Star Trek (and I submit that it IS Star Trek through and through despite what I will call the little discrepancies Siri, Paul and Athena have noted) is that the characters hold true to the heart and soul of Roddenberry’s vision when he was sitting in his back yard as a child imagining the adventures of Christopher Pike. The Enterprise herself is a character and a marvelous one! Like her captains, I loved the ship as much as I loved her crew.

    The Ship’s construction began on Earth, not in space, in the heads of Roddenberry’s made up scientists. The wonder of a show that was science based fiction is that as more science was learned, more science was employed. When Gene was a boy, there was much less factual information available to him for the creation of his “Fleet”. As he began the production of the show, there was more, but still far less than is available to a man like Abrams today. A ship that large, while the nearly finished product was indeed shown in space dock in the movie, is still not too large for parts of it to be built planet-side. THAT is the marvel of Star Trek, to adapt, to innovate.

    Kirk was never one for conformity – this was made clear many times in the Original Series. With the radical changes in background that Abrams has introduced, he is that maverick magnified and it is utterly fantastic. I love the new life that has been breathed into the old franchise – but more than that, I am very satisfied how Abrams (a fan like me) has been able to stay true to the essence, the very soul of the Original and the scientific mind and adaptation of the characters of Star Trek.

    In this version, humanity still fights it’s own baser nature. Let me remind Athena that the Federation always thought too highly of itself. For Gene it was a writer’s platform for social engineering. He was very active politically. The Federation was made up of “good Americans” trying to spread their politics to other worlds with the Prime Directive overlaying their actions in an almost always failed attempt at non-interference. Non-interference is essentially impossible once you’ve actually made contact. You’ve changed the people you’ve met just by meeting them! The viewpoints of the various alien characters throughout the Original Series show this.

    The Original Series dealt largely in a reactionary way to the issues of the Vietnam War (which had polarized a nation) with the notion of a Utopian State – the Federation. Which was a fallacy even within that constructed universe because there were people within the United Federation of Planets who did not agree with what their leaders were doing. This is how it was in the ’60s. Johnson and his Social Experiment was not agreed with by all but at the time it was believed by its creators that “if you experienced it, you’d get on board with the idea.” This is what the Federation was doing throughout the quadrant and Gene as the creator of it was very good at showing the political side. Abrams is effectively carrying this through in the new Star Trek and he has intimately connected it with the old. Regardless of whether JJ is trying to make a political statement with his film (I think there are many within the context of the story, btw) or just have fun, it is writing at its best and it is most certainly Star Trek.

  44. #59 by Chris on August 21, 2012 - 5:27 pm

    Abrams’ movie was an atrocity in terms of every decision made, but particularly with story and character. I won’t focus on the story, because plot holes, etc. are forgivable if the characters are respectable. But these characters weren’t remotely Roddenberry Humans or the characters they were suppose to resemble. At best, one could define the characters as cardboard caricatures. While the main characters had a superficial arc, no fundamental character development occurred – at least if it did, it happened for the worse.

    For example, the viewer is introduced to a young bullied Spock, who quickly retaliates with violence against his cheeky schoolmates. Later, just past the mid point of the movie, Spock and Kirk argue over tactics… to rendezvous with the fleet or chase after Nero. The fight could have been resolved with Spock acting in a logical manner (he was raised as a Vulcan after all) and having Kirk placed in the brig for insubordination. But instead, Spock acts from anger, and displaces Kirk to an ice world where Kirk may very well have died. So in ignoring the brig option, Spock not only looks incompetent as a Commander, but has devolved from a punk to an immoral officer willing to strand and abandon a fellow officer, at the potential consequence of that officer dying. Spock further makes the crew of the Enterprise look immoral for complying with this asinine decision. At the film’s climax, Spock completes his transformation to an all out psychopath when he objects to Kirk offering Nero aid.

    The same could be argued for Kirk, whose arc can be summed up in the climax. He only offered to help Nero, not because he actually made any progression, but because he thought it would please Spock (are they gay in this universe?). As soon as Spock objected, Kirk was only too happy to unload torpedoes on Nero’s vessel, which was already being destroyed by the black hole. Instead of wasting resources, Kirk should’ve ordered the Enterprise to a safe position before the black hole’s gravitational attraction became too great. But that would be too logical for these morally lacking and logically impaired characters. And so as predicted, the Enterprise nearly gets sucked into a black hole, because Kirk would rather eat an apple and make hand gestures than perform a remotely logical action.

    In the end, Kirk and Spock learn that they can combine their destructive talents to be an even greater destructive force in the galaxy. Is that Star Trek? Is this suppose to be the mirror universe from “Mirror, Mirror”? Despite Nero’s shallow motivations, I can’t help but find him the most relatable character in the whole movie for wanting everyone and everything in this new universe dead. It was as if he realized his alterations to the time line altered the cosmological constant to retarded.

    Abrams’ movie was written for a shallow audience with ADD, and is depressing for portraying a future closer to that of “Idiocracy” than staying true to the philosophy of Gene Roddenberry.

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