A writer’s workshop on screen


Joe’s Post #37 — I’m often asked, mostly by myself, how does someone write a great story? It’s a great question and I want to answer that today by looking at Star Trek: Into Darkness.


Hello! It’s a great story!

As I’m busy reading the novels of the 5/5/5 (and from my own experience writing a novel for that challenge), I’m keen to figure out what works and what doesn’t. So, hearing good things about ST:ID, I took time off to go see that movie, clear my head, refocus my mind. Being in critique mode, it’s hard to watch any movie, read any book without engaging the annoyingly analytical part of your brain.

But Into Darkness was so good it not only squashed that side of my brain, it filled it with warm and fuzzy thoughts. As I wrote in another blog, Star Trek: Into Greatness, this movie is epically awesome.

And for a few reasons that matter to me as a writer.

Structure and character.

But since I can’t really talk about structure without talking plot or pacing or themes, and thereby spoil this movie for everyone, let me go to the opening scene as an example of how to start a story.

Kirk is being chased. It doesn’t open in a bar or in a house or with a character kicking back and watching TV. No, it starts with action. Why? It’s an action movie.

He’s being chased through a cool red forest by people with spears who seem to want to kill him for taking a sacred scroll of sacredness or because they hate his big head, I dunno, but he’s running and spears are flying and then a great monster leaps out and Kirk, being Kirk, being an action guy, phaser-stuns the beastie only to have Bones leap out and say something like, “Dammit, Jim, you just shot our ride.”

Now why is this so great? Oh, it looks amazing on screen, it really does, (the blood-leafed forest makes the landscape look so alien) but for all the action, it’s funny and it shows the characters and how they react to events.

Kirk, when faced with a monster, shoots first and ask questions later.

That’s his character.

It turns out to be a bad move.

Things get worse for him (and Bones).

This is exactly what we all must make happen in our own stories.

But making an action character isn’t hard. Show him in action. Show him to be decisive, even if wrong, and show him to always be willing to make the hard choices.

But building on that to make a great character is a little more complex.

The writers start with little things like when Kirk returns to Earth, strutting through the streets like someone who’s just saved a world, spins in place to say “Hi, Jim Kirk,” to two pretty women who walk by.

Do I have those moments that define a deeper character, like Kirk talking to the girls? Or later, when confronted by someone who says he has a ‘reputation,’ he seems genuinely surprised that he does and when further pressed to remember one of his conquests, he cannot for the life of him remember so he lies and says otherwise? Lying doesn’t do him any credit as a human being but makes a better character.

Have I done the same?

The writers then add more human moments like his bewilderment and anger at the person he thinks betrayed him, or his realization that his actions do have consequences and not only for himself. Plus, (and big bonus marks here), the writers ensure those consequences make things worse. Much worse. They make him suffer. They take away all that he wants. His life is shattered. His dreams are destroyed.

But does he do? Does he give up?

No. He begins to transform.

It’s what needs to happen in every one of our stories. Our characters have to suffer and by suffering, transform. As readers, as watchers, as writers, we all love to see how people overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

So, have I put my characters in constant danger where every decision they make seems to take them farther and farther from their goal? Have I made them suffer? Do they transform?

I think so, but, again, I’m-a-gonna take a long hard look at this one, too.

The writers also make sure that Kirk is active in every scene that’s he’s in. This is so important for all us writers to remember. Kirk doesn’t sit in a room full of admirals and shut up. No, he sees something, a vital clue and brings that to everyone’s attention. It would have been so easy for the writers to have an admiral dictate that entire scene, but no, they know it has to be Kirk or this story is weakened.

Are all my character’s active in my novel? I dunno, I hope so, but I’m damn sure I’m going to check now. If they are active, could they be more active, make a bigger impact on the story, on their world?

I could go on and on here, oh I really could, the villain is beatable, he has a ship that is unstoppable, allies become friends, friends allies, and let’s not forget the two hot aliens with tails.

But the best thing I can do is recommend you see this movie. Go as a writer. If you can’t get into that zone the first time, it’s ok, the movie is that good – it should take you out of that zone the first time. But see it again and look at how they develop the characters and plot. Look at how they build the villain and oh, what a villain he is. Look at how each character interacts with the others on stage and how each interaction builds the depth of all the characters.

Sure it’s an outstanding movie.

But for us writers, it can also be a lesson on how to do things right.

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About Joe Cummings

Aquarius. Traveler. Gamer. Writer. A New Parent. 4 of these things are easy. One is not. But the journey is that much better for the new people in my life. A life I want to share with others, to help them, maybe, to make them feel less alone, sure, to connect with the greater world, absolutely.

4 thoughts on “A writer’s workshop on screen

  1. Putting characters through hell so they can overcome the situation and themselves is hell for me. Why? Because I’m apparently one of the few readers (or movie watchers) who gets taken out of the story when the obstacles get me thinking, “There’s no way all this happens/he survives this moment/she can keep pushing on through all this,” or something similar.

    I apparently reach this point well before most people. And until I can overcome it, and do what you describe, I’m unlikely to find an agent or press for my work. At least I know better than to just publish it myself at this point. Time will tell if I have what it takes. I suspect you’re well on your way, though!

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