Kristen Lamb

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What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Writing

Last night I watched the new Star Trek movie directed by J.J. Abrams for the second time. 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. 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 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 plucked from the screen last night. 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. There are all kinds of space movies that had far better special effects than the original Star Wars, yet Star Wars endures and will endure to future generations. Why? Because it told a story about people first. I believe this Star Trek will do the same.

I know I risk making some die-hard fans angry at me, but I never could get through the newest Star Wars trilogy. 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.

Star Trek 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.

Are there some movies you guys would recommend to help us grow in our craft? Put them in the comments and help us out.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

**********************************************************

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147 thoughts on “What Star Trek Can Teach Us About Writing”

  1. Bob MayerBob Mayer

    At Who Dares Wins publishing we look as much at an author’s ability to promote as much as content. That’s a reality of the new world of publishing.

    Character first was a hard lesson to learn. People identify with people more than they do with things. In movies, you can have great CGI, but if we don’t care about the characters in the midst of all that, it has little impact. It’s interesting that the best writers, actors and actresses are all moving away from movies and to TV. Movies have become over-bloated and poorly written in many cases. One of the best episodes on TV last year was the one in Breaking Bad where is was just the protagonist (who won Emmy for best actor) and major supporting character (who won Emmy for best supporting actor) alone in a lab, while the protag tries to swat a fly. That’s it.

    Sometimes subtle and simple is better.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  2. Piper BayardPiper Bayard

    Hi Kristen. Thanks for your post. I can always count on your for great information and insight. For what it’s worth, my comment about the newest Star Wars trilogy was, “Let me out of this *%$#ing Happy Meal!”

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  3. Piper BayardPiper Bayard

    Lol. And you can always count on me for a typo. (“. . . you” for great information and insight, not “your.”)

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  4. GilliadSternGilliadStern

    I agree completely with the comparison between the new Star Trek movie and the newer Star Wars Movies. The Star Wars movies focused so much on the world that the writing was bland and the characters did not pull out the same emotion that the original trilogy did for the characters.

    Another good scene is the opening scene from Inglorious Bastards when only two characters are talking in a single room house. Very good use of a simple setting to create suspense and focus on the characters.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  5. JosephJoseph

    How true. I think many writers also fall into the flat characters because they may have a wonderful idea of what their characters are like, but don’t know how to make them real. Or they assume they will develop them but get caught up in everything but their characters. It’s a shame, because without people, stories can’t really exist for we mere mortals.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  6. Terrell MimsTerrell Mims

    Amen!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  7. Terrell MimsTerrell Mims

    CGI and story is like icing and a cake. Unfortunately, we have layered on three inches of icing on a quarter inch of cake.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  8. HarleyHarley

    Hey Kristen,

    This was a great post and I wholly agree about watching movies to learn about story telling. I block scenes out in my mind as I would see them in a movie.

    Great all around. Thank you.

    H

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  9. chowleychowley

    Wow – this was excellent. Thanks for the thoughtful critique!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  10. lifeintheboomerlanelifeintheboomerlane

    You are right on target with this one. Many writers are guilty of explaining what the reader should be understanding. Don’t tell me how mean or arrogent a character is. Let his behavior speak for itself. And people are complex beings. No hero is without flaws (unless it’s a cartoon character) and no villan, unless completely insane, is without some kind of surpressed caring for something. It’s the contradictions that provide the interest.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  11. Michael BowersMichael Bowers

    Thanks for the great post! I too am a fan of a good balanced mix of style and substance. Compelling characters always drive the story. And I absolutely agree with your view on “flawed” characters. Dr Greg House is an example of a deeply flawed character that resounds with audiences.
    I’m looking forward to following your blog…I’m glad I found it!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  12. LeslieLeslie

    As an avid reader of science fiction I wholeheartedly agree with your last point on character and story. Too often I get overwhelmed by the magic and the myth and end up with characters I don’t care about. It’s even worse with some of the movies and the CGI. I never got through the new Star Wars Trilogy either. Part I was enough for me.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  13. DrewDrew

    The post was great! One thing I would add about this movie was the fact the writers totally changed the timeline of “Star Trek!” They wove their story in so well, and made it believable for the most die hard of Trek fans! Now they are free to redo the original series of adventures! I for one am excited to see the next movie!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  14. photographyfree4allphotographyfree4all

    This is an amzing post! I loved all your insight and the time you took to explain all the intricacies of the writing. Very well done!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  15. sarahparrosarahparro

    Great insights!

    I wouldn’t describe myself as a die-hard Trekkie (although some of my most vivid childhood memories include watching the old movies and shows with my two older brothers), and I absolutely loved the newest Star Trek.

    Thanks for reminding us that it’s the story, not the special effects, that captivate an audience. This is why Avatar will be remembered as being the “bad plot with pretty things to look at” movie, whereas Star Trek nearly moved me to tears in the first five minutes.

    And I completely agree about the distracting CGI in the new Star Wars; while some of it looked cool, it made everything feel false; as my husband described it, “I felt like I was watching a video game, not a movie.”

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  16. dumpdcdumpdc

    First time reader, first time comments…

    Terrific content today. This theme of telling stories is why I love Avatar so much. The story is everything, but Pandora’s physical existence is another character in the story.

    I write non-fiction in the insurance claims field and the political field. But love your comments.
    Russell Longcore
    http://www.DumpDC.com

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  17. mkds67mkds67

    Good post. Being a writer/author myself for many years, I have found watching films can sometimes breathe a little inspiration into my wings, so to speak. Nevertheless, being a sci-fi fan also has its perks when writing, especially if its as placid in plot as Star Trek sagas. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Marcus De Storm

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  18. Darlene ReilleyDarlene Reilley

    This post is great. The advice is actionable and stresses showing not telling.
    Thanks for a fun informative blog.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  19. andreea93mandreea93m

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading your post, although I’m not planning to become a writer. I just enjoy watching films and reading books.
    You know what’s interesting? You’re the first person who actually says there are great resemblances between a film and a book! Most people tell me that literature and cinematography are two completely different arts and you’re not supposed to compare them. Still, you say you can study a story by watching the film… Hm…
    I have to admit that I enjoyed Star Trek more than Star Wars, too. But I didn’t realise then why exactly. Now I know 🙂
    Have you watched Knowing? If you have, how do you feel about it? I liked it, it was quite interesting

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  20. CherlynCherlyn

    Wow – what an insightful post. I know a few people who didn’t like the new Star Trek film, and I think I may just send them over to read your arguments. The only part I didn’t agree with was: `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`m not going to get into a rant about Twilight…again, but I would never consider Twilight be a well written piece of literature. But to each their own 🙂

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  21. cubicspacecubicspace

    its Uhura, and 007 seems to have survived 20 odd movies;) Matching Storytelling techniques to an audience is why the current trek fim did well. In fact as storytelling it dissatisfied many who considered the STAR TREK brand theirs when it was primarily a television product that built on characters and audience acceptance of those conventions.

    As to the writers of the JJtrek film vs the writer of the TOS series…one should examine the motives to use story…JJ Treks point was to make mass profit/mindshare FROM an audience, rather than tell a singular story TO an audience as the writers whose scripts usally got bought to be made into TOS screenplays…..

    That may tell possibly more about writing as a medium today than the stories or techniques used? 🙂

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  22. lorilowelorilowe

    Congrats on being featured on the front page of WP Freshly Pressed! Good advice for all writers, particularly working on that dreaded platform! Best to you.
    Lori Lowe
    http://www.LifeGems4Marriage.com

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  23. coffeescholarcoffeescholar

    Great blog! I loved the movie. I love it even more now that I have another level in which to appreciate it. Certain people (I won’t dignify them with names) claim that cinema and tv rot your brains. So not true. I love what you did, using cinema and tv to teach something.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  24. She.Is.Just.A.RatShe.Is.Just.A.Rat

    I agree wholeheartedly with the pivotal first scene…my husband commented to me about how the music just gloriously appears in the scene…and then all of a sudden is quiet…this juxtaposition of war and destruction; with peaceful music. Fantastic! Great post!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  25. KristaKrista

    As a life long fan of Star Trek and writing, I just had to click on this post when it came up on WordPress.com’s “Freshly Pressed” page. And I am glad I did. You raise some excellent points. Especially your first.

    I completely agree with the theory that audience’s prefer flawed characters because of ability to relate through shared flaws. As I read this portion of your post, I thought about the various James Bonds we have seen through the years. When Casino Royale (2006) was first released, I had several discussions with others about how Daniel Craig makes Bond seem much more human than past actors. He plays Bond as someone who does not always have steady footing. Sometimes, he even slips. He does not shoot with 100% accuracy.

    But we love Craig as Bond for portraying Bond as a human. Tossing in these flaws, no matter how minor they might be, makes him easier to relate to.

    (Looking forward to checking out your other posts!)

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
    • TexanneTexanne

      If James Bond has flaws, you can thank the writers, not the actor. The actor can do lots of things, including making the character into a fat nebbish or a smarmy idiot, but if he shoots and misses, or falls down the stairs, it’s because the writer wrote those flaws into the character. The writer may have made him less than 100% accurate with his weapon in order to increase the tension in some later scene when someone’s life depends on Jimmy’s straight shootin’.

      The Star Wars prequels. Gag. Took some kids to the first one. Was so bored that I took out my notebook and started working on my own story. We know Anakin survived the stupid race already! For a long time, I wasn’t sure if I had gotten too old for the story or if Lucas had.

      Star Trek, even as far back as the TV shows, was always about something. One episode split James Kirk into two parts, one evil but effective and one nice but ineffective. Point being that leadership requires a strong, balanced personality. And so on and so on.

      Thanks for the very useful post, Kristin.

      Reply
      September 13, 2010
  26. sunshinediarysunshinediary

    Loved it. thanks! actually came by accident as I discovered a secret message to the TMNT (the turtles, yes) on a historical German building an wrote about that…
    not the same, but liked this too and happy I came around 🙂

    http://www.sunshinediary.wordpress.com

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  27. CrystalSpinsCrystalSpins

    A personal project of mine for a wile was reading books that had been turned into movies that I liked. At the time I was a journalist and part of my craft was to eliminate as much as possible in a story and still get the message across. Because most screenplays are about 130-190 pages (I’ve been told) this is a big part of what has to be done when adapting a book into a screenplay.

    Also, I hate that people around me are constantly saying, “The movie is never as good as the book.” Baloney!

    “Fight Club” was better than the book. “Bridget Jones Diary” was better than the book. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was better than the book. So was “High Fidelity.”

    And then there are movies that I think took out too much, like “Shopgirl.” The book was brilliant and as I was reading it I thought it would make for a great movie and it was short to start with so it should have lent well to screenplay length. But they took out some of the best parts. They made the choice to further develop a character that had been very minimal in the book — and that was good, but there were lines in the book that I underlined because they were so powerful and well-written that didn’t make it in to the flick.

    Okay, I could go on forever about this. Off the top of my head, more movies with good writing: Moonstruck, Shawshank Redemption, Gun Shy, State and Main, Better Off Dead, Grosse Pointe Blank and When Harry Met Sally. I’m a sucker for good dialog.

    Crystal
    http://www.crystalspins.com

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  28. Greg CampGreg Camp

    Did we watch different movies? The characters were cardboard cutouts, and the film depended on special effects and incessant busyness, rather than intelligent dialogue. This is not to mention the fact that this version was a complete departure from the established world of “Star Trek.” Story-telling does need good plot, but plot is only one part of the story.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  29. JeremyJeremy

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Amen! Amen! Amen! I watched this movie 9 times in the theater last summer because I couldn’t get enough of the original writing and creativity behind it. My creative writing professor would absolutely what you say about “showing, not telling.” Abrams wrote a story with this movie that just slaps you in the face because it seems so real. I don’t “like” this post; I LOVE IT!
    Kudos to making Freshly Pressed!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
    • JeremyJeremy

      absolutely love*

      I leave out entire words of sentences when I get excited. Sorry…

      Reply
      September 13, 2010
  30. e6n1e6n1

    “Star Trek” 2009 very deftly sketched in the main characters (Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Dr.McCoy) with a lot of show and almost zero tell. Like the explanation for McCoy’s monicker ‘Bones’- brilliant!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
    • Joachim BoazJoachim Boaz

      Yeah, but certainly didn’t deftly sketch the enemy! Nero is a terribly written villain with very little motivation besides simplistic revenge…

      Reply
      September 13, 2010
  31. malindaloumalindalou

    I am not a fiction writer (admittedly I stink at it which is why I write nonfiction almost exclusively), but I LOVED this post. You pulled apart a movie to show us the true story behind it in a very entertaining way. Nicely Done!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
    • malindaloumalindalou

      *story line NOT *true story

      Reply
      September 13, 2010
  32. houndandhandbaghoundandhandbag

    First of all, I loved that movie.The part with Bones trying to get Kirk aboard the Enterprise while shooting him with different syringes killed me.

    I am in the midst of writing a fantasy story that I’ve had for over 25 years. And I have recently overhauled the main character. He was too much of a boy-scout, and even I knew I’d get bored writing that. I’m discovering that there is much to learn about handling your characters well,something I would not have understood 25 years ago.
    And besides,without the internet,it would have been more difficult to find good forums and tutorials on the subject!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  33. Donna DavidgeDonna Davidge

    didn’t se the movie but love your comments on writing, thanks much!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  34. TimTim

    I agree that imperfect heros are better because it adds drama to their situation. A perfect hero has no limitations so I find it boring when I watch them struggle to get to their end goal. I know that they will do it but a hero that can make mistakes and isn’t all powerful has the possibility of failing. That makes it exciting.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  35. pegahoulpegahoul

    Great message. I’m a comic artist who’s still learning to make a good story, so this is very helpful. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  36. Joe SchwartzJoe Schwartz

    I was drawn to this posting because it was on the homepage of WordPress when I went to work on my site. The thing about Star Trek that has always drawn me to it more than Star Wars is the interesting use of the team dynamic. No matter how much of a risk taker Kirk is, or how intelligent and logical Spock is, they fall apart without each other and the supporting cast of characters.

    The success of Star Trek has always been that it is, at its core, a work about team building and that no one can do the job alone. The failures of the Star Trek spinoffs such as Deep Space 9 and Voyager is that there was little empathy for the characters because there was no real team dynamic. Next Generation did a better job of this and stayed true to Roddenberry’s vision, but it is the dynamic of the original characters that continues to draw new audiences.

    I’m glad that Abrams kept that dynamic going, even if he did take a few liberties with the original storyline. If you want to take something away from this as a writer, it is that you must build compelling characters that transcend time as these do. You must also develop a story that realizes that despite their individual flaws, they are able to rise up together because as a team, they succeed.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  37. verdicchio1997verdicchio1997

    ive never seen star trek before but it teaches that with imagination you can do anything

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  38. DannyDanny

    Sweet! That was a lot of great advice you just game for writing. I can’t wait to put some of it to work. I’m thinking about writing a screenplay with a couple of friends and this just might have the right advice. Thanks for the tips!

    -Danny

    http://writeos.wordpress.com

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  39. ayeshanshanayeshanshan

    It’s always nice to see someone break down the conventions of good storytelling. You make valid points, that there are crucial elements to storytelling that transcends all forms of media be it verbal, written, or visual and this is a brilliant reminder that the story is what resonates within people, not flashy computer graphics.

    This is the very reason why I think Pixar does such a great job with all their movies (especially with their shorts). Thank you for this fantastic post.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  40. RebeccaRebecca

    Great post! You mentioned not relying on CGI; I think it’s telling that Star Trek won an Oscar (the franchise’s first) for the make-up work, recognizing the fact that most of the aliens you see in the movie were actually created in the real world, in a make-up chair. Suck it, Avatar.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  41. the Kinder Lifethe Kinder Life

    Great blog!!! Hope you don’t mind…I subscribed. I write in my spare time and love the movies. I don’t often get the chance to talk writing or even stories with anyone. Thought about starting a writing blog, but haven’t mustered up the courage yet. Look forward to reading more from you.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  42. Joachim BoazJoachim Boaz

    I agree with the last post (Rebecca’s) — aliens created with make-up and then touched with CGI for movements and the sort ALWAYS are superior to completely CGI aliens. So many movies are completely ruined by poor CGI aliens. This certainly wasn’t a detrimental part of the film. Although, I’m not sure one can claim that it was ALL well written! I mean, Nero’s character is one of the most ONE dimensional enemies ever!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  43. boho fangirlboho fangirl

    You’re totally right! The public does relate better to flawed characters. Whoever can relate to perfection is probably just faking it. 😉

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  44. findlaydonnanfindlaydonnan

    Nice post – I was hooked by the fact that a blog entry about ‘Star Trek’ (love) had made freshly pressed (hehe), but I was doubly impressed while reading, that this was relating to story structure, build and character growth – Awesome read!!!

    My favourite moments in all great films are the parts where foreshadowing payoff. Sometimes those moments are so subtle that an audience would just recognise it as a kickass action scene, and not understand what made it work so well. Best moments ever.

    I like that I’ve found a blogger that finally speaks my language.

    Do you watch ‘TEDTalks?’ Here’s a great video you might appreciate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpjVgF5JDq8

    Have a good day Kristen, I’m going to continue reading your blog now 😀

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  45. AveryAvery

    Great post. If you’re interested in more great SciFi writing (and happen to have been living under a rock) then the recently completed Battlestar Galactica series is a must. There is not one character that is not deeply flawed in that story line. Keep it up!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  46. REIMANOVAREIMANOVA

    COOL!!!! STAR TREK!!!!” LOVE IT SO MUCH!

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  47. Ron B.Ron B.

    Just for the record, her name is Uhura.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  48. michaelerikssonmichaeleriksson

    I agree with much of what you say, but your comparison with the “new” Star Wars trilogy surprised me:

    One of the things that I really enjoyed in the trilogy was exactly the greater depth of character and the flaws of character, compared both with the original trilogy and many other works in the same genre. Most notably, this applies to the descent of young Anakin from a hyper-idealistic young boy into Darth Vader through a heart-breaking road; however, there are many other examples. In contrast the original trilogy had too many stereotypical characters (from my adult perspective; my view as a child was very different). Compare e.g. Obi-Wan with his later incarnation as the sage and infallible Ben, compare the immutable goodness of Luke with Anakin, or look at the cartoonish Darth Vader.

    As an aside, what I did not enjoy about the latest Star Trek movie was the cliched use of time travel. Not only has this been done to near death, but the last series (Star Trek: Enterprise) used the same “retaliation for future destruction” scenario as the guiding motive for its third (?) season. For that matter, First Contact (a previous Star Trek movie) also had a very similar basic scenario; while The Voyage Home (yet another Star Trek movie) used a reverse of this scenario.

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  49. spiderwolvespiderwolve

    This was an excellent entry, completely accurate to those of us who love to write Sci-Fi 😀

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  50. claudsyclaudsy

    Kristen,

    I was so glad to see this post. You just did something similar to something I used to do with my university students. I would show them Blade Runner and have them pull it apart while relating it to the social cues, culture derivatives, etc. I was teaching Sociology at the time. It worked great and the students never could look at movies the same way again.

    Good for you. As a writer I’m with you on this. I enjoyed this movie for many of those same reasons.

    Looking forward to seeing what else you have to offer now that I’ve found you blog. Keep up the great work.

    Claudsy

    Reply
    September 13, 2010
  51. Gail ZahtzGail Zahtz

    Congratulations Kristen! This is really just yet another great blog from a great author; but I’m so happy your blog has gotten the recognition it deserves. While I’ve mentioned on Twitter that I’m not a huge sci-fi fan (sorry as crowd of readers gasp), but you don’t need to love sci-fi to learn from this and her other writing blogs about important writing fundamentals as well as the writing life. (I’m still partial to the piece about junk drawers.)

    For the record, I have never met, spoken to or had any professional relationship with Kristen. I was first introduced to her writing when, out of desperation, I bought the eBook of We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. Though I was formerly a “clicks and bricks” publishing CEO, and have spent over 15 years publishing my own pieces and doing public relations for others, I was clueless on how to function, let alone benefit as a writer or a publicist within the new world of social media.

    Though I had spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours trying to understand how to navigate the social media waters, Kristen’s book was the only piece I really would have needed. In less than two months since I bought the book, I have gone from an absolute novice to not only starting to brand my work, but preparing to shortly relaunch a new client whose award winning parenting book has significantly undersold due to a lack of the type of social media platform outlined in WANA.

    I don’t think it’s shameless promotion since I have nothing to gain by promoting her book. But if you like Kristen’s blog, I think you’ll love the book- and she’s fun and generous to follow on Twitter also.

    Well done! @GailZahtz (one of Kristen’s first lessons- brand your name not your subject matter, website or book title:)

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  52. paulasparadisepaulasparadise

    I’m so glad that Freshly Pressed featured this post — love your writing insights and I feel like I got a great bonus in finding your “We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media” book, which I’ve just happily downloaded!

    As for movies that can help us grow our craft, “The Right Stuff” comes to mind … so many great examples of showing versus telling and so many imperfectly perfect heroes (including the space program itself, which was still in its infancy as Gene Roddenberry was writing Star Trek!).

    Live long and prosper (you knew someone would bound to not be able to resist typing that!),

    Paula

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  53. TS BrookhouseTS Brookhouse

    Despite knowing the hardcore trekkies tend to hate the latest Star Trek movie, I loved it so much I actually saw it repeatedly in theatres (and not just because there are pretty, pretty people in it…). The argument against is that it deviates so completely from canon; the argument for, however, is the kind of story that successfully reintroduces classic characters to first gen newbs like me in a way that makes them and their story so very compelling.

    I like how you brought it down to those core points. I assimilate storytelling ideas through film as well, but I’m never so articulate about it.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  54. DaPoetDaPoet

    Re: Kristen Nelson at the Nelson Agency recently told one of my students that her agency will not sign any writer who does not have a solid social media platform. That trend is sweeping publishing. Time to get prepared the right way.
    _____________________________

    As a reader who writes for a hobby I have just about stopped buying books for two reasons: 1) Most of what is published today is way overpriced and is absolutely boring and 2) I can design my own ebooks with word perfect and adobe that are far more professional looking than the books that I have downloaded so far.

    So please tell Kristen Nelson to inform the authors she signs and the publishers who publish them that as a consumer I will not under any circumstances shell out my hard earned money for a book that sucks.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  55. mollylogicmollylogic

    Loved what you have to say. I learned a lot just from this post. Rock on!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  56. badger47badger47

    You make some good points, but I have to disagree on a few things. For fair disclosure, I admit that I am a big Star Trek fan. I was highly put off by this movie, in no small part because it is a reboot and they have “messed” with characters that I had come to know and enjoy.

    I do agree with your point about showing events and motivations vs. telling them. There is nothing more frustrating than having a writer resort to long stretches of expository backstory via dialogue. Especially in TV and film, which are both visual media.

    I did feel that the characters, especially new Kirk, came off as whinny teenagers. Kirk especially came off as smug and cocky. Watching the movie felt more like a reality show or a parody of an action movie than a sci-fi epic. When I was watching this film, I really could have cared less if Kirk and company managed to save Earth. (Besides, it is a Star Trek film…Earth is in no real danger of being destroyed)

    I feel that the storytelling and characterization in Deep Space Nine was much more compelling than in this film. Just about every character had flaws, but they were much more mature. Combining flaws with maturity makes the flaws have more impact. Immature and flawed characters just come off as whiny teenagers.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  57. macknowledgemacknowledge

    Hi Kristen, I thoroughly enjoyed this post… and actually stumbled across your blog thru the wordpress.com website. I am a die hard Star Trek fan, and you are right, this last movie was great in terms of storytelling. I had a good laugh on your ‘Red Shirt’ comment… too true!

    Your comments on using ‘imperfect characters’ is spot on. It is hard to relate to Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider). She was too perfect in every sense. We always seem to relate to flawed characters and cheer them on when they succeed. (ie. John McClane/Die Hard, Peter Parker/Spiderman, John Anderton/Minority Report, in my humble opinion)

    It was great to find this blog. Hoping to learn some tidbits to apply in my own story ideas. Never wrote before, but do have an idea I’d like to try. BTW… I added you on Twitter and Retweet’d this post too. 🙂

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  58. A.J.A.J.

    Great commentary.

    Movies to help writers grow in the craft? My favorite is the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea that Kevin Sullivan did for Wonderworks (later bought by Disney). Talk about character building. Probably the most clever adaptation of a well-loved book ever. It’s nothing like Star Trek — but it shows how you can tell an emotionally evocative story without anything really happening.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  59. From The PewsFrom The Pews

    I felt like I was sitting in my Creative Writing Class all over again!

    Thanks for the reminder, but more so, thanks for reminding me that I WANT to write…

    As soon as I can, I’ll be picking up your book, and who knows, perhaps writing??

    Oh, and BTW, one movie that I LOVED. And I Loved it not just because I Loved the Head-lining Actor, Will Ferrell, but because it was a BOOK in Movie Form…Stranger than Fiction.

    Let me know what you think of it! I’d love your comments.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  60. markfaddenmarkfadden

    I know I’m going to get A LOT of grief for this, but I’m putting it out there anyway. You want a movie(s) that are all about characters and that are concentrate on the story between them? How about the Rocky series? Better yet, except for Stop or my Mom Will Shoot, how about anything done by Sylvester Stallone? Go beyond the muscles and the one-liners of the Rocky movies and even Rambo, and you will find movies that explore the depths of REAL human emotion – love, anger, regret, dispair, ambition, and achievement. Rocky is basically a love story, first with Rocky and Adrian and then with Rocky and his family, especially his son (in the last one). Talk about flawed characters…Rocky starts out as a leg breaker for a local loan shark who gets a once in a lifetime chance to use the only skill he has to pick himself up out of his rotten existence to make something better for himself. He is someone we cheer for because, like Kirk in Abrams Star Trek, he is the underdog, a short, slow, southpaw with only his incredible will and heart to keep him going. In the Rambo movies, Stallone shows us a man who is a perfect killing machine. Rambo recoginizes this characteristic in himself and, when he tries for any kind of normal existence, he is not allowed to have it because of his fate. Time and again, when the powers that be call on him to come to the rescue, he begrudgingly does it because he realizes that war is his home, killing is what he does. In Cliffhanger, Sly must deal with the pain and regret of dropping his best friend’s girlfriend during a high mountain rescue, which leads to her death. After hiding out in another life for years, he comes back for the woman he loves and decides to help stranded climbers, and ultimately faces his fears and his friend, a tale of regret evolves into one of forgiveness…with a really cool story about theives among the backdrop of some incredible mountains. A fantastic combination that makes for a heck of a story.

    I will go on record as saying that Sly Stallone is one of the greatest storytellers of modern time! Once you really think about many of his movies, you might find yourself agreeing with me.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
    • LynneLynne

      Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen Cliffhanger, but I agree with you about that movie. I loved that movie in regards to the depth of characters. That scene where he loses the grip of his best friend’s girlfriend always gets to me.

      Thanks for bringing this movie up!

      Reply
      September 29, 2010
  61. tsuchigaritsuchigari

    I thought that this Star Trek was the best of the bunch. This was a wonderful article showing not telling some of writing’s greatest lessons. Some good reminders for me as well as I work on setting an awesome story in fantasy world. Can’t wait to see future posts!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  62. Nigel BlackwellNigel Blackwell

    Good stuff.

    Spookily enough I watched the same thing (in small bursts, thank goodness for ipad/netflix). It was a little slow to get started but it had conflict all the way and it did show, show show. I think one of the reasons it was likeable was because the the writers kept small elements of humour among all the seriousness. On Vega 5, when Kirk is running from the small monster he gets a moments respite as the smaller monster is eaten by the larger, only to have the larger monster turn on him. Later when the Romulan is trying to kill Kirk and says “you can’t even speak,” Kirk croaks “I’ve got your gun.” Its all subtle, but it takes the edge off the superhero falling fifty feet and shrugging it off bits.

    As for other movies to watch, you know I’m going to recommend Malice. Brilliant example of escalating tension and the protagonist having to deal with a relentlessly growing crisis. The writers really knew what they were doing.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  63. slamdunkslamdunk

    Excellent post. Thanks for the education; especially on the benefits of flawed characters.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  64. meekthegeekmeekthegeek

    I agree wholeheartedly, especially with your comparisons to the old and new Star Wars trilogies. The first trilogy was the classic hero’s journey and that’s why we still love it. That is also why Star Trek grabbed me, even though I’ve never been a big S.T. fan. I would add that it didn’t just tell Kirk’s story really well, but Spock’s too. It was moving, exciting and memorable. Thanks for writing this!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  65. HimitsukoHimitsuko

    Thanks for your post. Star Trek has always been a success not because of it’s high tech gadgets or it’s action scenes (which are often pretty laughable) but because it has always been a human story-a story about us–and them–and those other guys that look funny but whom we can admire from afar. It’s storytelling is rich because we follow all sorts of individuals faced with all sorts of situations through a universe not just of ships and spacial anomalies but literally through a universe of mind. We experience with them. My husband and I think of the characters as dear friends.

    It is also interesting to note how terribly flawed the Spock character is in this latest inception. The actor playing Spock was, I thought, superb. He’s arrogant and far more given to protocol than the Spock we know he becomes.

    And it hasn’t been given a lot of attention but the producers and directors of this new Star Trek pulled something else off that I thought was truly brilliant. Star Trek has taken us to the distant future, and to technologies we admire, but don’t relate to. It was wonderful to see them use a set design and props that felt so very close to home. I’m certain I spotted an iPod sitting innocuously on a tray of gadgets at one point and the computer stations were the most incredibly realistic I’ve ever seen in Sci-Fi. They didn’t take us visually to a far a-when, but instead to a very nearby future. Oh I’m sure there was plenty of good marketing reason for doing so, but as many of us long-time Trekkies have hoped, the universe of our imagination got much closer this time.

    For Trek fans, I invite you to read my blog post
    To Boldly Go-Where Gene Roddenberry Directed right here on WordPress

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  66. Tooty NolanTooty Nolan

    The first writing that I ever did was a script for ST:TNG. It wasn’t good, and it wasn’t accepted; but it allowed the bug to bite.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  67. Frankie RobertsonFrankie Robertson

    Kristin, I’m really glad that you made it onto Freshly Pressed. Your cogent analysis of ST and setting impressed me, and I plan to follow your blog from now on.

    I agree with you about the importance of character. The time I had the most difficulty finishing a project was when I didn’t have an in depth understanding of my characters’ goals and motivations.

    May I suggest you add the Search Inside feature on your listing on Amazon? It really makes a difference to buyers like me.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  68. OllinOllin

    This is excellent advice! Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  69. iamtrophyiamtrophy

    very true. good story line. I never liked Star Trek before but after this movie I am a BIG FAN. I am actually watching it right now 🙂

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  70. dijeraticdijeratic

    While I can’t completely agree with the quality of this film (too many plot holes), and I have to disagree about showing and telling – there was quite a bit of exposition going on in this story, where we are told something went on but no idea what – and that main thing is to do with the villain, Nero. He tells us his entire story, we don’t get to witness it, and the fact that he’s actually quite idiotic (though intense)means he has limited strengths as a character (I go over this a bit here: http://dijeratic.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/jj-abrams-star-trek-flaws-and-all/).

    Still, I did enjoy the pace of the film, the re-introduction to these character, even if, on the whole, it makes me question whether we will ever experience ‘Star Trek’ again. Abrams and Co had to do what they did in order to appeal to today’s audience; they combined the best elements of Star Wars with Trek and got a big popcorn movie out of it. It’s a good thing, in its own way. What I loved about going to see this film was the big cheesy popcorn aspect of it – there was zero angst in this film. It’s been years since I walked away from a film not feeling thoughtful, anxious or depressed. I agree with Abrams’ sentiment that we need something positive in movies, something hopeful, forward-looking. Star Trek always had that spark, it was about us, human beings, still here, doing better, doing the right things for a change (most of the time). It wasn’t so much about action and good versus evil as all those gray areas, it was a reflection of our times, good and bad. Will Abrams know how to stick to Roddenberry’s vision? Probably not, but he knows how to manipulate his audience into not caring.

    Fun film, but not much else.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  71. justincaynonjustincaynon

    I really liked this movie and all, but I couldn’t honestly tell why. I think that there was a lot in this movie that we could be taught and the only thing I think that kind of got to me in a way I didn’t like was the villain and how he seemed so much like one you’d expect to find on the show at some point. I guess they were going for the simpler thing, but what made this was the cast and characterization.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  72. markersmanalomarkersmanalo

    oddly enough this is amazingly relative to my current situation. I have just watched Star Trek and I am sitting here working on a story which will become or will be written currently in script format. I’m in a film making class and have a 5-7 minute film to write a script for.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  73. kagikagi

    Thanks for your insight, Kristen! I love Star Trek and the whole franchise itself and it

    I do writing as a hobby and what you have given me something to really think about!!! Muchas gracias! =D

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  74. KagiKagi

    Once again, great commentary. I forgot to ask one thing though, do you have any other blog posts/webpages related to writing as well? I hope you can share them here. I’d like to get back to writing again… Thanks!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  75. MattMatt

    nice post. I thought the thing that was particularly brilliant about the star trek reboot was the time travel aspect. it totally freed them from the original storyline, allowing them to create fresh material.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  76. celineganocelinegano

    this is very nice post. fresh views about writing…thanks for this!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  77. sapphicscribesapphicscribe

    Hey, thanks for this great post. As a new writer, there were lots of interesting and valuable points I found within it. Cheers! Saffy. x

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  78. HistoricistHistoricist

    This post caught my eye and I enjoyed it very much. First, you changed my mind about the movie…which I did not like at first, but, after reading your praise of the writing, perhaps I need to take a second look. Second, and more important, your pointers resonated and I realize that, if I ever want to publish that novel, I’ve got to brush up on some things. Thanks! I’ll be checking back, to be sure.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  79. jblynnjblynn

    Fantastic post! I didn’t expect to like the Star Trek movie, but was pleasantly surprised — just for the reasons you laid out.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  80. morgangreenstermorgangreenster

    I had an English professor that compared some of the writing in the old generation episodes to the writing of Shakesphere. I happen to agree. So though some people may think trekkies are basically some weird form a space nerd, the reality is that it was ahead of it’s time and in many ways still is because there is some real genius in it. And that my friend is bad ass and cool if you just had the wisdom to see this. That is the main reason I often don’t like hipsters, because they think they are better than everything and yet have very little passion about what they themselves are.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  81. Caleb "Muscles" AnthonyCaleb "Muscles" Anthony

    Star Trek is a favourite movie franchise of mine, good to see its benefit expanding past just entertainment!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  82. DelorfindeDelorfinde

    Wow … you really thought about that, didn’t you? That was really interesting to read! When I need advice, I’ll be sure to come over to your blog. You sound like you know what you’re talking about when it comes to writing!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  83. Emily JaneEmily Jane

    Fantastic! Star Trek and great writing – my two favourite things 🙂 Very well done!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  84. BluebirdBluebird

    I loved reading your post today! I am curious what you would have to say about Avatar (after watching it). Hope to read more on this topic on your blog.

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  85. SrinivasSrinivas

    I really related to this post of yours. I recall my Creative Writing workshop days as well. Show Don’t tell.. That is what I usually heard from my professor.. Very true in this movie’s context. Before I watched Dark Knight and Inception… this was one of the best movies I felt to have watched.

    I really relate to all the characters as I’ve been an avid Star Trek Buff. The dialogues in this movie are so well written, they really hit the beat. Also, the allegorical layers of depth are very beautifully depicted and I like the way the story is knit, especially the sequence of events and some fundamentals from Star Trek series and the sketching out of the characters.

    Nice post, related to it very well!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  86. Robert LeeRobert Lee

    What a great and refreshing take on Star Trek and James T. Kirk. I try to have conversations like that with my friends and family, but it usually turns into me lecturing about The hero’s journey or something. I completely agree with your train of thought. What about Batman in the last two films though? He is one of the ‘haves’ but is wonderfully flawed. I wonder what your take on Chrstopher Nolan’s version is?

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  87. RalphRalph

    WOW! You probably won’t read this, but, your insightful words were like coming out of a deep water dive just as your air runs out. Thank you for your wisdom and perception. I’m only an amateur writer but love it just the same. I will have to come back often. Please keep it up!

    Reply
    September 14, 2010
  88. Simon walkerSimon walker

    Like this post as I loved the movie – the ‘i dare you to do better’ challenge to Kirk from the original captain in the bar is a brilliant scene and pivotal of course.

    I’m from the Uk and on my DVD the producers explain that JJ wanted proper locations to minimise CGI and use old film making techniques where possible.

    Also, they tipped their hat to taking a lead from the first 3 Star Wars in terms of action/ character development pacing, if it’s on the US DVD check it out.

    Finally as a kid in the early 70s I wanted a red star trek shirt. I’d be zapped by the second ad break had I got it I suspect. I love the female uniform, so you get to keep yours….

    Reply
    September 24, 2010
  89. DaPoetDaPoet

    Simon…My father died before Generations came out {ST7} and I couldn’t help but become choked up while watching my boyhood hero die on the big screen…I did manage to hold it in until I got home where I sat on the edge of my bed and balled my eyes out as my wife sat beside me with her arms around me. It was just like losing my dad all over again.

    Reply
    September 26, 2010
  90. Patrick ThunstromPatrick Thunstrom

    I just added your blog to my RSS today and I’m glad I glanced through the backlog in the process.

    I agree with all of your points on the new Star Trek, and it’s a movie I use as an example when discussing craft. It doesn’t hurt that that writing also made it my favorite science fiction film ever.

  91. AmandaAmanda

    A great movie I rescently saw was ‘Skyline’. It’s an amazing rollercoaster ride that forces you to pay attention otherwise you won’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s only 1hr45mins but it uses every second available to force the forward momentum of the story and how the main characters are forced to grow or die. If this were a book there wouldn’t be a single spot for a bookmark.

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