Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: screen 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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what went wrong with star wars prequels, George Lucas, Kristen Lamb, writing, story structure, novel structure, why did we hate the Star Wars prequels, Star Wars, Kristen Lamb

I am a serious nerd. I grew up on J.R.R. Tolkein and played Dungeons and Dragons all through high school. Trekkie conventions, RPGs, Renaissance festivals, you name it. I had the punch mark on my Geek Card. I still remember being 3 years old standing in line with my father and uncle for hours as we eagerly waited to see this new epic film…Star Wars.

Two hours later, I was hooked. I grew up ankle deep in action figures, and logged so many gaming hours on Atari’s The Empire Strikes Back that even my dreams were pixilated. So when George Lucas announced, many years later, that he would be releasing the prequels to Star Wars, I was soooo excited.


I Still Love Star Wars

But please don’t hate me. So sorry, but I just didn’t like the prequels. I have tried to watch them many different times and yet found my mind wandering. I couldn’t keep up with what was going on and I felt, in some way, that I had failed. Maybe I wasn’t a true geek after all. Maybe I would have to turn in my Geek Card.

So this last Memorial Day weekend, I decided to give it another college try. Maybe this time things would be different. Nope…still didn’t like them. Ah, but this time I had a new perspective since I have spent the past two years blogging about writing. What went wrong? What can we as writers learn from this?

Episodes 4-6 remain brilliant examples of storytelling genius, so what happened with the prequels? I think the business of making money took precedence over solid storytelling. The movies were a huge success for their purpose—filling lots of seats and selling loads of merchandise. But, in a way, it saddened me because these movies could have set a new bar in master storytelling.

As writers, we can learn a lot from these movies.

Mistake #1 Bad guy’s plan was far too complicated.

If you need to use a Venn diagram to explain the bad guy’s agenda, then your plan is too complicated. I STILL don’t know what the Emperor’s plan was. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that Senator Palpatine’s plan rested way too much on chance.  What if Queen Padme Amidala had not given the vote of no confidence that started the ball rolling? Truly great bad guys don’t base their plans on a craps shoot.

what went wrong with star wars prequels, George Lucas, Kristen Lamb, writing, story structure, novel structure, why did we hate the Star Wars prequels, Star Wars, Kristen Lamb

I still am not quite sure who ordered the clone army. If Palpatine ordered the clones, then he was pitting them against the droids…which he was controlling as well???? Huh? And then, if the clones were created off the bounty hunter Jango Fett to be an army for the Republic to fight the rebels, then why, when Obi-Wan discovered the clone planet, did Jango Fett go running to hang out with the leader of the rebels, Count Dooku? The guy in charge of the droids? Which are about to be attacked by the clones?

This either makes Jango Fett the dumbest guy in the known universe or Count Dooku the biggest patsy in the known universe. Neither is really good for the purposes of storytelling.

I am certainly no one when it comes to the ways of business in Hollywood, but it seems to me that if you want to make millions off selling action figures to kids, it would be a plus if they could understand the point of the story. Star Wars was not complicated. It was complex. It was brilliant storytelling and the bad guy’s agenda could be summed up in one sentence.

It was so simple even a kid could understand it.

Mistake #2 Heroes are not babies, and bad guys are not whiners.

OMG…I wanted to SLAP Anakin Skywalker. If the end goal was to make Anakin into DARTH VADER the greatest bad guy EVER…then no whining. Scene after scene of Obi-Wan just doesn’t take me seriously got old really quickly.

Yes, as writers it is a great goal to have flawed heroes, because perfect characters lack depth. But, I feel there are certain character attributes that will alienate fans. Whining is one of those.

Mistake #3 Unforgivable acts.

If we lay the movies out in order, the story is really about Anakin Skywalker. It is supposed to be a redemption story. That is fine so long as we care to see the protagonist redeemed. The whining was bad enough, but when Anakin-turned-dark killed the Younglings? I was done. May hordes of a thousand fleas infest his undies.

I hoped he died a horrible death from that point on. To me, there was no redeeming him. He was a Little Kid Killer.

What is sad is that the scene was shock value, not good writing. In my world, where I get to write the prequels? Darth Maul would be threaded through all three movies. He was an AWESOME bad guy who got killed off far too soon and, frankly, far too easily. There was no reason that Darth Maul could not have made it to movie three.

In this parallel universe where Hollywood cares about my opinion, Anakin could have still been on the fence, wavering—Dark Side or Light Side? Dark or Light? Go Dark and save my love? Trust the Light, but risk that she dies?

The Emperor, in that final full-court press, could have ordered Darth Maul kill the Younglings, and then Obi-Wan could have killed Darth Maul. We would have seen this coming. Darth Maul looked like a Little Kid Killer from the beginning, and we’d be happy Obi-Wan sliced him in half.

Little Kid Killer. Take THAT!

Anakin could have unwittingly aided Darth Maul in this horrible act, and, feeling he had done the unforgivable, finally committed to the Dark Side—making it a classic Prodigal Son story. We would have felt for Anakin, for his belief that he could never make things right. We would have sat on the edge of our seats, longing for him to make amends and come home.

There was no reason for Anakin to kill little kids other than to shock the audience.

And don’t get me started on Padme. Really. She is this awesome heroine in the first movie. She’s a warrior and a stateswoman. In movie three we die of…a broken heart? Seriously? Two BABIES are not enough for her to press on? For me, this was totally out of character for the Padme presented, rendering the final funeral scene contrived melodrama. It didn’t ring true.

Characters can act out of character. They shouldn’t be predictable, but there is a fine line that will rip apart believability if we cross it.

Mistake #4 Too many characters.

I am certain things work differently in Hollywood. I know there is a lot of merchandising that rakes in buckets of cash to fund payroll and overhead. That’s fine, but we writers can still learn. The prequels had characters for the sake of having characters. The problem with a super huge cast is that it is far harder for us to connect emotionally. We have too many “people” vying for our attention.

My opinion? Jar Jar Binks was dead weight. He was like trying to go into battle with a hybrid of Ace Ventura meets Rain Man. Why would Qui-Gon take a loose cannon like that along? Jar Jar Binks was a moron and a walking danger to everyone on the team. Comic relief? Perhaps. But it was a stretch…especially in Episode 3 when he is now a politician? The same guy who stuck his head in an energy beam?

Oh dear.

I feel there were some really fascinating characters—Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul—that were killed off far too early when there was no need…other than to introduce brand new characters so we could have more action figures to sell.

The end result of crowding the cast was that the key characters got far too little attention, so we couldn’t watch their arc progress. Thus the actions seemed contrived and forced.

The lesson here? Be careful how many characters you slate in your novel. Movies get more leeway because we can see the characters. We don’t have to learn their names to keep up with the story. I have edited many pieces where they author has a half a dozen characters introduced on page one. This will give the same effect. It will overwhelm the reader and dilute their concern for major players…just like in the Star Wars prequels.

Mistake #5 Characters should progress naturally.

Characters’ wants and needs need to grow logically and organically out of the conflict and be in line with the character’s personality. They shouldn’t feel things and decide thinks simply because we, the writer, need them to. I felt this was the case with the doomed love affair between Padme and Anakin.

It felt forced. The writers needed them to be stupid so that Anakin going to the Dark Side would make sense (which it still didn’t). The problem was that they had created a heroine who was far too pragmatic and self-sacrificing to turn into some mindless ninny. She was the type of leader who was unafraid to get in the mix and to do what was best for her people. She wasn’t some vapid, self-centered socialite, so why did they suddenly have Padme acting like one?

Because they needed her to.

Anakin was adorable in the first movie, but by the second we knew that sniveling rat would sell out at the first opportunity. What on earth would a powerful woman like Padme find attractive about a guy who spends most of his time with her complaining about Obi-Wan? It’s like Jersey Shores goes to Tatooine.  Blech.

Most of the other interesting characters either DIED before we could see a progression OR they got so little screen time—had to make room for C-3P0 and R2D2 banter—that we just missed it. Obi-Wan might have been a really great character…had we ever gotten to know him.

Mistake #6 Don’t explain everything. Sometimes the magic is in the audience not knowing.

Think of a magician. When a magician makes a woman float in the air, all the audience wants to know HOW he did it. But what if the magician stopped the show and gave them what they wanted, and said, “Oh she isn’t really floating, she’s just held up by super strong filament”? That would ruin the magic and likely the magician’s career.

We all want a little magic, and with Star Wars, The Force was mystical, mysterious and magical…until the writers explained The Force as sentient microcells known as Metachlorians.

Great. Thanks.

If you have super-technology, magic, ghosts, or anything far-out in your stories, don’t feel the need to explain. The second a reader picks up your books, she has suspended disbelief so you don’t need to spend precious story time making her believe. She already does. We believed in The Force long before anyone concocted a Metachlorian, and many of us wish they hadn’t.

Ah, but these 6 problems are all symptoms of a plot that has no core conflict—back to mistake #1.

All the problems in the movie stemmed from the simple fact that the Emperor didn’t have a simple plan with clear objectives. Thus, what happened was that the story needed to get more and more complicated to make up for the fact that it was missing a core conflict.

The Star Wars writers were trying to fix plot holes with Narrative Bond-O—more world-building, more characters, more subplots, Metachlorians— and the story got more and more complicated all to make up for something that would have been fairly easy to fix had they stuck to the rules of good storytelling.

The writers needed to simplify the bad guy’s plan.

Had Palpatine/Darth Sidius had a simple plan, the story would have then been able to be complex. See, in the movies we grew up with? Star Wars, The Emperor Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi—the antagonist’s objective was crystal clear and so simple a 4 year old could understand it. That left room to develop characters that will live on forever. Writers will study these stories for generations to come.

So what do you guys think? Did you love the movies and I missed something? Tell me what you loved. Did you have the same experience? Were you disappointed? Why? What do you feel could have improved the movies?

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!