A Few Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Star Trek Beyond is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m a Trekkie, so naturally I’ve already been to see the latest offering of the franchise, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung: Star Trek Beyond. I’ll resist the urge to pull up the writers for the various inconsistencies there were with the original Star Trek universe (suffice it to say, there were some and we’re all very cross about it but let’s be honest, there’s always something isn’t there?) and, as ever, I’ll leave any analyses of the cinematics to those better qualified than I to make any kind of judgement about them (although I will quickly say that Chris Pine is doing a much better Kirk impression these days than he used to). What I want to talk about today is the story-writing in this specific film.

So, first things first: did I like Star Trek Beyond?

It was alright. It was better than Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance, but it wasn’t a patch on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek Into Darkness. If visually spectacular space battles and non-stop action, excitement and danger are your thing then you will probably enjoy it. When boiled down to its basic elements, the plot was a little bit unremarkable: an angry alien (who is actually a human! Dun-dun-duun!) wants to unleash an extra-deadly bio-weapon into the ventilation system of the new Federation starbase Yorktown, which is home to thousands of innocent civilians from different Federation worlds (which is not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Nemesis, where an angry Reman  — who is actually a human clone! Dun-dun-duun! — wants to unleash an extra-deadly form of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere, but I’ll not say anything more about that).

In and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with that kind of plot if it’s executed well. My main problem with Beyond was the pacing of the plot. It was fast and exciting almost from the outset, but as any good writer will tell you, speed and excitement cannot make a good story alone. Slower scenes, rich in dialogue and other details are important to allow for a build-up in suspense and to keep the audience abreast of what is actually going on. In particular, these slow scenes are essential for adding substance and meaning to a story. I felt like Star Trek Beyond was all action and excitement for the first two thirds of the film and then crammed most of the major plot developments into the final scenes, where it is suddenly revealed that Krall is actually a human who got stranded on that alien planet before the Federation was founded and kept himself alive using alien technology to sap something from the native beings on that planet and now he’s out for revenge – and it’s a real shame, because I think this film definitely did have something to say which was in keeping with the original spirit of Star Trek. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear over the noise of all the explosions, phaser fire and motorbikes.

I think what would have really improved this film would have been more slow scenes featuring Krall himself to give the audience some inkling into what was driving him. After Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, poor Krall had a lot to live up to as a bad guy. He needed to be complicated and I think he had that potential, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was such that he came across as very two dimensional indeed. Perhaps if he had a right-hand man whom he could dialogue with (similar to the way scenes between Shinzon and his Viceroy in Nemesis foreshadowed the revelations which were still to come), it might have made the revelation of his human origins and his desire to avenge himself on the Federation seem a little less random and there would have also been an opportunity for some of his more complex thoughts and feelings to surface.

Speaking of under-cooked characterisation, there is also a subplot concerning Kirk and Spock’s friendship with each other and their respective futures in Starfleet, which is sadly lost amid all the excitement of the main plot. Having said that, I was very pleased to see that the relationship between Spock and Bones was allowed a little bit more room to develop in this film than it did in the previous two. Anyone who has ever watched the original Star Trek series featuring the late Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley in the aforementioned roles will tell you that their on-screen rivalry was the best in Star Trek history and it is good to see these two characters having time alone together to interact once again (although I did think that their dialogues with each other could have benefited from a few more scathing insults and sharp-witted jibes; it turned into a bit of a ‘bromance’ here and there, which isn’t really the kind of relationship you would expect from Spock and Bones).

All in all… it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a terrible Star Trek film, although it’s certainly not the best one I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, go and see it with some popcorn and a large drink in a paper cup and enjoy it for the entertaining escapism that it is.

Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

The Parable of the Audience

by A. Ferguson

The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

*   *   *

A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.

Every now and again I  hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!

Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.

Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.

Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:

Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.

So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?

I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.

It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).

By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!

How to Kill Someone (in Fiction) and Get Away With It

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King or Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

As much as I love the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who, I have to admit that in recent years, whenever one of the main characters die, I react in a way which I am quite sure the writers did not intend me to… I yawn.

I yawn because I just know they’ll be back. No one ever really dies on Doctor Who anymore, or if they do, some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing happens to bring them back. The same goes for the bad guys as well as the good guys; The Master, Clara, Davros, Rory (Okay, strictly speaking he was erased from history, but still the principle remains; he ceased to exist and should never have come back) – they always find a way to cheat death just when all appears to be lost. Which means that for the viewer, all never really appears to be lost. It doesn’t matter if they get vaporised, blown up along with their spaceship or erased from history; the viewer always knows there’s a good chance that somehow, with a little sprinkling of TARDIS magic, they’ll be back.

Dear reader, what a waste this is. In real life, death is final; that’s what makes it such a big deal and why it is such a valuable tool for stimulating the audience emotionally. While killing a character only to bring them back later might seem like a cheap and easy way to make your story more exciting, it robs death of its sting if the audience knows that in this story, death is not final. If you want to produce any kind of reaction in your audience other than a bored yawn when you kill off a character, you’d better make sure the Reaper’s grip is as tight in your fictional world as it is in reality.

Moving on from implausible resurrections which suck all the drama out of fictional deaths, there are a few other unfortunate ways your audience might react to the death of a character. If you read last week’s post, you will no doubt be aware of how fickle a thing the audience’s support for your character can be. Just because you, as the writer, have decided who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reader will like, support or sympathise with the characters you want them to like, support and sympathise with. The reason John  Coffey’s execution in The Green Mile was so sad was because over the course of the book (or movie, whichever you prefer…), we begin to sympathise with him more and more, especially when it becomes clear that he was not guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. If, however, he really had raped and murdered the girls he was accused of, I doubt very much that the typical reader’s response would have been quite so favourable towards him and it would have completely undermined the bitter note on which The Green Mile ended.

There is another point which is also loosely connected to this. Not only is it important that the audience has the right level of sympathy for the character you plan on killing, but the audience also has to have the right level of sympathy for the surviving characters too. After all, what really makes a death scene tragic is often far more to do with these characters than the ones who actually die. In the final scenes of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, one of the protagonists – the simple minded Lennie – accidentally kills a woman (‘Curley’s wife’). Most of the other characters in the story get the wrong end of the stick and decide to lynch Lennie. His friend, George, knows Lennie too well to really believe that he ever killed the Curley’s wife out of malevolence and ends up shooting Lennie in the back of the head to save him from being lynched. There are really two important deaths here: Lennie himself and Curley’s wife. Both of these characters have another character closely related to them with whom the reader has varying levels of sympathy (in Lennie’s case, it is George and in Curley’s wife’s case it is, of course, Curley). George, being one of the protagonists, garners considerable support from the audience on account of his protective behaviour towards the more vulnerable Lennie; Curley, on the other hand, is an altogether unlikable little man who is jealous, quick to anger, full of his own importance and who sees Lennie as somebody he can bully.

We’re not meant to like Curley. He’s a nasty little man from the moment he first appears so when his wife finally does die, all he is concerned about is having his revenge on the naive and lovable Lennie. In fact, the only time Curley ever appears to truly admire another character in the story is when he finds George standing over Lennie’s body and assumes that George heroically wrestled the gun out of Lennie’s hand and exacted revenge on Curley’s behalf – not realising that George killed Lennie as an act of compassion. It is almost impossible to truly sympathise with this man on account of his loss (no matter how tragic his wife’s death may have been) because his own reaction is one of hatred. He always hated Lennie for how he (accidentally) injured and humiliated him earlier in the story and now he finally has an excuse to kill him. That’s all his wife’s death means to him: an excuse to kill a guy he took a disliking to earlier in the story. George, on the other hand, clearly cares about Lennie, despite finding his behaviour challenging at times. Lennie’s death occurs only a few paragraphs before the story finally ends, but in those few paragraphs, George displays more genuine grief and regret over the death of his friend than Curley displays anywhere in the whole story. Thus, a certain bitter poignancy is added to Lennie’s death by George’s reaction, which is not so obvious in the death of Curley’s wife.

The death of a main character can easily be one of the main turning points in your story. A skillful author can use it to provoke any number of responses from all of the other characters, as well as further taking the reader’s sympathies in almost direction you like. Don’t spoil it or cheapen it by killing characters unnecessarily. If you’re going to kill a character then I implore you… don’t remove the fear of death from your story. Make sure dead characters stay dead, no matter how difficult it makes things for your other characters and be sure to do the proper ground work to get the correct response from your audience.

A Personal Tale of Directing The Reader’s Support

While I do love near enough all forms and genres of fiction (and fully accept that the ones I’m not so wild about still have a legitimate and important place in the wider world of fiction), I would be lying if I said that sci-fi and fantasy were not among my top five favourite genres. Recently, I’ve been especially fond of stories which blend the elements of sci-fi and fantasy by creating futuristic fantasy worlds such as Star Wars or Peter Newman’s The Vagrant which I mentioned last week. Naturally, therefore, it only follows that the novel I’m painstakingly working on just now is set in a futuristic fantasy world.

The trouble I’ve had developing the story, however, had nothing to do with world building or any of the other challenges we might expect to face when writing sci-fi/fantasy. It was more basic than that. Try as I might, I found myself constantly sympathising with the bad guys. Like many sci-fi stories, much of the conflict in my novel revolves a legitimate governing authority and a group of revolutionaries. Unlike many other sci-fi/fantasy stories, the revolutionaries in my story are the bad guys. I thought it would be a piece of cake to write.

I was wrong. Try as I might, I found it almost impossible to create a plausible plot in which the people might rebel against a truly virtuous government (besides, when is a government ever a pure paradigm of virtue?).

No problem, I thought. I’ll simply make them a flawed but basically well-intentioned government.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Violent revolution needs something to spark it off and that something is seldom a government who are maintaining a status quo of relative peace, freedom and prosperity, even if they do make a few mistakes. To make my story work, my rebels needed something to substantial to rebel against and that meant there had to be an unforgivable and cataclysmic failure (if not an act of wanton evil) on the part of the legitimate government.

So I decided that my nation had lost a war and was forced to make hefty reparations to their enemies (among other things), resulting in the new government (instituted by the winners in the war) enforcing outrageous tax hikes on the working classes while the wealthy aristocracy continued to live in comfort. The people now had a reason to be angry and rebellion had begun. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself sympathising with my own bad guys. Vive la revolution was all I could think; and if I was rooting for the bad guys, I was quite sure any future readers I might have would be too. It didn’t help that the main antagonist, who served as the leader of the rebels, was one of the most complex and compelling characters I had ever written (even if I do say so myself).

Somehow, I had to sway the reader’s support to the favour of the protagonist. My initial plan was to make him an undercover operative, who had been sent by his government to spy out the rebels and, if possible, undermine their efforts. In theory it was an decent enough story (if a little boring), but with reader sympathies firmly in the camp of the bad guys, I found it an almost impossible task to write that story without thoroughly ruining the ending for the reader.

I decided to consult The Story-Writer’s Oracle (also known as ‘history’) for help. I researched the villains and despots of modern and ancient history and asked what common threads ran through them to make them so despicable. I began with Hitler, since he and my antagonist had the most in common to begin with: both were soldiers in a war which their country lost, both were appalled by the mess their country was left in post-war and both saw themselves as would-be saviours of their nation. Because of these similarities, it was quite an easy thing to impose a few of Hitler’s more unstable character traits on to my own antagonist. But I needed to go further still. My antagonist was not interested in ethnic cleansing or any of the other atrocities we associate with Hitler, so simply giving him a Hitleresque temperament was not enough. I continued my research and eventually discovered that a more recent historical figure – one Saddam Hussein – apparently saw himself as the reincarnation of King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon circa 605 BC – 562 BC.

Brilliant! I thought, for it had just so happened that one of the ancient myths of my fantasy world involved an king who travelled to the castle of the gods in the sky and negotiated a thousand years of prosperity for his nation. I will let my bad guy see himself as the reincarnation of this man.

I went further still. I considered people like Pol Pot, who apparently forbade outsiders from approaching him unless they were summoned. I also considered the god complexes and the paranoia common to figures like Nero and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Before long, I had enough dark and disturbing character traits to create a whole legion of antagonists that the reader could not fail to dislike because they were reminiscent of some of the most unstable and ruthless characters in history.

Of course, this was only the first step. I had managed to remove sympathy from the bad guys but that does not necessarily mean that the reader would support the legitimate government.

But wait just a minute! I thought. They don’t need to support the legitimate government. They only need to support the protagonist of the story.

So instead of being a government operative, I decided to make my protagonist a neutral observer who became involved in the revolution… only to be disturbed by what he saw until he himself was forced to rebel against his fellow rebels. It was no longer about a good government vs. bad rebels; it was about one man’s simple wish to survive coming into conflict with his nation’s need to be rid of a dangerous and totalitarian regime which threatened to enslave everybody. From there, I was able to develop a protagonist who was able to rival the complexity and substance of the antagonist; a protagonist with needs and wants which would pull him in different directions; a protagonist whom the reader would support and sympathise with, regardless of how flawed the government was or how justified the antagonist’s initial grievances may have been.

Now I must apologise for taking you through this long winded saga of how I got my novel to where it is at now, but it seemed the easiest way to share what I have learned as a result of all this. When it comes to writing a story, your hero can be just about anybody: rebel, loyal citizen, rich, poor, slave or free; what matters is that your reader sympathises with their cause. If you’re writing a story where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys less than clear (and I daresay, you probably are if it’s vaguely realistic story) then the key to directing your readers support to the right character rests heavily in this: that you enable them to sympathise with and relate to the protagonist more than antagonist.

Adversity: A Leaf Out Of Peter Newman’s Book

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers, those of you who have not yet read Peter Newman’s novel, The Vagrant, are hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to read a truly engaging and imaginative piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy, you could do a lot worse than reading The Vagrant by Peter Newman. This gripping tale of our hero’s journey to the Shining City is set in a world where all hell has quite literally broken loose and has almost completely taken over the world. The winged swords (current holder of the My Most Favouritest Fantasy Weapon Ever Award) are alive and singing, the dead have been reanimated by demons and – most mercifully of all – Newman’s fantasy world has been mapped out with beautiful clear writing instead of forcing me to refer to an actual map on the front page every five minutes. It was such a joy to read that even the constant flash-backs (a pet peeve of mine) couldn’t put me off reading it.

You may be thinking I’m about to give you a review of The Vagrant. In fact, that was my original plan but instead I’ve decided to write about something important that I think we authors can learn from The Vagrant, whatever style and genre we write. While there are plenty of things in this book that make it stand out among its peers, one thing in particular that got my attention was that the protagonist (the otherwise nameless ‘Vagrant’) is, in fact, mute. He cannot speak. In all my years of reading, I have never yet come across a protagonist who could not speak and the further into the book I went, the more tempting it was to believe that Newman would sooner or later have to give up and make his protagonist say something. After all, surely it’s unrealistic to have him constantly communicating with looks and gestures or having to rely on his friends speak for him, right? Surely you cannot create a fully fledged character without him having some dialogue… right?

Wrong on both counts.

In writing The Vagrant, Newman has demonstrated (whether deliberately or not, I cannot say; I do not know the man) a keen appreciation for an important fact that we can easily forget: in real life, there are some obstacles which cannot simply be removed; they just have to be coped with. Think about it. In the real world, today as you read this humble blog, there are men, women and children out there who cannot speak, just as there are those who cannot hear or see or walk. These people have no choice but to live with their disability. They speak in sign language, they get a guide dog or they move around in a wheelchair – for necessity truly is the mother of invention. Therefore, why not have a mute protagonist, or a blind protagonist or a deaf protagonist? Real life is not always convenient; neither should your fictional world be. Even if you decide not to give your character a physical disability, it is worthwhile adding a little something to them to make their quest all the more difficult: an addiction, a phobia, O.C.D., anything. Very rarely in life are people naturally gifted with everything they need to accomplish all their goals easily and showing the reader how your character deals with (or avoids dealing with?) their own limitations will tell us a lot more about the kind of person your character is than anything they  can say. After all, we know the good guy’s probably going to win; what matters is how they get there.

Another closely related thing to consider are the complications other characters can present to your character. By that I mean all other people, not just your antagonist (it goes without saying that your bad guy should be making your protagonist’s life as difficult as possible). For example, have you ever read a spy thriller in which the protagonist’s mother or father is suffering from severe dementia?

Neither have I. After all, it’s not convenient for secret agents to have to visit their parents numerous times in the day to make sure they’re eating properly while still holding down their job as an international man or woman of mystery. Or what about children? I’m yet to watch the Bond flick in which 007 has to be home early enough to pick his son up from school because his son’s mother (probably a Russian double-agent) is dead and Bond is now the boy’s sole guardian. But in real life, people do have responsibilities to other people and that’s why thrillers seldom amount to more than mindless escapism, no matter how much we might enjoy them.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant is a different story altogether. In this, our hero must juggle his mission to reach the Shining City by way of a demon infested land (a perfectly good story in itself) along with his responsibility to protect and sustain the orphaned baby he adopted before the story began. The very fact that the Vagrant is willing to take on this extra inconvenience adds substance to the character, because it shows us exactly what kind of man the Vagrant is without him having to utter a single word. I can’t help but wonder how Bond would handle life as a single parent. Would he take his son on his missions with him? Would he quit MI6 and get a quiet office job so he could support his son? Would he give the boy up for adoption? Whatever decision he makes will automatically define him as a character in the mind of the reader. There’s nothing really wrong with giving your protagonists no other people who depend on them or care about them, but unless it’s mindless escapism you’re writing (there is plenty of room in this life for mindless escapism), you might want to think twice about that (unless, of course, the protagonist’s isolated lifestyle is the very obstacle he or she needs to overcome, but that’s just a suggestion).

The bottom line is this: in real life, things are rarely handed out to us just as we need them to be and life is seldom easy. In the same way, make sure your fictional world does not revolve around your protagonist. Take a leaf out of Newman’s book and force your character to adapt. That’s what will turn your character made of words into a person with substance – dare I say, a soul. Albert Einstein said “adversity introduces a man to himself”; but in fiction, adversity is what introduces the reader to the man.