“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.'”
W. H. Murray. The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London 1951.
Another thing I’ve noticed during my romp through the episodes: they spent all sorts of time building up their characters, and then sometimes cheat them in their core characteristics for the sake of drama.
The biggest example of this is Worf. In Worf, we have a trained warrior, from a warrior culture, whose body also apparently has backup organs to act as fail-safes. He’s tough and mindful, both of his duties and his environment.
Why, then, do people get the jump on him time and time again? Why do his instincts and training inexplicably fail? in the episode “Man of the People,” Worf and the captain have beamed down to stop something nefarious. They’re confronted, and then the camera cuts to show Worf under phaser guard and being disarmed by two on-planet guards. How did that even happen? Why didn’t he see them coming?
Even if someone did get the jump on him, he should be able to take more than one hit. Why does he get knocked out with one blow to the back over and over? The Klingon pain ceremony in the episode “The Icarus Factor” proved his endurance beyond any doubt.
These instances are frustrating as a viewer because I know, based on what I’ve seen before (based on characterizations over many episodes), that these things would never happen normally. Instead, they’re just used to scoot the episode along to where the writers wanted it to go, and in the process, cheat both the viewer and the character.
Good storytelling renders a character’s strength meaningless or temporarily ineffective. Don’t just chump-shot the warrior: give me a situation where he has to face an army, an enemy he can’t fight, a situation where he has to go against his instincts and surrender to save someone else.
Like many other people, I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the beginning now that it’s available for streaming on Netflix. Now that I’m far older and have some stories under my belt, I saw an interesting pattern in what the writers decided to do with their story lines.
So far, they fall into two basic structures. I’ll call them the parallel structure and the nested structure.
The parallel structure is two separate story threads blended together that they then cut back and forth between during the course of the episode. Usually, one of the two threads involves the “problem on the planet” type stuff. Solve the dilemma, save the other spaceship, and so forth. The second story thread is the one that the writer(s) can play with to achieve a different feel. It could be humor-based, such as when Data is trying to learn how to be funny. Or it can be character-based, such as when they investigate Worf’s background or the interaction between sets of characters.
The variations, of course, are nearly infinite. What’s important is the idea of the two parallel threads: you can create tension by cutting back and forth between the two, and you can also get away with more when you use them together than if you were to use each separately. The “Crisis on the planet” schtick might get stale faster if it’s not interwoven with something else. There’s also something to be said for allowing a story some room and giving the viewer/reader a chance to breath before the tension cranks up again. A whole episode of nothing but character background / investigation / fan service can get boring quick, too, especially if that character doesn’t happen to be the viewer’s favorite. It also exhausts the pool that represents that character’s background story potential much faster. Want to ensure a reader comes along for the entire ride? Dribble the background, the stuff they want to know, in small bits throughout the entire arc.
In the nested structure, one story thread complicates another. One of the best examples of this so far is in the Season 1 episode “The Big Goodbye,” where Picard and others get trapped in the holodeck right as the ship is supposed to make important diplomatic contact that only the captain can handle. Either story thread could have been an episode by itself, but would have felt a bit anemic. By complicating one situation with another situation, the tension rises. After all, things are seldom easy or go as planned–especially if the writer has anything to say about it.
Within the nested structure is the reminder to not let things be easy on characters. If the ship breaks down, and the crew just says, “oh, okay, then we’ll stop until it’s fixed,” there’s no episode, no conflict, nothing interesting going on.
The use of these two ideas, or vehicles, in a TV show makes me think they’d work well in short fiction. I’ve added these to my writer’s toolbox and will try to pull them out every now and again.
I think I’ve identified which story I’ll be writing next, and have begun fleshing out my notes. This process allows me to see just how much of the narrative I have figured out and areas that need work. It was in this process, where I’m still working out who wants what, does what, why, and so forth, that I made an interesting discovery: everything was couched in terms of “perhaps” and “maybe.”
To my horror (if only my horror had been more horror-like), I saw that I tend to do that fairly often. Then I deleted all those possiblies, maybes and perhapses, and you know what? The planning took on a much stronger feel. It also made me analyze what I’d come up with to determine whether or not it’s any good or if I can do better. Those “maybes” allow something to sit there on the page, in limbo, neither accepted nor rejected, and so I can never work with the indefinite. By deleting them and saying, “by golly, this is the way it is,” I’m left to either accept it–and build on it–or come up with something better to replace it.
Writing is a humbling endeavor. Three books written and I’m still learning all sorts of things.
Note: Norton’s Ghost is the Book of the Day over at http://www.kindleboards.com. I wrote this entry as a little tidbit for the forum and am reposting it here.
I’ve had people ask me if the story of Norton’s Ghost is autobiographical. I like to think that this means I got something right in the telling of it.
Beyond the usual “there’s a little bit of the writer in every part of the story,” it’s completely fiction. I’ve never hitchhiked through California, have never experienced homelessness, am thankful to still have my father, and though I did leave school a few times, it wasn’t so that I could go gallivanting around.
At times, I wish it had been.
In a way, the telling of Kyle Dearmond’s story in Norton’s Ghost was a way of doing what I myself couldn’t: cut loose. Stop doing things just because it’s supposed to be a good idea to do them.
It’s often said that authors themselves don’t know the ending to their book until it spills out onto the page. Oh, sure, sometimes we have an idea how we would like it to end, but seldom do our inspirations and characters march lockstep with our idea of what the story should be.
Kyle Dearmond set out to get away from what was expected of him and to find his own way. I myself felt the pull of the expected as I wrote the story. “You’re dumb for doing that,” I told him. “That’s nuts. Go back to school, get a job, buy a house.”
In all: “Be like one of us.”
He refused. In part, he was running from the things he couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with, but I can’t say I blame him for that. And so I wrote, all the while wondering myself whether he would come out okay in the end. As the author, my job was to tell the story–not to help the character along to a happy ending.
Today is the day after Thanksgiving. Most of us are probably still full from yesterday (oh, but those leftover potatoes in the fridge still call to us, yes they do) and we’ve spent time with family and food and reflected on what we’re thankful for. We sometimes forget these things during the rest of the year, when the roller coaster of life sends us thundering down the slope or rocks us around a hairpin turn.
But in the end, when the time comes, we remember.
For Kyle Dearmond, Norton’s Ghost is a crucible, a stripping away of expectations and an attempt to step off the roller coaster for a while so he can figure out what really matters–and to have the memories and experiences to properly treasure it.
Little does he know that he steps out of one roller coaster and onto another.
Such is the way of stories.