If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driver—then congratulations, this post is for you.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.
And you should, too.
Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.
I say this out of love, and not just because both series are (a) sci-fi space operas (b) starring ensemble casts of heroes with (c) both series taken over and vastly improved by J.J. Abrams.
I say this because it’s true.
Spoiler alert: Most people know the Enterprise gets destroyed in the new STAR TREK BEYOND, and that it got half-destroyed in the first two reboot movies directed by Abrams.
If you look back, the Enterprise is getting half-destroyed or fully destroyed all the time now, and STAR TREK has turned into a reverse story of STAR WARS.
You can sum them up like this:
STAR TREK is about a team in a super-ship exploring and restoring order to the galaxy while enemies try to blow them up.
STAR WARS is about a team of rebels trying to blow up a super-ship the other team uses to restore order to the galaxy … by destroying planets.
It didn’t use to be like this.
When the Enterprise first went down for real in STAR TREK III, with no “Let’s Go Back in Time To Fix It” loophole that Picard later used 593 times, it was a big deal.
People wept. You just didn’t destroy the Enterprise. No.
Here’s the clip from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK JUST GOT A LOT HARDER, SEEING HOW WE DON’T HAVE A FLIPPING SHIP ANYMORE
In the old days of original Shatner and Nimoy on television, they beamed down to adventures on planets full of styrofoam rocks and green alien women, or, for variety, green alien reptiles bent on killing Kirk.
The Enterprise was always their safe harbor, their home.
Sure, it got torpedoed by the Klingons once and a while, or threatened by some giant space monster, with Scottie always having to repair things in the engine room. But it never got fully destroyed forever and ever.
Why not? Partly because they had tiny models of the ship instead of CGI, and making it look damaged and dirty would be a big, expensive pain that wouldn’t look great anyway. It would probably look like somebody poked holes in a plastic model and painted some burn marks on it.
The bigger reason was you just did not destroy the beloved Enterprise.
After STAR TREK III, the Enterprise was no longer sacred, and they started blowing it up, or pretending to blow it up, all the freaking time.
What about STAR WARS?
Let’s go through all the STAR WARS movies, past, present and future, and yes, Disney will be making STAR WARS movies in the year 2058.
STAR WARS REBELS (winter 2016): A suicide mission to steal the blueprints to the Death Star so we can blow that sucker up.
STAR WARS: This friendly trash-can on wheels has those secret blueprints to make the Death Star go boom.
THE EMPIRE STIKES BACK: Oh, we are so hunting down those rebels who turned our beautiful Death Star into a space firecracker.
RETURN OF THE JEDI: Guess what, fools? We have a new, improved and fully operational Death Star, while you have some Ewoks.
THE FORCE AWAKENS: Plain lightsabers and Death Stars are boring. Check out this new red lightsaber with a crackling crossguard and our fancy Death Planet that’s so powerful, it eats a sun before turning planets to rubble.
Attack of the Fanboys
Serious fans may say this theory has to be bunk due to the existence of three prequel films which should never have existed.
In those three prequels, George Lucas somehow refrains from blowing up any Death Stars whatsoever.
I have a two-word rebuttal: Jar-Jar Binks.
Even gritting your teeth to look at the prequels shows you how STAR WARS without Death Stars is like Kirk and Spock without the Enterprise.
EPISODE 1, POD RACING, MIDI-CHLORIDIANS AND JAR-JAR: The bad guys have a donut-shaped space-ship that controls their droid army, and no, this isn’t a Death Star at all, except the heroes win in the end by using tiny fighters to make it go boom exactly like a Death Star. I think they even recycled some of the CGI from the special editions.
EPISODE 2, ATTACK OF THE CLONES: Palpatine starts a fake war to become emperor and command all kinds of Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers, and he’s especially interested in stealing the old Sith blueprints for Tie Fighters and some moon-sized space station that happens to destroy planets.
EPISODE 3, DARTH VADER FINALLY ARRIVES BUT SOMEHOW DOES NOT KILL JAR-JAR: What in the big finish, when Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader and joining the Emperor on a Star Destroyer? They’re watching something out in space, I forget what. Let’s pull up the clip.
The Expanded Universe or whatever
There’s also a ton of STAR WARS video games, cartoons and novels with other variations on the Death Star idea, each one more powerful than the last.
I’ve heard (haven’t read all this stuff) in some of these novels and such, the emperor comes back as a clone, Luke Skywalker turns Sith … and there’s eventually a super-ship that destroy entire solar systems, plus other Death Star-like objects that do other amazingly destructive things that make the first few Death Stars look wussy.
This explosion fest is perfectly understandable and perfectly boring
Here’s the thing: I get why STAR TREK and STAR WARS keep returning to this idea. It’s a quick MacGuffin, an easy way to raise the stakes.
This is the same reason why thrillers and James Bond movies keep returning to the cliché of stolen nuclear warheads. Pretty hard to top that.
The first time they made the Death Star go boom, the entire theater went nuts. I still remember it.
And the first time they actually killed the Enterprise while Kirk and his crew watched from the planet, people did cry. Didn’t make that up.
In this latest STAR TREK movie, nobody cried when the Enterprise went down. We’d seen it so many times before: they’re going to trash the Enterprise so bad it needs a year of repairs or completely wreck it. No shock.
You simply can’t go to this well every movie, especially in an age where audiences are so used to CGI destruction that it only generates yawns.
Remember the latest X-MEN movie? Nobody cared as the bad guys started to wipe out civilization, because we all knew it was pixels. We only paid $25 for Imax tickets and popcorn for the characters and actors we love.
Hollywood is doing us wrong
At the end of this new movie, STAR TREK BEYOND, there’s a time-lapse scene of the new Enterprise getting built in a shipyard, then launching into space. Now, this was a fun movie, good, not great. That ending scene, however, was a huge story mistake.
Destroying and rebuilding the Enterprise should be your final card to play, the biggest possible thing that could happen.
The writers and director could have generated a lot of suspense by not showing that scene at all. They could have made us wonder about what happens next.
All through Act 1 of the next movie, show the crew scattered, Kirk at a desk job in Federation buried in paperwork, Spock back on New Vulcan, Bones bored out of his mind working in a hospital, Scottie fixing the engines of a transport ship and Uhura translating Klingon for some boring bureaucrats.
You could show how they missed each other, and how breaking apart the team is costing them personally, and how it’s hurting the Federation as a whole as the B team out in space gets pummeled by the Borg and every planet is about to get assimilated.
It would’ve been a big emotional payoff to bring them back together on a new Enterprise they actually had to fight to get built in Act 2 before they beat the bad guys in Act 3.
Give us real emotion about real characters
In the end, these movies and stories shouldn’t be, and aren’t, about a super-ship–Enterprise or Death Star–that keeps getting blown up and rebuilt, bigger and better.
Audiences today are used to special effects and explosions. We’re numb to it.
These movies work best when they focus on the characters we care about, people who aren’t CGI and can’t get rebuilt with a few clicks of a mouse.
This isn’t hard, since STAR WARS and STAR TREK have some of the most beloved characters onscreen today.
Also: it would save you a lot of money, Hollywood execs. Getting actors you’re already paying to act is a lot cheaper, and faster, than spending 2 months rendering that giant space battle where the Enterprise launches photon torpedoes into the exhaust port of Death Star Version 6. (Actually, film footage suggests the opposite. Sorry, Kirk.)
Bruce Wayne and the Batman may or may not die in BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT.
(Google that and the volume of fanboy speculation will make your head implode).
But he’ll die soon enough. It’s guaranteed.
So will Superman, Spock, Wolverine, Captain America, Sherlock Holmes and 93 other major fictional characters you know and love.
Why will Batman and other great characters die when Jar Jar Binks is apparently invincible?
Because of reasons.
Let’s get into the guts of why this works while still Bothering you, and the answers will involve dead poets, the suspension of disbelief, the quarterly earnings reports of corporations and The Three Movies = Reboot Rule of Superheroes. Continue reading “Top 6 reasons why Batman must DIE!”→
There are fanboys who quibble with director J.J. Abrams for making a fun summer movie instead of a serious Star Trek film, as if we’re talking about Shakespeare here instead of Klingons and Khan and photon torpedoes.
These grumpy critics complain about too much action and “fun” and not enough hard science and long conversations about dilithium crystals or whatever.
I say, get over yourselves.
I also say this: J.J. Abrams and his writers are clearly having fun, and it shows. It showed in the first STAR TREK and it shows in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
As a speaker, or an actor, you want to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel. When you watch a Christopher Nolan film, whether it’s about Batman or Guy Pearce not being able to remember who killed his wife, the feeling is quite different: serious and somber and haunted.
Emotions matter. Audiences want to feel something, and in the summer — when Hollywood isn’t trying to win Oscars with Serious Films with Very Serious Actors looking Seriously Sad while they wear period costumes from the 1940s or 1840s — people sitting in those theater seats are paying good money to have fun.
So if you want a slow, somber STAR TREK film about science and all that, fire up STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and wake me up when it’s over, because that thing should be sold as a sleep aid.
We’re here to dissect STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and say why it works, as a story. It works wonderfully because J.J. Abrams and his writers care about setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations, Easter Eggs and echoes.
I want to talk about the setups and payoffs, because they’re fundamental, and J.J. Abrams and his people get them right.
Warning: this thing is chock full of spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t seen the movie.
Setups and payoffs
If you care anything about storytelling, hey, the setups and payoffs in this film are gorgeous.
Everything ties into everything else. There are no orphaned payoffs, no setups that lead nowhere.
In fact, most setups pay off at least three different times.
Two key examples:
The first time we see Benedict Cumberpatch as Khan, he’s (1) offering to heal a Starfleet officer’s daughter, and he does it with a sample of his own blood. That blood later (2) resurrects a tribble after Bones injects it with some of those same blood cells and (3) brings back to life a certain somebody who (4) saves the Enterprise and crew by entering a radioactive chamber to restart the warp core and such, which echoes (5) some other famous scene in STAR TREK II: CORINTHIAN LEATHER DOES NOT REALLY EXIST, BUT RICARDO MONTALBAN IS STILL AWESOME.
The 72 long-range photon torpedoes loaded onto the Enterprise are an even better setup that pays off at least 10 times.
Ready? Khan escaping to a Klingon planet causes (1) Admiral Marcus to give Kirk the experimental, long-range torpdoes, which (2) make Scotty resign because he’s not allowed to scan the experimental torpedoes, meaning they might take the Enterprise out of warp and blow them up, while (3) the torpedoes let Carol Marcus sneak aboard the Enterprise as a science officer in the first place leading to (4) the revelation that Carol is the daughter of Admiral Marcus, (5) Scotty resigning makes him loose on Earth and free to go investigate what evil thing Admiral Marcus is building out at sector 24-11-whatever, (6) Sulu’s threat about surrender or get torpedoed makes Khan surrender because (7) the torpedoes contain his frozen crew of fellow super-humans, which causes him to (8) team up with Kirk to sneak aboard the ship of Admiral Marcus who’s busy shooting holes in the Enterprise until (9) Carol bargains with her father not to destroy the Enterprise because she’s on it, so he simply beams her aboard his scary dreadnaught until (10) Khan takes it over and demands that Spock lower the shields on the Enterprise so he can beam this torpedoes and crew over, which Spock does since (10) he and Bones already removed the frozen crew and set those 72 torpedoes to explode.
I’m probably forgetting three other payoffs from that one setup involving the best MacGuffin in my memory.
Most films or novels have trouble making their lone plot device make any kind of story sense. J.J. Abrams and his writers don’t have any trouble at all. They tie every major plot point together, and every character, with one thing. Brilliant.
Bonus clip: Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in their best scene.
First of all, J.J. Abrams should direct everything.
Not just STAR TREK and the new STAR WARS: EPISODE XVIII-whatever, but every film for one entire year. You’ll say, “That’s not possible — J.J. can’t direct every film made during a calendar year.”
Sure he can. We can clone ourselves an army of J. J. Abrams, or download his brain into that Big Blue supercomputer thing IBM built just to beat Ken Jennings in a game of Jeopardy. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY.
And here’s a brilliant take on how the first new STAR WARS film should go. Now that Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, I hope studio executives take notes.
So I posted about the Old Spock vs. New Spock ad by Audi, one of the funniest things in forever, and the one thing that surprisingly cracked everybody up is Leonard Nimoy singing some song about hobbits in his car.
Even funnier: that little throwaway bit is a crazy inside joke referring to an actual song Nimoy sang. How deep does the rabbit hole go? There’s an insane music video, with backup dancers wearing Spock ears, or hobbit ears. IT IS EPIC.
Lyrics to The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins
In the middle of the earth in the land of the Shire
lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire.
With his long wooden pipe,
fuzzy, woolly toes,
he lives in a hobbit-hole and everybody knows him
He’s only three feet tall
The bravest little hobbit of them all
Now hobbits are peace-lovin’ folks you know
They don’t like to hurry and they take things slow
They don’t like to travel away from home
They just want to eat and be left alone
But one day Bilbo was asked to go
on a big adventure to the caves below,
to help some dwarves get back their gold
that was stolen by a dragon in the days of old.
He’s only three feet tall
The bravest little hobbit of them all
Well, he fought with the goblins
He battled a troll!!
He riddled with Gollum!!!
A magic ring he stole!!!
He was chased by wolves,
Lost in the forest,
Escaped in a barrel from the elf-king’s halls!!!!!!!
The bravest little hobbit of them all
Now he’s back in his home in the land of the Shire,
that brave little hobbit whom we all admire,
just sittin’ on a treasure of silver and gold
puffin’ on his pipe in his hobbit-hole.
He’s only three feet tall
The bravest little hobbit of them all