While I could write about this subject at most any time, I thought it would be appropriate now, while we’re still celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek. I’ve posted many times about the writing tips and techniques that I’ve learned from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, but since Star Trek was my first science fiction love, I thought it was high time I give it its due.
The importance of supporting characters
Everybody loves the heroes of the story, but supporting and minor characters help round out the world. Whether your story has an ensemble main cast (like Star Trek) or just one main protagonist, you need other characters to serve specific roles and to provide more opportunities for interaction and character growth for your main characters. With a longer work (like a novel, a series of novels, or a TV show), you have the opportunity to expand on the minor characters that come and go, and turn some of them into recurring characters.
Star Trek is famous for its rich cast of minor and supporting recurring characters. In classic Trek, there’s the patient Nurse Chapel who puts up with Dr. McCoy’s attitude, and pines quietly after Spock. In TNG, the minor character of transporter chief Miles O’Brien became so popular that the writers gave him a wife, two kids (whose births were key plot points), and eventually a role as a main character on the next show, Deep Space Nine.
Stories don’t have to be dystopian to be full of action, emotion, and drama
One of the purpose of stories – not just science fiction – is to show us what might be. Dystopian science fiction is perhaps the most common, showing us the potential consequences of our poor choices, whether on an individual or larger cultural scale. Stories of war, poverty, environmental disaster, and more pull at our emotions, make us root for the underdog, and hopefully make us think.
But stories – sci-fi and otherwise – don’t have to depict all the worst sides of humanity to tell a good tale or get us emotionally invested in the characters. Star Trek was intentionally created to portray a bright, positive future, to show us all the good things that we might be capable of. And despite this non-dystopian world, Star Trek has tackled all the hard subjects, like racism, social justice, death, war, love, ethics, and more. And has told these tales through complex characters, thoughtful plots, epic space battles, and the full range of human emotion.
How to make a dry, technical subject interesting
I don’t know if Star Trek is responsible for coining the term “technobabble,” but the shows certainly popularized the word. Science and technology – both real and fictional – were vital to all of the shows. Sometimes science and technology can be all about epic space battles and high-tech bombs. And sometimes it can be about math equations, flowcharts, and electrical engineering – which is usually far less exciting.
Star Trek found a good balance between the exciting and the technical, and made the technical stuff interesting by incorporating it into the plot. While a dry, technical explanation was often needed, it was always within the context of the story. The technical manuals of the Enterprise were for the uber-geeks (like me) – but within the story itself, everything that was mentioned was important, and there was no unnecessary technobabble.
The importance of cliff-hangers and ongoing stories
Star Trek: The Next Generation popularized the idea of an end-of-season cliff-hanger to make sure the audience came back for more. The episode “The Best of Both Worlds,” where Captain Picard is captured and assimilated by the Borg, is arguably still one of the most dramatic cliff-hanger endings of sci-fi TV.
Star Trek as a whole was a fairly episodic series – all of the series were, for the most part – meaning each episode was its own self-contained adventure. Deep Space Nine differed from the other Star Trek series in that during its later seasons, the growing war with the Dominion created more of an ongoing epic saga feel, rather than a series of solo adventures. It meant that you could never miss an episode, but the ongoing story kept the viewers engaged and coming back for more.
The importance of stand-alone stories
Star Trek didn’t overdo the cliffhanger endings or ongoing sagas, though. Sometimes in a series (book, TV show, or whatever), if every story ends on a high note, with little respite in between, the readers/audience can begin to feel exhausted. Enter the stand-alone story.
Even with the same set of characters, each adventure can tell its own story. This gives a newcomer to the series a chance to jump in and get to know the characters and the world. Character growth and world building develops over the course of the series, but each tale by itself can still be a satisfying story.
I’ve learned a lot – about writing and other things – from Star Trek. What’s your favorite writing tip or life lesson from Star Trek?