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Old October 5 2013, 06:37 AM   #17
BigJake
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Re: What Makes Good Writing?

Okay. So, good vs. bad writing. There are three fundamental questions for me:

1. Does the writing succeed on its own terms, in its own genre -- e.g. is it succeeding in what it sets out to do?
Arguably the most important criterion, at any rate the easiest one to use to measure success or failure in writing. One of the biggest ways in which judgments like "good" or "bad" are subjective in writing is that different kinds of writing have fundamentally different aims: avant garde poetry's being different from modernist or romantic poetry, journalism's being different from fiction, and in fiction -- which concerns us here -- one genre of fiction being different from another.

The conversation about Trek writing often gets confused by the fact that over the years, Trek has (somewhat awkwardly) straddled genres. Is its real point to be serious speculative science fiction? To tell believable stories anchored in our contemporary experience but with SF trappings? To give us comic-book-style Buck Rogers adventure with awe-inspiring action in an awe-inspiring future? Opinions differ. (Roddenberry claimed to be a staunch partisan of option 2, but elements of the other two options and especially the third bled in at one point or another with variable results.) So, some disagreements over NuTrek are disagreements about genre, like the persistent question of Kirk's spectacular promotion from cadet-on-academic-suspension to Starship Captain in the first film: in a comic-book universe, not much of a problem; in a universe straddling genres, more of a problem; if one really wants believability, a huge problem.

[Opinion disclosure: I think option 2 did a lot to create the kind of universe that people wanted to be involved in, is what I prefer and is probably most of the reason Trekkies as a species as opposed to fanatical Buck Rogers-ites exist in the first place; but also that option 3 most definitely seeped into Trek and specifically the myth of Kirk over the years, and is just as much "true Trek" -- if not to my taste -- as option 2.]

Whichever option you choose, the real priority is that in fiction, your setting -- be it a comedy of manners in country-squire Victorian Britain or a comic-book adventure in space -- set up some basic rules that the reader/viewer can orient themselves by and more-or-less trust, and then play by them. Is one of your rules that we're watching the romantic adventures of a witty, charismatic spinster trying to manage the yearnings of her hardened -- but still soft-in-the-centre -- heart while trying fix up her sisters for marriage in Victorian Britain? Then the reader will expect to see actual proof of her wit, charisma and internal conflicts in the story. If the writer delivers on the premise, they can count on being seen as a Good Writer.

Similarly, is one of your rules that we're watching the story of a Man of Destiny whose natural gifts exalt him above other men? If that's its premise, does your story sell this idea? At points where the story would seem to contradict it, are we expected to simply take the writers' word for it or to come up with our own speculations to circumvent apparent contradictions, or to just stop thinking? Like grendelsbayne says, if your writing interferes with itself in what it is trying to do, then what you have is to some extent objectively a Writing Fail, the more egregiously so the more obviously it is necessary to resort to speculation or excuses or switching one's brain off. (Hence the long, distempered conversation about the undersea Enterprise squence on That Other Thread.)

There are multiple axes on which this works in any given piece of writing. If your story is about the machinations of a clever villain, or more than one, does it sell the villainous cleverness and does the plan actually feasibly fit the setting? If your story is basically comic-book fantasy, does it use straight-up fantasy terminology instead of trying to use real scientific terms in confusing or seemingly-illiterate ways? If your story is about a starship fleet who are the vanguard of mankind's engagement with other worlds, does your story give an internally coherent reason for why that is? And [important at the very least for short-term box office] if your story is about thrilling action, does it deliver?

On those possible axes, NuTrek delivers almost indisputably on the last, with accounting for taste: some people find it over-frenetic, but most viewers genuinely find it succeeds in spades on that front. The others are more contentious, it often being a question of whether one is just willing to ignore them to better enjoy the action.

The more of these axes (and others, this list is hardly exhaustive) a story delivers on, the better its chance of being regarded long-term as good writing. If it succeeds in only one or two senses and disregards the others -- if it's really sexy porn, for instance, whose lack of plot or characters is excused by purchasers on accounts of its being super-sexy -- then chances are it will make money, but will not be regarded in the long term as good writing and will fade from consciousness once something that better feeds the particular niche it's chosen comes long.

2. Does the writing have involving or at the very least distinctive ideas -- about its characters or about other things -- which it executes well, independent of its genre?
For me this is where David.Blue's ideas of rhythm and character come in. Unless you're doing a very avant-garde form of fiction, most stories need characters we can to some extent root for -- even in very unconventional ways, like Walter White/Heisenberg on Breaking Bad or Frank Underwood on House of Cards -- and do something interesting with those characters, and/or have some interesting ideas for them to present, and to present those ideas or character moments in a way that draws us in.

This is much, much more subjective than category 1. Everyone will have different ideas of what kind of "rhythm" works for them, for instance; some found the punishing, unrelenting pace of The Dark Knight unbearable, others loved it. Some find the action set-pieces in STID great on their own merits but poorly-paced and pushed to the point of overkill; for others they're perfect.

One sense in which I'd say NuTrek writing largely succeeds is having interesting ideas about character and character arcs. In ST09 we're watching the Destined Crew that the film's genre expects coalesce, we're watching a raw and untried Jim Kirk being thrown into the fire, we see an attraction-of-opposites between Spock and Uhura -- here, in welcome fashion, presented as a strong incarnation of Fire instead of as a glorified switchboard operator -- and the character ideas largely work even if the treatment of setting seems contrived or arouses arguments because of genre confusion.

In STID -- which I think is actually the better of the two films, writing-wise -- the character ideas are richer: it draws on original series continuity to present a story of the still-raw Jim Kirk learning lessons about responsibility, clearly presents him as a good-hearted guy who's been promoted beyond his readiness (in a somewhat clumy but still reasonably sincere attempt to address the issues of genre confusion in the first film), and gives us two clear character arcs for Kirk and Spock learning about each other's strengths and weaknesses, learning to appreciate each other's complementary strengths, and recognizing the mutual bonds they've developed over the time elapsed from the first movie.

This is something the writers clearly worked hard on -- Abrams himself is a character-focused director first and everything else second, is probably the reason -- and it helps explain why they were so taken aback by the strong unexpected backlash from Trekkies who had finally, after the fading of the spectacle and hype of ST09, begun to confront all the ways the movies are still failing the tests of Question 1 (the moreso because the filmmakers chose, confidently but ill-advisedly, to juxtapose their film directly with the canonical giant and the almost universally best-regarded of Trek films that passes most of Question 1's tests).

3. Is the writing well-crafted, stylistically, by the relevant standards of its era?
The most subjective criterion, mostly a matter of historical accident and the tastes of an age. Hence, "good" Victorian prose often sounds purple, long-winded and ridiculous by the accelerated, sound-bite friendly standards of the modern age, and no doubt to Victorian ears our "good" prose would sound absurdly clipped, dumbed-down and pedestrian. There is no good standard to be employed here beyond guessing at what your age can tolerate, deciding what you as a writer can commit to, and rolling the dice.

That's what I've got at this point. I might have some amplifications and clarifications later if needed.
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Last edited by BigJake; October 5 2013 at 07:52 AM.
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