What Makes Good Writing?

Discussion in 'Future of Trek' started by David.Blue, Oct 4, 2013.

  1. David.Blue

    David.Blue Commander Red Shirt

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    Since folks want to discuss this, I thought an actual thread devoted to same made some sense.

    Just to make it clear, I'm a playwright and reviewer as well as having worked on a five year "virtual spinoff" online (of Buffy).

    Personally, and this is my own way of approaching things, good writing seems to me to boil down to character and rhythm.

    By character I mean the specifics of how the lead characters as complex individuals react to the world around them. Please note how I worded that. Not "what they are like" and "how they look at things" but "how they react." Partially this comes from my theatre training. The people who play the parts are called actors not feelers or thinkers or be-ers (beings?). As in "to act." Said action can be subtle, may well consist of listening, but it needs to be a genuine reaction to what is happening.

    Which brings me to rhythm. Consider breath. No one can breathe by exhaling all the time. You need to inhale. And you need the pauses between each. So too in terms of storytelling. The most compelling stories consist of an interplay between rising and falling action, between different levels and styles of energy to make a whole.

    On of the best examples of how character interplays with action in Star Trek is in WOK when Kirk talks to people before the action suddenly picks up. When he discusses his age with Bones, the concept of humor with Saavik, taking command with Spock, how to meet a crisis with Carol Marcus and David and Saavik--all these create tension by leaving some question unresolved. More, they begin with something unsaid or some situation that increases tension. And each precede a period of rising action, when things get "exciting." Sometimes that is humorous (like Saavik taking the helm) or uplifting (Kirk taking command of Enterprise again) or thrilling (the windup to the final confrontation with Khan and Reliant).

    What a writer should aim for is to integrate all this together without striking a lot of wrong notes. Character and rhythm need to work hand-in-hand.

    For example, I've many problems with STID but the emotions of Kirk after seeing Pike die seemed totally clear-cut. His eagerness to break the rules out of revenge, to seize upon the excuse Admiral Marcus gives him seems totally spot on. What I don't quite like is how rushed the scenes seemed. Kirk came across as nothing but a fairly stupid hothead. Instead of someone with a genuine boiling fury, he looked and acted like someone perpetually on the edge, flying by the seat of his pants. The whole "letting Scotty go" felt rushed and frankly make subsequent actions scenes less effective. Nothing wrong with the idea, not at all. But the rhythm indicated a far less interesting and less identifiable character, while going for an explosion when a burning fuse seemed more appropriate.

    It still worked. But IMHO a slight alteration would have worked better, by buidling tension rather than just another firecracker going off.

    Now in the first Abrams Trek the meeting of Kirk and Bones worked very well indeed. The hectic getting onto the shuttles, the last minute decision by Kirk, the interaction between these two men who are both taking a big plunge into a new life--all that was like this lovely haiku of screenwriting. It really was very very good! And it was preceded by Kirk reacting without words to all sorts of things, including Pike's words to him and the sight of a starship under construction. Nice!

    But look at how awkwardly it could be handled, this idea of dialogue setting things up. At its worst, all you get is exposition where someone shares facts and/or says how they feel. Frankly, this was a chronic problem in TNG, sooner or later showing up in the other Berman-Treks. I still cringe at Picard saying to Riker "Can you imagine--hating each other because of different economic systems?"

    But that's my couple of pennies. Seems to me perfectly rational well-meaning folks can disagree. I for one hope to learn something from replies to this.
     
  2. BillJ

    BillJ Admiral Admiral

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    Good writing means different things to different people.

    I'm simply not sure it's something you can define.
     
  3. Andymator

    Andymator Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    While we're at it, what makes good food?
     
  4. grendelsbayne

    grendelsbayne Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Pizza. Pizza makes good food.

    And bismarks from Jolly Pirate Donuts.

    And my grandmother's broccoli casserole.
     
  5. BigJake

    BigJake Vice Admiral Admiral

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    This thread is a good idea, David, thanks for putting it up. I'll try to post a reply later this evening.
     
  6. Andymator

    Andymator Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    Yeah, but here's the thing; brocolli tastes really bad.

    Now don't get me wrong! It's totally okay for you to like it, but you just have to be honest about how it's crappy food and you like it anyway.
     
  7. BillJ

    BillJ Admiral Admiral

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    :lol:
     
  8. grendelsbayne

    grendelsbayne Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    No, no, no - you just need to realize that broccoli is truly one of the best foods ever, and anyway, certainly isn't any worse than cauliflower! I don't know why people have such a need to attack broccoli, which clearly has no real flaws, because so many people do eat it. ;)
     
  9. Andymator

    Andymator Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    :lol:

    Ladies and gentlemen we'll be here all night! Tip your waitresses!
     
  10. BigJake

    BigJake Vice Admiral Admiral

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    I love Peeps. I recommend them to my neice as the cornerstone of a healthy, balanced diet, since the fact that I like them obviously makes that true.

    (So for reals, are we just importing the infighting and cheap shots from the other thread into this one? Are we planning on spreading them over both threads? Can I vote for Neither of the Above and we actually just try to tackle the thread topic seriously? What do people want?)
     
  11. grendelsbayne

    grendelsbayne Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Anyway - leaving that slight thread jack behind, I thought I might say a little bit on the subject at hand.

    Bad writing, I think, is writing that interferes with itself. When the point of the story is to show the greatness of Empire A, and all I see in the film is Empire A acting idiotically and everyone around them just constantly reaffirming their greatness anyway, that's bad writing.

    When the point of the story is to show the ridiculous absurdity of event b, but nothing in the story actually gets anywhere near being funny or absurd, that's bad writing.

    There is also, of course, the possibility of slightly less bad writing, which sort of occasionally interferes with itself in more minor points, without ruining the main point of the story.
     
  12. BillJ

    BillJ Admiral Admiral

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    Why can't we do both?
     
  13. dub

    dub Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Location? What is this?
    Definitely pizza. Haters gonna hate. If you don't like it, you're in the minority and you're an elitist. With more than 65,000 pizza restaurants, $36.2 billion worth of pizza was sold in 2010, according to the trade publication PMQ Pizza Magazine. It makes huge profits. People are buying it. That means it's good. Period. I can't imagine why people would say over and over how much they hate pizza and keep shoving their reasons down our throats. Nobody ever complains about other food. Only pizza. :wah:

    That's your opinion. Billion$ of other taste buds can't be wrong.

    See...now they're making the people in the kitchen mad. It's embarrassing. If we're not careful, the cooks will go back to making (*gasp*) original crust pizza. Ugh. Long live today's pizza! Pizza is here to stay. Get over it. :scream:
     
  14. BillJ

    BillJ Admiral Admiral

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    It means that some people like it. Who am I to tell them that their personal tastes (and taste buds) are wrong?
     
  15. Andymator

    Andymator Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    Oh, lighten up buttercup. I was just ribbing you. Some kidding around, and not to mention being completely relevant to the topic of the thread. There's no infighting or cheap shots going on.
     
  16. Nerys Myk

    Nerys Myk Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Good is subjective. Sure there are technical aspects that you learn in school, but that's not about good storytelling. Then you have format. Visual storytelling like film, comics and theater is different than prose. And the various types of visual storytelling are different from each other and require different skill sets. Comic book writer/artist John Byrne has a few stories about scripts he would receive for a comic where the writer had written it in a "film format", full of al sorts of filmmaking terms that do not translate to comics.

    Then you have personal choice and style. My writing partner is very detail oriented. All the "ts" need to be crossed and the "i" dotted. His solution to "plots holes" in a film is to add a snippet of dialog. I'm a little looser and prefer something less cluttered and left to the reader or viewer's imagination. Not every action needs to be explained. So there is some give and take when we write.
     
  17. BigJake

    BigJake Vice Admiral Admiral

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    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.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2013
  18. Hober Mallow

    Hober Mallow Commodore Commodore

    What makes good writing is simple: an author who 1) has something to say and 2) possesses the skill with which to say it.