Writing Improvement Squadron/Plot and Story

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Writing Improvement Squadron
Writing Improvement Squadron

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Giving Briefings an Interesting Edge

Written by Rear Admiral Rocar Drawoh

Between the end of shore-leave and the start of a mission, many vessels hold staff meetings (“briefings”). Conference room meetings can be less exciting than the main mission, but they are, however, important to understanding the mission and establishing the key facts you’ll be working with and developing. It gives players a basic scenario and then each player comes away from the meeting with an idea for how to develop the mission – what direction to take it in and what twists to introduce. This chance to ask questions IC and establish as many background facts as possible should not be overlooked. You should always try and avoid not simming because the mission briefing is taking place.

A common excuse for not simming at this juncture tends to be: “I do not have a question to ask.” Sometimes both writers and characters cannot think of a questions, however, it does not mean you have to stop simming. Instead, you can describe how your character feels about not being able think of a question – nervous, embarrassed or confident that they already know everything they need to know? Moreover, everyone can be simming their character’s reactions, thoughts and feelings as to what is being said in the conference. If someone tells those at the conference table that the Klingons have killed 500 Bajorans on the planet, then you may not have a question to ask, but you can describe your character watching the CO as he speaks and allow your character to react — for example your mouth falling openly aghast in shock to show your character’s compassionate side! (Or for contrast, you could sim your character smiling and show how much your character hates Bajorans!)

In addition to this, you can also sim how your character feels about the mission ahead and the task presented. Does your character agree they should be doing it? Does your character agree with the chosen plan? Is your character apprehensive about the risk he or she will be taking? Does your character wish shore-leave could have gone on for longer? These are all things you should be simming. After all, your Captain is telling your character something they did not know, the result of which could be fatal — would your character sit there nonplussed and silent? Or would they have a reaction?

As a crew, your characters all hear the same information in a briefing but your individual reactions do not need to be identical. If your Captain tells the senior staff that three naked Klingons will be dancing on the bridge, a male Klingon Security Officer and a female Vulcan Science Officer would have different thoughts and feelings about the same situation. Your sims should express and reflect your character’s reaction even though you all hear the same piece of info from the CO.

Even if our characters have nothing to say in the conference room, that does not mean that we should fall silent and not sim. Simming our reactions to the “mission facts” offers us a brilliant chance to do some major character building. Suppose your Captain is briefing everyone on Borg activity on the planet Centura IV and your character has a phobia of the Borg. You can convey this to your fellow players and develop that aspect of your character’s personalities through describing your character’s thoughts, feelings and reaction to the briefing. (You could even do a flashback whilst your character remembers their last encounter with the Borg!) Meanwhile, a fellow player might play a character with severe hay fever and react to the same captain’s briefing by shuddering at the thought of having to beam down to the pollen filled atmosphere of Centura IV. By the end of the briefing, we would have learned a lot of background on our crew-mates and developed our characters.

Your character’s reaction in the briefing room does not just have to be related to the facts that the Captain is providing about the mission. You should convey how your character feels about their own role on the assignment. How does a security officer feel about being sent to Manaria on a science mission when he could be arresting criminals on StarBase 118’s promenade? How does an El-aurian feel about people polluting their home-world when her own people don’t have a home-world anymore? How does a command officer feel about leading an away team of scientists? Within the mission, every character has a different role and the briefing room is a great chance for you to convey your character’s feeling about their duties in the upcoming plot. Briefings are an ideal opportunity to develop aspects of your character and for each member of the crew to learn more about their crew-mates.

Sims where Captains just give out a lot of facts tend to be dry. So give him something about your character in the meeting that he can then include to add a bit of spice! If you don’t want to ask your Captain a question then sim something else, even if you just say your character falls asleep, or looks bored with what the Captain is saying or even that your character starts rubbing someone else’s foot under the table and looking seductively at them. Anything like this then gives the Captain leading the briefing a set of small details that they can include in the sim. This way, rather than just a load of mission facts, the Captain can also add little extras in between his dialogue and write a better sim.

For example:

Rocar: Team 1 will enter the compound from here and move towards the Klingons.

::Rocar paused and wondered why Lt Nicole Kidman kept looking at Ensign Hanks with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. Giving the young Ensign a suspicious look, the Ktarian Captain returned to what he was saying.::

Rocar: Meanwhile Team 2 will enter here where Lt Garfunkel will…

::Smiling a little, the CO motioned for Ensign Simons to nudge Lt Garfunkel who had his eyes shut and looked fast asleep.::

In the above example, if Lt. Garfunkel does not sim that he’s asleep and Ensign Hanks does not sim that he is rubbing Kidman’s foot then Rocar’s sim would be a mass of dialogue outlining the mission but with less variety. Always give your Captain something to work with and stop him sounding boring!

Another briefing technique is to sit back in the conference room chair as the words being spoken by your captain begin to be drowned out by your own thoughts. Dissolve into a flashback and write a sim full of dialogue as you explore your character’s past before snapping out of the daydream and returning to the meeting.

Once a mission starts, a ship’s command staff often gets an OOC question from players. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes a lot of those OOC questions could have been written up IC and asked at the conference room table in the briefing! The briefing is an ideal chance to ask your OOC question IC.

For example, rather than Ensign Bloggs on Duronis II OOCing Captain Rocar next week and asking “Is it okay if we kill off one of the Klingon NPCs and which team am I on?” He could ask Rocar the following, in character, at the conference table:

Bloggs: So I’m with Commander Jagger’s team?

::The Ktarian stopped wondering if Garfunkel was actually asleep and glanced over at Bloggs.::

Rocar: Yes

Bloggs: And if we encounter resistance from the Klingons should we shoot to kill?

Rocar: Yes

Although sitting round a conference room table may not be as exciting as a mission or as shore leave, it does not mean that there is not an opportunity to write high-quality and worthwhile sims – either asking questions or describing your characters thoughts and feelings. After all your characters are Starfleet officers and care, protect and work together! They would not sit in silence without a single reaction, thought or emotion simply waiting for the mission to start so they can get some action.

Next time your ship is having a staff meeting at the start of a mission try out some of the above tips and I look forward to hearing about some really high-powered conference meetings throughout the fleet!

Scene-Setting: The Most Important Tweak You Can Make to Your Writing

Written by Fleet Admiral Tristan Wolf

Consider your favorite television show. You watch as the characters move through a realistic environment that reflects a place applicable to the story. Important cues in the scenery tell you where things are happening. In Star Trek, a small room where there’s a pulsing light on the wall means that we’re in a turbolift moving at high speed. A round room with a screen at the front means we’re on the bridge. And a room with a bench near the window invariably means we’re in someone’s quarters.

In simming – just like reading a book – it’s exactly the opposite. There’s no scene for us to see. Instead, the writer (you!) has to explain what the scene looks like through the eyes of the character. This is an incredibly important part of helping a sim come alive for the reader.

But many simmers fall into the trap of assuming that because we have a shared understanding of what Star Trek “looks like,” we can forgo scene-setting. Or, perhaps some writers assume that because we use a modified script format that our sims should read more like a screenplay than they do like a novel. But that’s just not true.

The more interesting your sims are to read, the more likely that other simmers will engage with them, and that’s why learning scene-setting is the most important tweak you can make to your writing.

The first habit you need to break, as you begin to learn the skill of scene-setting, is to avoid “telling” and instead start “showing.” It’s fine to tell the audience that your character lifted the mug, or that he or she smiled at the person they’re talking to. But it would be better if your audience got to experience what was happening through your writing. Let’s look at an example:

Telling: ::Bethany nodded as she lifted the mug and took a sip.::

Showing: ::She was in total agreement with Dora about where this was going. That man was a scoundrel, and everyone on the ship knew it. An absent-minded sip from her mug caused her to wince, Dang that coffee’s hot! she thought, shooting an angry stare across the room at the replicator that refused to follow directions.::

See the difference? In the first example, we get the drift that Bethany agrees, because she nods. But in the second, the nod is implied because her unconscious thoughts and feelings are being described. We’re seeing that she agrees, instead of being told. And instead of being told that she’s taking a sip of the mug, we’re seeing it. The action of shooting an angry stare across the room even coincides with her outrage toward “that man.”

Let’s try another:

Telling: ::Bruce was tall. Everyone was always looking up to him.::

Showing: ::Another dent in his forehead. That was the fifth time he had knocked his head on a door-frame this week! He’d expect that on an old Miranda class, where the doors are hobbit-sized, but not on a Galaxy-class ship! And now that self-satisfied smirk from Bethany as she passed through with, what, a foot to spare? He rubbed his forehead in pain, his shoulders drooping as he slinked away in embarrassment.::

Okay, so the second one’s a bit longer, but isn’t it more interesting to read?

So now you have an idea of what simple actions can look like with a little more color. But what about actually setting the scene? Remember, even though we share a common “language” of understanding about what Star Trek looks like on screen, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make our sims more interesting. And you can do that by helping the reader see what your character is seeing, like this:

Telling: “Ugh, I’m going to be late again.”

Showing: ::The door hissed open quietly and Bruce stepped through, dipping his head a bit to avoid hitting it on the frame. There had to be dozens of people seated, facing the other end of the room. This was no good — it was so dark he’d never find Bethany! He slowly made his way along the wall, only to get all tangled-up in the decorative Angosian spice-plant near the door, the one he had admired just yesterday, damnit! Someone, Bethany!, turned and shushed him, her 3-D glasses reflecting off the screen before she went back to leaning against a man next to her as they shared popcorn. If only he had arrived on time, that man could have been him…::

Instead of just being told that he’s late, we get to experience the ramifications of being late. We understand that he’s being late without being told, and in a way that also makes us understand that Bruce is tall, clumsy and forgetful, probably because he’s nervous. And we know that he’s going to a 3-D movie-night in a room he’s already been in before.

Now let’s apply some of this showing to the actual scene the character is moving through:

Telling: ::Bruce and Bethany enter the bridge.::

Showing: ::Bruce felt like he had never been here before. Despite standing on the bridge every day now, eight hours a day for six months, it all felt new. What was once a room that was colder than he thought he could bear all day was now warm to the point of causing a bit of dew on his forehead. That coy smile and wink from Bethany, as she headed to her seat at Ops put his thumping heart far louder than the quiet engine thrum. And that starfield — so silent and empty before, now so deep and streaky, so full of opportunities they were racing toward! He hummed happily as he locked his console and rubbed it with sleeve. No way was this panel going to be smudged today.::

Bruce thinks the bridge is too cold for comfort. We know he’s been a bridge officer for six months, and even that his console was smudged with fingerprints when he arrived. Oh, and we know that Bruce and Bethany are flirting with each other!

Remember, too, that showing doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to write more. Sensory writing and self-reflection can be done concisely, and the sort of boring, expository telling you see here may be much longer and more dense. Critical and thoughtful consideration of your descriptions makes all the difference!

Next time you write a sim, think about how you can help set the scene for the reader, and make your sim more colorful. Remember to show, don’t tell!

Other tutorials to consider:

  • Creating a world within your sim
  • Bringing characters to life
  • How to add magic to your story
  • Forcing good habits: Halting and avoiding all-dialogue sims
  • The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

General Plotting

Written by Lieutenant Colonel David Whale

Let’s talk about Star Wars: A New Hope. Not just because it’s awesome, but because it’s a really straightforward example of general plotting with which about 99% of people in the industrialized world will be familiar.

The very basic plot of Star Wars is this: Luke Skywalker, farm-boy, joins the fight against the evil Galactic Empire and becomes a hero of the Rebellion.

Pretty simple. However, as in real life, it’s not a straight, uninterrupted line between the beginning and the end — there are many, many bumps in the road, helper characters he has to meet, little twists that push him along, etc. I tend to refer to all of these as “plot milestones,” so I’m going to keep that terminology for the sake of consistency. A plot milestone is simply a point that needs to be reached before the next stage of your plot can begin to unfold. Let’s go back to Star Wars for a moment…

PLOT MILESTONE 1: Leia hides plans in R2-D2; droids escape to Tatooine
PM2: droids purchased by Lars family; Luke introduced
PM3: Luke finds message from Leia; R2 escapes looking for Ben Kenobi, with Luke and C3PO in pursuit.

As you can see, plot milestones don’t have to be huge, dramatic events. In many cases, they’re fairly simple events that just enable your main character to continue on their journey — or in the examples above, introduce them to their journey. If you’ve ever gone on a long road trip by car, think of plot milestones as gas stations/petrol stations. If you don’t hit those stops when you need to, you’re going to end up stranded on the side of the road.

Setting up Your Milestones

Some writers outline everything before they even start. They know all of their key milestones and sometimes even how many pages it will take to reach them. There’s really no absolute way to do it — like any creative endeavor, it’s more about personal preference rather than right or wrong.

However, there are also ways to make the writing process easier on yourself and enable you to produce more without spending so much time staring at a blank screen wondering where to go next. I’m speaking from experience here.

Know at least your next three plot milestones. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going after the third one, by the time you’ve actually written enough story to hit all three milestones, you should have a solid idea of what the next step should be. Again, I should stress that these milestones do not have to be major dramatic events. Maybe one milestone is just buying a pair of battered old droids. Maybe another is hiring some scruffy-looking nerf herder to take you to Alderaan. But then maybe one is watching your mentor cut down by an asthmatic space samurai. The important aspect of a plot milestone is that it propels the plot forward. If the next stage of your plot can occur without hitting the milestone you’re working toward, then I’m sorry to say you are not working toward a plot milestone. Let’s return to that galaxy far, far away once more and ask ourselves if the story of A New Hope can actually continue without the following milestones:

Lars family purchases the droids, Luke finds message from Leia
Ben Kenobi talks to Luke about the Force and asks him to go to Alderaan
Owen and Beru Lars killed by Stormtroopers

The answer, of course, is no. Each milestone noted above propels the story of Luke Skywalker forward toward the next. It’s the same later on in the movie, where the capture of the Millenium Falcon propels the heroes toward the milestone of rescuing the Princess, which in turn propels the plot toward the Darth Vader/Obi-Wan Kenobi confrontation.

Applying your Milestones

The ideas discussed here can be applied to essentially any kind of writing — novels, short stories, screenplays, role-playing games, etc.

If you’re writing fiction, you already know how your story starts and, presumably, have a solid idea of how it ends. I would assume you have also mapped out a couple of key turning points or the story’s crisis. So let’s say you have your beginning, one turning point, the crisis and the end. What you have to do now is ask yourself what milestones you need to hit in order to progress from your beginning to your first turning point. There may be two, three, ten, or twenty — it all depends on your plot — but thinking about the steps you need to take to get yourself and your audience to that turning point should help immensely in your plotting.

If you’re writing for a PBEM or forum-based role-playing game, you can approach it a little differently. Since you’re not solely responsible for the plot, you can look at your post as a self-contained unit. How does your post start? How do you want it to end? What two, three or seven milestones need to occur in order for you to get from where you started to where you want to end?

Aside from helping propel your plot forward, using the milestone approach breaks your plot down into easily handled chunks. If you’re working on a long project, it’s easy to get down about how little you’ve written compared to how long you expect the finished product to be, but by setting up your milestones, at the end of the week instead of saying “man, I only wrote twelve pages this week!” you’ll be saying “Awesome, I hit FOUR milestones this week!”

Again, as with any article on creative endeavors, this is just one perspective… but it’s one that has worked quite well for me.

Now go hit some milestones.

Advancing the Plot

Written by Rear Admiral Andrus Jaxx

The biggest part of simming is developing our characters. They are 60% of the stories we write. When looking at our favorite Star Trek episodes, it is easy to appreciate the plot that the writers have come up with. What drives the show is the actors and how they adapt to fit the role they are playing. Would Jean-Luc Picard be the same man if he were played by Avery Brooks? Would Scott Bakula have been able to sell the dark side of Captain Benjamin Sisko? The character is key to any story, but they cannot do it alone. While characters are the most important part, they are only highly developed ideas until you give them a world to live in.

Star Trek has followed many different formats. When we look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see a loose timeline that is followed throughout the series. It allows the viewer to miss a week, or twelve, and still know what is going on. For the most part, the plots for TNG were singular and did not rely on you watching last week. Things were a bit different with Deep Space Nine and Voyager. They had long term story arcs, and if you missed a week you could be missing out on references that you would not get. Let’s look at the Kazon in Star Trek: Voyager. They appeared in fifteen episodes, what happens if you missed the first few?

The key to good storytelling is keeping the plot interesting. We have all seen some episodes of Star Trek that start to get dull for a bit in the middle. It even makes some of them appear as if the writers took some extra time to add more ‘meat’ to the script, to fill the time slot. The good news is, we do not have to do that when we write for our characters.

We have an empty canvas each time we set out on a mission. Sure, there is a base concept of what is going on, or a problem that needs handled, but who is to say what will happen during the mission? You are. It is easy to see the problems each department faces during the mission, and finding a way to fix each problem is exciting. Have you ever had a plot that was like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole? You solve one problem, only to be faced with another…and then another.

Creating challenges for each other will keep a plot and moving forward. Ever see a department that did not seem to have a problem? Give them one! Maybe the science department is using the sensors to survey some local systems, but they keep getting strange readings that don’t make sense. It would only make sense to bring in the engineering and tactical departments to help make sense of it. You spotted an issue, what will they create? It is a great way to flesh out ideas that you have been thinking about.

While it can be complicated to know when there is too much going on, if everyone is simming and having fun, that is the goal. Some captains have deadlines on how long they like their missions to last. Some like to hit 6-7 missions a year, running 6 week missions with 2 weeks for shore leave. Other captains shoot for 8-10 weeks per mission. And there are always ships that continue on until the mission comes to a natural close. You have a good idea of how long your missions tend to last, so as everything is winding down it is not the best time for an epic plot twist…or is it?

As long you keep the story from becoming stagnant and you continue to sim and tag your ship-mates, you will be able to score storyline gold. Try not to make the plot all about your character, but about the ship and the crew alike. Some of the best ways to advance the plot are to create problems for others to solve, and sitting back to watch them squirm.

In the end, remember that the goal is for everyone to sim 3 times per week. If some people are having a hard time meeting that, you need to keep one thing in mind. Have you ever heard the saying, “The show must go on!” and thought it could apply here? It does! It is called, “The plot must go on!” Give them 48 hours and then move on. This will keep the collective group moving in the right direction. The last thing you want is half of the ship in the past.

The story is what you make it. Push the plot forward, but make sure it is interesting enough to involve other simmers. When you follow that simple rule, everyone will be motivated to write more, and you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, just waiting to see what will happen next. Those plots are the best plots.

Micro vs. Macro: Sowing the Seeds of a Convincing Plot

Written by Fleet Captain Diego Herrera

Pull up any plant and the first thing you’ll see are the roots. They’re a vital part of that plant. They provide it with water and nourishment and, without them, the beautiful flower that sits at the top of the plant would wither and die. It may never have formed at all. The strange thing is, though, if you removed one of those roots and replanted your flower, it would still survive… Also, without the leaves that turn light and carbon dioxide into oxygen and food, the roots would mean very little. The point is that if you are looking at a flower on a whim, you would have a tendency to focus on this finished product, the sum of the whole plant, or the macro, whereas it’s the individual parts of it, the micro, that have made it what it is.

Just like any student of writing, for the war plot that you have dreamed up you’ve created a beginning, a middle and an end. You have some idea of the major events that are going to take place. War will be declared in the beginning. A winner will be decided at the end. The middle will detail the key events in the war. You’re not just a student of writing, you’re a good student of writing, so you’re not going to just detail the events one after another, blow by blow. Instead, you’ve created some compelling characters, who you intend to flesh out in three dimensions in your opening chapters. You’ll then use them to give us insights into what your action really means, and the point behind it. Maybe you have several twists planned, and those characters are key to enabling that to play out, their motivations and actions serving as the catalyst that sends us as readers down an unexpected path. Your elements are in place.

However, when the enemy general defects to the side of good during the final stages of your story, how much will it mean to your readers? Yes, you’ve taken them on a journey through a bitter war, with some compelling descriptive sequences, but did you lay the foundations for this plot-shaking event? Sure, it was meant to be a surprise, but the breadcrumb trail should be there to follow, even if it’s vague. Readers enjoy piecing together a mystery, even if they’re not reading a detective story. It gives them a chance to engage with the story on another level and they feel rewarded if they jump to the right conclusion. This trail doesn’t even have to be actions taken by that specific character.

The macro view shows us that he leads the antagonists, that he is a proud man who is bound by a specific moral code that he has never questioned and that, in the end, that code loses its meaning for him. The micro view shows us what feeds that. There is a moment where he has to give the order to raze a village to the ground, even though there are only women and children inside it. There is a moment where he questions what he did in the presence of a superior officer and is slapped across the face for challenging their authority. There is a moment where he is injured on the battlefield and taken in by the very people he was trying to kill and nursed back to health before being released. Delving even further into the microcosm, we see his reactions to each event, the reactions of those around him. There are specific triggers for the emotions that he feels. He smells the stench of death on the battlefield. He feels relief as his bullet wound is cleaned and bandaged. You’re putting your heart and soul into being descriptive and so we feel it with him. Suddenly, the whole story has even more value, and instead of just being entertained by a well-planned and penned piece, we are moved. We want to read the story again. It holds meaning for us and we can identify with it.

As you think about your writing, in whatever form, ask yourself this question – how many levels are there to what you’re working on? What is the overall plot, the macrocosm in which your story unfolds? And where is the smallest microcosm? Which events, actions, thoughts and feelings are preparing your readers for what is to come, subconsciously or otherwise? Can you populate your microcosm with more significant and meaningful events?

Realism in an Unreal Universe

Written by Captain Malcolm Lysander

Even though Star Trek isn’t real, the universe in which it is written has it’s own rules, which we have to abide by. These rules include things like we have in real life: gravity, death, etc. It also has rules that we don’t have, like what the top speed of a Galaxy class ship is, or just how much damage a photon torpedo can do. If when you’re writing a sim, you’re putting in something that doesn’t exactly fit into what you would see in Voyager, Deep Space 9, or The Next Generation, then you probably shouldn’t be putting it in.

So, for example, if we were in a battle plot, you should only be putting things in that would happen in a battle. This isn’t the time to be trying anything experimental, like start you character on a workout regiment on the holodeck. Doing such a thing is out of the scope of realism, for a few reasons: A) Your character, no doubt, would have more pressing issues on his/her mind during a battle, like how to keep the ship working. B) Power on the ship would be diverted away from holodecks and other recreational areas, during a battle.

Realism & the Plot

For some reason, many simmers seem to forget that they are taking part in a collective writing experience. simming is like writing a collective novel. Everyone controls their characters, and takes part in driving forward the plot. But plot is a tricky vehicle to drive, and it takes a lot of practice to be able to steer it with pizazz.

If there is one thing that everyone simmer should understand is that without a conflict, there is no plot. Story-writers through the ages have defined a number of “stock conflicts”, that just about every story you read or watch follows. The generally accepted conflict arcs are as follows:

  • Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Simple and straightforward, this is a person against person story. These are perhaps the most common types of stories, and they are one of the most interesting to write, because we discover the psyches of two characters, our protagonist and our villain, or antagonist. Here are some examples:
    • Story: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
      • Protagonist: James T. Kirk
      • Antagonist: Khan
    • Story: Treasure Island
      • Protagonist: Jim Hawkins
      • Antagonist: Long John Silver
  • Protagonist vs. Nature: These stories often pit the protagonist against natural elements in some sort of quest or journey. They often teach us about the futility of life, or how fragile human beings are in the face of the power of nature.
    • Story: The Perfect Storm
      • Protagonist: The crew of the Andrea Gail
      • Element of Nature: Nor’easter, developed from three merging hurricanes.
    • Story: Jurassic Park
      • Protagonists: The dinosaur experts
      • Element of Nature: The velociraptors
  • Protagonist vs. Machine: Often these stories demonstrate the cold ruthlessness that a machine can exhibit, as it follows it’s programming, often wreaking havoc on the life of the protagonist. Or, other times, they reflect the contrast between the maker and it’s progeny, which is often faster, smarter, or more powerful.
    • Story: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
      • Protagonists: James T. Kirk, William Decker
      • Machine: V’ger
    • Story: 2001: A Space Odyssey
      • Protagonist: Dave Bowman
      • Machine: HAL 9000
  • Protagonist vs. Society: This plot puts a character, or small group of characters up against a larger group of people, or society as a whole. Usually it questions the assumptions we make about our Lives, or how "the majority" think.
    • Story: Star Trek IX: Insurrection
      • Protagonists: The Ba’ku
      • Antagonists: The Son’a, and the society that would benefit from the anti-aging technology.
      • Conflict: The fountain of youth has been found, but the price may be too high.
    • Story: Romeo and Juliet
      • Protagonists: Romeo and Juliet
      • Antagonists: Montague and Capulet families
      • Conflict: Families have long-standing feud.
  • Protagonist vs. Self: While in cinema it is difficult to convey this type of story, in prose form it is much easier. Even so, this type of plot requires many "facilitators", or other characters who give the protagonist much to react to. In these stories, we learn about the power of will, and self-change and exploration.
    • Story: Leaving Las Vegas
      • Protagonist: Ben
      • Self Element: His alcoholism
      • Facilitator: Sera
    • Story: The Catcher in the Rye
      • Protagonist: Holden
      • Self Element: His angst, alienation and lack of self-esteem
      • Facilitator: The unobserved psychiatrist to whom he is telling his tale.

Why is all this important to simming? Because as you can see above, all good plot arcs involve a conflict. The most important thing to remember is that conflict is what makes all of this fun. The purpose of studying conflict is to know why we have to ensure that conflict is cultivated, fed, and resolved in an interesting and meaningful way.

Some simmers seem to have difficulty in understanding why conflict is important, and sometimes resolve the conflict too quickly, and/or too easily. When this happens, it destroys the flow of simming, and much repair has to be done to the sim. simming in a way that resolves conflict too easily is often called “Super Gaming”. Let’s say for example that our typical heroic crew was in a battle with two Romulan Warbirds. A typical Super Gamer would fire a full spread of torpedoes and destroy one, or both of the Warbirds within the first five minutes of the battle. Now where’s your conflict? Somehow (against the rules of Star Trek, which is that all the Warbirds we’ve seen have been at least as powerful, if not much more powerful than any StarFleet ship), the crew has managed to destroy these ships, thus effectively ending the plot-line there. Now what? See the problem?

Generally a good rule of thumb is to consider: Would this happen on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”? Would the Enterprise have defeated a ship in just one or two phaser blasts, or torpedo shots? Was Geordi able to stop the warp core from breaching within 30 seconds of hearing the alarm, every time? Was Picard able to persuade every alien race to do it his way? If you keep this in mind, it will be much easier to sim a realistic plot-line.

Taking Cues from Lost

Written by FltAdml Tristan Wolf

Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers about season 1 of the television show Lost.

Lost became an instant sensation when it first aired on ABC, both a critical and popular success that helped turn the fortunes of the struggling network. The two elements of success on any television show are writing, and acting. While there are other factors to a show’s success (time it airs, appeal to the contemporary audience, etc.), a show’s writing is the greatest force that helps to propel any form of media into the spotlight. Learning from the writing techniques behind the show can help make your plots more involved, more multi-faceted, and more compelling. Let’s take a look at some of these techniques, and how you can implement them.

First, let’s remind ourselves that Lost is not a television show about a plane crash, or the survivors of said event. What any good writer must realize is that it’s never about the setting or backdrop: it’s always about the characters. The human experience is what compels each of us to become involved in a dramatic presentation. We must feel a connection to the characters, and know that they have histories much like our own. Even if we ourselves have not experienced anything similar to the characters we are watching, we must feel empathy towards the character. In short, the situation must be written in a way that allows us to picture ourselves in that situation, even if we have not been there before. Undoubtedly, you have heard the adage about Star Trek, which states that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people. The same holds true with almost every other story told in history.


Perhaps the most compelling part about the series Lost is the use of the flashback throughout the show on a regular basis. With this technique, the writers are able to tie the viewer to the character in a profound way. Remove the flashbacks from Lost, and you’re left with little more than a bunch of frightened, bickering castaways. But with the flashbacks, we begin to see the motivations for each character’s actions. What is it that drives Jack to try so hard? Why does Kate so easily connect to Sawyer? Why such tension between Sun and Jin-Soo? All these questions are answered through the flashback method.

Let’s take the character of Sawyer, for example. On Lost, Sawyer is immediately pigeon-holed into the villain by many of the survivors of the crash. His resource hoarding, one-line comebacks, and standoffish-ness make him a prime target for the aggression of others, despite the fact that many other share the same personality traits as he. Jack is a resource hog — for good reason: he’s trying to save others. Shannon can be pithy. And clearly, Locke is more than a bit standoffish. But what got Sawyer, specifically, to this personality? Through the flashback scenes of his childhood and scenes of his recent stint as a “confidence man,” we begin to understand that he is a complex man, demonized by the “Sawyer” from which he got his name — a con man who ruined his parent’s marriage by taking their money, and eventually caused his father to murder Sawyer’s mother, and then commit suicide.

The important point here is that the audience learned of all these details through the use of the flashback. Indeed, most of the others on the island know little or nothing of his past — just like the other characters on board your vessel might not know about your character’s past. Your goal is to create an interesting story for others to read, while giving realistic impetus for your character.

Now let’s look at using flashbacks in our own sims. The next time you write a sim, think of how you usually try to convey your story. Is it mostly through the actions of your character in the present? “Ensign Bloggs fires phasers. Ensign Bloggs eats lunch.” What’s missing, as we now know, are the motivations of the character. The reader needs to know why Ensign Bloggs is firing the phasers. Or, why is he a tactical officer? Why is he so willing to follow the orders of this Captain? Giving the reader these reasons helps us to see the character in a sympathetic light, even if what they’re doing isn’t particularly a heroic action. Perhaps the reason Bloggs is at tactical is because his father was a weak man who could never stand up for himself — a trait that eventually got him killed. Maybe because of this, Bloggs feels the need to protect others. To present this kind of information, we bring in the flashbacks slowly throughout the course of the story.

We’d start by giving a flashback to a time when Bloggs’ father couldn’t stand up for himself. We could introduce this flashback at a time when Bloggs find himself confronted by something or someone. Don’t always tie the two situations (the present and the flashback) with identical scenes, though; be nuanced! Perhaps this first confrontation is as simple as the cook in the mess hall being rude to Bloggs, while the flashback shows Bloggs’ father not standing up for himself when something much larger was at stake. Next, we could show a flashback of Bloggs’ father struggling with his inability to stand up for his family. Perhaps this could occur when Bloggs is struggling with his own ability to protect those around him. Finally, perhaps at the climax of the plot, Bloggs could flash back to the moment he saw his father killed at the hands of an attacker. How does Bloggs change and grow, and overcome these issues in the present? What allows him to do that? By using your flashback sequence over a number of sims, you have created a compelling sub-plot that others are interested to read and learn more about.

Having a plan

The next technique, which is only slightly less important than flashbacks (and less rarely used) is having a plan. While you may find that it is difficult to have a plan when there are so many other writers involved in the direction your character takes, if you can create long-term goals for your character which will only minimally be effected by the general plot, you will be most successful in creating a character that is fun to read, and fun to write. Lost continues to be an entertaining show for the simple fact that its characters are moving in a metaphorical direction that the viewer enjoys watching. We, as the audience, subconsciously know that these characters were well developed before the show began. But by their stories being so developed before-hand, we are able to enjoy their clear and coherent direction in the episodes.

Be forewarned, though, that it’s not a good idea to completely flesh your character out before you begin writing. Doing so will simply “box you in,” and make it difficult for you to go with the flow. What you want to find are long-term goals that can be fluid and flexible as the plot progresses. These goals will develop over the course of weeks, months, or even years as you write the character. For example, in Deep Space 9, there was likely the “goal” of having Jadzia Dax and Worf form a relationship that becomes marriage — “happy ever after.” However, with Terry Farrell’s departure from the series, plans had to change. In the end, this led to a great deal of very valuable character development for Worf. You can use the same “speed bumps” in simming as opportunities.

Similarly, as we discussed in the flashback section, it’s important to also open the story slowly and avoid giving too much away too soon. On the flip side, you do want to record as much detail as possible into your personal bio as events occur. Keeping track of personal nuances and events will help you to later keep your plan on track in a cohesive and realistic manner.

Let’s take another character from Lost, and see how this has worked for them. Kate Austen, beautiful and strong, is a great example of how long-term character goals are important. At the beginning of the series, Kate seems to the audience to be the sweet “girl-next-door” type. It isn’t long before we realize that she’s actually a convict who was on her way back to the United States, though. Had the audience known from the beginning that Kate was a criminal; we might have been less apt to see her as a sympathetic character. She wins us over first, though — which is even more compelling, proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

But even more surprising to the audience is what Kate did, and why she did it. And for this, it was incredibly important for the show’s writers to know well in advance that Kate had killed someone. Through successive flashbacks in season 1, we learn that Kate then conned a number of strongmen into helping her rob a bank — but not for the money! Instead, she was looking for a simple trinket owned by the man she killed. Who would have seen that coming? And who wasn’t heartbroken by Kate’s subsequent breakdown in front of Jack once she recovers the small toy plane from the metal suitcase she worked so hard to recover?

Criminal or cherub, you can create a compelling story based around slow blossoming of your character’s story, similar to how the writers of Lost developed Kate. They have (and still have — many details still have not be uncovered!) a long-term plan for her that will only become clear as more episodes are aired. Plant seeds along the way that may not be completely evident to the reader, but will assemble themselves into a clear moment of epiphany when you’re ready. (With Kate, for example, the “seeds” that led to her eventually being uncovered as a criminal include the audience being show how concerned she was about the marshal before the marshal died. Indeed, Jack even questions Kate on why she is asking him if the marshal will die. It’s only after we learn that she was being transported back to the states for her crimes that we realize why she was so concerned about whether the marshal would die or not.)

Implementation of this is simple — just word backwards as you begin simming your character. Start by thinking long and hard about where you want this character to be in five, or even 10 years; then work backwards to how you’re going to get them to that point. It’s good to leave room for personal development in this journey. You don’t want this character to be at the same place they are now. So if you have a character who is the epitome of kindness and generosity, perhaps some time in the “real world” will teach them how to be both kind, but worldly.

Let’s start with a clean slate for Kate and assume we, as her writer, knew nothing about her past except she committed a crime. Where could we go with this, if we know she is going to end up on an island with a “fresh start”? Hmm… Even with a fresh start, we’re all haunted by our past. Does Kate regret what she’s done? Let’s go ahead and say she does regret it. Can she ever atone for what she’s done? What if the only way to atone was to commit another crime? What would she do to avoid jail? If we know we want her to redeem herself, then we must create a back-story of sympathy for her. In doing so, we see what lengths she’s gone to in an attempt to get closer to right.

For any character, or show, it’s the same process. Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, among many others, had a very clear overarching plot to their characters, and the larger story. Look at your own life and consider the decisions you made. Where would you be if they had been different decisions? Where would you be in the future if those decisions had been different?

Learning from the masters of writing is the best way to become a better writer yourself. Many people say that watching TV is a waste of time, but if you’re trying to develop your writing skills, then consuming fictional media is the way to do it. The important thing to do is to actually take lessons from the writing itself, instead of simply allowing it to wash over you. Lost can teach anyone a multitude of lessons about drama and suspense. The characters are wonderful examples of how people in stressful situations can become better people, but also interesting people to watch. Your characters are put through the ringer every day in their StarFleet lives, but if you don’t take the opportunity to shed light on their past, and thus make their motivations clearer, then other readers will never find reasons to connect to your character. And, in the end, you want others to connect and be interested in what your character does. That’s what writing is all about.