Writing Improvement Squadron/Plot and Story
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.
::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.::
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:
::The Ktarian stopped wondering if Garfunkel was actually asleep and glanced over at Bloggs.::
Bloggs: And if we encounter resistance from the Klingons should we shoot to kill?
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:
Let’s try another:
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:
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:
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:
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
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
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:
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.