A Guest Post by Art Holcomb
This is about the craft of writing stories in another person’s universe .
For ten years – between 1994 and 2004 – in addition to my work in comics and screenwriting, I was among a number of writers asked to pitch story ideas to Paramount Studios in Hollywood for all four of the recent STAR TREK shows (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise).
Now, writing for such a show came with a number of restrictions:
– The STAR TREK characters are well-known to millions of viewers and readers; who they are is set in stone, and could not be altered through the course of any one story; that is, their natures could not change;
– As in any serialized story, the writer must start the characters off at “Point A”, run them through their paces, complicate the heck out of them, but always return them to that “Point A”, wiser but unchanged. It was like borrowing a friend’s car to go on a trip, but having to make sure that you refill the tank, have it washed and park it in the same place when you’re done.
– Any story I might create could not interfere with any continuing plotlines and upcoming story arcs that the staff writers had already created for the main characters.
– I was never going to sell anything that is too expensive in terms of elaborate sets, specific actors or costly special effects.
– And, above all, I could not violate the internal logic of the show. (Think: phasers and time travel were possible – dragons, not so much)
So . . . Ten years.
Hundreds of story ideas.
Thousands of hours – many of which felt as though they were spent putting square pegs into round holes or trying to write a haiku with only eight words. Especially hard at first for someone who had been used to creating his own characters and storylines.
But the opportunity was exciting and the training invaluable because every month I wrote and pitched new ideas to working TV story editors or producers and got detailed and pointed feedback on my work. These experienced, working writers’ sole job during these meetings was to find and develop new ideas for a show. The stories they liked were then sent “upstairs” for review by the Executive Story Editor. Many stories were dismissed as not suiting their needs, but all were discussed and critiqued and I was often sent back to take another pass at some of them for further review. What was always scheduled to be a quick meeting sometimes went on for hours and I was dedicated to learning as much as I could here – in the time I had – from the very people who had the kind of job I wanted.
And it paid off. I got better at writing in another’s universe and went on to sell more comic books and an animation script in part because l better understood the form, but also because I had learned how to pitch a story and how to be comfortable talking to people in power (more about that in a future post).
I found it took a large number of ideas to come up with every viable story, and the process taught me how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Eventually, the harvest of ideas became more bountiful.
From the experience, I discovered some approaches that could help you develop new story ideas, for your own characters/universe or someone else’s:
(1) UNIQUE COMBINATIONS AND CONNECTIONS: I started out by making a chart to look at all the possible character interactions for any possible points of conflict or interest. Picard vs Riker, Picard vs Troi, Riker vs. Troi and so on. This made me focus in turn on each interaction separately. By concentrating on just two characters to exclusion of the others, points in their backstory popped out – points that sometimes led to new insight and ideas;
(2) FILLING HOLES. Backstories are not airtight; some small facts casually mention in an episode could have excellent story possibility. That’s why reading the show bible and watching the episodes closely are part of a professional’s job. In addition, all characters have their own cast of backstory players: a stern parent, lost or wayward sibling, a favorite uncle/mentor/childhood friend. Like real life, these players float in and out of the character’s lives causing stress and conflict. Make this new person unique and the problem compelling and you’ll find plenty of motivation there.
(3) ASIMOV’S QUESTIONS: Isaac Asimov, the prolific author, said that all science fiction stories turn on three questions:
- What if ____________ happened?
- If only ___________ would happen?
- If __________ goes on, then __________ must happen.
This approach worked well with both the technical and scientific aspect of this science fiction world, as well the natural extension of human beings and their lives together: characters fall in love (if even for just an episode) and they face death, longing and the failure of dreams like any of us. Not being a science-type guy, I tended to concentrate of the human stories, which worked out well for me later on, and these tools work just as well for alien attacks as unrequited love;
(4) THE PROXIMATE FAILURE: “And when that fails, ___________ will happen.” I like this one especially as it makes me think about consequences. Consider for a moment: a Hero fails most of the time in any given story. Those failure had better be the catalyst for the Hero’s next move, but each failure opens up the possibility for more innovative action by the Hero as well as the Writer.
(5) SUBSTITUTION: Sometimes changing one word of a log line can give you a great new idea. For example, the Christmas story would have been quite different if “three wise GUYS came out of the East” rather than the traditional “wise MEN”. Whole new set of images and possibilities.
I think that freedom in choices in a story can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing. It makes for so many possibilities sometimes that you can become paralyzed from the variety of choice. Restrictions can be a good thing if it forces you to focus on structure and characterization. These restrictions made me find better, tighter stories and develop new skills, because it increased the pressure to perform.
More pressure. More heat.
That’s how diamonds are made. And stories, too.
Let me know what you think.
Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel, and a comic book author, including Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS. A number of his recent posts appear in Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life. He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions. His most recent screenplay is 4EVER (a techno-thriller set in the Afterlife) and is completing a work book for writers entitled The Pass: A Proven System for Getting Quickly from Notion to Finished Manuscript.
He lives inSouthern California.