Playing with The Neighbor Kid’s Toys

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:

  1. What if ____________ happened?
  2. If only ___________ would happen?
  3. 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.

 

13 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

13 Responses to Playing with The Neighbor Kid’s Toys

  1. John Rossman

    Awesome post. Especially about Asimov’s questions.

  2. I enjoy the guest posts by Art Holcomb. He brings a distinct voice to StoryFix and complements yours, Larry. Great choice.

    As far as playing with the neighbor kid’s toys – wow, what a test of a writer’s skill to take established characters within their story arcs and give them a new adventure. He’s right of course, new conflicts exists in the details of relationships and human drama. It would be a great exercise to write something for Star Trek or another series. I don’t mean with the intention of selling the piece (although that would be great) but for the brainstorming and learning experience.

  3. This was extremely helpful – I find that I’m one of the people that gets overwhelmed and needs some specifics to funnel it all down. These are great (and extremely helpful) ideas, and you used some of my favorite Star Trek characters to give examples. 🙂 Thanks for the great post!

  4. I’ve just barely begun the process of outlining my novel and I have to tell you I’ve been a little scared to get on with it. So many choices! How lucky was I that I looked to Larry’s blog today to get real with my writing and found this post? I believe you’re right about restrictions helping us write tighter stories and forcing us to focus on characterization and structure. Thanks for the great tools.

    Today I will write.

  5. Debbie Burke

    Great post, Art!
    T.S. Eliot said, “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”
    Your post eloquently explains how the supposed tyranny of restrictions actually frees the writer to come up with better ideas.
    Thanks!

  6. spinx

    Art, my boy, you speak to my very soul.

    Every sentence you make leaves an impact. The wisdom packed in so few paragraphs, and delivered on such a plate – a.m.a.z.i.n.g.
    ————-
    I´m a victim of too much creative freedom. For the past two months, it´s given me a headache more than a supervision. I´ve found my writingspirits trapped in a corner…..and all because of all the ways that COULD be made.

    I know, that if I continue like this, I will end up building a city with chinese roofs, austrian windows, and american skyscrapers——so, I will end up with a mess that will lack specific character, and that none will will want to life in.

    Great, great – GREAT post.

  7. I am an avid fanfiction writer and it is always so reassuring to read posts like this and know that A) I can actually make a career out of this line of authorship, and B) I’m actually improving my skill.

    Some times the best tool for an author with Writer’s Block is validation and so thank you for helping me on my way.

  8. Storyfix. A professional site for professional writers. Another article in a long series that continues to shed light on the multilayered effort that is the professional and productive writer. Thank you.

  9. Chen Mingi

    Reading this, I’m feeling encouraged and discouraged. The “rules” make it seem so simple – just change one word and then “Bam!” everything falls into place. Hearing about the endless meetings, and layers of editors and bureaucrats, though, make it sound daunting and nearly impossible. Are there any “rules” you can share about that tar baby part of the process?

  10. When I read these posts on Storyfix, I copy them to my laptop and highlight the “juiciest” parts. For this post, I had so many highlights I stopped and highlighted the whole shebang. Marvelous insights. I admit I did have to smirk a little, though. Art was writing what equates to fanfic! LOL Some writers get vilified for that, but it does teach you to focus your writing. I found it a superb learning experience.

    To echo spinx: great, great – GREAT post, Art. Thank you.

  11. Art Holcomb

    @Nann:

    Not the first time I’ve heard the fanfic analogy; a little different in that (1) writing like this becomes part of the show’s canon and any new characters I create can be used like any other created by any other writer for the series, (2) the work is recognized and covered by the WGA and (3) this writing is authorized and pays much better than fanfic . . .

    As a comic book writer, I have spent a great deal of time creating stories for other people’s (licensed) characters. I find the limitations help me focus of the story.

    Thanks for the kind words . . .

    BTW: I’ve had a couple of people ask – some of my comic book work can be found on Amazon.com and an example of my animation is available on YouTube by searching SHADOW RAIDERS TIMEBOMB.

    All the best,

    ALH

  12. @Art:

    Yeah, #3 especially is the big kicker. One of the X:WP fanfic writers I know, an exceptional storyteller, was invited to help write a televised episode and actually did. She was even credited with being the writer. She drank it up like a thirsty desert-crawler. Sometimes wishful dreams do come true!

    I appreciate the time you and Larry take to steer writers on this fantastic journey. Be well.

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