Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 7th, 2010

How to write like a Vulcan

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So you’ve decided to write a novel, but aren’t quite sure what the story should be. What do you do now? My advice: Make a list of things you like. Most works of narrative, after all, begin as nothing more impressive than a list of ideas. And I know of no better example than the one given by Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Meyer’s life is a fascinating one: he wrote the bestselling Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution while still in his twenties, had a productive career as a director and screenwriter, but remains best known as the man who saved Star Trek. After the underwhelming response to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Meyer was brought on board to cut costs and instill a badly missed sense of adventure into the proceedings. And he did. When you saw the first Star Trek film, you wanted to become a special effects designer; when you saw Wrath of Khan, you wanted to join Starfleet. (At least that’s how it worked for me. And I’m not even that big of a Star Trek fan.)

By the time Meyer joined the production, the sequel had long been stranded in development hell, and no less than five separate scripts had been written. Because of a fixed release date, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to write a filmable screenplay in twelve days. So what did he do? Here’s the story he tells in his breezy memoir, The View from the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…”


“And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose.”

…We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

And while it’s unlikely that you’ll be collating the plot of your novel from five different drafts, the underlying principle is the same. For a writer in the early stages of a project, lists are incredibly useful. As Meyer notes, they can include anything from a major plot point to a character to a line of dialogue. And once you’ve got your list in hand, you’re well on your way to starting your novel.

One last point: Meyer’s great virtue, aside from his skill and intelligence, was his objectivity. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan; he had never watched the series; and even today, he seems rather bewildered by the show’s popularity. But his sense of distance was what allowed him, crucially, to cull good ideas from bad, and to see what elements of the show were no longer working. As difficult as it may be, every writer should strive to cultivate that same objectivity toward his or her own work. Passion, of course, is important as well—but only when paired with a Vulcan detachment.

Writing the Middle: The Story of All the King’s Men

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My recent discussion of writing the middle reminds me of one of my favorite Hollywood war stories, which I owe to the great Walter Murch, frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, director of Return to Oz, and dean of American film editors. I first came across this anecdote in the book Behind the Seen, which lovingly details Murch’s use of Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain—not a great movie, to be sure, but a fascinating case study, resulting in the best available book on what a modern film editor does. I expect to be talking a lot more about Murch, and this book, in the future, but for now, I want to share just one story, which involves the making of the classic film All the King’s Men. (The 1949 original, mind you, not the terrible remake.)

Murch relates a story from the autobiography of Robert Parrish, the editor of All the King’s Men, who says that the first cut of the film was a disaster—it was three hours long, boring, and made no sense. Subsequent cuts only made things worse. Finally, after six months and seven disastrous preview screenings, the movie’s director, Robert Rossen, came up with a desperate idea. According to Parrish, Rossen said:

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

The result, amazingly, worked: it got the movie down to ninety minutes and, according to Parrish, “it all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way.” After screening it for an enthusiastic test audience, they cut a final print with all the imperfections and jump cuts intact. The result won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As I see it, there are two lessons here:

1) The opening and closing beats of a scene are usually unnecessary. The middle is what counts. Write, or film, the middle. And if a sequence isn’t working, try cutting the first and last paragraphs—which is essentially what Rossen and Parrish did. (If Steven Zaillian, the director of the remake, had tried the same thing, he might have ended up with a salvageable movie, rather than a notorious bore.)

2) Audiences and readers are pretty smart. If they’re plunged into the middle of a scene—or story—it won’t take them long to figure out what’s happening. And if you pay them the compliment of assuming that they’ll be able to follow you, who knows? They may even like it.

Quote of the Day

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2010 at 7:54 am

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