Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to write like a Vulcan

with 4 comments

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…”

“Yes?”

“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.

4 Responses

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  1. Only recently, on rewatching Wrath of Khan thrice in two days, did I read about Meyer’s pivotal role in the rewriting. Thanks for digging up the original sources. Maybe the reboot sequel should be Star Trek: The Rewrath of Khan. Too soon?

    drewberthu

    December 8, 2010 at 10:08 am

  2. According to his memoir, Meyer actually wrote the script before he was even under contract, which gave his agent a fit. And the fact that he isn’t credited for the screenplay can probably be chalked up to the weirdness of Writer’s Guild arbitration. In any case, it’s a crime.

    nevalalee

    December 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

  3. http://www.metafilter.com/99091/He-might-have-read-the-document-when-he-was-tired-at-the-end-of-a-long-day-of-being-tied-to-a-whale

    Hrmm… And yet the series survived to end in Star Trek X, the Wrath of the Clone. Dang.

    drewberthu

    December 31, 2010 at 11:57 am

  4. Wow, this book looks amazing. (And I’ve never seen Star Trek: Nemesis, but it can’t be all bad. It gave the world Tom Hardy!)

    nevalalee

    December 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm


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