Writing Better Star Trek

Jim Ausfahl

Writing a Star Trek story should be no different than writing any other type of fiction. Sure there are distinctive technological differences, a set of continuing characters with developed personalities, but it all still boils down to writing a good story. It just happens to be a Star Trek story. Let's start with something simple...

You've written a scene involving a dialogue between two or more people. When you go back to read it cold, the text is dead, somehow; the people seem one-dimensional, almost wooden. How can you add enough realistic detail to this piece to bring it to life? I suppose there must be a dozen or more ways to do it, no one way that works for every person or every situation. One trick that I've learned is to ask questions about the situation and the people in it.

Consider two people, talking about a third one, for example. For each of the two people, ask questions like these:

To show how this might work, let me generate a dialogue that is patently wooden, and then use these nine questions to revamp it. We’ll pick on Deanna O’Doul, from Hyperion, creating a scene from before she takes her berth with Captain Uhura.

Deanna sat across the table from Janna. "So how's Karl?"

"Fine, thanks," Janna replied. "How're your children?"

"Grades are okay. Joe's on the Varsity soccer team; he’s majoring in chemical engineering." She looked down at her uniform. "He’s actually amused by the fact that I’m technically a freshman at the Academy and he’s an upper classman."

"He's the younger?" asked Janna.

"The older. Jessie’s graduating from high school, in a couple of weeks, and heading to college herself. What's up with Karl lately?"

"Don't know. Haven't seen him much the last month or two," Janna answered.

This bit of dialogue is so wooden, you could use it for fireplace fuel. Let's answer the questions, and liven things up.

Ask Yourself... Deanna Janna
What is the relationship between EACH person and the third one under discussion? Karl's ex wife Woman Karl left for
How much does this person know about the OTHER person's relationship with the third person? Yes--all too well! Yes--of course
How does EACH person feel the OTHER person in the discussion? Does it/should it change during the conversation? Resentment Guilt
How does EACH person feel the OTHER person in the discussion? Does it/should it change during the conversation? Anger--then sympathy at the last Unsure--then, guilty sympathy
Based on the answers to 1-4, what kind of body language would be expected from EACH person? Nervous, but aggressive actions Fearful, then grieved
What objects are near the discussion/discussants, and how would EACH person be interacting with each of them as the discussion evolves?




Same environment for both; a coffee shop. There is a table, 4 chairs of which 2 are used by the discussants. The table has a single carnation in a vase, a napkin dispenser, a cheap wire tray holding salt & pepper shakers, glass sugar and creamer dispensers, and packets of artificial sweetener. Two cups of coffee, on saucers.
Deanna carried a small, inexpensive "clutch" purse, which is on the table near her coffee. Janna an obviously expensive hand-tooled leather purse that's on the floor near her feet.
Who is nearby, potentially listening? Other patrons & the staff of the coffee house.
How does EACH person feel about being overheard? Both are too wrapped up in the confrontation to care a lick.
What do I want EACH person to evoke in the reader? From both, a degree of sympathy from the reader: the abandoned wife, and the woman whom Karl went for, who is realizing she's about to be ditched. And a degree of resentment toward Karl--making him appear somewhat of a jerk.

Now, here's the dialogue with the things I've learned and decided to use. I've used exactly the same dialogue; all that has changed is the setting that I have woven around the words.

Feeling somewhat out of place in Starfleet’s Cadet uniform, Deanna sat across the table from Janna, carefully putting her cup of coffee and her purse on the table, acutely aware of the contrast between her cheap clutch and the hand-tooled leather purse sitting next to Janna's feet. "So, how's Karl?"

"Fine, thanks," Janna replied, shifting uneasily in her chair.

A few moments of strained silence passed. Janna broke it. "How're your children?"

Janna's using "your" for the children Deanna had borne to Karl caused Deanna to wince. She bought herself a moment or two to compose herself by sipping her coffee. She looked at Janna again, hoping she wouldn't notice how much the way she'd worded the question had hurt. "Grades are okay. Joe's on the varsity soccer team in college; he’s majoring in chemical engineering." She looked down at her uniform. "He’s actually amused by the fact that I’m technically a freshman at the Academy, and he’s an upper classman."

"He's the younger?" Janna asked, trying to appear both sympathetic and interested.

Deanna shuffled her feet uneasily. Obviously, Karl had said little of the family he had abandoned, driving her decision to join Starfleet. He probably spent little or no time thinking about them, either. "The older. Jessie’s graduating from high school, in a couple of weeks, and heading to college herself." Deanna stared at the cup in her hand, pretending to study the worn pattern on it as she fought to control the urge to cry. Her knuckles whitened. "What's up with Karl lately?"

"Don't know. Haven't seen him much in the last month or two," Janna answered. The change in Janna's voice caused Deanna to look up. In Janna's eyes, tears were welling up. Instinctively, realizing that Janna was beginning to taste the trail of suffering she'd put Deanna through, Deanna reached out and grasped Janna's hand in sympathy. Their tear-filled eyes locked in shared understanding and grief.

Now, that's still far from perfect, but the difference is (I hope!) clear. Suddenly, Deanna and Janna are real people; I almost want to hug them both, tell them that it'll be okay, that Karl's just a lowlife that's using them and that they are still wonderful people despite him. And I'd like to deliver a hard, swift kick to Karl's pants. None of that is evoked by the initial rendition. It was patching in the answers to the questions that did the trick. Of course, different scenes will require different questions; the questions relevant to a 20th century conversation between two women are different than, say, the questions you'd ask about the interaction between an adult Human and an alien creature, or about the appearance and behavior of a crowd at an auto race. No matter what the situation, however, the answers to a few pertinent questions, woven into the narrative, may well be just the tonic the text needs.

Consider this brief bit of text, picking on one of my characters from Hyperion.

Jenny knocked at the door of her father's study. She got no answer, and knocked again. Still getting no answer, she opened the door and saw a hand streaked with blood. Jenny screamed. Jeff Blakesley, her step-brother, arrived first, followed by Barbara, their mother, and Missy, last of all.

"Missy," Jeff said, looking into the study, "please go to the kitchen and set out milk and cookies for us all." One look from Barbara was enough to send Missy off in obedience.

Barbara looked into the study and went pale. "I guess Jenny and I need to go help Missy, son." They left.

Jeff turned on the light to the study.

For being a scene wherein a dead body is discovered in a murder mystery, this has all the flavor of an unsalted egg white. It is clearly in need of dire help--but it's not exactly clear where we need to go with it. There are, of course, as many ways of attacking the problem as there are authors, but perhaps a modification of the idea of interrogating a dialogue scene might be helpful. In a piece that is primarily concerned with the scene before the characters, the questions that seem to be most likely to be helpful are just a bit different. The location of the scene is a good place to start. Precisely what is the location of the scene?

Think not only of the place where the characters actually are, but where that scene might be in relation to other things nearby. On a starship, know which deck the scene finds itself, and consider what rooms are nearby, perhaps even what people might be nearby to hear and react to what might be in process. Is there any particular significance to the location? For some works, scenes may occur in places (e.g. alien graveyards) that are sacred or accursed; in others, the location may be one that is forbidden to one or more of the participants in the scene (e.g. engineering). Conversely, it may be a place that has long been lost, now rediscovered (e.g. the control room of the Obelisk from "Paradise Syndrome"), or a place never yet visited by anyone (e.g. the control room of the Pod Ship from "Beyond the Farthest Star"), perhaps even a place that is the heart of some special myth or relationship known by or significant to one of the characters in the scene or in the story line (e.g. the Oracle Room from "For the World Is Hollow..."). Make note of all these points.

Also, ask what the lighting may do to the scene; it is altogether possible that the interplay of light and shadow might obscure this or that aspect of the physical setting while highlighting the other. Consider how the lighting might be used to advantage, whether by concealing or revealing an object or by misdirecting the attention of the characters viewing it. Is the light level what the onlookers would have expected? Is it brighter or darker than what they are used to, and will it therefore alter how they view the scene at some critical point?

The scene is more than location, however, as it contains items as well. Ask of yourself what objects are present, or expected but absent, and consider how those present might alter the scene from the perspectives of any characters present. Look at how they stand in relationship to each other, and to any characters in the scene. Will other characters be partially or totally hidden by something? Will some significant object be rendered invisible to one character but not another? Does having the presence known to the reader, but not to the character, make a significant difference in the development of the scene?

For each of the objects, are there particular properties, either physical, scientific, medicinal or metaphysical, that are important to the scene, the plot or one of the characters? Objects can be as legendary as places. A talisman of good or evil, for instance, has significance far greater than its physical structure (e.g. a Vulcan flame-pot in Spock's quarters). Similarly, a keepsake, or a possession of a loved one, especially one that has died, been kidnapped, or otherwise sundered from the character (such as McCoy's wedding ring worn on his pinkie) can have significance and force far greater than its apparent physical appearance might suggest. Such significance might be what betrays a criminal, or identifies an individual who is otherwise unrecognized--or could be used to mislead the reader, by another character observing and misinterpreting the reaction--or could be used to add the depth or background of a character.

Physical properties are also significant: the shape of a knife compared to a wound (e.g. "Wolf in the Fold"), perhaps, or the size of the scorch from an energy weapon may be of paramount importance (e.g. the two yeoman who were killed in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), whereas an object appearing to be made of a precious metal might be the tool used to reveal something critical about a character or a situation (e.g. again Hengist in "Wolf in the Fold"). Turn all these questions over, making record of the answers, perhaps even roughly sketching the layout of the scene to help keep the relationships straight.

Even when the scene contains little or no dialogue, people are usually present, often moving around in the scene. List those present, and for each of them, ask how they will perceive the objects. This is more than a simple thinking through of what objects will be visible to whom; it also requires thinking about what each of the object seen (or absent) will mean to the person seeing. Will the object bring back pleasant memories, or nightmares? (e.g. again, the knife in "Wolf in the Fold") Will it arouse curiosity or revulsion? Consider carefully how the individual characters present will be affected by the objects, then consider also how each individual will react. Are there two or more characters who will fight over gaining possession of something in the scene? (e.g. needless to say, "Wolf in the Fold") Are the characters going to be terrified and flee, or galvanized into action? With groups of several people, will they decide to band together, or will they be caused to split into little groups, or will the situation cause a leader (perhaps a quite unexpected leader) to emerge to handle whatever confronts them?

Also, consider what the expectations of each character might be, what their plans for the situation might have been at the start of the scene and how it might change during the scene. Returning to the boring scene above, let's look at it and answer the questions. These are the answers that I came up with.

LOCATION: A second floor hallway, just outside the study in a private residence. Down the hall, there are bedrooms for the other members of the family, and a bathroom. The study itself is dark, with only the wedge of it illuminated by the light from the well lit hallway being visible to the other characters. Behind the characters, and a bit to one side, is the stairway going to the first level.

OBJECTS: There is the door to the study, opened by one of the characters. The only other physical object is the blood-stained hand made visible by the light. It is the left hand of the father & husband of the household; he has been murdered. Not visible because of the room’s darkness is the fact that the father is in a pool of his own blood, and is clutching an Assassin's Knife in the right hand.






Prior Expectation

Plans Made


Bloody hand

Something horrible has happened



Greeting from father and a chance to delay bedtime


Jeff Blakesley

His father’s hand

Father is hurt or dead

Realizes need to act; takes charge

Takes charge


Shielding Missy from the scene and figuring out what happened


Something interesting is hidden

Wants in on the secret


Tries to peek

Sleeping, wakened by a scream

Peek at the Big Secret


Husband’s hand, covered in blood

Can tell he is dead


Gets the other kids away from horrid scene

A bit of peace and quiet with 2 of her 3 kids in bed

Get the other kids out of the area to shield them from the nightmare

Yes, there is more to be said, but this is the major gist. Not all of what gets written down as the questions are answered need be put in the revised scene; in fact, if all of the answers were, the scene would probably bog down under its own weight. Picking and choosing among them, let's look at how I've revised the initial scene, incorporating the added information I've chosen to add some depth and richness to an otherwise boring piece of text.

Jenny knocked at the door of her father's study, hoping to delay her bed time a while by saying good night to her daddy and flirting with him for a while. Hearing no answer, she knocked again, more loudly. It was all most unusual; she and her father had played this night time ritual through a hundred times before, her father never once failing to answer at the second knock. Annoyed that her father had broken their little ritual, Jenny opened the door to his study.

The study itself was dark, lit only by the wedge of light admitted from the hallway. In that wedge of light, Jenny saw a hand, streaked with blood, lying motionless on the floor. Without further thought, she screamed.

Hearing the scream, Jeff Blakesley ran down the hall, arriving first. Barbara, the woman his father had married a year or so ago after the death of Jeff’s mother, arrived second, having to hurry up stairs. Missy, youngest of the brood, arrived last, still rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Jeff had taken one glance at the scene, and moved to block Missy's view; at her age, he knew she'd have nightmares for a month if she saw the bloodied hand. Seeing his only surviving parent was clearly dead would, he was sure, do his sleep no kindness, either, but after having faced death in Starfleet, death no longer cowed him. He let his training take over, pushing his emotions to the side for the moment. Jenny turned to her mother and buried her face in Barbara's shoulder, seeking what comfort she could find in her arms.

"Missy, honey," Jeff ordered gently but firmly, "I want you to go to the kitchen now, and set the table with milk and cookies for all of us. Please?"

Missy obviously preferred to stay, to try to see whatever it was that her big brother was trying to hide, but a stern glance from mother drove her to obedience. Barbara moved slightly, trying to see, keeping Jenny's head buried in her shoulder and averted from the study door. Reluctantly, John stepped aside. Barbara looked only for a second, then turned away, tears starting to flow: the hand she saw had held her own, had caressed her, had held her children too often for her not to recognize it as her husband's, and to know that he was dead.

Jeff moved to block the view again.

"I guess Jenny and I had better go help Missy, son."

Jeff nodded silently, thankful but surprised that the step-mother that he hardly knew was suddenly willing to follow his lead.

Barbara gently guided Jenny to the stairs. It was not until he heard them step onto the floor below that John reached into the study and turned on the light.

Even with the modest changes made here, the scene makes considerably more sense, and the characters that were little but names in the first rendition are already beginning to have Human qualities: Missy is sleepy, but curious; Jenny, a bit older, is a bit of a daddy's girl; Jeff, eldest, is strong but able to think quickly enough to try to protect the innocence of his step sister as well as probably being level headed in a crisis; and Barbara is strong, and wise enough to suppress her own feelings to protect her daughters, and willing to trust her step son in a tough situation. The terror Jenny feels, and the grief Barbara must feel seep into the scene, and as I re-read it, I begin to want to do something for this bereaved family, to find out who it is that has taken their father and husband away from them, and why. Other answers to the questions posed would, of course, produced a different outcome in the final text, as well as a different response. Certainly, the revised version still may need revision as the story line unfolds, but it is richer and fuller than it was. Perhaps the same approach, questioning that scene for what might be in it, will help you give depth and richness to the next scene you're stuck over.

Despite being more of a reader than a writer, there are a few observations that have intruded themselves upon me that I thought might be of some use to more talented and serious writers. In making these observations, I will compare a story to a fine piece of jewelry, perhaps a tiara: there is often one or a few larger, more precious gemstones, flanked by lesser stones that enhance the beauty of the larger ones, while filling out the overall design of the jewelry maker. All of these stones are set in a framework of precious and semiprecious metals that both hold the precious stones in their proper relationship to each other, and make the piece something that a person can and would wear.

Likewise, a good story seems to have one or several major scenes, blocks of text that are the heart and the soul of the story. Quite likely, one or more of these scenes are what came to the author's mind, triggering the story's creation. Though the plot moves along in other blocks of text, it is in these bright gemstones that the real story seems to unfold; all the rest of the text, be it ever so wonderful, acts to support or explain these larger gems of prose. Often, of course, these marvelous scenes and dialogues are rough when they first come to mind. Like a freshly mined gemstone, they need shaped and polished; they need given a form that is pleasing to the eye, that brings out its inner beauty and significance.

Once the major scenes are given their initial shape and form, look back at them carefully, and ask yourself about them. What is it about each of the characters in the scene, the actions, or the objects in the scene that caused it to have an impact? It may be, for instance, that the scene is fascinating because it forces an uneasy alliance between two sworn enemies; equally, the scene may be important because some expected object is absent, or an unexpected one present. Whatever the answer may be, make note of it. Note also what it is about each of the people and objects in the scene that makes the person or object important to the scene and the plot, and how the scene and each person in it moves the plot forward.

Answering these questions not only will help you put the scenes in their proper relationship to each other (if, that is, the relationship is not already obvious), but will also tell you what you will need to record for me, your gentle reader, to make it possible for me to see the richness and depth in the scenes you will be laying before me. It is in telling me those things that I must know and understand that you will create the lesser gem-stones that will find a place in the story. The tiara is not all large and glittering stones; lesser stones are set in place to enhance the beauty of the major ones, either by coordinating or contrasting with the greater stones.

As was hinted above, these represent the blocks of text that tell your reader the things that must be understood to make sense out of the greater scenes. Although perhaps not as critical as the main scenes, these lesser gems of prose are still worthy of your consideration. As they begin to take shape, ask first if it is possible to use one scene to explain several things at one time. Besides increasing the economy of words in the text, it is quite possible that you will see a way of combining several of the points that need explained in a way that will produce a new, large and exciting block of text, of creating a larger gem that may be more brilliant and bright than the ones that inspired the effort initially.

Whether it becomes a major scene in its own right, or remains a lesser, supportive scene, craft each one with care. Ask each how it advances my understanding as your reader reads it, how it gives me something that I need to understand the scenes you have already created. Do not neglect to ask if the scene introduces extraneous material that might cloud or confuse the development of the story, or brings in a loose end that may need tied up before the story can reach a satisfactory conclusion. How does each of these scenes add to the depth and luster of those already present? How well does it fit with them, and where best will it find placement? In fact, look closely at the scene, and ask yourself if there may be some way of doing without it altogether, perhaps combining its information with some other block of text already created, or soon to be created.

Too often books contain short bursts of text, often less than a page long, devoted to these lesser scenes. Sometimes this is done to increase the sense of urgency or a feel of chaos in the prose, but more often it seems to reflect a lack of reflection on the part of the author. A moment of time and thought over this could easily enough avoid a great deal of choppiness and confusion, allowing me, your humble audience, the chance to understand the characters, objects and their interactions more clearly as I roam in the world you create for me. Holding all these bits of prose together like the precious metal holds the gemstones together in a tiara, are the pieces of text that connect the main blocks, the words that make the flow from block to block as smooth and as seamless as possible. It's easy enough to gloss over the connecting pieces, treating them as little more than half-seen thread that holds together a garment, but the text that connects the scenes is no less worthy of care than the gold and silver in the tiara.

Unless the scene ends with the end of a chapter, allowing you to make a clean break between two scenes, the trick is to craft them so that they are indeed almost unseen; to make them seem to be as much a part of the scenes they connect as possible. Is it not great praise to say that it is hard to put a book down? Then do not give me an excuse to put your story down in the middle of a chapter; rivet me to the story until the time you are ready to release me at the chapter's end. If the text connecting two larger blocks is rough or if it is obvious then when I reach it, distractible soul that I am, I may put your story down and forget to return.

One final thought: Never forget to stand back from the work, to try to see it as a whole. Review of this little bit of philosophy, it seems to be focused on polishing the details, on looking through a microscope at the story. In doing that, it is too easy to forget the grand scheme, to clutter it with so many trivial details that the main plot disappears. Be aggressive, then, in stepping back to see the whole as you work with the details.

Anyone that writes, hopes to write a good story, whether it’s a short story, a novella or novel, or a series of books. Doing that is, of course, as much an art as painting, sculpting or writing music. Yet behind that art, there is a science, too: painters must know something of perspective, of pigments for their paint, and the like; sculptors, of chisels and stone or wood; musicians, of harmony and musical instruments. So it is, too, with writing: behind the art, there is some degree of science. Even a modest amount of attention to the technical issues behind writing can, I think, go a long way toward making a mediocre or miserable piece of writing into something much more stellar. The first step, of course, is to block out the story. Often, when I decide to write a story, I will start out with a "what if" question, or with a vivid scene that plays out in my imagination; that’s a fine starting point, among others, but it’s hardly enough to make a story. Mentally sketching out what’s going to happen, to whom, and when—since I write on a word processor, I’ll usually put that down after some sort of border mark, so I can refer to it as I work—is of immense value. When writing, it’s easy enough to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the grand sweep of things. That’s something you just can’t afford to do.

On top of that, writing out the "what, whom and when" forces a careful analysis of a time frame—which, with longer works, can be an issue. To have an individual born in one scene, then five years later be an adolescent is not going to be believable, unless the individual has been time traveling. Sketching out the bare bones of the plot can also show up holes in the development, things that have to be put into perspective, or that have to be given motivation by the text, so that some part or other of a major scene makes sense. What is the most fun, of course, is when plotting out the bare bones suggests new material that can be added, improving the richness and complexity of the plot; one or two secondary plots that might enrich the whole without detracting from it.

Much of the advice that is of interest is specific to the scene or dialogue, but there are a few points that are of a more general nature. One of the most significant things to do is to be sure you know the material you’re talking about. Read up a little on the science, or the history; watch others talking at a coffee shop or interacting at the mall; for Orion Press submissions, check out the the Orion Press Lexicon (it's on-line and available as a free downlod in PDF format). As an instance, in one story, there was a comment about "tritium-6", which had an atomic weight of 18 daltons; what one it was, I don’t know, because I found that one in the Lexicon. If such a thing exists, would have a molecular weight of 6 daltons or so; at 18 daltons, we’re most likely talking an isotope of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen or fluorine. A small error, but it makes the point: check things. A story that fits with science, history and human experience as we know it is usually far more interesting than one that isn’t. (Frankly, Randy has me hard at it finding an acceptable explanation for that scientific gaffe: I think I’ve found one, but the story introducing it is still in evolution.)

There have been other changes in science over the years that have resulted in some really clever rationalizations. Due to dialogue in "The Slaver Weapon" and in Nomad's "The Survivor," we chose to make the Kzinti homeworld Sirius IX. That decision was made in 1980, and made with the assent of a fellow who was serving as a technical advisor of sorts to Randy and the Orion Press writers. Truth be told, Sirius is probably too young of a star to have developed intelligent lifeforms let alone possess class M planets. Fortunately, there's a Star Trek explanation: it's now suggested that the Kzinti were planted there on an engineered world by The Preservers. QED. But while science is something to be concerned about, the story is far more important.

The issue of helping the reader keep track of who’s saying what in a dialogue is one such major consideration; this can be increasingly complicated as the dialogue includes larger numbers of people. The solution that is all too often used, and that is all too easy, is to put an identifying clause with every statement, what I call "talk words" all over the place:

A said.
B responded.
C asked.
D answered.
A interrupted.
C remarked.
B interjected.

And on, and on, and on. Not only is this unnecessary, it utterly bogs the dialogue down, cluttering it with words that add nothing. Even worse is the usage of said and asked and character names over and over and over. It's just mind bogglingly DULL.

Consider this bit of dialogue:

"Incoming message, Captain," Uhura said.

"Thank you, Uhura," Kirk responded. "Mainviewer."

"Captain Kirk, you are to go to Vulcan, where you will meet with T’Pau," said Admiral Gragar.

"How urgently, Admiral?" Kirk asked.

"Maximum warp. The Vulcan High Council says this is urgent," Gragar replied. "Given the source of the request, it seems reasonable to believe them."

"Then we’d best be on our way, Admiral. Enterprise out," Kirk stated. "Mister Sulu, best speed to Vulcan as fast as possible."

Now, look at the same interaction, using as few "talk words" as possible:

Uhura straightened up at the communications console. "Incoming message, Captain."

Kirk nodded. "Thank you, Uhura. Mainviewer."

On the screen before him, the captain saw the hog-like face of Admiral Gragar. "Captain Kirk, you are to go to Vulcan, where you will meet with T’Pau."

"How urgently, Admiral?" The request, and its blunt delivery, was something of a surprise, even from a Tellarite. There was no mistaking the curiosity on Kirk’s face, nor the eager anticipation.

"Maximum warp. The Vulcan High Council says this is urgent," Gragar’s porcine snout wrinkled slightly, suggesting that the admiral was as curious as Kirk was. "Given the source of the request, it seems reasonable to believe them."

"Then we’d best be on our way, Admiral. Enterprise out." Kirk turned to face the helm. "Mister Sulu, best speed to Vulcan."

The difference is significant. There isn’t a "talk word" in there, yet there isn’t a shadow of doubt in anyone’s mind who is saying what. Moreover, the characters here, on the whole, are more than talking heads; Uhura straightens, Kirk nods, has a facial expression and turns. Gragar is identified as a Tellarite and has a facial expression, too. Above and beyond that, there is some description of the feelings of the various folks involved, and a little insight into how they interact, more than just words telling the reader. This second bit of text is not only a little longer—not always a good thing, I must hasten to add—it is also much richer and deeper, without losing any of the clarity the original had. It’s anything but perfect—the dialogue is still quite stilted—but it’s considerably better than the first draft.

Another temptation that seems to plague authors is repetition, the same words or the same dialogue again and again. That may increase the length of the story, and considering a given scene, may be appropriate, but in the larger context of the whole story, it can be deadly. Indeed, repetitive use of the same word can even get tiresome for the reader. Any given character can be referred to in multiple ways. Spock could be called Spock, the chief science officer, Kirk’s science officer, and the Vulcan; if Kirk is active or is speaking, Spock could be referred to as a friend; if someone else, perhaps as their superior officer. The listing is limited by the creativity of the author and by the necessary clarity of the text.

Likewise, objects can be referred to in multiple ways: by shape, color, or name; by significance or meaning; or anything else. All that is necessary is to connect the object with the description once, then use it. So, an apple can be an apple; a red fruit; the bit of fruit in a character’s hand; the character’s favorite, or least favorite, fruit; and so on. What is, to me, the most trying thing to endure is having multiple characters repeat essentially the same thing to each other or to other characters, using the same words, or minor variations, to express the same content. On rare occasions, that is a tool that can link an earlier piece of text to a later one—when I’ve had to switch to a scene involving other characters, after a character makes a specific remark in a scene that I’m planning to continue later, I’ll often quote the exact remark at the start of the continuation of the scene, for instance—but on the whole, repetition bores the reader endlessly. The longer the passage that recurs, the worse it is.

Again, permit me a concrete example.

McCoy sat across from Chekov. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"I was. He just started getting red blotches on his hands and face, then he started having trouble breathing."

Chekov scratched his chin as he described the rash. "I don’t remember much else."

"Okay, Pavel, thanks. Do you remember if there were blisters at the start?"

"Not at the start; just later."

"Good enough. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

Sulu entered. McCoy addressed him. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"Yes. He just started getting red blotches on his hands and face, then he started having trouble breathing. After a moment or two, the red blotches started blistering."

"Anything else you remember?"

"Not that I can think of."

"Thank you. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

Another member of the crew arrived. McCoy addressed him. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"Yes. He just started getting crimson splotches, then he started having trouble breathing. After a moment or two, he started getting blisters."

"Anything else you remember?"

"I guess not." "Thank you. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

A lady arrived. McCoy addressed her with the same questions. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"Unfortunately. He just started getting red and blotchy on his face and hands, and started gasping for air. Oh, and there was some blistering where he broke out."

"Anything else you remember?"

"Wish I had more I could offer, Doctor."

"Thank you. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

Yet another arrived. Tiring of the repetition, McCoy addressed him. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"In the cafeteria, anyhow. I heard him having a hard time breathing, turned and saw his hands and face were covered with red blotches, some of which had blisters."

"Anything else you remember?"

"Just calling for you guys to come bail us out, sir."

"Thank you. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

The next individual was Uhura. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"Across the table from him. He just started getting red blotches on his hands and face, then he started having trouble breathing and getting blisters."

"Anything else you remember?"

"Not that I can think of. Well, other than that he was eating something I didn’t recognize. Pavel said it was Klingon gagh."

"Thank you, Nyota; that may be the key to the situation."

Red, blotchy, blistery rash and difficulty breathing several times running, just worded differently—that exceeds my endurance. I had thought that I might include three or four more crew between Sulu and Uhura, but I simply couldn’t bear to ask anyone to endure that much repetition. Just imagine that I’d been that cruel. Now, let’s try that again.

McCoy sat across from Chekov. "You were with Carpenter when he got sick?"

"I was. He just started getting red blotches on his hands and face, then he started having trouble breathing." Chekov scratched his chin as he described the rash. "I don’t remember much else."

"Okay, Pavel, thanks. Do you remember if there were blisters at the start?"

"Not at the start; just later."

"Good enough. You can go; just send in the next crewman."

Sulu entered. McCoy addressed the same questions, getting essentially the same answers. Several other crewmembers came and went, facing the same questions and producing only trivial variations on the original theme. Uhura entered, smiling at her old friend. Other than admitting that she’d been across the table from Carpenter, she added nothing to the earlier descriptions.

Not holding high hopes, McCoy asked his final question one more time. "Anything else you remember?"

"Not that I can think of. Well, other than that he was eating something I didn’t recognize. Pavel said it was Klingon gagh."

"Thank you, Nyota; that may be the key to the situation."

The revised text still isn’t a winner, text wise, but I hope that the improvement is clear. The basic information is brought across, Uhura’s critical observation is delivered, and the whole thing is a load shorter—182 rather than 414 words—and more readable. It’s enough shorter that I could insert a sentence or two describing the fact that Doctor McCoy was beginning to feel like he was living and reliving a recorded message through the stream interviews, and perhaps one describing the reasons for his elation and its meaning.

One thing that I have trouble with is telling the story myself, rather than letting the characters do the work for me. Perhaps that sounds silly, since I’m typing the text either way, but it’s actually a serious issue. In any given scene, I know what I want the reader to know, and it is extremely easy just to say what needs said and be about my business. That makes, unfortunately, for terribly boring material, on the whole. What works much better is to try to get the characters to say what I need to communicate.

Here’s another in the long list of examples.

Sara walked into Tiona’s room on the Enterprise. She spotted the small, grey cube of a grinkelometer on Tiona’s table. She wondered why Tiona needed a grinkelometer; it was a tool used by warp space researchers to measure the frequency of large scale eddies in the structure of the subspace continuum, and compute their density, a factor that was sometimes important in understanding some points in how subspace and realspace interacted.

Sorry, I had to take a break to yawn. That’s terrible prose. Let me try to get it to work with Sara and Tiona doing the work for me.

Sara stepped into Tiona’s room on the Enterprise; on the table, a small, grey cube caught Sara’s eye. "What on earth is that, Ti?"

"A grinkelometer. Well, that’s what they called it; they asked me to bring it along with me on this trip. They want the data it’ll collect." She shrugged. "It was worth a small stack of credits to them, and it cost me practically nothing."

"Grinkelometer? Well, the stone in my new ring grinkels really nicely, don’t you think? Let’s see if it makes your grinkelometer do something fun!" Although she tried to sound serious, her grin tipped Tiona off that she was teasing. "Near as I can recall it, the gizmo measures the number of eddies in subspace that it passes; why they call them grinkels, I don’t know, but they do. It’s some project looking at how subspace interacts with the real thing."

This second try—still stuck with the silly name grinkelometer—has the first one beat to pieces. Not only does the information about the gizmo get out, you learn something about Tiona and Sara, and their relationship. Again, Tiona does all the telling for me, with Sara acting as a foil, to get the right things said, and get them out believably. The effort here was small, and reasonably fun; the results, even on a cold repeat read, are actually almost pleasant to read. Well, other than that abysmal name grinkelometer, I guess; that needs shot and put out of its misery.

No matter how carefully scripted you have the plot, though, be ready to let the story write itself a little. That sounds foolish, I suppose, but it happens with me. In "To Leap Tall Buildings" (slated for HYPERION 3 at the moment), I had the story structured in my head from beginning to end. The particular piece of text in question had Uhura, Running Bear and Hardav at a campfire on a planet on which they are doing a cultural survey. The scene was intended to be a simple one: each of them debriefing to the others about their impressions of the planet and its inhabitants. For reasons I do not understand, I had the urge to introduce a starving young female with a child into the scene, and let the three of them halfway adopt her for the evening.

The scene seemed to write itself, as some scenes seem to do. Sixteen year old Nikki, which is what I called this young girl, and her six month old son allowed me to display the maternal in Uhura, and the paternal in Running Bear and Hardav; it also almost forced me to create a scene I hadn’t thought about, and one that let me display Uhura being tougher than trititanium. That unexpected scene has to rank as my favorite part of the whole story. Even better, that wayward introduction of Nikki and her child offered the opportunity to revise the ending in a much more believable direction.

There are several other such occurrences that I can recall. In The Plumber’s Helper, for instance, the funeral for Eletto’s three companions was something that suddenly seemed to be necessary. Several scenes, including the one with McCoy, Eletto and Kirk setting the funeral up; the one with Eletto interacting with Oti and Iaffrey, where they won’t shut up long enough for him to identify himself as the "rescued waif"; the funeral itself (and the thoughts about NASA and space exploration itself that I was able to express in the eulogy); and the post-funeral scene with Oti and Iaffrey all virtually exploded from that one thought. Eletto’s dream scene, where he sees all his friends from NASA saying goodbye, including his wife and children, was another of the same kind. Had I slavishly stuck to my outline, I would have lost a major section of that novella, and cost it direly in terms of richness and depth.

Finally, reread and revise the story, several times. If, having written it, you find re-reading the story to be boring, what makes you believe that I will find it interesting on the first read? I probably won’t, to be honest. In crafting a story, I have gotten into the habit of letting it sit, untouched, for at least a month before I re-read it, usually spending the free time writing other things. On the repeat read, I invariably have large numbers of changes that need made; what I thought was scintillating when I wrote it will occasionally be deadly boring on reread, and need major surgery. Conversely, and thankfully more commonly, I’ll see places where I could have added a simple sub-plot, or needed to insert clarification. That’s always fun; I get to write more!

Before I send it off to be considered for publication, I’ll have usually read and revised the story four more times. As an example, I revised Eletto’s funeral eulogy ten or twelve times, maybe more, over the year or so I worked on the story, and the dream scene that many times or more. Did I get it right? That’s for others to judge, but I still can’t read either of them without my eyes puddling up a little.

The invested time, finally letting Giac say what I’d felt without understanding for weeks, was worth it to me.

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