Everything I Need to Know about Writing Sci Fi, I Learned from Star Trek – Piper Bayard

Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: annotationseditorial@gmail.com).

Today I’d like to welcome the ever-friendly and entertaining Piper Bayard as part of the Literary Genres Blog Series. Piper’s letting us in on what she’s learned about writing Science Fiction from watching Star Trek. 

There are dozens of books out there that will teach you to write, but I learned everything I need to know about writing Sci Fi from Star Trek: The Original Series. Star Trek has it all.

Great Structure

The typical episode starts with some kind of “normal world” setting. Spock is irritating Bones, or Kirk is settling into his bridge chair after a strenuous night seducing an alien. The ship or crew is attacked by a mysterious force that’s set on complete domination or destruction of the future world as we know it. The struggle ensues. The Starfleet crew responds by learning and growing in a way that makes them capable of being the heroes they were hired to act like. It all culminates in a grand battle and the enemy’s defeat, followed by a denouement consisting of a pensive thought or a humorous exchange. The hero’s journey in an hour, minus commercials.

Regardless of what kind of novels we are writing, they need structure. Look to Star Trek.

Cool Gadgets

Star Trek has the lock on cool gadgets. Warp engines, communicators, motion sensor doors, etc., and Bones McCoy always has some sort of scanner in his hand that makes surgery unnecessary. But as with all great Sci Fi, each of these enterprising gadgets is a logical extension of existing scientific theory.

Science fiction definitely needs some science in it, and it’s okay if we indulge our imaginations to the limit. But we need to stay rooted in reality so that people will quickly relate to our worlds without being distracted by objects that have no frame of reference.

When we pull pie in the sky technology out of the air, our stories become about the gadgets. Readers may get a kick out of gadgets, but they don’t relate to gadgets. We must always remember that the meat of our stories is our people. Transporter beams and food replicators are only side dishes.

BTW, Bones’ scanning instruments are mostly salt & pepper shakers acquired from garage sales and the like. And the motion sensor doors?  People standing behind the wall waiting for cues to pull them back when someone approaches. The Shat cracked his nose more than once when the “door men” weren’t paying attention. But today those and so many other Star Trek gadgets are part of our current reality because they were based on science in the first place.

Hot Babes

James T. Kirk was Da Bomb back in the day. Always passionate, always taking the go-for-broke gamble and winning, and always getting either the girl or the alien. Even if we prefer the cool, emotionally unavailable guys, we girls have Spock and plenty of material for Pon Farr fantasies. And for the guys, there’s a limitless selection from the beautiful, competent Uhura, to pixie-like, mute empaths, to an occasional dominatrix.

Lesson to be learned? Every good Sci Fi story needs a babe to build a dream on.

Extra Crew Members

Somewhere between the third and fifth episodes of Star Trek, we all catch on that whenever there is an extra crew member present, someone is going to die a horrible death. This has both Do This and Don’t Do This lessons.

DO put in extra crew members (characters) to murder, mutilate, torture, blow up, starve, kidnap, feed to monsters, and take back to the pod for a slow blood drain, etc. But DON’T broadcast which characters those are by giving them all red shirts. Treat them with just as much attention as your regular crew so that we (the readers) are surprised when they die, and we mourn them.

High Concept Parable

The most important element of great writing, including Sci Fi, is an idealistic integrity. That can be anything from a halcyon future worth fighting for to a post-apocalyptic world where at least some humans retain their humanity. Star Trek: The Original Series is penultimate in this respect.

Star Trek takes on themes such as racism, class warfare, human rights, feminism, and the role of technology in society, but it never comes out and tells us that. Instead, it speaks to us in parables.

Let’s take racism, for example, which was a violently charged issue during the 1960s. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, makes the radical move of casting a racially diverse crew, and then making their racial diversity irrelevant. Instead, he uses alien races to teach his lessons about racism.

Each of these alien races behaves in very human ways and represents some human race or culture. That allows us to relate to them, even if we do not consciously identify them. Klingons at the time represented the Soviets, our sworn enemies. Romulans were the Chinese behind their Bamboo Curtain. And Spock was the minority outsider within our own American society.

In Star Trek, these alien races and their interactions with humans reveal our fears and small-mindedness to us, as well as show us what is possible when we all work together with respect and good will to solve our problems. In doing so, it calls us to be better people.

The fascination of Science Fiction is its ability to show us dreamers and romantics what is possible. To remind us that there is reason for our struggles, and that no matter how grim our reality might be, there is always hope for a better day. When we write Sci Fi, that hope is the gift we give to our readers. The gift I received from Star Trek.

Write well and prosper. 🙂

What have you learned about Sci Fi writing from Star Trek? 

Piper Bayard—The Pale Writer of the Apocalypse

Piper Bayard is a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She’s also a belly dancer from waaaay back, and she currently pens post-apocalyptic sci-fi and spy novels when she isn’t Scuba diving, blogging, baking cookies, visiting Hospice patients, and chauffeuring her children to their various teenaged immediacies. You can find Piper at her blog “Author Piper Bayard“, on Twitter at@piperbayard or on Facebook.

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About Nicole Basaraba

Nicole Basaraba is a Canadian writer focusing on topics of travel (Mondays), writing and literature (Wednesdays), lifestyle (Fridays) and her experiences living in the capital city of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
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25 Responses to Everything I Need to Know about Writing Sci Fi, I Learned from Star Trek – Piper Bayard

  1. Pingback: Two Lies and a Truth – Come On. Fess Up. « Author Piper Bayard

  2. Piper Bayard says:

    Thank you for hosting me, Nicole. I love your blog, and it’s an honor to be here. 🙂

  3. awalkabout says:

    What a great column! Good point about not getting too wrapped up in the gadgetry. It’s easy to do that, and there ARE people who lust after a good gadget. But the people/characters are what most readers desire.

  4. EllieAnn says:

    Love these points you’ve made, especially about talking about issues through parables instead of preaching. When I first started writing, I “had something to say” and used characters to say it for me. Now I’m starting to put the story and characters first. 🙂 great post!

  5. Julie Glover says:

    My favorite thing about sci-fi (which I’ve watched more movies of than reads books) is the mixture of contemporary issues (like racism) mixed with deeper scientific questions (what if there are other species out there?). Great post, Piper! I also think we can learn from the original Star Trek that go-go boots are appropriate in any century and on any planet.

  6. Stacy Green says:

    Really interesting points, here, Piper. I don’t watch a lot of sci-fi, except for Eureka and Haven, but you did a great job of drawing the parallels fro Star Trek. I’d forgotten what a great job they did mixing in important issues with their science.

  7. Susan Spann says:

    Great column Piper – and very true. The part about the gadgets was extra-great. I love sci-fi where the gadgets have just enough connection to “real” science to make them plausible without losing the coolness factor of “that’s where we are going.”

  8. You’re right about STAR TREK – the original series: some amazing sci-fi writers actually contributed episodes to that, including Harlan Ellison, who won some kind of natinal US TV award for one episode – I would love to see it, but don’t even know what the episode’s called.
    Best,
    Danielle

    • Anonymous says:

      Can I admit I know the answer to this one? The episode is no 28, the City on the Edge of Forever, but you’ll find Harlan Ellison disowned it, even though it did, as you say, win the 1968 Hugo award.
      Sci-fi is a great way to explore difficult themes, and the great thing is that viewers/readers absorb the message, without even realizing there was one. Don’t forget the Next Generation Star Trek series, I know some teachers of creative writing who use episodes as examples of how to blend plot and subplot.

      • Piper Bayard says:

        I thought about including a few examples from STNG, but then I would have to mention Enterprise, DS9, etc. and it started getting messy. 🙂

        Do you know why Ellison disowned that episode? It’s a fan favorite.

      • Thank you so much for that, Anonymous, I’ve always wanted to know. I have a friend with lots of Star Trek, I’ll see if she can dig it out for me. TX, again!

    • Piper Bayard says:

      It did have some excellent writers. Very much a product of their time, which I believe made the show relevant. 🙂

  9. One of the greatest things about ST was its optimism. In spite of bombs, racial divisions and sexism, not to mention disease and outright war, the show predicted that humanity would not only live long, but prosper.

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