Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 8: What Star Trek Did Right

As we did with The Dark Knight and Watchmen (the comic, not the movie), once again we turn our searing critical insight on a major work of successful storytelling talk about what they did right. If you loved the new Star Trek movie, or even just kind of liked it, we’ll tell you what the writers did to achieve that; if you hated it, we’ll show you some things you can learn from it anyway. If you haven’t seen it, well, I think it goes without saying that this is a spoilerific spoiler episode full of spoilers. Listen at your own risk.

This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Stacy Whitman, a fantastic freelance editor beloved by all three Writing Excuses hosts. She does fantastic work on all manner of fantastic writing (including Howard’s recent project with Tracy Hickman, XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery. If you’re looking for a good editor, she’s fantastic.

Writing Prompt: Spock-a-doodle doo!


49 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 8: What Star Trek Did Right”

  1. A full 2 minutes of silence at the beginning of this one. Is the audio lost forever?

  2. the podcast starts about 2 mins in. a very good lesson on how characters drive a plot, i will admit up until now i was still having problems understanding exactly how this was achieved.

    can i make spock a rooster? sum how i dont think that would go out of place on ff.net

  3. OHHHHH NOOOOOOOO!!! I haven’t seen Star Trek yet and I want to! But I need to listen to Writing Excuses!



  4. I don’t think there’s too much to spoil that a quick summary on Wikipedia wouldn’t already tell you. If anything, it will just make you want to watch the movie.

  5. I have to say one thing about the Star Trek setting, since it was brought up.

    Iowa is NOT that flat. I live ten miles north of Riverside, and the topography is glacier-carved rolling hills, not flatter-than-a-pancake. We also have many trees, thank you very much.

    On the other hand, when Kirk was at the bar, my friends and I were geeking out because it was easy to imagine the Riverside casino :)

  6. Great analysis. I agree–the Star Trek movie showed the extreme importance of conflicted, and believable characters, and executed very well on that. Character-driven stories are truly the best, and Spock carried the victory in this film.

    Ironically, I think that the weakest point of the film was also related to characters: the antagonist. It’s important to not only have compelling heroes, but also compelling villains. Nero’s character and motivations, imho, were kind of weak…or at least improperly developed by the storytelling.

    Nevertheless, Star Trek was fantastic, and this podcast was very helpful. Good analysis of examples (on occassion…) is very helpful for me as an aspiring writer.

  7. I think you should have left the 2 minutes of silence in. For about 45 seconds, I really thought you guys were pulling a fast one on us.

    Think about it:

    Title: What Star Trek Did Right.

    I thought it was commentary until I jumped ahead and hear you talking. :)

  8. One commentary I have to make on these “What X did right” episodes — they probably won’t make any sense to someone who hasn’t seen the movie. There’s no context. This means that, assuming that a listener of Writing Excuses hasn’t seen the film, they have to pay (whatever it costs at their local theatre to see the movies) in order to get anything out of your podcast, unlike all of the other episodes which make sense for free.

    To a one, I have still not had the chance to see any of the three movies you’ve done them about, so that makes three episodes that are effectively the same for me as if you skipped a week, unless I choose to go out of my way to see the films in question at theatres. Usually, if I want to see a film, I wait for it to be cheap at the rental place, or to show up free on TV.

    Have you considered doing reviews of things that aren’t currently in theatres?

    …or maybe having the “What X did right” podcasts being seperate from writing excuses? They could even be on a different day of the week, so the people that -DO- get something out of them get more of you guys per week.

    …but please, please, don’t let the “What X did right” overtake the actual writing advice. :/ It’s really, really disappointing for this non-movie-watcher.

  9. R3u, Watchmen wasn’t a movie review FYI, it was a review of the ~20 year old graphic novel it was based off of…

  10. Hey guys…just wanted to let you know that you don’t have an ad in the middle of the show…

  11. R3u, you should really go out and see these movies, you might save 5 dollars by waiting a few months for it to become a rental but you’re going to be hard set trying to replace the experience you get watching it on the big screen with friends.

    Plus you don’t really need to watch the movie to understnad what the podcast is about, they usually restate what was done right before talking about it.

    Great episode this week btw

  12. Umm… all that disappointed me about this week’s episode is how late it was posted. *shrugs*

  13. @R3u

    The movies that they have done this for were HUGELY successful movies. While you may not have seen them millions of people have. This means the odds of there being significant overlap between Reading Excuses’ audience and the people who have seen these movies.

    In short, there have been a grand total of 3 of these (one of which was a 20 year old comic, as Patrick Sullivan noted) out of the entire history of Writing Excuses. While they may not apply to you there’s a good chance they apply to a large number of this podcast’s listeners and it probably won’t kill you to skip them until they DO apply to you (or entirely, your call.)

  14. Aaaaand since there is no edit function:

    That should have been “…the odds of there being significant overlap between Reading Excuses’ audience and the people who have seen these movies are fairly good.”

  15. Haha nice typo Cornan ;-)

    And also should be noted, not only is it 20 y/o graphic novel, Time actually put it as one of the top pieces of literature of the 20th century. A GN getting that distinction is crazy, though it’s well earned. The characters and setting are stunning. If you want to improve in those areas I STRONGLY recommend reading it, even if you ignore the WE ep about it.

  16. File the purchase of a movie ticket under the ‘research’ tab in business expenses and take it as a tax deduction.

    What I liked most about the new Star Trek is it managed to revamp the timeline without actually invalidating the original timeline one bit! Craftily done!

  17. The reason we took current stuff for the “What X did right” podcasts is because we want to be able to address things that are fresh for the majority of our viewers. It lends a measure of currency to the discussion, and this is especially important in light of the discussions we’ve had about staying current with the genres in which you write.

    Not every episode is for every listener. We get that. We’d like to think that every listener can come away from these having learned something, but it’s not always the case. Our ‘casts on living and working as a professional writer are not universally well-received by those who haven’t gotten there yet, for instance.

  18. Plot?

    What plot?

    Nah, I won’t go there. No need too.

    What did the reboot do right?


    1. the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
    2. (in Jungian psychology) a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.

    That’s the crux of it. The writer(s) knew and studied their character archetypes and used them well. Many writers try to twist what they consider iconic figures under the Rule of Cool and end up with hash. Why? Because they do not understand the material they are working with.

    The writers showed they understood it by the way they treated the characters (within the Star Trek mythology as well as the larger literal/film history). They subverted some character tropes and played others straight (see Spock) with finesse.

    Which just goes to show you that if you’re going to break a rule, you better master it first.

    I wrote a bit more about archetype and genre twisting in my blog. Here is the link for anyone who is interested:


  19. Interesting. Although I do not agree with all the premises (see above: the other ST movies did well at the box office, and I am an original Trekker) , the pith of the Excuses is real. Do we want ot appeal esoterically to a amller, elite audience or boast a larger reader base? Everyone must decide for herself!

  20. I didn’t have any trouble understanding any of the three “What X did right” podcast and I haven’t seen any of the movies or read the comic. Seriously a 5 minute browse on the Wikipedia page is more then enough for you to get the main points of the podcast. I personally think Howard, Dan and Brandon do a really good job focusing on and explaining what the movie did and how you can learn from it in a way that’s still easy to get even if you don’t have detailed knowledge about what happened in the movie/comic.

  21. Sorry but I have problems with any plot that was as hole ridden as that plot was. I guess you have to call this a character driven story since the plot was so bad but it isn’t what I would consider a good character driven story line.

    Shouldn’t the plot at least make some sense? Just because the setting is scifi doesn’t mean the plot shouldn’t be believable within the confines of the world that has been created. How does it make any sense to have a cadet who is so insubordinate he is thrown off the ship, which in and of itself makes not sense because the ship has a brig, then the next thing we know he is the captain of the brand new flagship?

    The logic driven Spock bets on love and friendship instead of going on board the ship himself and saving the Earth? How does that makes sense in a character driven story line? For God sakes they made Spock emmo. Character motivation should be driven by what would make sense for the character not simply by what would make the story fun.

    It was simple eyeball candy and cheap jokes. I was shocked to see you pick this to demonstrate what was done right in story and character development for writing since I think the story falls apart if the audience stops being wowed by the amazing visual effects. If you take out the special effects this was a sophomoric story line without believable characters or a logical plot development.

    I often hear the Twilight books being discussed on your podcast. The new Star Trek is the scfi version Twilight. Pretty, popular and fun but hollow.

    I do want to say I love your podcast and I look forward to it every week even if this weeks episode wasn’t my favorite. I feel I learn a lot listening to you guys.

  22. I really appreciated this podcast as an example of how to use an audience’s expectations to surprise them.


    Random question: Why didn’t ST fans (I’m not going to pretend I was ever a real trekkie) have a problem with the time travel plot “undoing” the original series? I would have thought that would cause some ruffled feathers. The box office take suggests they were just happy happy happy to have a new movie, but it surprised me.

  23. @Eliyanna – One of my co-workers is a hardcore ST fan(dresses up as klingons to events). He seemed to be ok with the movie.

    There was quite a bit of controversy in the run up to releasing the movie.
    One of the major ones was building the spaceship in a corn field in Iowa.

    *****************SPOILER WARNING********************
    Personally I was fine with the entire movie except the relationship between
    Spock and Uhura. I had a hard time accepting this especially since it was
    not essential to the plotline and seemed to be pandering to the Grey’s Anatomy crowd.

    Not theres nothing wrong with Grey’s it just doesn’t belong in StarTrek.


    On a side note, for some reason the advertizement only played in my left earbud but the rest of the podcast was in stereo.

    Also you should leave the mic running more often after the podcast ends, or maybe complile some outtakes.

  24. I can’t say I was pleased with the time-traveling thing undoing everything that came after. I felt that it just made it easier for the writers to not have to deal with the loads of expectations that come with traditional Trek. That said, I did enjoy the movie.

    I like these podcasts that take something well known and analyze it. That’s what we need to be doing as writers to our own stuff. We need to learn to be asking ourselves questions like ‘why is my character doing this?’ My recently acquired hobby is to ponder all TV shows, movies, and books and analyze what I liked and didn’t like about the plot.

  25. @Eliyanna: The way they explained it in the movie itself, this timeline exists in addition to the original, not on top of it. The other events and movies and series all happened, and will happen again, but in the new timeline they will happen differently.

    @Everyone: Please be nice to R3u. He has a legitimate concern and he expressed it very politely. We would like Writing Excuses to be the kind of place where people feel free to ask question and make suggestions.

    @R3u: We will take your advice into consideration as we plan future episodes; we won’t forego “What X Did Right” entirely, because it’s a very popular segment with wide appeal, but it’s good to know that there are some people for whom it’s not helpful.

  26. If it helps, R3u, I’m not a movie watcher either, so I haven’t listened to any of the “What X Did Right” podcasts either.

    Still though, I wouldn’t discourage these guys NOT to do them; they’re a fantastic exercise, and most people know them. Guess it’s true that you can’t please everyone.

  27. I waited about 8 months to listen to the ” What Dark Knight did right.” I waited until I’d rented the movie, which meant waiting for it to come out on DVD.

    If you don’t believe me, go back into the archive and look at my late, lanquishing post.

  28. @Dan Wells (et al).: Ohhhhh… Got it. Huh. This is why I don’t usually do/read/write/watch time travel and parallel universes–can never keep it straight in my linear head.

  29. One of the reason they have done the “What X Did Right” podcasts is because whether they be Graphic Novel or movie, someone had to write them, just like novels. There are many who listen to Writing Excuses who want nothing to do with writing novels, but write in other areas.

    The guys tend to look at what was done from the writing perspective and address those things, which we all can learn from, whether we have seen the movie or not. They were discussing concepts in writing and using a current move as a reference point that many (but, yes, not all) can relate to.

    You need not have seen the movie to learn the lessons they are pointing out. They were discussing the reinventing of a beloved genre, (with a rabid fan-base AND bringing in new fans) and that is something that any writer should think about.

    There have been many things that have been discussed at one time or another that do not appeal to one listener or another, Howard pointed out an excellent example, but there are usually things than anyone can take away from them, if nothing more than being entertained by the interaction of three obvious schizophrenics.

  30. @ Ray:
    Comparing Star Trek to Twilight only serves to prove our point, since Twilight was the specific example we used in our episode about critical reading: you can often learn more by studying something you don’t like than by studying something you do. Twilight and Star Trek were both hugely successful, whether or not they were empirically “good,” and that means that deep down behind all the things you don’t like, they are doing something right.

  31. Karl: Well, your languishing post will be joined by another languishing post at some point, because I fully intend to get around to watching The Dark Knight…


    Dan, Howard, Brandon: Are you going to let WEKM talk about you like that? ;)

  32. @ Dan Wells:.

    I seem to be in the 1% of the population that simply hated this movie and it drives me crazy that either I can’t see what was so great about it or everyone else can’t seem to see why it was so bad. I have always been a hard science fiction fan and the idea that scfi doesn’t have to make sense really bothers me. Still I can accept bad science much easier then I can accept bad justification for the character’s actions.

    What bothered me the most was the idea that it was a good example of a character driven story line. It seemed to me that the writers simply decided they wanted A B & C to happen so they threw the flimsiest of reasons out there and bet the audience wouldn’t care if those reasons actually made any sense as long as story kept moving and the jokes kept coming.

    I think the biggest lesson to be learned from this movie and its undeniable success is that if you are writing pop scfi as long as the audience is happy about what is happening to the characters and wants it to happen then you don’t have to worry too much when it comes to character motivation and the logic behind what is happening. Maybe one of the reasons I disliked the movie so much is that I wasn’t onboard with the direction and I didn’t like their version of Kirk. Or maybe I am simply more out of touch with what makes a good story then I thought.

    I do want to apologize for my first post on this site being negative. I love what you are guys are doing here and I think it was of the best podcast out there.

  33. Just my opinion, but I found it odd to see the concern about these. I have not seen or read any of the “What X did right” movies/books, and due to my location here in Japan, probably won’t. Still, I found quite a bit of useful advice and commentary.

    As a possible alternative, perhaps the boys would consider roasti…er, commenting on their own work? What “I Yam Not A Cereal Killer” did right? That could be amusing, especially if you ask the author to hold off on commenting until after the other two have had their chance.

    Or perhaps pick something from Gutenberg, The Baen Free Library, or McMillan’s collection of free ebooks over on Suvudu? Easy access for everyone. And I bet if you take apart something like “The Mountains of Mourning” we might pick up a few listeners from the Bujold fan clubs…

    Just some thoughts.

  34. Hello! Trying to download the file and there doesn’t seem to be anything there todownload. Is there a problem, or is it me?

  35. Let us not forget, the holy three are all writers, and have repeatedly talk about the voices in their heads, hence my labeling them as schizophrenics.

    I have voices in MY head, so I label myself a writer. It keeps the men in the white coats, with the huggy jacket for me to wear, away. ;>

  36. I haven’t watched the movie, wasn’t very interested in watching it, but I figure I got some good ideas from what they said and described. Now, I’d like to see them tell us what Tropic Thunder did right for comedy, and how to apply in it written format.

  37. Dan’s response to Ray raises an interesting point. If Star Trek and Twilight were successful despite not being “empirically good” does it mean as writers we should compromise and write what’s popular even if we can’t stand it personally?

    But I do agree with Ray on Star Trek, since I also seem to be in the 1% that didn’t like the film. I’d be interested in seeing an episode called “What Star Trek Did Wrong.” The film had a contrived plot, a weak villain and supporting characters who were caricatures. As writers how can we avoid these things?

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