Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bad Witing: Who Notices and What Matters

I am making no secret I am boycotting Star Trek Into Darkness (warning, if you don't like spoilers, don't read further), but in addition to the whitewash casting that sparked my boycott, I have reports from those who have seen it on just how badly written it is. The most detailed report so far has been from James Cawley. For those who haven't heard of him, he is the other James T. Kirk. He stars and produces the fan made Star Trek: Phase II. His report on the flaws and plot holes of Star Trek Into Darkness is magnificent.

As a blog about writing, I thought it would be useful to delve into the topic of bad writing using this film as an example. The real thing I want to focus on is who notices and what sort of issues matter and what don't. Now, things are a bit different for movies than for books, but not by too much.

Star Trek Into Darkness is full of plot holes and logical inconsistencies. Cawley goes in depth on the major offenses and points out many of the minor offenses as well. The plot details don't matter for the sake of this discussion. I'm more interested in the audience reaction. With this movie it varies widely, but most have enjoyed it. Even Cawley says it is better than that last one. I'm sensitive to race issues so casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonian Singh doesn't sit well. If you've read my work you'll know from the cover art and characters descriptions that I avoid using a typical westerner unless there is a reason. That on top of a dubious sequel to the dubious 2009 film and the bad writing reported by several people I trust, and I have chosen to boycott it. Not just now, I don't plan to ever see it. That puts me in somewhat of a bind, but Cawley has done an excellent job of reporting and it is more than enough to use for examples.

No matter what you write, there are two audiences you must please. You must please the general public and those who will be reviewing it. For novelists, the latter includes agents, editors, and publishers, as well as book reviewers. There is no work that will be universally loved, so often it is a matter of finding the right people to review it. You need someone who likes the same sort of thing. That is why agents, editors, and publishers usually focus on a few select genres. In the case of something part of such a well-known legacy as Star Trek, one of the key group of reviewers is not just the followers of the genre, but the followers of the franchise. Do they matter? Yes, they do. But the question is how much.

Star Trek has a long history and the fans first stepped up to keep the series on the air. But by the third season the writing was on the wall and Roddenberry lost heart and let scripts through that were less than stellar. It shows. Such classics as Spock's Brain and Turnabout Intruder really make you question the series. When it came to the movies, the legions of fans made Star Trek: The Motion Picture a hit, even though it is a more cerebral story filled with visual effects. They came back with a trilogy of popular movies, culminating in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the biggest popular hit of the franchise. That is because it took good Star Trek and made it accessible to the general public. It did so without dumbing down the franchise.

Fast forward to 2009 and the release of the simply titled Star Trek. The movie uses an alternate timeline to reboot the franchise and rattle the cages. In spite of casting an outstanding actor for the part, the film lacked a good villain. He was poorly written and was barely involved in the plot. I won't go into all the plot holes in that film. I was able to turn off my Trek logic detector and just enjoy it. Now we have its sequel, created by the same writers and production team.

It is clear form the careless nature of the writing that both these movies helmed by J.J. Abrams are all about the action. What that does is cater to the general public, the wider audience. That is well and good and would be fine, except there are the legions of loyal Star Trek fans who expect more. We have put up with the drawn out Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the low quality (but oddly with a story that is closer to the spirit of the Original Series) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. We dealt with Star Trek: Generations and the horrible breakdown in crew ability, all just to destroy the sets. We could deal with these because even while being less than great, they adhered to the ideals of Star Trek. That is missing from these new movies. And with the casting choice for the role of Khan, this latest one falls flat. We old timers will speak up. We are a group of reviewers that Abrams and his crew have chosen to ignore. While we may not have a big impact on the ticket sales these first weeks, we are the ones who normally see a film multiple times and then buy the home video release later. My boycott may have no impact now, but if enough Star Trek fans who care about story are disappointed enough in this film, it won't do well for long.

So what we have in Star Trek Into Darkness is a very pretty movie with serious story issues. The casual observer may not notice, or there may be just a flicker that something doesn't seem right. The closer observer, the critic, the reviewer, the Star Trek fan, is going to see these things and it will diminish the product. On a multi-million dollar effects movie, the expense of spending a little time on the script and bringing in someone who can pick out those flaws before the film gets made is minimal and would pay for itself in the end. By not caring and paying attention to those things, you lose some potential repeat business.

For us writers, this is a cautionary tale. Imagine instead of a die hard Star Trek fan, you are dealing with an agent who specializes in your genre. You write a good tale, but you goof up a few things. If you write historical fiction, perhaps you have introduced some anachronism that would spoil your story for potential readers. Perhaps you write science fiction and have leaned too far to the supernatural. These things can be a deal breaker. If you are lucky, someone will point them out to you, but in a world where the slush piles are so large, they are just looking for a reason to pass. The sort of carelessness Abrams has shown with Star Trek is the sort of thing an agent is going to pass on.

Now in this case, the movie is likely to be a huge success and Abrams will continue to ignore the protests from the fans as he rakes in the money. But consider that if he had done it right, not only would he rake in the money, but he'd make more people happy in the process and probably make even more. The lesson in this is to keep the reviewers and fans happy. You can't please everyone, but you need to please as many as you can. Writers need to focus on the agent/editor/publisher at first, and then, as they grow in popularity, their fans. It seems such a simple thing, but some people just don't get it and it shows in how other people feel about their work. So while much of the general public gives Abrams an A for this movie, this reviewer gives him an F. He failed to do some simple things that would have only given him a better finished product.