What We Writers Can Learn From Star Trek: The Original Series
I grew up with a Trekkie for a mother: i.e., someone who likes Star Trek: The Original Series.
Scratch that, actually. Because it’s not quite fair to call her a Trekkie. Maybe a reformed one? Now she just enjoys the show for what it’s worth.
Of course, what it’s worth is cheese. Cheese, cheese and more cheese, from the sets to the props to the dialogue to the acting.
But it’s still pretty fun cheese overall, I have to say. The sheer levels of melodrama make it worthwhile.
There’s one especially melodramatic scene in the already melodramatic episode The Gamesters of Triskelion, where Lieutenant Uhura, Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov are all locked up in separate cages. Now, Uhura and Kirk are the main focus of that scene – she’s screaming; he’s shouting – but the camera still does show Chekov a few times.
And he looks like an absolute idiot.
Or as Captain Kirk might say, “He. Looks. Like. An absolute. Idiot.”
(Trekkie insider joke there.)
Chekov’s emotions or lack thereof in that particular part is subpar to the point of being bewildering. He doesn’t look concerned at all that Uhura is screaming and Kirk is shouting.
He just looks a little… constipated.
Don’t let that happen to you!
If you’re going to put a secondary character into a scene, give him or her something to do. It doesn’t have to be prominent or permanent, but make it matter all the same. Help that non-main character help the segment by adding to the emotional aura being conveyed.
Take the case of an alien abduction, where Rachel and Lonnie are the two focal points but secondary character Trevor is also thrown in there. In which case, make him useful.
Let’s say the spacecraft is hovering over the starlit Tendassor Field and lit-up tractor beams are already locked on Rachel and Lonnie.
They’re screaming their heads off, making them the focal point. Which they should be if they’re the main characters and Trevor is just a sidekick.
But Trevor can and should still be extremely useful: trying to pull on their arms to drag them back, shouting for help, running off for help while shouting, repeating “I’m sorry” while kneeling helplessly on the ground.
You know. Whatever you’re supposed to do when your friends are being abducted by aliens.
Those kinds of details not only draw out your word count, which is awesome, but they draw out the suspense as well.
The same thing applies to a less intense scene, where main character Ada and her best friend Penny are sitting in the school cafeteria, gossiping away. Then – gasp! – Ada’s total big-time crush, Zach, comes over to talk to her!
All of a sudden, Penny just doesn’t mean so much. Neither to Ada nor to the plot point.
Understood. Except that, if she’s going to be there, she should actually be there.
While Ada is gushing over everything Zach says to her, Penny can be rolling her eyes. Or snorting incredulously. Or sighing in boredom.
If she’s the more timid type, then have her try to get a word in edgewise just once before withdrawing into herself, looking down at her lap while Ada keeps trying to play it cool and Zach keeps turning up the hot-basketball-star charm.
Either way, the writer’s attention to Penny is going to make the reader concentrate on how Ada has some growing up to do.
And remember, no matter what the scene or the secondary character, Checkov-like constipation should not be an option.