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The Trek Nation - Writing For Star Trek IV: The Teleplay

Writing For Star Trek IV: The Teleplay

By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at November 5, 2002 - 2:19 AM GMT

In Part One, we learned about the lives of several famous Star Trek writers, what it takes to write for Enterprise, and discovered a few new insights about the creative forces driving successful writers today. In Part Two, we looked at one way to start off a Trek writing career - in short stories. Last week in part three, we looked at Star Trek Books.

This week, in part four we'll take a look at several factors you shoudl bear in mind when writing a Star Trek script, or teleplay.


Teleplays

Will Anyone Read My Work?

For fourteen years, Paramount Studio's Star Trek division allowed, even encouraged, free-lancers to submit their speculation teleplays for the three Trek series (TNG, DS9, and Voyager). Since 2001, the policy has changed. Should that stop you? No way.

Find an agent to sponsor your work. You WILL find an agent [if the material is strong and you have a the ability to learn from others]. If the agent pool is small, there are plenty of backdoor ways to having your teleplay read. We'll get into those areas a bit later.

Let's get to work on your next hit story for Enterprise, shall we?

Preparation

Since we work on a computers, I suggest you purchase screenplay software. Screenplays runs about 120 pages; teleplays, around sixty. Regardless, the formatting for dialogue, pagination, etc., is the same. I hear Page 2 Stage is an inexpensive and adequate purchase. Believe me, if you don't buy a program, you'll spend most of your nights re-writing the teleplay. Why? If your script isn't perfect, no one will look at it neither agents nor the brass at Star Trek.

Next, go to the library or book store and pick up books on how to write a screenplay/teleplay. Madeline Di Maggio [not related to Joltin' Joe Di Maggio, baseball fans] has a good one called, How to Write for Television. There are dozens of others out there. Buy the one you feel most comfortable reading.

Lastly, buy a Star Trek [finished] script at the bookstore or at a local Trek convention. You may also buy single scripts through eBay. The best bet may be, The Star Trek Script Books. You should not pay more than $25 for any one script. Any one will serve as a good working model for your next teleplay.

The Writing

I find teleplay writing fun, a bit easier than composing short stories; a lot easier than books. You may feel differently. Remember, what sounds good to you, may be garbage to another. That is why we all must have collaboration on any teleplay we want to put out to in public, or in the hands of a potential agent.

The basic format of a teleplay starts with a three to five page 'teaser.' A teaser [like a mini-act] grabs the attention of the audience. Didn't the 'teaser' from Voyager episode [Scorpion, Part One] simply show a Borg cube destroyed, or as Scotty of TOS would say, "blown to smithereens?" Wow. That's a powerful scene. Before that show, those Borg babies weren't easy targets for any Federation or alien vessel.

Roswell, Revisited?

In a teaser, the audience must be enticed into the drama/comedy by the beginnings of a storyline and the character action/reactions. Just last night I saw, 'Little Green Men,' a solidly written, DS9 episode. The first scene depicts Rom, announcing to Quark's patrons, that his son, Nog, is leaving DS9 for Starfleet Academy. The proud papa asks the would-be flea market customers to purchase his son's personal items. Why? To send off the new cadet with a little cash in his pocket. Worf buys a tooth sharpener. Kira 'finds' the springball racquet Nog stole from her years earlier. With Jadzia's prodding, Julian buys a sexy holo-program for ten strips of gold-pressed latinum.

Later in the teaser, Quark calls Rom over from the bar to confer with him about a suspicious gift Cousin Gala has left in the hanger bay -- a Ferengi light ship. The next scene finds the two in the vessel, Rom singing the praises of the speedy cruiser. Quark tells Rom he'll take Nog on the initial maiden voyage. Rom runs out to tell his son. Quark sits back in the seat of the navigator's chair, speaking to himself [and the audience] of how 'profitable' the trip will be for everyone.

Thus, the trap. Nog leaving DS9 is no big deal, but what does Quark have up his sleeve? What trouble will he cause for his extended family and the universe at-large?

Act One sets the storylines (main and background) for the rest of the teleplay. In 'Little Green Men,' Nog is tearfully, but cheerfully sent off the station by Jake in one scene; Julian and Miles in another. In scene three, we find Quark and Company chatting on their way to the Academy. In one funny bit, Nog points out to his uncle that on the Earth history PADD [given him by the doctor and chief engineer as a going away present] Joshua Bell looks a lot like Captain Sisko [a funny poke at the episode, 'Past Tense, Parts One and Two']. Quark says, "All humans look alike" A few minutes later, the navigator has trouble slowing down the vessel as it near the destination. Rom finds out he can't brake because the inducer coils(?) are fried [deliberately so by Gala]. The crew try a fancy maneuver to slow the death ship.

In the next scene, we see three unconscious Ferengi on metal examination tables. They all covered up to their necks by thin, cotton sheets. The camera pans around the room to 20th century memorabilia and a 1947 calendar. Army personnel look in on the three captives through a one-way mirror. Once again, the audience feels the impact of the cliff-hanging scene, this time, at the end of Act One.

Act Two of any good teleplay delineates the problems for the characters of the story. In our episode of choice, the Ferengi and Humans try find a way to communicate to each other. Army personnel begin to bang their heads with their hands, mimicking Quark and his family, as the Ferengi try to re-adjust their translators. Quark now views the general, his officers, the psychologist and his lovely girlfriend [played by Megan Gallagher, Millennium, China Beach] as bumbling idiots. When the universal translator is fixed, the first words out of the Quark's mouth is, "Take me to your leader." Another funny joke, but also a solid move by the teleplay writer(s). We, as an audience, now know Quark is up to no good. We want to see more.

Act Three, if not revealed more in the previous act, usually shows the audience the main problem faced by the character(s). Here, Quark wants to trade technology to the Army. Changing the timeline? We know this can't be good.

This act may also show other character [guest star] development. We begin to empathize, even trust the army nurse and her civilian boyfriend. The general and his cronies, though typecast as untrusting and unscrupulous, provide the tension against the heroes [Ferengi family] of the piece. We know they want to rough up the aliens, but haven't yet. Waiting is the fun part.

Act Four is usually the build-up to the resolution of the story in a teleplay. In our episode, the audience is stumped, not knowing how Quark will extricate himself from this situation. If he wants to change the timeline for his betterment and the Ferengi Alliance, who or what will stop him?

Well, the audience finds out shortly. The guard dog left in the examination/waiting room by the army officers leaps against Quark. The German Shepherd turns into Odo. The Constable tells the Ferengi that his selfish plan will not work not if he has anything to say about it. The ship is salvageable, and should be ready to space flight in six hours.

How will our four DS9 residents manage to return to the 24th century? Rom tells his idea to the group. According to Nog's father, if the ship is powered by a sufficient energy source, the kemosite [the illegal substance that prompted Odo to stow away on Quark's vessel in the first place] can be used to rupture the space-time continuum. The Constable agrees to the plan. Odo changes back to his canine self and leaves to make further repairs on the ship. The General and his aids return to the room in an angry mood. The three aliens, now with bags covering their heads, are escorted elsewhere. Unhappy with her duty, the sympathetic army nurse injects Quark with truth serum.

By Act Five, everything must be resolved in a teleplay. In, 'Little Green Men,' our story finds a way to press the reset button [resuming things to normal, no mater the time difference of four hundred years].

The first scene finds Quark complaining about the painful shots. In truth, nothing has been revealed to the interrogator. The Ferengi explains he's only in it for the money, and does not pose a danger to America. Poor Rom begs for mercy... and his 'moogie' (mother). Who will save the day?

Nog plans an escape. After telling the not so bright interrogator the Ferengi attack force is about to land in Cleveland, the brave little cadet elbows the officer in the gut. When the maniacal army officer tells his guard to shoot the boy, the nurse and her boyfriend save the day. The five escape outside the building, but are confronted by the general and his men. From behind, Odo materializes, out of his doggie state, to overpower the three army men.

By jeep, Odo, Quark, Rom, Nog the nurse and her boyfriend, travel to a airplane hanger [where the Ferengi escape craft is kept]. The nurse reminds Quark that a nuclear blast is set to goes off in seven minutes. This is the key plot point, allowing our heroes to return home. The four aliens bid thanks and adieu. The two Earthlings kiss each other and drive away. The Ferengi ship heads for the nuclear blast. Rom assures the nervous Quark everything will be fine. The craft returns to Earth and is towed into a Starfleet station.

The next scene shows us Quark, Rom and Odo walking through the decompression bay and onto DS9. Odo escorts Quark to a holding site for smuggling kemosite. Rom, now in charge of his brother's bar for several weeks, smiles as walks back to Quark's. The End.

'Little Green Men' is an fine example of a linear storytelling in Trek. Everything follows in a straight-forward fashion. Still, many television episodes of Star Trek, like in many other shows, use a Plot A (main story) and Plot B (background story) while entertaining their audience.

In Enterprise's episode this week [9/30/02], titled, 'Minefield,' the audience sees a section of the starship blown apart in the 'teaser.' In Act One, we find out that Captain Archer has unwittingly flown the ship into a minefield established by the Romulans. Another mine settles its three-legged clamps onto the Starfleet vessel. It's active and set to blow. Armory Officer, Malcolm Reed, goes outside the ship, dressed in the appropriate spacesuit, and sets about to disarm it. The ship moves away from the mine field on manual thrusters, but jogs the explosive devise unsteady in the process. It retracts another clamp towards the ship -- pushing itself through the muscle tissue of Reed's left leg -- and onto the hull. Archer must help somehow rescue Reed and disarm the mine, hoping not to blow himself, his armory officer and ship to "smithereens."

Which is plot 'A'? If you said piloting the ship out of the minefield under continued Romulan threats, you're wrong. That's now the 'B' plot [background] storyline. The main plot changes focus to Archer's attempt to save Reed and disarm the explosive ['A' plot]. As you see, the 'A' plot was saving the ship in the 'teaser' and 'opening act,' but then switched to a 'B' storyline. Co-producer and writer of this episode, John Shiban [staff writer for, The X-Files, for many years], is clever at changing focus and keeping the action interesting.

A few more examples of 'A' and 'B' plots? In ST:DS9's episode, 'Treachery, Faith, and the Great River,' the audience watches as Odo takes a runabout to meet with a Dominion spy. Surprisingly, the changeling finds a Weyoun clone who wants to defect from the Gamma quadrant. Odo speeds off with the traitor, but under the pursuit of Jem' Hadar fighter ships. Back on DS9, Nog drives Chief O'Brien mad after the Ferengi trades Sisko's desk for an rare Cardassian ODM conduit. Can you guest the 'A' plot? Right, the Odo-Weyoun storyline. The 'B' story keeps us mildly entertained, though we want more of the 'A' story.

In TOS's, 'Tholian's Web,' Captain Kirk is accidentally left adrift in sub-space after he and his crew examine the disappearance of another Federation vessel. The Enterprise is set to leave when Kirk faintly reappears to Uhura, Scotty and finally, the new commander, Spock When the Tholians threaten the ship, Spock must find a way save the captain without sacrificing everyone aboard Enterprise. This is yet another clever episode that uses the endangered ship as a strong 'B' plot. Spock's slow but steady scientific deductions eventually pay off, and he brings Captain Kirk back to Enterprise. This is quite a compelling 'A' plot.

Good luck writing the next great Enterprise episode.


Dr. Joe's Top Five Hints on How to Get Noticed in the Trek Universe:

Step Three: Placing Your Work With the Right People and in the Proper Venue

Short Stories

Where do you submit your Star Trek story? You already have that information from earlier in this piece. If you don't receive publication in SNW VII, don't feel too bad. Not many writers receive that phone call from Mr. Wesley. Just remember, when it comes down to the final selections, luck is just as big a determining factor as expertise.

Other publishing venues? You could put your story(s) up on your own website. How about submitting your story to a local chapter of a Star Trek fan club? These organizations usually compose newsletters and often accept contributions. Check them out on the internet or in Star Trek magazines. Write a query letter to their editor and see what happens.

Support Groups

If that doesn't make you work, make a few copies of your stories for your friends and throw a party. Good pals can take the sting out of rejection.

Writing clubs are another source of support. Depending on group dynamics, you may receive the proper encouragement and mentoring. If you feel uncomfortable, look for another club in your city.

Teleplays

Use Jeff Herman's book [Literary Guide to Agents and Publishers] to locate a suitable agent. His book contains profiles of agents and what writings they specifically want to see. Query five to ten people that desire screenplays. Ask if he/she would represent a writer whose specialty is teleplays.

Keep a record of everyone you've queried. It is embarrassing, and a waste of time and money, if you send your letter to someone twice or even three times.

If you can't find an agent through Herman's listings, try the WGA (Writer's Guild Association) web site. They have dozens of certified agents looking for the next great screenwriter. But remember, if anyone along the line asks for money to examine your work [without committing to you), drop them like a bad habit.

Once you find an agent who wants to look at your work, do not bug them every week. Give them time to over your script. If they accept you, get it in a written contract.

No one should charge more than the standard 15% for any sale of your work. An agent might even ask for start-up costs for Xeroxing, postage for mailings, etc. That's okay, but typically an agent only asks for advances when a sale is made.

Ask for a copies of any rejection slips. That way you know the agent is actively making the rounds for you. Keep them all in a permanent file.

Keep writing and creating new projects. Don't just sit on you comfortable recliner chair, waiting for the check to arrive.

Books

The exact same recommendations I made for teleplays, I make for books. Use Herman's resource guide. Look for agents who like science fiction or whatever category your book falls under. Self help? Pop culture? Place it with the right person and your chances improve ten-fold.

If no one accepts your book idea or proposal, start a new one. Don't give up on this one, but simply keep working.

Editors and Publishing Houses

Seven little words: stay away from them at this stage. An agent knows how to finesse the deal. You may have the right book at the proper time, but you may destroy your chances for publication by using poor judgement [due to lack of professional experience]. Make contact with an editor only as a last resort.

The next part of this article will tell you everythign the aspiring Trek writer could want to know about 'Networking.'

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Joseph D. Di Lella is a freelance writer and pannelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com.