The Writer’s Craft – How to Kill Your Story 101, Part 1

(Silverdale, Washington; Jan. 28, 2021) – Building your audience and cementing their loyalty—while engaging new fans—is accomplished by creating a unique universe, developing engaging characters, and laying out a foundational philosophy for your world.

Conversely, you can imitate the Hindenburg and destroy your entire fan base in a blast of fiery gore by betraying your foundational philosophy, ignoring source material, and spitting in the face of established canon.

This three-part series will examine each of those in turn, starting with betraying the foundational philosophy of your story.

Anyone interested in pop culture should be quite aware of the controversies surrounding the modern iterations of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who.  Despite the hype seen on social media and in statistics on Rotten Tomatoes (the ‘audience rating’ for many shows has been proven to be manipulated, usually by Rotten Tomatoes deleting negative reviews), all three are failing, and failing in a hilariously pathetic way.

Star Wars was established by George Lucas as a classic, good-vs.-evil redemption story.  The modern Disney Star Wars sequel trilogy betrayed this foundation by turning Star Wars into a dystopian tale in which the nobility of our cultural heroes was not merely undone, but the heroes themselves are shown to be myopically dim-witted dunderheads swimming in a dumpster fire.

Hmm….“myopically dim-witted dunderheads swimming in a dumpster fire.”  Great turn of phrase; I think I’ll keep it and use it again!

Star Trek was expressly created by Gene Roddenberry to be an optimistic view of humanity and our capacity for a great future.  That unflagging optimism kept the franchise alive through thick and thin…until modern Star Trek, such as the infamous Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery, torched the optimism.  Instead of being unique new iterations, these two shows seek to deconstruct the optimism of Star Trek by showing a Federation ultimately riddled with failed heroes, prejudice, and, finally, self-destruction.

Doctor Who used to be a show for literally just about anyone.  Designed as a light-hearted adventure through time and space, hosted by an alien with technology so advanced it’s nearly magic, Doctor Who provided thrills, chills, spills, and good fun.  Today, Doctor Who has become a platform preaching to a specific demographic while actively insulting other demographics and destroying the optimism of the show by making the Doctor a victim of evil Gallifreyans who murdered him/her over and over as a child to steal his/her power of regeneration.  Yeah…that’s an uplifting addition to the series, all right!

Nihilism is the common thread connecting the destruction of these three franchises.  Nihilism preaches the life is meaningless.  Nihilism is the direct antithesis to the underlying philosophical foundations that made Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who runaway successes.  Those three franchises offered hope, encouragement, and just good fun.  They were never meant to offer pessimism, defeatism, and hopeless despair.  No wonder fans are abandoning them in droves!

Nihilism, by itself, is not a bad philosophical instrument for storytelling.  Stories like Soylent Green, Blade Runner, and 12 Monkeys can provoke thoughtful discussions about life.  Basing a story on a nihilistic foundation generates feelings of pathos, sadness, and empathy as the story explores the fact that, in our world, there are no-win scenarios we all must face from time to time.

The problem today is that the current showrunners in charge of The Three Greats (Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who) forcibly imposed an unholy marriage of these franchises with a new, trendy, and ultimately self-defeating nihilistic philosophy.  One cannot watch Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery without realizing the current showrunners actively betrayed Gene Roddenberry’s optimism.  Hope is gone; cynicism and permanent victimhood-based rage are the new normal.

The Three Greats never shied from exploring potentially controversial topics.  Indeed; Star Trek and Doctor Who used to be famous for their graceful exploration of difficult themes while not alienating their fans.  However, there is a quantum difference between the sad, but ultimately hopeful, Star Trek original series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and the sad, hopeless despair peddled by the entire run of Star Trek: Discovery.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is a hard episode to watch, but the characters remain true to themselves and, despite the sadness, the viewer is left with a sense of hope.  The episode climaxed with the death of a beloved character, but the episode’s denouement was an uplifting moment in which Mr. Spock tells Dr. McCoy that Captain Kirk found healing in the ongoing mission of the Enterprise.  Conversely, the entire run of Star Trek: Discovery leaves the viewer wondering whether life is worth living at all after watching the Federation ultimately reduced to a ragtag collection of ships brimming with anger, pessimism, and permanent racial/political victimhood.  How is that uplifting and hopeful?

People pick up books and watch TV for many reasons.  These mediums provide information, education, new perspectives, and escape from real-life problems.  Audiences lifted Blade Runner to the status of ‘cult classic’ because it was true to itself: a nihilistic, dystopian philosophy that forces us to consider prejudice, technological overreach, and, finally, what it really means to be human.  Most people do not watch Blade Runner for a sense of optimism.  They watch Blade Runner because it’s a darn good yarn and makes them think about real-world problems in a very unique way.

The Three Greats found their success in the optimism, hope, and good-fun escapism they provided.  Audiences resurrected Star Trek, causing it to become a worldwide phenomenon precisely because it was fun and showed a hopeful version of our future while gracefully addressing relevant issues.  Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery are both what happens when current showrunners decide to philosophically turn Star Trek into a cheap knockoff of Blade Runner.

Don’t even get me started on The Last Jedi’s complete obliteration of everything Star Wars stood for.

Staying true to the core philosophy of your universe is critical for success.  Stay true to yourself and your philosophy, and your audience will stay true to you.  Betray yourself and your philosophy, and your audience could decide you’re the myopically dim-witted dunderhead swimming in a dumpster fire, and abandon you for greener pastures.

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