Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Theme-Plot Integration Part 11 - Correct Use of Cliche in Plot

Theme-Plot Integration Part 11 - Correct Use of Cliche in Plot
Jacqueline Lichtenberg
My novel series, Sime~Gen, is in development as a story-driven, cross-platform, science fiction RPG video game.  From what I've seen so far, the developing company, Loreful, has avoided many of the standard cliche elements, and incorporated a couple in a way that makes Sime~Gen readers smile. 

It will be hard for you to FIND the cliche elements in this video game.  It's not actually Romance Genre in form, but it is Relationship Driven on a personal character-to-character basis, and on the basis of whole civilizations meeting (human and non-human) and forming Relationships (diplomatic and otherwise). 

Watch how Sime~Gen takes the leap into the space age, goes where no human of any larity has gone before, and makes friends and influences people (not all of which are human) by joining the mailing list at


Or "liking" the page on Facebook at


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Previous entries in the Theme-Plot Integration series:



So today we'll discuss the Star Trek movie that had its debut in May, 2013, the week before Labor Day Weekend when the really-big blockbusters of the summer hit. 

This film is an easy way to come to understand the power of the cliche when properly used because Star Trek itself first created the cliches, and now uses them.  This film also draws on cliches made famous by other films in related genres (super-hero, fantasy). 

I'm assuming that by now everyone who wants to see this film has seen it, so spoilers are included here. 

And today is an appropriate day to ponder this film since it's title is INTO DARKNESS, and this is Tisha B'Av.  Tisha means 9, and Av is a month in the Jewish calendar.  This day marks the anniversary of a whole, long list of very "dark" moments in Jewish History.  This is a day of settling up accounts, and if you owe a penalty in any area, today is the day it will be exacted. 

And essentially, that's what this film is about, settling up accounts. 

I'm going to assume you know Star Trek well enough not to need to have it explained. 

Khan, the gene-altered human who considered himself the epitome of perfection (because someone designed him to be that and he believed them, with considerable evidence to support that conclusion), loses a battle with Kirk and Spock (and Uhura, keep your eye on this new Uhura!).

J. J. Abrams and his BAD ROBOT production company has "perfect pitch" when it comes to the rhythm and tone of movie structure.  Star Trek: Into Darkness follows Save The Cat! very nicely, but it does many other things well, too.

I puzzled over the title INTO DARKNESS -- (I really hate the title.  I don't find going into Darkness particularly amusing, bemusing or interesting.  I like Romance.  I want to EMERGE FROM Darkness.)

Here on IMDB is a list of the official "tag lines" (writing advice from me is create your tagline first, then write the story from that).


 Beyond the darkness, lies greatness.
In our darkest hour, when our leaders have fallen, a hero will rise.
They have one chance to save us all
Earth will fall

I like "beyond the darkness, lies greatness" -- beyond is good.  Into, not.

So leaders falling - the plot of the movie does have that.  The "one chance to save us all" is typical action-comic formula, which has been considered (erroneously in my opinion) as the core of Science Fiction. 

And that formula is fully reticulated throughout this film, with elegance and flourishes. 

Star Trek: Into Darkness opens on a bright, colorful, interesting chase scene of the TV Series cliche "Beam Me Up Scotty" scenes where Kirk is running for his life.  This opening scene reprises a good many of those difficult, time-sensitive beam-ups.  Of course, the new transporter effect is showcased nicely.  And Kirk is showcased as our Hero who will Rise.

Note the environment of the chase scene just delicately hints of the planet in the film Avatar. 

We see the cliche scene of the SPACE SHIP (the Enterprise) lying doggo on the bottom of this planet's ocean.  Not only have we seen starships submerged before, but this symbolically hints at the TV Series scene where Starfleet "observers" are hidden by a holo-projection field in a kind of "duck blind" -- and the whole issue of the Prime Directive is thus VISUALLY raised and defined.  So there are two cliches in the same visual image.

That single cliche of the submerged starship bespeaks volumes, silently -- no dialogue, no tedious philosophy.  Remember, the title of this piece is Theme-Plot Integration, and that image of the Enterprise on the bottom of the ocean of an alien planet of "primitives" -- THAT is theme-plot integration. 

An image that says it all, fully integrated with the action-plot.  That kind of integration is what writers do for a living.  It is an example of the epitome of the writing craft.  And the whole reason it works as such an "integration" technique is that the starship-on-the-ocean-bottom is a cliche! 

This is a nice lead-in to the cliche reprise of the Enterprise rising up out of that ocean.  And later still, we see the Enterprise rising up through CLOUDS (a visual reprise of the ocean emergence).  Visually, these RISES of the symbol of our HERO, symbolize the tagline "a hero will rise" which is itself a cliche at least as old as King Arthur.  Note the tie-together visual images.

Meanwhile, Spock, in order to complete the mission, descends inside an erupting volcano with a device -- it's kind of obvious what the device is supposed to accomplish.

By the time the cliche sequence of Spock almost dying as he tries to get into position inside the volcano is over, we have much more information -- THEME information -- that we have absorbed visually, with almost no dialogue "explaining" any of it. 

We learn that this alternate-universe Kirk shares our old Kirk's attitude toward rules.  Well, we knew that from the first film, but this Kirk is a little bit older and now Captain of the Enterprise.  His mission is to save this planet from a fatal volcanic eruption.  This reprises the loss of Vulcan in the previous film without any dialogue about that -- the issue gets one line from Spock, so quick that if you miss it, you probably will never notice. 

So our new Kirk treats the Prime Directive just the way our old Kirk did.  And by violating the prime directive (Enterprise rising out of the ocean; primitives making a drawing of that in the sand), Kirk saves a civilization.  Why does Kirk violate the Prime Directive?  To save Spock's life.

PLOT -- Kirk saves Spock by violating the rules. 

DIALOGUE: what would Spock have done if Kirk were at the bottom of that volcano?  Spock would have let Kirk die.

PLOT: later as the plot unfolds, Spock DOES let Kirk die.

Cliche: They stage the scene where Kirk dies to be a reminder of the scene (in a previous film) where Spock goes into a radiation hot-zone and saves the day by hitting a reset button.  Here Kirk goes into a radiation hot-zone and restarts the power as the Enterprise is falling from orbit.  And they replay the scene of the two of them separated by a transparent barrier as Kirk dies of radiation.

Spock's death scene (in the previous Universe) is so penetrating, so dramatic, so perfect, that it all by itself has become a cliche!  And here Abrams replays that scene, but reversed.  And in the same movie, Abrams revives Kirk -- we didn't have to wait for another installment this time.

Again, we're doing Theme-Plot integration.  The EVENTS (plot) bespeak the MEANING (theme) without a word being said.

"What happens" reveals the meaning of "Life The Universe And Everything."

So how does Kirk's life get saved? 

A series of EVENTS and DECISIONS (deeds) (i.e. PLOT EVENTS or BEATS) are concatenated into a Batman/Spiderman cliche fight scene climax.  And it's all perfectly logical, even if you miss most of the dialogue.

As a result (because-line is plot, remember?) of violating the Prime Directive (character; Kirk is a rule-breaker), The Admiral takes the Enterprise away from Kirk.  The new Captain (who is the Captain Kirk replaced) appoints Kirk First Officer, and takes him to a meeting to discuss launching a man-hunt for the perpetrator of a terrorist explosion.

Now do you see why I keep rubbing your nose in CURRENT EVENTS that don't seem to have anything to do with writing Romance or Science Fiction? 

Take a notepad, and watch STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS again, noting every single one of the points "ripped from the headlines."  You'll need several pages, especially if you've followed the Senate and Congressional Hearings on Benghazi, IRS, AP/Media intimidation.  Even though this film was written and made a year or two before all these 'scandals' broke, any science fiction writer would have known they were going to break -- maybe not when, but that this stuff was going on.

You'll find all of those issues in Star Trek: Into Darkness, just as you'll find them in Gini Koch's (grand) Science Fiction Romance Novel ALIEN IN THE HOUSE (which I just finished reading; keep reading her series).

"ript from the headlines" is the reason you get best sellers, blockbuster films, and even non-fiction extravaganzas.  What sells is THEME.  Theme is the essence of the conversation your readers are having with each other, that you are participating in with your comment -- which is your novel. 

Conversations work only if all parties are engaged and listening to each other.  The Headlines are what your readers are listening to.  You'll find what they think about those headlines on blogs, and in other novels and movies in your field.  What you have to say in that conversation is the theme of your novel.  As in any cocktail party conversation, you must wait your turn to speak (write, and get that novel of yours published).  TIMING your utterance is an art, but also perhaps an act of God.

I suspect Abrams and Star Trek just got lucky with the timing of this statement in Star Trek: Into Darkness.  It's been many years in the making, but it hit at just the point in time where the national conversation was all about the Honor and Integrity, the motives and goals of the Leadership.

Star Trek: Into Darkness starts with Kirk getting demoted to First Officer for saving Spock's life by violating the Prime Directive. (I can't think of a more cliched cliche!)

Is Kirk the "Leader" who "falls" -- if you'd seen the tagline before the movie, you might jump to that conclusion.

But Kirk is not the one in that meeting who falls for the simplistic solution to the problem of a "terrorist attack" -- launch an all-out man-hunt.  He suspects that first explosion was only a distraction (how much distraction are you seeing in the Headlines?).  And when the walls of the meeting hall full of Leaders start to rumble, he thinks about how rigidly Star Fleet "follows the rules" which makes them utterly predictable, and he thinks about the caliber of the terrorist, (something our Headlines seem to miss), and he knows he's sitting inside the next TARGET BULLS-EYE.

Note how few words it takes to convey Kirk's thinking in that scene, because of the utterly cliche'd images we've just seen in the opening chase scene, and in the first scene where we see what Khan is up to.

Also note how this film uses LONDON.  Note the current reboot of Dr. Who, and its success.

So Kirk survives this next attack (note the number of minutes into the 120 minute film the second action-scene hits) because a few seconds in advance, he RISES from his chair.

Remember the tagline - a hero will rise.

Unless you know Trek, you still don't know who that hero is.

So the new Captain of the Enterprise dies, Kirk gets the Enterprise back and (despite Spock having ratted him out to the Admiralty and gotten him demoted) chooses Spock for his First Officer. 

And don't forget Uhura.  Is this going to be a problem?  "No, Captain."  "Undetermined."  Note the use of dialogue, and pure silence, to develop the ROMANCE.  Less is more.  That is the hottest romance in film today! 

So Kirk is given orders to take 72 torpedoes aboard, super-weapons, and go take out the Terrorist, whose whereabouts has been determined technologically.  (HEADLINES: Big Brother Is Watching You -- all those cell phone taps, logs, and tracking a Fox Reporter's use of watch-fob pass into secured buildings).  And if he follows orders, it makes the inevitable all-out-war with the Klingons of this alternate Universe come much closer and become more inevitable. 

Spock argues with Kirk about wisdom of unleashing those torpedoes.  Even this new Spock does not see killing to be a solution to a problem, though the Admiral seems to favor it.

When you outline your new novel, stay on POINT with the HEADLINES.  Don't stray off topic, but get ahead of that topic.  "How's your Klingon?"  "Rusty, but good."  What alien language is it that we don't speak? 

Scotty -- oh, this is great screenwriting -- SCOTTY refuses to take the Enterprise out with those torpedoes aboard because he can't determine if they'll interfere with his engines.  He RESIGNS his commission, and Kirk accepts his resignation.  This is a cliche scene that gets a twist.  Instead of caving in to the threat, Kirk accepts Scotty's resignation.  He's not calling a bluff.  He's not determined to start a war.  He's determined to 'get' the terrorist who killed his friend, the previous Captain of the Enterprise.  It's become personal -- but that is not stated in on-the-nose dialogue. 

This resignation scene is dialogue dense, but illustrates the conflict which is the core of the plot.  And it's all about theme-plot integration -- what do you DO because of what you BELIEVE or 'HOLD TO BE TRUE.'   Theme is about the hierarchy of ideals behind our decisions.  This scene is all about what to do and why to do it.  The scene is about following orders -- or refusing to -- about bending the rules, or NOT!!!  Who is on which side of that argument?  Watch that film again, and remember this is "into darkness" and "beyond darkness lies greatness." 

So Scotty (and his marvelous little-alien-friend we met in the previous film who has no dialogue at all, but we know is a dynamite engineer) takes his friend off to a (dark) "dive" to get drunk over losing his position, and leaving Kirk and his friends in a very dangerous situation.  This is Scotty's darkness, his darkest moment.  Is he the Hero who will Rise?

The Enterprise warps off (I saw this in 3D and loved the warp-effect), and the engines fail.  Of course.

So the Enterprise is sitting in space, pointing torpedoes at the Klingon planet which, if they blast it, will trigger a war.  Kirk has been ordered to KILL, and he wants to.

Spock opposes the orders to fire torpedoes.

Kirk chooses (PLOT IS CHOICES) and decides not to fire, but to go down there himself and get Khan, capture him alive to question.  How many "torpedoes" (higher tech than our enemies have) have we fired into the territory of other governments and KILLED the very people we should be questioning?

THEME: Kirk accepts danger to his own life for the sake of upholding his own ideals.  This is a PLOT EVENT that bespeaks the THEME of the underlying value system.  But you're left to figure out exactly what that value system really is for yourself.  Kirk is an action-hero; he neither knows nor wants to know what his motives are.  He just DOES THINGS. 

So Kirk captures Khan, gets Khan to surrender, but doesn't know why Khan surrenders when Kirk says how many torpedoes he has. 

After Khan surrenders, Kirk beats up on him -- doesn't seem to do any damage to Khan who doesn't hit back.

Which of them has the higher standard of Honor?

So back on the Enterprise, Kirk finds out Khan's crew are in suspended animation -- in the torpedoes, and would have died had he fired them.  McCoy experiments with Khan's blood by injecting it into a dead tribble.  It's not emphasized why he did that or where he got the tribble from.  But because that bit just hangs there in mid-scene, you remember that tribble.

Spock calls New Vulcan (note I'm not listing these events in the order they appear on the screen; think about that).  Spock talks to our-Spock who's alive on New Vulcan, who has pledged not to VIOLATE THE PRIME DIRECTIVE and tell folks in this universe about what happened in his universe.  Then our-Spock tells new-Spock about Khan and how the Enterprise beat him.  Much wiser about what they've facing now, Spock adjusts his application of logic to the situation. 

And Kirk finds out about the Admiral who gave the orders to fire the torpedoes and start a war with the Klingons.  He finds out Khan has been the Admiral's adviser.  (this is an info-dump; this is very, very well done, but it's exposition that had to be filled in.  It is done as a big "reveal" and it works.)

Kirk calls Scotty and apologizes, gives Scotty a mission.  Scotty ends up on a ship in Earth orbit.

Note that I'm skipping the hot-stuff love affair with Uhura scenes.  We might discuss why in the future, so figure that one out.

So Kirk is on his way back to Earth with Khan, torpedoes and all, and a BIG SHIP appears and starts hammering the Enterprise.  (big space battle cliche scene -- very well done!)  Scotty is on that ship, doing his best.  (it's huge, so we get a lot of action-scene running around)

We have another scene where Kirk flings his life in the balance, going over to the Big Ship. 

The end result of all the life-risking, harrowing high-tech hacking etc, is that Little Enterprise sends The Admiral, Khan and the Big Ship into Earth atmosphere, crashing into London.  Epic damage.  They figure Khan could survive even that, though. 

Note the crashing of an Enterprise-shaped ship into London echoes the Enterprise coming down into San Francisco Bay.  There is a huge amount of information coded into images.  Juxtapose those images to decode that information. 

Star Trek itself created the original images -- and all the reruns etc. and fanzine stories have made those original images into cliches which, when used here, illuminate the theme without a word spoken.  That is theme-plot integration. 

Another reason I hammer at THEME so much is that (contrary to popular belief) theme is the strong-suit of Romance genre novels.  The Spock/Uhura Romance being set up here is just such a novel in the making.  Note how Uhura handles Klingon language.  What do you suppose her Vulcan is like by now?  Not a hint in this movie. 

So back to Into Darkness.  Tattered and shattered, Little Enterprise is also in a death-dive.  This is where Kirk willingly enters the radiation-chamber to restart the power so Enterprise won't crash.

And here we have Kirk's death scene echoing Spock's death scene in the other Universe.

And indeed Khan survived the crash of the big ship.  Spock beams down to catch him, and we have a Spiderman/Batman/Star Wars or superhero generic chase scene CLICHE, with them jumping from floating car to floating car-top in urban canyons.  And Spock is unleashing full Vulcan strength against the perfected human Khan, and not exactly winning.

Meanwhile, the dead tribble McCoy injected with Khan's blood comes alive, and McCoy secures Kirk's body.

Uhura (remember, I said to remember her!) beams down beside Spock, rescues Spock by shooting Khan on stun (which doesn't hurt him much) and  screaming at Spock that they need Khan alive.  Khan better not fall to his death.  Much fighting and rescuing later, they secure Khan, and use his blood to revive Kirk.

Khan killed some people, then killed someone Kirk respected and admired.  Kirk was sent to kill Khan.  Kirk spared Khan's life, and Khan tried his best to kill Kirk and everyone that mattered to Kirk.  Kirk GAVE HIS LIFE to save everyone that mattered to him.  Khan's blood restores Kirk's life.

There's a mythic-Hero motif there, beyond the Jesus resurrection angle.  King Arthur is supposed to "rise" when ENGLAND (remember, we just destroyed most of London) needs him.

 Beyond the darkness, lies greatness.
In our darkest hour, when our leaders have fallen, a hero will rise.

Was The Darkness lurking (remember the Trek episode about Jack the Ripper?) inside The Admiral who wanted war with the Klingons?  Is that Admiral the Leader who falls?  Is Kirk the hero who will Rise?

Is the new Star Trek about Kirk vs. The Federation Government?

What will be the next headline Abrams "rips" a story from?

Did anyone except me love this film, and see real hope for a whole new Trek franchise?

A lot of people didn't like INTO DARKNESS -- no great nude scenes, no nude sex scenes, not enough blood sprayed on the walls. 

Here's the first weekend's boxoffice results and commentary on demographics:


J.J. Abrams' space epic sequel took in $84 million over the five-day opening that began Wednesday with special Imax screenings. With the film's production budget at $190 million, producers Paramount, Skydance Productions and Abrams' Bad Robot Productions were looking for more. Its $70.5 million three-day total was less than the $75 million that "Star Trek" debuted to four years ago, and that film didn't have the benefit of 3D or Imax surcharges.

Also read: 'Star Trek Into Darkness' Can't Hit Warp Speed at Box Office

Only 25 percent of those who went to see "Into Darkness" were under 25 years of age. That's considerably less than the 35 percent that the previous film attracted, and it's far more older-skewing than the first-weekend audiences for Disney's "Iron Man 3," which was 45 percent under 25, 27 percent families and 21 percent teens.

"It didn't grab the attention of young moviegoers, and you're not going to get your movie over $100 million with just older folks," Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. "It's tough to figure, because with Abrams doing it, it's really not your father's 'Star Trek.' But it needs to find that young audience in a hurry."

And there's the rub.

The young audience that "Star Trek" will try to connect with its second weekend is the same demographic that "The Hangover III," which Warner Bros. opens Thursday, is targeting. And it's the same one that Universal's "Fast & Furious 6," which opens Friday, is going after. Fox's animated family film "Epic" opens this weekend, too, and "Iron Man 3" isn't going anywhere.

Also read: 'The Hangover III' vs. 'Fast & Furious 6' and 4 More of Summer's Biggest Box-Office Smackdowns

"For 'Into Darkness,' this will be a make or break weekend," Bock said.

That's certainly true domestically. "Into Darkness" won't match the $255 million total run up by Abrams' 2009 reboot and it may struggle to hit $200 million, analysts say.

"I do think we're going to find that young crowd, mainly because it's such a good movie," Paramount's head of distribution Don Harris told TheWrap.

Critics like it (87 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences gave it an "A" CinemaScore.
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Star Trek: Into Darkness did debut as #1 on its first weekend, but did not meet expectations.

Will young people like it?  Will they even bother to see it when they have new action-action films?

The veteran Star Trek fans do like it. 

Twitter conversation with another writer went like this:

LizStrangeVamp: Who else saw Star Trek Into Darkness and loved it? I am officially a Cumber-bitch now. 9:24am, May 21 from Web

JLichtenberg: @lizstrangevamp I did see ST:ID, prepping to write a review, saw this box-office analysis: http://t.co/ouORUbLyht will collect more info 9:29am, May 21 from HootSuite

LizStrangeVamp: @JLichtenberg Hmm. Did you enjoy it?? Thought they did a great job in saluting long-time fans and making accessable to newbies. 9:31am, May 21 from Web

JLichtenberg: @lizstrangevamp Yes, enjoyed ST:ID in 3D, noted the tech advances didn't get showcased at expense of STORY. Reboot is WORKING 9:34am, May 21 from HootSuite

LizStrangeVamp: @JLichtenberg Totally agree. Casting couldn't be better, writing solid, top notch special effects AND an ass-kicking Spock scene. Brillant. 9:36am, May 21 from Web

So I asked if I could quote and she said yes.  Find out more about Liz here; http://www.lizstrange.com/

I also got a comment from my co-author Jean Lorrah, ( http://jeanlorrah.com )author of some of the Star Trek novels.
I saw the 2D version (yeah, I stole time for that on Saturday, as otherwise I wouldn't see it till it came on pay TV)--lots of good things about it, but a couple of things I don't like. They've made Spock too emotional too soon--now he simply has a stoic philosophy that may clash with American values, but not human ones, and he blew even that in this film. And of course there was NO suspense about the ending--the audience was told loud and clear how they would save the day. Also, catching the villain was not necessary when they had his followers. He could have escaped to be Kirk and Spock's Moriarty.

I like the alternate universe aspect, with people we know turning up in new roles, but over all they are playing the biggest hands far too soon. And they need to bring in new people and new plots for the main guest roles.

Zachary Quinto does a wonderful job of capturing "our" Spock in certain moments, particularly double takes. He is the saving grace of the new series--lots of actors could play Kirk, but they had to find one who could embody Spock in a way that would at least sometimes play true to the old fans.

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The consensus I've seen on Google+ is pretty positive.

Of course I hang with Trekfen and our favorite game is FINDING FAULT WITH TREK.

It's what we do, day and night, any time any where.  We can pick this film apart easily.  It's got lots of flaws.  By me, one of the biggest flaws is the title.  Maybe the next one will be called Into Light?

But I see 2 great things in it:

a) Star Trek: Into Darkness used the 3-D technology the way TV Trek used phasers and transporters -- it's just there, it works.  The film doesn't shove story, character, and plot aside to razzle-dazzle you with pop-out surprises.  And that makes the whole thing seem more realistic, not less, in 3-D.

b) It has a truly despicable villain, there is REAL darkness afoot, but Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Uhura -- their characters grow in Honor, spiritual strength, and common sense rule-following as well as rule-breaking.  They don't become villains to conquer villains. 

Could anyone ask more of a 21st century film?

Well, yes, they could have done more with Spock/Uhura, but if they had what would fans write/dream about?  Oh, that is one hot romance!  And it's WORKING. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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