4 Things Star Trek Can Teach Us About Writing

The following is a guest post by Thomas Smith. Happy Friday.

Over the years I’ve looked at what my dogs have taught me about writing, what Batman can teach us about writing, and today I’m going to extend the tradition. Today we’re going to look to the stars for our guidance.

No, not astronomy.

Mr. Spock. Captain Kirk. Captain Picard. Bones. The Ferengi. Captain Janeway. And every red-shirted crew member who has ever gone on an away mission and never made it home again.

That’s right (cue the funky theremin music), we’re talking about Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s legendary space saga. And why not? Star Trek has some fantastic lessons to teach us about the craft of writing.

Lesson 1: Red-shirted crew members seldom have a long life.

For those of you who follow Star Trek (in just about any incarnation), you know that being a red-shirted crew member (different colors signify different positions in the hierarchy) is a lot like running through a field of bulls wearing all red and swatting them all on the butt. Those unfortunate folks most often die.

So what does that have to do with writing?

You need to identify the literary equivalent of those red shirts.

Take the ever-popular adverbs and adjectives. Much like Castor Oil, a little goes a long way. So use them sparingly.

Attributions like “she expounded,” “he regurgitated,” should also be left on the surface of the alien planet in a smoking heap. It’s perfectly OK (and generally preferred) for characters to just say things. He said. She said. And not, “‘He makes my heart beat like a rabid drummer,’ she said breathlessly.”

Ick. Kill that “-ly” word on the spot (then kidnap the sentence and skip the ransom note).

Another red shirt that deserves what’s coming to him is what the Marshall Plan for Novelists refers to as Morse Code—the overuse of dots and dashes to make a character’s sentences trail off. This is a common tool used by many beginners, but like most tools, it has limited uses. You can’t hammer concrete nails with a screwdriver, and a soldering iron is practically useless for joining two pieces of wood. So go ahead and let the characters finish their sentences.

As Stephen King said in his essay Everything You Need to Know About Writing – in Ten Minutes, “When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.”

That goes for nonfiction too.

Don’t worry. The red shirts died for a good cause.


Lesson 2: Boldly go where nobody has gone before.

No pithy lead-in here. Instead, simply: Go find your own voice.

A well known acquaintance of mine was once touted in a book review as the next Stephen King. His response? “I didn’t know there was anything wrong with the one we have now. How about if I’m just me?”

There is only one Jerry B. Jenkins, only one Peter Straub, only one Shakespeare, only one Ray Bradbury, and there is only one you. That’s the way it works. Every writer is who they are, and they have (if they put in the requisite work) a singular voice. Their own voice. Why would you need to write like Brandilyn Collins or Mike Dellosso? We already have one of each.

The fact is, there are things only those writers can write, and there are things only you can write. And the only way to develop your own voice is to do the work.


Then write some more.

Boldly go where no man or woman has gone before.


Lesson 3: Always overestimate how long a job will take, and then look like a hero when you come in under deadline.

Every engineer on every ship or space station in the Star Trek universe has said, “Captain, it will take at least nine hours to fix the cosmic flapdoodle widget.” And every captain has said, “We don’t have nine hours. You have an hour and eleven minutes before we are turned into chicken nuggets.”

And every engineer fixed the left-handed sonic whatchamadiddle valve in the nick of time and looked like a hero.

They hit the deadline. And that is the optimal strategy for every writer who ever wrangled a word. Give better than you promise, and always do it on time.

(Sure, there are extenuating circumstances. This is real life, after all. But those situations should be the exception to the rule, and when you know you need to adjust the schedule, your first action should be to contact your very own Kirk—the editor or your agent—immediately. If you are one of those writers who hits the vast majority of your deadlines, when you find yourself in an unavoidable jam, editors and agents will probably grin and say, “been there, done that,” and make a new deadline possible.)


Lesson 4: Sometimes the best strategy is to rush headlong into the problem.

Once in a while a project turns out to be about as exciting as watching beige carpet rot. Or an assignment is more work than you realized. Sometimes you’re up against a deadline and are just tired.

This is no time for procrastination. This is time for rolling up your sleeves, putting some high octane coffee in the pot, and powering through. Like Captain Kirk (pick pretty much any episode) when the grits are hitting the fan: Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and run headlong into the giant nine-uddered mutant space cows from the planet Bovinicus and let the chips fall where they may. After all, you helped create the monster.

Now, for next time: Everything You Need to Know About Writing, From the Gang on Jersey Shore.

Or not.

Thomas Smith is an award-winning writer, newspaper reporter, TV news producer, playwright and essayist. His published articles, short stories, essays, celebrity profiles, and travel  writing articles appear in numerous books, magazines, journals and multimedia outlets including: Barbour Publishing, Adams Media, Group Publishing, Pocket Books, BarCharts Publishing, The PPI Group, Barnes and Noble Books, Borderlands Press, and Zondervan Publishing.




You’ve Got a Book in You by Elizabeth Sims

Are you writing a book or novel for the first time? Chances are you probably have (or have had) a bout of insecurity, fear of failure, or worry about making it perfect. But you don’t have to let all of those feelings take hold of you and cripple your ability to write. In fact, You’ve Got a Book in You is filled with friendly, funny, telling-it-to-you-straight chapters that teach you how to relinquish your worries and write freely. With this book, you’ll get tips, advice and exercises geared toward helping you gain the skills and best practices needed to finish a novel.


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18 thoughts on “4 Things Star Trek Can Teach Us About Writing

  1. Clarissa

    Thanks for a fun article!
    We can learn a lot from the actual writing on Trek, too (especially the later series). If you’re looking for poetry in prose without being too flowery, or how to seamlessly weave mystery and plot in with character development and emotion, this is a great franchise to study. Also, anyone looking to study up on how to create a fantastic world but make it believable and relevent to readers’ lives, and how to follow the rules you’ve set within your own fantastic world, I’d recommend reading a few transcripts from Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, especially.
    I’m curious, Thomas – what are your thoughts on how Trek manages to make their monologues (either expository or explanatory) interesting and entertaining, without them feeling long-winded? That’s something I’m still working on and hoping to get to Trek-level expertise. 🙂

    1. tsmithwriting

      Thanks Clarissa. And thanks for the great points on what we can learn from the Trek writing. As for the monologue question, I’ve never really thought about it. That would be a great question to pose to one of the Trek writers. I’d be interested in hearing what they say.

  2. esparhawk

    I’d like to know what you think of this:[b] red shirt guys often do not have a name.[/b]

    If a character is going to die after three lines of dialog or less, should we bother to give him/her a name? I’m curious to see what you think (and what other readers think) about this.

    1. tsmithwriting

      There are enough cardboard characters in the worlds of TV, literature, etc. Even short-lived characters deserve to be fleshed out, otherwise, no one cares.

  3. Kerr Berr

    Shouldn’t #4 be “when the tribbles are hitting the dilithium crystal intake valve?

    We all know what kind of mess that makes. 😉

    As kids, me and my brothers called the red-shirt crew members “die-guys”.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Misty

    Good advice, particularly #4. I call it the John Wayne school of swimming– being picked up by the britches and tossed into the river. You learn quick. I was a little put off by the romper room attempt at techno-babble. Nine-uddered mutant space cows? Come on, man. Trekers are a little more high brow than that. keep it to warp cores and the space/time continuum, leave the comedy to Q.

    1. tsmithwriting

      Thanks. Number 4 is definitely not for the squeamish. As for the “romper room attempt at techno-babble…” (1) The publication is Writers Digest, not Trek Digest. (2) I’m writing for writers. They get this stuff. (3) I am who I am. (4) And how else could I use the chips falling where they may line? I don’t understand warp cores and the space/time continuum. I do understand mutant space cows.

  5. tharcum

    Excellent Article!
    Everyone of your suggestions are helpful.
    I believe every writer has a blueprint of their own in how they think, and how they put words on paper.
    It is like handwriting. It’s your own unque style and that is something no one can take away from you! (unless something dramatic happens to you, like a brain injury! (a great research on that one-do your handwriting style change after trauma?) Serendipity just follows me!
    Musicians and artist do a close follow of inner blueprint branding as well. Thank you for this article because, I believe writers should be free to express, discover, and change whenever the need be.

    1. tsmithwriting

      Thanks tharcum. Some folks may argue that I had a brane injurry at some point, but if so, I don’t remember it. I also don’t remember to take out the recycling some weeks…but that’s a different matter. Thanks again. I’m glad you found my scribblings helpful.

  6. Godsglorygirl

    Mr. Smith, I really enjoyed this article. Very concise and to the point. As a Star Trek fan and a fan of the series writing (done by top-notch serious science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison), I have often watched old episodes just to analyze the characters and structure. However, (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) how in the world can you put Jerry B. Jenkins in the same sentence with Shakespeare and Ray Bradbury? Yes, he’s made millions by co-writing the famous Left Behind series but, other than that, I have found his books to be dreary, overly descriptive and confusing as he changed point of view, wrote long sections of dialog that lost track of the speaker and other writing quirks that make his books a frustrating read.

    1. tsmithwriting

      Thanks Godsglorygirl. I appreciate the kind words. And you’re right, there have been some A+ level writers writing Star Trek episodes. Some were absolutely amazing. as for “…how in the world can you put Jerry B. Jenkins in the same sentence with Shakespeare and Ray Bradbury?” Everybody doesn’t like somebody. And he has written over 150 books, so he must be doing something right.

      Plus as blasphemous as it sounds, there are even folks who don’t like Ray Bradbury.

      And it could have been worse. I could have put Snooki from Jersey Shore.

      Thanks again.


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