Top 5 Screenwriting Lessons From Star Trek Into Darkness

Top 5 Screenwriting Lessons From Star Trek Into Darkness

John Updike’s first rule when reviewing novels was: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” This is as good a rule for assessing films as it is for assessing novels, and when viewed from this perspective Star Trek Into Darkness is very nearly a complete success. In my opinion, it does almost everything right, and within that rightness screenwriters, and other storytellers, can find at least five takeaway lessons (as always, there are major spoilers here):


1. Immediate Tension Equals Immediate Interest

Though I did not have my stopwatch out while watching, I’d guess that the main story is not set up until at least thirty minutes in. That, however, doesn’t matter, because the writers (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) create tension almost immediately. As long as your characters want something, as long as there is some kind of tension, you can buy yourself time to set up the main story. In this case, Kirk (Chris Pine) loses command of the Enterprise as a result of a report Spock (Zachary Quinto) filed. He, of course, must get command of his ship back—but we know neither when nor how this will happen. This loss also creates tension between Kirk and Spock, and that tension lasts until the next layer of the story is put into place, and that next layer creates an even deeper tension. This layering of tension is accomplished again and again, expertly, throughout the film.



2. Internal Conflict Can Be as Dramatic as External Conflict

One of the reasons the Kirk-Spock relationship works so well is that, at times, they are not really two characters at all, but two sides of the same character. Kirk embodies the emotional side while Spock embodies the logical, and this allows the internal to be externalized through arguments between the two. This is exploited wonderfully during the first half of Into Darkness especially, during which Kirk is trying to decide whether to send 72 missiles down onto an unoccupied area of Kronos to which a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has fled. They argue about whether Harrison should be brought back alive rather than killed without a trial, and the ethical consequences of this decision weigh heavily Kirk. The arguments might be entertaining, but the drama lies in Kirk’s internal struggle with the decision he must make.


3. Drama, as Opposed to Action, Lives in the Gray Areas

While it is full of action and adventure and one-liners that work more often than they don’t, Into Darkness is not a simplistic action flick set in space. Such a movie might be fun to watch, but it wouldn’t make you feel much of anything. The world of Into Darkness resembles our world in a way many summer blockbusters don’t, even those set in the here and now, and because of that it is a film with some emotional impact. As mentioned above, this is a world in which simply killing the bad guy is not immediately accepted as the right thing to do. This is a world where our hero might be forced through circumstance to ally himself with the man he was sent to kill. This is a world where that man might be complex and human and, in his way, sympathetic, even after he has betrayed Kirk. In other words, this is a world of genuine drama.


4. Subvert Character Expectations and You Increase Impact

Spock is cold, logical, unfeeling. We know this before the first frame of Into Darkness flashes before our eyes, but it is confirmed again while we watch, and then it is reinforced, so when Spock begins to cry toward the end of the film, we really feel it. These moments when characters contradict what we know of them for dramatic effect—when the non-feeling character cries; when the milquetoast finally stands up for himself against his overbearing boss; when the shy boy finally asks out the girl he likes—almost always work if set up properly, and work far better than they would have had the characters not been set up as they were. They work because they indicate growth and development, and that growth increases the drama of the moment.


5. Set it Up Well and the Audience Will Believe Anything

Kirk dies; Spock cries. It is one of the best moments of the film, and this despite the fact that I was certain Kirk would not remain dead.  I knew this because earlier in Into Darkness John Harrison’s blood—Khan’s blood—was discovered to be regenerative and possibly resurrective (which is, apparently, not a word). As soon as Kirk died, I thought of that blood and its special properties. That might indicate that the setup was heavy-handed, but it also indicates that it worked. When Kirk was resurrected I believed it absolutely because the potential had been set up earlier. This is, of course, Chekhov’s gun viewed from the other end of the play (or, in this case, movie): “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” And if someone is shot in the second act, someone should be in possession of a gun in the first. These things work both ways.

Star Trek Into Darkness does so many things right that I’m even willing to overlook the lack of a colon in its title. I, for one, will be watching it again.

Ryan David Jahn is the author of four novels. His first, Good Neighbors, won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Dagger, and his third, The Dispatcher, was recently optioned for film by Anonymous Content. His work has been translated into twelve languages. You can find out more about the author and his books at


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7 Responses to “Top 5 Screenwriting Lessons From Star Trek Into Darkness”

  1. Velcro Fathoms Says:

    May 19th, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    1. Magic blood is the red matter of this film and the writers didn’t think about the consequences. Star Trek is now in a universe where death is essentially cured by blood. Just because they set it up earlier doesn’t make it clever or smart.

    2. Transwarp beaming, sloppy deus ex machina.

    3.Misspelling Qo’noS.

    4. The villains are weak. The true villain is Admiral Marcus, he is a cartoon that totally neuters all that’s positive about Starfleet. Yes there have been evil admirals before but not like this one. Being able to rise and implement his plan, he makes Starfleet look stupid and evil. One of the strongest draws of Star Trek is as Utopian philosophy, making Starfleet inept and evil undercuts and disregards that.

    5.Reversals of expectations, using scene from WOK primarily are not clever or smart. In moments when the film needs drama, it removes the audience and has them winking and jamming elbows into each other. This is a device of Family Guy episodes. It doesn’t match the drama of WOK, it highlights this films inferiority. For a team that went out of their way to distance themselves from prime Star Trek the STID crew is sure milking it. They employed the character of Khan very poorly and wrongly cast a white British man to play an Indian?! As written in this film, Khan was a tragic character who was actually justified in his actions (being that Marcus was a villain). That Kirk and the Enterprise crew betray him is only retroactively justified in some sloppy dialogue.

    The idea of a plot critiquing the current illegal drone wars was a great idea. Remove the shoehorning of Khan in there, make Marcus more believable and his plot less black and white pure evil and they’d have had an interesting script.

  2. Eddi Says:

    May 21st, 2013 at 4:48 am

    Agree with your points – I felt the opening scene lacked tension. You knew that Kirk wasn’t going to die – so the fact that he was on the run from the tribe was meaningless. You also knew Spock couldn’t die in the first act – so no tension there. The villains are totally weak. The stronger the villain, the more satisfying their defeat.

  3. johnhay Says:

    September 7th, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Right on all counts. Absolutely criticize President Obama or anyone else in politics. Say something. But it’s not enough to tell everyone it’s a “message,” so just accept everything sloppy. Many Star Treks had in-your-face messages, but they never just hid behind it with contempt for the audience.

  4. disqus_0PtLV9c2IT Says:

    December 3rd, 2015 at 9:53 am

    What misspelling of Qo’noS? That’s the Klingon-language word, but it’s been referred to in English-language dialog as “Kronos” Since 1991 in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country!

  5. David Thrasher Says:

    May 21st, 2013 at 7:41 am

    6. “Don’t overuse the “ticking clock” plot device.” Some of my enjoyment of this movie was diminished because the writers relied upon the ticking clock just a few too many times during the course of telling the story. It almost made me wonder if, when Kirk happened to have lunch, if the writers would use the the device there too. (As in, if Kirk doesn’t arrive by such and such time, his lunch will burn!)

  6. Thomas Holbrook Says:

    May 21st, 2013 at 8:53 am

    So Iron Man 3 gets picked on for sloppy writing but THIS film gets slathered with praise with not one word of criticism? Another commenter mentioned the overuse of the ticking clock. I was infuriated by the use of the ticking clock that, really, there was no need to be ticking. They have to capture the bad guy alive for his magic blood or Kirk will die!!! Please ignore the fact that there are 72 other potential magic blood donors in suspended animation right in front of the doctor. Not only that, he’s going to revive one so they can use his suspended animation pod. So… you’re not taking that guys blood because? Oh, right, because then no ticking clock. Just have to ask the audience to check their brain at the door. This right on the heels of the film cribbing one of the greatest Trek scenes ever and not doing nearly as well by it got me quite annoyed.

    And how about putting your money where your mouth is? (SPOILERS) Killing Spock in Wrath Of Khan had impact because they took a character that had been around for decades and they killed him. They really did. Did he come back in a later film. Yes. But within that film he was dead and that impact was felt. In this film they flip the death to Kirk. Only instead of an incredibly long lived character we were invested in and REALLY killing him, we get Kirk 2.0 who has only been around for 2 films who we know they won’t kill almost sort of dying for about 20 minutes. If you’re going to threaten to kill a character and have it have impact the audience has to at some level buy into the idea the character COULD die. Never bought the conceit that Kirk could die for a second.

  7. Glen Simister Says:

    May 21st, 2013 at 11:59 am

    The film had some very clever uses of common techniques; it was well structured. And yes, there were still leaps and bounds of logic that were crossed, but the Into Darkness still held up well despite them (both the real-world science defying, as well as logic qualms such as “why did they need Khan’s blood when they had over seventy other frozen bodies to get blood from?”).

    The characters were extremely well written, more so than the first film which was also well constructed – the themes of overcoming obstacles, the call of the hero, breaking heritages, etc. Everyone had some obstacle to overcome. Some bigger than others, but I digress: we traveled with all of them through a peril ridden plot.

    There was also quite the balance between fighting for old school fan admiration and bringing a new audience into an already explored plot. The film stands on its own. This was planned to the nines.

    I will contend with Mr. Holbrook’s opinion that Kirk’s death had no emotional weight. It did, because I felt it, and so did many others in the theater with me. Even if you saw it coming from a mile away, these characters were still tried and challenged together long enough for me to believe they had a genuine affection for each other. Not to mention, Spock’s character breaking his otherwise logical, stoic nature (which we saw crumbling from even before this sequel) had a great deal of weight. He’s still finding himself as a Vulcan, as a human. The scene where he cries is when we get a chance to see how far this new tangent of Spock must go to reach this emotional tattering. It’s compelling as all hell.

    Great film, even if flawed.

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