Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.
Today, I’m joined by, Jimmy Diggs, the author of nine Star Trek episodes, including one of the most popular episodes of Deep Space 9, “Dr. Bashir, I Presume” and eight Voyager episodes.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
I always thought that the writer was the most important person in the creative process. But I never dreamed that I’d ever get the opportunity. Then around 1992 I lost my airline job when PSA was bought by US Air. My wife at the time told me that she didn’t want to see me turn 40 and have any regrets about the course I had taken as far as a career. So she told me to follow my dreams – whatever it was and she’d handle the majority of the bills while I tried to find out what I wanted to do. So, I always loved everything about space – factual or fictional, so I decided I’d either try to get a job with NASA or write science fiction. At the time NASA had a hiring freeze. So I deceed I’d look into writing Science Fiction screenplays. THis led me to getting a job at Stu Segall Productions where I eventually made friends with some of the writer producers.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
One of the producers at Renegade decided to give me a break and let me pitch my ideas to the show. I went to his studio in Burbank with my story ideas and after I told him what they were, he said the thing that changed my life forever. He said, “Jimmy, when I invited you up here, I thought I was just doing a favor for a fellow Vietnam Vet. I thought you’d have some crazy ideas, and I’d tell you don’t lose your day job.” But to my surprise he said, “Jimmy, you are an artist. and I want to do that for the first episode for the next season [of Renegade].” That one line changed my life forever.
Where did you learn to write?
I’m largely self-taught. I never had a class. I read the books that made sense to me. I’ve been blessed with good advice from mentors and I didn’t pay any attention to any of the crap out there that doesn’t make any sense. Just about everything I wrote made me some money somehow.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I just take a little walk out on what Ernest Hemmingway called, “A walk out on premise prairie,” and I ask myself one important question: “What if?”
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
I take my central character and I try to make him dance on the head of a pin. I tear his heart out and stomp on it. Then I torturously, painfully and agonizingly build the poor bastard up again.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
I enjoy writing stories where a new technology or a new discovery has to be reinterpreted in human terms. It isn’t the gadget or what Hitchcock called the Macguffin that’s the most interesting part of science fiction, its what happens when we humans take that gadget gimmick or mcguffin and use it in uniquely human ways.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
I’m intrigued by the science fiction sub-genres of Steampunk, Diesel Punk, Weird West and a phrase of my own invention; “Crypto-History.”
Do you work from an outline?
Absolutely. First I write a story, some people might call it a treatment, a beat outline or a synopsis and then I construct what I call a beat outline. It’s the bare bones skeleton of a script. Without the flesh of the dialogue attached. Some writers think this is the most difficult and challenging part of the story development process.
How do you build your story?
Every central character begins the story in a state of equilibrium. He may not be happy with that state, but he understands it, He’s accustomed to it. He knows what to expect from one day to the next. Some inciting incident happens to that character that propels him on a path of no return. And the character spends the entire rest of the movie or story trying to regain the equilibrium he lost in Act I.
For you, what makes a great hero?
A great villain. What would Luke Skywalker be without Darth Vader? What would Clarise Starling be without Hannibal Lecter? What would Captain Kirk be without the Klingons? The only way your hero can wax great is by the waning of an awesome opponent. An opponent that is so dynamic that he’s convinced that the story’s about him. And he has the seductive line of reasoning to prove it.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
What he doesn’t use to kill you just makes you stronger.
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
The story always dictates the setting with me. For me the original inception of the story always brings the setting with it. Sometimes the setting is almost a character in itself. The setting, the story, the characters are all inherently organic to each other. One wouldn’t make sense without the other.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
I’m actually considering a Pixar like animal based animation where the dialogue will rhyme from beginning to end, like a Dr. Seuss fable. You can almost consider it, a Hip Hop opera.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
This is going to sound very Truby but it’s very true. The purpose of every story is to serve as a guide to teach us how to live a better life. That’s what theme is all about. My job as a storyteller is to use my stories as lessons for my audience to help them live a better life.
How do you approach writing dialogue?
I like to use something that a friend of mine calls “invisible ink.” Sometimes it’s not so important what the characters are saying as what they’re not saying. Some people might call it subtext but its more than that. Its tied to the theme, the unspoken emotions and desires of the characters in the scene.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
This is from my Gothic-Horror-Western, entitled, “Sundown:”
“The first thing you learn about common sense is that there ain’t nothin’ common about having sense.”
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I do listen to music and the most creative and productive time for me in writing is from midnight to eight in the morning.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
If you’ve got a problem in one act, it’s because you have a problem in the preceding act. For instance, if you have a problem in Act II, it’s because you have a problem in Act I. Solve the problem in Act I and all the pieces should fall into place.
Let’s discuss a particular scene to showcase your work…
In this scene the starship Voyager was surrounded by creatures that mistook it for a member of their species and began a courtship ritual with the ship. This put the ship and the crew in danger. But they didn’t want to kill these creatures just to get away. So after noticing that the females would roll over and turn blue, the crew of Voyager decided that if they mimic that behavior by rolling over and venting plasma from their warp engines to make themselves appear to turn blue, that they would cease to be attractive to these female entities. When the process worked, first officer Tuvok turned to his captain and said – with no pun intended, “Captain, it appears we’ve lost our sex appeal.” When the producers for the show all laughed at that line, I knew I had them.
How did that scene come to be?
The scene that sold my first Star Trek episode came to me like an epiphany. There’s only one way to describe it. It felt like a golden bullet being shot through the back of my head.
The second I envisioned the scene I knew I was going to sell the episode.
How do you go about fixing a story?
Larry Niven once told me that story development problems are not really problems. They’re opportunities. If you really examine the problem in your story closely, you will usually find buried deep within it is the core of your whole story. So once you understand that, you stop being afraid of problems and you embrace them. Sort of like real life.
How do you know when to stop?
When your central character has found that state of equilibrium that he’s looking for.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
Keep your central idea short and sweet. Remember that no matter how wonderful or complex you think your story is, that if you’re ever lucky enough to get it turned into a movie, one day some production assistante at TV Guide will be able to describe it in three simple sentences. I’ve heard it said that if you can describe your idea in ten words or less, you’ve got a guaranteed hit on your hands.
So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?
Not too many people know this, but my father was a mortician. I actually lived above the funeral home until I was four years old. I remember being three years old on my tricycle inside the morgue. I was circling my dad while he worked on a cadaver. The arm of the deceased slipped off the embalming table and I just pushed it back up and kept cycling.
When I was four, my parents took me to a neighbor’s house for dinner. Half way through the meal, I excused myself from the table. After about twenty minutes the hostess came looking for me. When she found me I was peaking under the beds and into the closets. When she brought me back to the table, she asked, “Honey, what were you looking for?” I responded in matter-of-fact tone, “Where do you keep your dead people?”
Considering the unique relationship I’ve had with the dead since childhood, I have no doubt that the zombies will recognize my authority and hail me as their true and rightful leader.
My first act as ruler of the undead will be to decriminalize zombie-porn and move the survivors of humanity to a safe zone where they can be properly bred – I mean protected for the benefit of living and undead alike.
The motto of my administration will be, “Whatever kills you makes you stronger.”
How important is the title of your story?
Extremely important. The title must be thematically tied into the overall project.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
As far as screenplays, my Steampunk adventure, “H.M.S. Victory.”
As far as print, it would be an article I wrote for Star Trek Communicator Magazine, entitled, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Star Trek,” where I explained that the villains of the Star Trek franchise were all as successful as they are because they were allegorical constructs for the seven deadly sins of man.
The Klingons represent Wrath.
The Romulans represent Pride.
The Cardassians represent Envy.
The Borg represent Gluttony.
The Pakleds represent Sloth.
The Ferengi represent Greed.
A new villain that I hope to introduce to the franchise would represent Lust.
The publishers of Simon and Schuster were so impressed with the concept that they turned it into an anthology.
I remember one day you and I were hanging out talking with George Clayton Johnson, and he mentioned how he pitches his stories and you had a similar method. Both of you said that you changed the direction of your story when their eyes started to glaze over.
How do you pitch your stories?
There are as many different ways to pitch stories as there are stories itself.
It didn’t work, but once I even brought in a deck of Star Trek based game cards to a pitch. I broke out the deck of cards in front of the producer, shuffled the deck, and like some crazy tarot card reader, I tried to construct a story on the fly by dealing the cards out and piecing the components together into some kind of coherent story.
That’s one of the techniques that George Clayton Johnson uses to invent stories. Did you know that he’s created a deck of cards which he uses as a story generating device? Several writers sit around a table and cards are dealt. Each card represents a different story element or idea. One writer throws the card down and talks about his idea. The other writers vote on it – up or down. If the idea is accepted, another writer throws down a card and they keep on this way until they’ve finished a story. The cards are a brainstorming tool.
You’re kidding! George does that? If one of the best writers of the 20th century employs a device like that, I think I’d better go to my storage and find those cards.
What are you working on now?
An animated series with an African American super heroine, the Gothic Horror Western that I mentioned earlier, my Steampunk action adventure franchise, an epic space opera and an original idea I’m developing for a Star Trek animated series.
I’d like to thank today’s author, Jimmy Diggs for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
Jimmy Diggs is a screenwriter, best known for his work on Star Trek (Deep Space 9 and Voyager). Jimmy Diggs has sold more episodes of Star Trek than any other freelance writer in the history of the franchise.
List of Star Trek Episodes by Jimmy Diggs:
5.16. “Doctor Bashir, I Presume”
4.11. “Concerning Flight”
4.21. “The Omega Directive”
5.07. “Infinite Regress”
Eye in the Sky
(Sold but unproduced episode)
Visit Jimmy Diggs online:
Written by Mark O’Bannon
Mark O’Bannon is the CEO of MEOw Publishing and is the author of “The Dream War Saga.” His books include: “The Dream Crystal”, “The Dark Mirrors of Heaven”, and “Aia the Barbarian.”
You can find Mark on Google+ and Twitter. Over the past 15 years, Mark has taught Writing, Self-Publishing and Internet Marketing for authors. Visit his blog, “Better Storytelling” or his website, www.MarkOBannon.com