One typical piece of advice for writers is to understand and respect the conventions of the genre they are writing in. Yes, that includes you literary writers because literary is a genre. That is easy to say, but what does it mean. How broad or narrow is genre and what are the conventions that matter.
I want to look at that through the lens of one very narrow genre using a current, prominent example that failed to understand and respect the conventions of its genre. I will then compare it to a minor work over thirty years old that did understand and respect those conventions making it enjoyable today.
Genre is much deeper than, for example, just fantasy or even urban fantasy. The conventions expected in a Dresden Files novel are different from those in the line of urban fantasy explored by Emma Bull in War for the Oaks (check out the trailer) and Charles DeLint in his Newford stories. Genre can be as narrow as something like Star Trek.
Yes, Star Trek is a genre with conventions all its own. Failing to meet those conventions will lead to a show that might be called Star Trek, be set in the United Federation of Planets, and have Vulcans but that is not Star Trek. That appears to be the fate of Star Trek: Discovery.
A fascinating video on YouTube looks at Discovery’s failure regarding conventions of the Star Trek genre. I think it is well worth watching for writers. Even writers of romance or mystery who have no interest in science fiction, much less a narrow science fiction sub-genre like Star Trek, can benefit from watching the video. It reveals things more in-depth than the usual conventions people would bring up, such as “senior officers routinely go in harm’s way while leaving JOs on the ship.”
So, why doesn’t Discovery feel like Star Trek?
Now, the early parts of this video focus on visual elements more than what we would typically think of as screenwriting. Do not dismiss those lessons as being useless to writers of prose fiction. First, screenwriting will include some of the lighting and shot directions. Second, as a writer of prose, you develop the set, or not, with description. How you set up a scene parallel the lighting, camera locations, and other issues Ketwolski points out in Discovery. They are just as important as the later ones on dialog and the nature of the cast of characters.
Let’s look at some element in the early 80s Star Trek novel from Pocket Books, The Final Reflection, for contrast. This is my favorite Star Trek novel. It is set in the period before the original series, being roughly just past where Star Trek: Enterprise sits in the current continuity. The novel is out of continuity dating from before even TNG. All the principle characters bar one, and most of the minor characters are Klingons. Only a tiny fraction of the story takes place outside Klingon settings. Even the scenes in the Federation tend to occur in Klingon ships or quarters. Let this novel feels like Star Trek much more than Discovery does.
So, why does The Final Reflection feel like Star Trek? First and foremost it focuses on characters building a better future. Yes, they are Klingon characters and function in a harsh and, to modern US sensibilities, or even 1980s US sensibilities, a somewhat barbaric culture. However, it is not an evil or twisted culture like that of the Mirror, Mirror universe. It is, instead, something closer to the portrayal of Japan in the 70s miniseries [Shogun. In that context Kreen and his companions build for themselves a better life and eventually make a better world for both the Klingon Empire and the UFP by averting a war and gutting factions wanting war and stagnation in both states.
Second, the interactions between the main characters as Klingon officer as well as their interactions with other Klingon officers and officials, mirror Star Trek in general. The discussion between Picard and Dr. Marr at 10:17 in the video captures the feel of many similar conversations in The Final Reflection. In an early scene, a junior Kreen needs to quickly propose a tactical change to his captain. While he does concentrate more on not risking insult than a character in a Federation based book would be he still offers his suggestion, and his captain accepts it. At no point does Kreen mutiny on his way up the chain as Michael does in Discover. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of The Final Reflection is the relative lack of violence. Kreen is a warrior and a pirate raider, as befits a Klingon captain. However, he achieves his advancement in rank and prevents war with the Federation through maneuver and intrigue. This fits his adoptive father’s nature, as a master of klinzha, the Klingon analog to chess. More importantly, this use of non-violent means secures his place as a Star Trek captain, following the lead of Kirk that would also be followed by Picard, Sisko Janeway, and Archer.
The third item brought up in the video which crosses over is the cast. As I said above, the main characters are Klingon officers. Kreen is a captain for most of the book, although he starts as an orphan in a game of living klinzha about a quarter of the book covers his rise to command. Two of his three principles supporting characters are his first officer and communications and science officer. The later is also his security officer working undercover as well as a friend from the orphanage of his youth. Notice how the three principles track closely to the traditional Star Trek ensemble roles. The substitution of a security officer in a cover assignment for a medical officer is a slight change that reinforces the fact we are among Klingons while keeping the overall feeling that says Star Trek. The one non-Klingon central character functions much as the guest stars did in individual episodes or the related characters Ketwolski mentions in the traditional ensemble. This non-Klingon provides a contrast to the central characters as well as a source of tension for the other three to work through.
Briefly leaving Star Trek, another excellent example of how tone, created by the nature of the character ensemble, pacing, and how the setting is painted has led to disappointment it is worth looking at the reaction to The Simarillion. While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are very different novels they have strong similarities that link them in tone. The Silmarillion, by contrast, and as recounted by Christopher Tolkien in the introduction to The Book of Lost Tales, has been described as being like the Old Testament. In the narrow category of Middle Earth tales or even the broader (and at the time only emerging) genre of epic quest fantasy The Simarillion fails at genre expectations despite having elves, a dark lord, great magic macguffins, and quests. As a result, its reception was unfavorable compared to the love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings receive.
A point made many times during the video is that none of the choices made in making Discovery are not wrong in some absolute sense. In a similar vein, none of the decisions John Ford made in writing The Final Reflection are not correct in some Platonic sense. All the writers, and in Discovery directors, made perfectly valid choices.
But only John Ford made valid choices for the genre called Star Trek. That is why many Trek fans say Discovery does not feel like Star Trek, but I still reread The Final Reflection to get a Star Trek fix over 35 years after it was published.