Beam Me Up, Scotty – How to Keep Your Story Moving at Warp Speed – Part 1

If you’ve never seen the Star Trek transporter in action, here’s how it works. Imagine the starship U.S.S. Enterprise orbiting a distant planet. Captain Kirk decides to assemble a small exploration party for a closer look at what appears to be the ruins of an ancient city. So how do they make the trip from starship to planet? Instead of taking the Enterprise down for a landing, Kirk and his fellow explorers simply step onto the transporter platform and take their places. Chief Engineer Scotty hits a button on the control console, and Kirk and the others are turned into swirling specks of energy and instantly “beamed” down to the planet’s surface, where they re-materialize and go about their business.

The transporter wasn’t part of the original plans for Star Trek. When Gene Roddenberry was developing the story concept for the 1966 pilot, he envisioned having the starship land on each planet it visited. Then he decided to simplify the process by having the crew use a shuttlecraft whenever they wanted to visit a planet. Then Roddenberry realized that all that taking off and landing would eat up a lot of time—and really, once you’ve seen a shuttlecraft emerge from a starship and land on a planet a few dozen times, how interesting can it be? So somebody came up with the idea of a transporter. Voila! One moment Kirk and the others are on the Enterprise, and the next moment they’re standing on the planet.

You can use the same technique in your writing. I’ll give you some examples.

Below is an excerpt from Dr. Death, by Jonathan Kellerman. The two main characters are discussing a painting that might be a clue in a murder case. The opening lines of dialogue take place on a street setting, then the scene breaks and they move to the police station. The transition could’ve eaten up a paragraph or two, but here’s how Kellerman chose to handle it:

“Meanwhile, the painting’s resting comfortably in our evidence room. Care to see it?”

“Sure,” I said. “Representation is my thing.”

~~~

“Not half bad, but no Rembrandt,” I said.

Milo ran his finger along the top of the canvas. We were in the robbery-homicide room, second-story at West LA. Half a dozen detectives hunched at their desks, a few sidelong stares as Milo propped the painting on his chair.

The three tildes (~~~) represent a scene break, but you can think of them as the spot where Scotty presses the button to energize the transporter. When the reader sees the scene break and the text that follows, he’ll understand that the two men have been whisked away from the street setting to the police station. No need to take the reader to the car, then along for the ride across town, then into the police station where they nod greetings to other police officers and detectives, then to the office where the next scene takes place. None of that is important to the story, so Kellerman used his literary transporter to zip past it.

Why is this important? Because nothing will bog down a story like throwing a lot of irrelevant stuff at the reader. The same technique is used in movies and television shows. Watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Those detectives never travel from one location to another. At the end of a scene the screen fades out for about half a second, then it comes back and they’re someplace else. Nor do they spend time with inconsequential story movement. If one of the detectives decides to call Mr. Suspect to set up a meeting, he reaches for the phone and the screen fades to black. When it comes back a half-second later, the detectives are in Mr. Suspect’s office, grilling him about something or other. No need to take the reader through the phone call or trip to the office. The reader will know those things happened. That’s how the producers of Law & Order keep the story moving along, and it’s how you should do it in your novel.

Let’s look at a couple more examples from authors I’ve worked with recently.

Joanne Moudy’s paranormal thriller The Tenth is told in present tense through the first-person viewpoint of a trauma nurse named Elizabeth. The novel has a quick pace due to Joanne’s tight writing and her knack for skipping past mundane details. In the scene below, Elizabeth and a nursing student have just been verbally assaulted and spat upon by a prisoner who has been brought to the hospital complaining about a stomach ache. Besides Joanne’s gift for writing tight prose, notice how she brings the scene to a crisp end, then uses her own transporter to move the reader past several hours that are not relevant to the story.

One of the deputies follows Tony and me. “He’s a real piece of crap. Been in the prison system for years, starting with drugs, theft, several violent assaults, and escalating recently to blowing the head off a young man working in a convenience store. He’s awaiting adjudication at County now. Multiple re-offender and hopefully going down for life this time, maybe even the death penalty.” The deputy pauses. “Prison guards didn’t think anything was wrong with him, but the clinic is closed and it’s the guard’s butt if something’s really wrong.”

“I figured. Same ol’, same ol’. Sounds like a nice guy. I think we’ll just let him stew in there for a while and see what happens. An hour in that position may soften him up a little.”

“Works for me,” agrees the deputy. I unlock the door for him.

“Tony, throw that eye shield and mask in the trash, get rid of those gloves, and go wash up. We’ll talk about this later.”

I do exactly the same thing, knowing I need to focus on other patients.

~~~

Two a.m. Four more hours to go. I hang up a new bag of IV fluids for a patient with the flu.

As general fatigue threatens to settle in, I get a weird image of myself skiing down a steep, snow-covered mountain toward slick, icy moguls. The last run of the day is often the hardest, but I always take it, figuring if I can hold it together long enough, eventually I’ll be out of the woods, sitting comfortably next to a fire in a bar at the bottom of the hill and sipping a hot toddy. On the other hand, if I catch an edge or hit a tree, I’ll crash and burn, ending up at the bottom of the hill in a pile of muck. ED shifts are a lot like that.

The Tenth is scheduled for release soon, and I highly recommend it if you like paranormal thrillers with spiritual themes.

Speaking of paranormal thrillers, Christopher DeFazio’s recently published A History in Blood is an exquisitely original take on the vampire theme. Here’s an excerpt:

I admit, this mini-massacre was a bit of an overreaction, and leaving three dead bodies around in a city teeming with vampires wasn’t kosher, but since I was a visiting dignitary, it would be okay. For the last twenty years and longer, I’d been repressed or depressed. Now I was coming out of it—at least, I hoped so. I mean, all those self-help gurus on TV claim that keeping your feelings locked up inside is very bad. Looking at the three corpses strewn about me, I’d have to say I had most definitely let my feelings out. I think Dr. Phil, and maybe even Oprah herself, would have to approve. I smiled, basking in their presumed support.

I had one more stop to make, with only an hour left before my party. I headed south at a brisk pace toward the Mississippi River.

~~~

Café du Monde, nestled close to the Mississippi and right across from Jackson Square, is one of my favorite cafés. It’s a two-trick pony, serving only coffee with chicory and their world-famous beignets. The beignets are simply square pieces of fried dough that are liberally doused with powdered sugar.

Instead of using a paragraph or more to drag the reader along the route to Café du Monde, Christopher used his transporter and thus kept the story moving at a good pace and the reader firmly engaged.

I think you get the point. All three of the novels I’ve mentioned here are great examples of how to avoid clogging up your story with unnecessary details. Look for other examples as you read novels by your favorite authors.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been working on my own version of the Star Trek transporter. Mine will beam me directly from my office to the nearest Dairy Queen, and it’s almost ready for its first human trials. Any volunteers? If it works, bring me back an Oreo Blizzard…

Of course, it takes more than a transporter to keep your story moving along at a fast clip. Tune in next week for Part 2 on pace.