Spoiler warning: there are several fandom-related spoilers in this article for Fantastic Beasts, Star Trek Discovery, and others.
I’m writing this column out of frustration because I’m seeing many high-budget productions making what seems to me to be an elemental writing error. If you have a multi-million dollar budget, you can afford good writers. Even without sizeable budgets, we web series writers often beat them at this game.
First I should explain this part of my title. In the 80s Transformers cartoon, there’s an episode where Spike encounters Skyfire, a Transformer, in the Arctic Circle. Autobot/Decepticon conflict ensues (of course) and Skyfire ends up sacrificing himself to stop the plans of the bad guys. At this point, Spike utters a scream filled with heartbreaking anguish and despair: “Skyfire, noooooo!” The problem here is that Spike has known this individual for maybe an hour and a half, and had one conversation with him. The depth of the emotional reaction is difficult for the audience to grasp, much less believe.
So now “Skyfire, no!” has become my shorthand for writers trying to have a big emotional moment without having properly built up to it. To be fair, Transformers was a children’s cartoon, so sloppy writing is somewhat forgivable, but major franchises have this same problem.
Fantastic Beasts: Leta Lestrange
In Crimes of Grindelwald, we are introduced to Leta Lestrange. She has a… complicated relationship with our hero, Newt, and his brother. The audience is treated to a few flashbacks to fill this history in. In the movie’s present timeline though, she doesn’t do much, except participate in a few sequences that help move the plot along.
Near the end, she dies in what is supposed to be a tragic loss, but since we didn’t really get any opportunities to bond with this character, it just feels empty. It’s disappointing since this franchise had previously done a good job portraying the death of Dobby for example, or Fred Weasley, characters the audience had gotten to know and, more importantly, love.
Star Trek Discovery: Airiam
For the entire first season and the first eight episodes of the second, this character was virtually ignored, except for a few pointless lines such as “Shields at 80%” and “Yes, sir” For the ninth episode of the second season, they finally filled the audience in on some of her backstory… and then killed her off. It was clearly meant to be a big moment - the remaining characters are sobbing uncontrollably - but again it’s empty because we didn’t know this character at all. A dramatic series of eulogies is delivered where we’re told about her qualities, and we have to take their word for it because the audience has never seen any of this stuff onscreen.
I feel the writing on Discovery is pure garbage in general, but the above problem could easily have been solved by writing Airiam into any of the 23 episodes that proceeded this one. It was unbelievably lazy for them not to do that.
More meaningful deaths from the Star Trek universe? Tasha Yar, for one, who didn’t even last the full first season of The Next Generation. Even K’Ehleyr was better handled, and she was only in two episodes.
Web Series That Do Better
I saw this episode of Blue Collar Hustle when it premiered at Minnesota Web Fest 2018. Without spoiling it for you, it closes off with a moment that’s topical and properly poignant.
Mostly I’ve been talking about dramatic writing, but the same concept applies to comedy: if you set up a joke at the beginning and wait until the end to pay it off, it’ll have greater comedic impact. Sam and Pat Are Depressed
What Can We Do as Web Series Writers?
The basic takeaway here is a common writing mantra: earn your moments. Don’t tell the audience what to feel; set the stage and lead them there. Plant seeds early on and let them grow for a while before harvesting them. This can be accomplished even with 5-minute episodes if your writing is meaningful and relatable.
Otherwise, your work will seem rushed and empty, and you’ll hear me from the back row of your screening yelling “Skyfire, nooooo!”