The Temperature

Table of Contents

Chapter 3


  1. Taking the temperature.
  2. The City on the Edge of Forever.
  3. The temperature curve.
  4. The midpoint crisis.
  5. The beginning of the end.
  6. The conclusion.
  7. The end.



A major element of inducing a sense of reality involves writing the story to match our human hard-wiring for the peaks and valleys of a story.  I tend to describe this in terms of a story’s ‘temperature.’  In order to draw the audience into an immersion experience, a story must rise and fall according to their expectations.

The temperature of a story is the mood of the audience in response to events as they are being revealed at any given moment. Sometimes the setting, or the music, or even a seemingly inconsequential background scene will engender a mood-altering response – but this feeling does not come into any sort of sharp focus until the audience sees how the protagonist is reacting.  This is because our experience of any story is always through the eyes of the protagonist.  When the protagonist feels grimly about his or her prospects – we feel equally unsettled.  When the protagonist searches in vain for the lost sacred object, we feel the same growing sense of panic. And when our hero decides to travel to where no one has gone before, we feel as though it is our quest as well.

If one were to chart temperature versus time on a graph, where 0 is no response from the audience and 100 is where their minds are about to blow, we would see how this temperature changes as the story progresses.  And at the end of the story we would have a record of how the story has affected the audience at any given moment – a pattern of ups and downs that plot the entire mood history of the storytelling experience.

Some writers chafe at the notion that one particular temperature pattern works better than others. But I must caution you as one who has learned the hard way – there is a preferential pattern nonetheless. And if the writer attempts to alter this pattern in any significant way, the story will likely induce nothing more than a mass exodus where the audience leaves out of pure frustration.  If you want to reach the vast majority of people in a way that does not confuse them or piss them off, like it or not, the temperature at each moment must fit how people are built to process a story …whether the story is told inside a computer game, a novel, or within the confines of a science fiction television show.

Now for an example…



First broadcast in 1967, episode 28 in the original Star Trek series, entitled The City on the Edge of Forever, is perhaps the best written science fiction television episode of the 20th Century.  The story begins with the crew of the Enterprise investigating a planet that is the source of strange ripples in time that periodically convulse the ship with each passing wave. During one particularly strong ripple the helmsman (Sulu) is injured, and the ship’s doctor (McCoy) is called in, and with small injection from McCoy, Sulu is immediately revived.

All seems going well enough until another ripple strikes the ship seconds later, causing McCoy to accidentally inject himself with the entire remainder of his hypo. The doctor freaks out from the effects of the drug, fights his way off the bridge, and transports himself to the planet’s surface near the source of the time disturbance.

A landing party led by the captain (Kirk) and his first officer (Spock) transport to the surface in hot pursuit, and when they arrive they discover how the planet lies in ruins – and very old ruins indeed – perhaps as old as 10,000 centuries by Spock’s estimate.  While the rest of the landing party searches for McCoy, Spock and Kirk take a moment to inspect the ancient relics, particularly an intriguing annulus – the singular source of the time ripples.

Since nearly the beginning of time itself this annulus has awaited an opportunity to disclose its name and purpose: “I am the Guardian of Forever,” it announces, part living being and part machine – a time portal of sorts, able to transport anyone to any time and place in history by simply passing through the opening at the proper instant.

While the Guardian shows the Earth’s past, McCoy is discovered and briefly subdued until.  But the crazed doctor awakens under the stimulation of the drug, breaks past the startled landing party, and leaps into the opening in time beyond the wild diving tackle of Kirk.  He missed him!  HE MISSED HIM!!

Now, it will take all of their scientific know-how to unravel the situation.  And yet, there is no Enterprise orbiting above.  In fact, according to the Guardian, all that ever was – the ship, the Federation of Planets, and human space travel is totally gone. McCoy has somehow altered the past in a big way.  The landing party is totally alone.

In one of the most daring acts of human (or vulcan) capacity Kirk decides that he and Spock will time travel to track McCoy down, prevent him from altering history, and bring everyone back alive, if possible.  Aided only by Spock’s tricorder instrument to guide their proper point of entry, they will leave at the closest possible moment while the Guardian replays human history.  Before they leave, Kirk issues a final order to those left behind that each remaining member of the landing party must themselves do the same should he and Spock fail to return within a reasonable length of time – until McCoy is either found and stopped, or until the entire party becomes irreversibly trapped in the past.

They have no past or future on this planet.  There is no other choice.



By sampling the temperature as each event unfolds we begin to see the intensity curve of the story.  Initially, out of pure anticipation, the audience, or reader, or game-player begins with a temperature of roughly 10 on the scale of 0 to 100.  During the prologue, the introduction of the premise, and the splashy entrance of the main characters, the story should rise to around 50 just when central dilemma or quest is revealed.

The temperature must be high enough to garner attention and audience interest but not so hot that there is no room for a higher temperature peak later.  If the temperate is not high enough, then the audience will begin to doubt whether the rest of story has any punch. In Episode 28, this is the point when Kirk and Spock make their jump into the past.

Having reached this early peak, the story will now cool a bot while the protagonist adjusts to the new situation and begins to learn more about what lies ahead. As the main characters see more of their predicament, and while the clues that are needed for the conclusion are revealed, the temperature will meander down to nearly 0 just when the story approaches the midpoint.

Back on Earth, Kirk and Spock must find clothes to match their 1930’s New York City surroundings.  Then they need money so Spock can begin to build a memory circuit to help decipher his tricorder readings (recorded before and after McCoy changed the flow of time). They need a place to live.  And all along they have to figure out if McCoy is nearby.

They catch a break when their new employer, a soup mission worker named Edith Keeler, sets them up with a “flop” for two dollars a week and gives Kirk a handy-man job at 15 cents an hour – hardly enough for food much less the five pounds of platinum Spock needs for his electronics project.

Weeks pass.  Progress on Spock’s tricorder memory is painfully tedious.  McCoy may arrive at any moment. And as the days pass Kirk is growing fond of Edith.

At the midpoint of the story, the scope and difficulty of the quest have become clear to the protagonist.  Yet, little concrete progress has taken place, nor has the protagonist faced any huge crisis yet – but all of this is about to change.



In accordance with our human storytelling hard wiring, at the midpoint of a story, the protagonist must encounter a crisis that cannot be ignored.  At this point, as explicitly as possible, the protagonist must confront this central question that will drive the story to its conclusion: ARE YOU WILLING TO FACE YOUR GREATEST FEAR?

Luke Skywalker learns from Yoda that he must face Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back), Jim Lovell must face the truth of how he’s lost the moon landing and how he and his crew may never return to the Earth alive unless they completely all hope of Moon landing and work to find a way home (Apollo 13), and in Episode 28, Kirk must choose between a future for Edith Keeler and a future for all of humanity.

The audience will only believe that a protagonist is absolutely serious and fully committed to the goal once they understand how much this will cost the protagonist.  It cannot be an easy choice.  It must come with a steep price.

From his first experiments Spock learns that Edith is killed in a traffic accident, then minutes later both he and Kirk see the alternate version where she lives at least six years longer. But Spock’s electronics burn out before they can learn the correct path of history – whether Edith must live or die.

Clearly, Edith is the focal point in time, and whatever McCoy does or does not do with respect to Edith is the key to saving the future as they know it.  But what should Kirk do if they can find McCoy?  Perhaps McCoy causes Edith’s death, and Kirk need to protect her.  Or perhaps McCoy saves Edith, and for the sake of the proper flow of events Edith must die.

Kirk is furious.  He is falling in love with Edith.  The memory circuit must be made to work!  It is unbearable not to know which version of history is correct – even if the answer winds up impaling him on the horns of a tragic dilemma.  For the sake of humanity, and his ship and crew, Kirk is entirely committed to making the right choice.  Yet, Kirk is also tormented by the clear logic of the situation where the ‘right choice’ may require him to facilitate the death of Edith – the women he loves.

A midpoint crisis needs to be a realistic crisis – not just a logical decision based on the facts of the situation.  Emotional torment – particularly in the form of a genuine and personal risk to the protagonist – tends to produce the most believable midpoint commitments.  When the midpoint choice is made at the risk of a deeply personal cost, the authenticity of the protagonist’s pained commitment drives the audience to root whole-heartedly for success – and not just success in reaching the stated goal (in Episode 28 – saving the future), but also somehow facing and enduring the enormous emotional consequences of the choice (in Episode 28 – very likely, losing Edith).

In desperation to learn the answer to Edith’s true fate, Spock cracks a safe containing jeweler’s tool kit, and when Edith discovers how Kirk and Spock have ‘borrowed’ these for the night she threatens to throw them back onto the street.  But then, she sees how Kirk totally trusts Spock’s honesty, and something about her unique capacity for human understanding allows her to accept Spock’s promise to return the tools by morning.

At the peak of the midpoint crisis the protagonist must make a decision to resolve the conflict – no matter the cost.  This decision must also lead to a direct engagement with the antagonist – whatever its form – and during the midpoint commitment, the hero takes the first step toward the ultimate confrontation.  Like Luke, he must leave his training sessions to face Vader.  Like Jim Lovell, he must instruct his crew to shut down critical systems and abort the mission to the Moon.  Like Kirk, he instructs Spock to build a proper memory circuit and break into a safe and borrow expensive tools.  When the moment for action arrives – and it will arrive in any well-told story – there can be only one acceptable choice.

Apollo 13 Flight Director, Gene Kranz, said it best – just when the entire enormity of the crisis dawned on everyone – “gentlemen, failure is not an option!”

A midpoint commitment has never been more clearly encapsulated than that!

When an audience is convinced that the protagonist is committed to success at any price, the temperature of the story can begin to rise again because the story has reached the beginning of the end.

There is no turning back.



Starting with the midpoint crisis until about 7/8ths of the way through the story, the protagonist will attempt to resolve the conflict in ways that come up short.  With each new attempt, the hero will get closer to the goal, learning something useful and gaining new advantages, but not enough to succeed.  During these episodic engagements, the temperature peaks – starting at about 50 and peaking higher with each new attempt until reaching about 70 during the final failed attempt.

None of these attempts fully resolve the problem reach the committed goal, but there is a sense that progress is underway.  These early attempts are gaining ground and making substantial inroads – but they do not succeed in defeating the antagonist in a fitting way.

While the protagonist regroups for each new attempt, the audience absorbs each new failure – and the temperature falls.  During each subsequent attempt, the protagonist will be a bit more successful, and because of this, the failure is greater and the temperature will fall more sharply – from 50 to 30, from 60 to 20, from 70 to 10.

In this way, for a time the action increasingly swings up and down from ever higher rising peaks to ever lower valley depths – until, finally, at the 7/8th point of the story, the last of these failed engagements leaves the protagonist nearly beaten and devoid of options.

He’s finished. Doomed. There is no hope in sight.

The temperature now crashes back to zero.

In episode 28, Spock finally gets his memory circuit to work again and now the truth of Edith’s fate is revealed.  Edith is a genuinely remarkable woman.  In the same way that she is accepting of Spock’s borrowed tools, she has an inmate ability to convince powerful people of her own generation to undertake peaceful resolutions to geopolitical conflicts.  It is a great gift, yet it has arrived at the wrong time in history.  In the near future, according to one possible path for her life, she will build a highly effective peace movement at the beginning of World War II – thereby delaying American involvement in the war – allowing time for Nazi Germany to build their atomic bomb.  Germany wins the war and conquers the world!

But Spock’s alternate tricorder reading shows a second possibility.  In a few days hence Edith will be killed in a pedestrian accident.  Evidently, McCoy prevents this.  Kirk is crushed and left struggling beyond words from the emotional pain, and briefly we wonder if he will have what it takes to act when the time comes to act.

Even a hero like Kirk has his innate weaknesses, and at first he sounds as though he does not want to believe the truth.  Yet, Spock’s unassailable logic is as simple as it is undeniable—to save his ship and crew, and to restore the future to the way it was before past was altered, Kirk must let Edith Keeler die.  He loves this woman.  How can he stand by and actively intervene to ensure that she dies as foreordained by the flow of history?

Each passing opportunity for an accident now fills Kirk with rising torment.  Even he, himself, could now inadvertently save her.  But instead – no matter what – he must allow her to die when the time arrives.

Time is a cruel master!  Time itself is the enemy!!

If Edith does not die, then millions of people will perish in ways that they did not perish, and all that ever should have happened will be lost in time forever.



After a series of increasing intense setbacks, the protagonist is beaten down and hopeless, and after 7/8ths of the story, the temperature should be sitting at zero.

In fact, the human storytelling hard-wiring has been waiting for this to happen.  A temperature of zero late in the story after a series of defeats signals the beginning of the conclusion.  This ‘lull before the storm’ tells us that the next engagement will be the last, that the story will now bring the protagonist and antagonist fully together, face to face. At the conclusion of the final scene, the antagonist will be defeated in the most fitting way possible, while the events of the climactic scene offers the clearest evidence in support of our premise.

Final scene has a special beginning.  Just when all hope hits rock bottom, some last tidbit of information, or overlooked resource, or scrap of insignificant information comes to light.  It was sitting in plain view all along – long ago revealed during the prologue and drifting through the story from time to time as a subtle reminder.  Until the climactic scene, no one understood its significance.  The ‘tidbit’ could be a tiny hidden weakness in the antagonist, or maybe a “red button” – once a joke that is suddenly the only way through a blocked highway tunnel.  No matter what this slight last-minute advantage may be, the meaning is simple:  The protagonist has one last hope – one last chance for victory.  There will be no more chances after this.  It’s all or nothing, hell or high water, victory or defeat.

Starting with the sudden recognition of the ‘tidbit’ – and its critical value – the temperature takes off and continues climbs as high as it can go all the way up to 100 without any more dips along the way until the climactic scene is over.  The final scene sequence has no lulls, no pauses, nothing to prevent a clean and direct engagement between the protagonist and the antagonist – both bringing the A-game, both with everything to gain and everything to lose.  Until the antagonist is defeated in a fitting way and the quest of the protagonist has been safely secured, the temperature must not level out for a second.  The die is cast. The final battle is engaged.  There is no turning back.  And just when the penultimate peak is reached, everything that matters stands in the balance, teetering between success and failure, death and victory, salvation and doom.  There will be only one winner, and the outcome is fully in doubt.

Exactly what happens during the climatic sequence does not matter nearly as much as how the tension and excitement keeps growing.  It can be a physical battle, or courtroom scene where the case suddenly turns on a critical piece of evidence, or where a mountain climber sees an impending storm and must rescue the others before it hits.  In some way this is now the mad dash to the end where no one pulls any punches.  Luke begins a battle to the death against Vader. The Apollo 13 command module begins to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on failing batteries. Kirk confronts his moment of truth.

The conclusion of Episode 28 begins when McCoy finally shows up.  He is delusional at first, but gradually recovers under the care of Edith who leads him away from a coffee line just seconds before Spock arrives in same the kitchen himself.

Several days pass while McCoy fully recovers until, walking with Edith to a Clark Gable movie, Kirk hears about her new friend, Doctor McCoy.  Kirk knows what he must do.  He must find McCoy! NOW!!  He tells Edith to stay put while he runs across the street to where finds Spock and McCoy in the doorway.

In those same moments she waves from across the street completely absorbed by Kirk’s sudden transformation and the strange sight of McCoy rejoicing at finding a familiar face.  Then, despite Kirk’s warnings, Edith begins to cross the street toward the trio of Federation officers oblivious to the danger.

McCoy, Kirk and Spock all see her walking into the path of traffic, but before McCoy can even take one full step Kirk does not miss his chance.  Instead letting McCoy save her, Kirk clamps onto the doctor as though he were holding back time itself.  And in plain view of the time travelers, Edith is struck and killed by a passing delivery van.  Time has set right again, and while the 100-degree temperature momentarily lingers, the meaning sinks into the eyes of our main characters.

“I could have saved her!! – DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU JUST DID!!!” Screams McCoy.

Kirk turns against a wall clenching his fist in agony.

“He knows, doctor.” Spock says to the night air. “He knows all too well.”


  1. THE END

Upon their success, as promised, the Guardian immediately returns Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to the future.  All is now as it should have been.  The Enterprise is in orbit again. The Federation of Planets exists as always.  From the perspective of those waiting their return, the three time travelers were only gone for just a few moments.

When the story is over – Stop.

Let the temperature drop like a rock, thus leaving the audience with an internal afterglow.  Add nothing new that might distract from this feeling.

The story of Edith Keeler ends faster than any other Star Trek episode…

When the Guardian offers Kirk yet another opportunity to travel through time… using the “h” word for the very first time in American television, Kirk ignores the Guardian altogether and simply says to his landing party, “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Next Time: Designing the Story

Table of Contents

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