Archive for March, 2023


Not There Yet

It seems I was perhaps a bit overly optimistic when I thought I’d finish this book this week. It’s easy to forget that more detailed, action-oriented scenes are a lot slower to write. I also had the issue that while I know what will happen, I’m not entirely clear on how it will happen, so there’s a lot of brainstorming before I can write each scene as I try to picture it and think of what, exactly will happen to bring about the plot points I already know about.

It’s funny how my mental images of these scenes have changed along the way. The scene I wrote yesterday ended up happening in an entirely different way than I originally planned, in a different place, with different people involved.

I’m also in the phase of “headlight writing,” where I can only see the scene immediately ahead of me, and I need to write it before I get a clear mental image of the next scene.

As a result, it may take me all week next week to write the rest of the book I thought I’d finish this week. It’s already longer than any other first draft I think I’ve ever written. It’s epic-style fantasy, so it can be a bit longer, but there may also be some cutting.

I like the way it’s shaping up, though. The things I’m coming up with now are definite improvements on my initial ideas, so it’s worth taking the time to think through it. This is normally when I get impatient and rush ahead, then have to drastically rewrite, so it’s good that I’m taking my time to try to get it right.

I do feel bad because I’m doing mean things to my hero now. He’ll end up better for it, in the long run, but he has to go through some stuff first.

I definitely have “book brain.” I was mentally planning the scene I needed to write this morning as I was falling asleep last night. Then in the middle of the night I woke in a panic because I’d forgotten to take into consideration the hero’s nephew Jonathan in my plans for the scene, and that was going to throw off all my plans. When I woke for real in the morning and thought about it, I remembered that there is no nephew Jonathan. The hero doesn’t have a nephew. The name “Jonathan” wouldn’t fit into this world. It’s important to the story that the hero is alone in this scene, facing the bad guys by himself. I suspect my brain was playing with something I did forget. I’d realized earlier in the evening that I had forgotten to take a certain element of how the magic works into consideration in my initial plans for the scene, and that’s why I was thinking about it as I fell asleep. I was figuring out how to work around it. I’d already had the “I forgot to consider this!” panic, and I guess it got incorporated into a dream. I have no idea where the nephew Jonathan came from, but now I think I absolutely have to have a character in some book have a nephew named Jonathan who’s present in a scene but not noticed by anyone.

And now back to not writing about Jonathan.

movies, TV, writing

Redemption Arcs

In the book I’m currently working on, for the first time in my career I have scenes written from the perspective of one of the villains. He’s a henchman, not the big bad, and he’s the one sent out as the errand boy for the offstage villain. I haven’t decided yet if this guy is going to get a redemption arc, if maybe he’ll end up turning against the villain and joining the good guys, but pondering that has had me thinking about redemption arcs. I like them in theory. I belong to a religious tradition that’s all about redemption and believes that no one is beyond salvation, but I’m also picky about fictional redemption. I love the moment when a villain flips and joins the good guys, but I want to really feel the redemption, and I don’t want someone who’s done true evil to get off lightly.

A few years ago in a TV discussion forum, I jokingly came up with the redemption equation:

bad deeds=good deeds+remorse+suffering

The idea is that both sides of the equation have to balance for the redemption arc to be satisfying. If the good deeds, the remorse the character feels for the bad deeds, and the suffering don’t seem equal to the bad deeds the character has done, it doesn’t work. By suffering, I mean the consequences for the bad deeds, like prison time or other people not liking them; karmic payback; or mitigating circumstances (like a street kid taken in by the leader of a criminal gang). It doesn’t count if it’s suffering the characters bring on themselves. If you murder your parents, you don’t get suffering points for being an orphan, for instance. The worse the bad deeds are, the more the other things have to make up for it. It does get to the point where the bad deeds are so bad that you can’t imagine making up for it in a way that would allow an audience to accept a redemption. That doesn’t mean the character can’t ever be redeemed, but it may require the character to die for redemption to work. You can’t imagine that character just going on and hanging out with the other good guys.

Not that people haven’t written that. One of my biggest gripes with the TV series Once Upon a Time was the fact that the big bad from season one, someone who was shown to have casually murdered innocents because she was having a bad day and who cursed an entire civilization, was crowned Queen of the Universe by her former victims in the series finale, after she’d spent most of the series being friends with her former victims — and in spite of her never apologizing or acknowledging the harm she’d done. She just stopped being evil, with no explanation for why she stopped, and she never actually changed her attitude.

And I think that’s key to the redemption arc. There has to be a reason the villain stops villaining, and usually it’s the “are we the baddies?” moment, when the villain realizes that they’ve been wrong. If they don’t realize that killing and torturing people is bad or that they were on the wrong side and their reasons for doing evil weren’t valid, why would they change?

This is my problem with the “redemption” of Darth Vader (you knew this would get around to Star Wars, didn’t you?). I don’t know that we ever really got the moment of him realizing he was in the wrong. His redemption involved him choosing his son over the guy he was already planning to betray. That’s still a somewhat selfish move. He couldn’t stir himself to save entire planets, but when it was his son in danger, then he acted. Now, maybe I could be generous and say that hearing Luke refuse to kill him because he’s a Jedi like his father gave him his, “Whoa, I’ve been doing it wrong,” moment, but it’s still not super satisfying to me. It only really works because he immediately dies. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d lived and had become a good guy, hanging out with his kids. I’m not even that keen on the fact that he got to be a Force ghost. I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of Force heaven, but a last-minute change of heart doesn’t seem like it should allow him to hang around as a Force ghost, and I was especially irked when they re-edited it to be his younger self, when they didn’t also change Obi-Wan (and would Luke even have known who that random young guy who looked nothing like the man under the mask was?).

Image of dying, maskless Darth Vader.
Text: I chose you over the guy I was planning to betray. You were right, there is good in me!

In the Star Wars world, they did a bit better with the redemption of Kylo Ren. It happened before the very end. He had a chance to really think about what he’d done, and he made an active choice to go help Rey — that wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. And, again, he died, giving up his life for someone else’s. He didn’t get to hang around with the good guys and live happily ever after.

As bad as Once Upon a Time was with that one character, they also managed to do it right. Their version of Captain Hook had some good reasons for being the way he was (explanations, not excuses). He had been wronged. He just went over the top in doing something about it. He had a big realization that he’d wasted his life in revenge and that people didn’t like him because he’d done horrible things. He even later counseled other villains about this and helped turn people away from becoming villains by sharing his advice. When he ran into former victims, he tried to atone and set things right with them. He got hit by a lot of karma on his way to redemption. It seemed like every time he did something bad, he’d get hit by a car, kidnapped, etc. And his suffering didn’t end when he turned good. He did some pretty big heroic acts as a good guy, so he had the good deeds to balance the bad. They did another good redemption arc on the Wonderland spinoff, with a character who was a villain for the first half of the series having a huge turnaround, realizing how badly she’d screwed up. She had to face some of her victims and learn how she affected them, and she had to work to earn the trust of the people she’d hurt, even after she turned good.

I do think it works better for the henchmen to be redeemed, the ones who were following orders or who’d been taught evil. It’s less believable when the big bad, the one who came up with and led the evil schemes, changes sides. Though it might make for a fun story if the big bad did change sides but all the henchmen were still on board with the previous goals and ended up fighting against the former big bad.

I think there’s room for my guy to be redeemed. He hasn’t done any large-scale evil. He’s the kind of weasel who stirs other people up to do his dirty work rather than doing it for himself. He’s suffered some, and he comes from a background that somewhat explains why he’s the way he is. He just made some poor choices in response to those circumstances. He’s enough of a jerk that I can’t imagine him joining the found family of team good guys, but he might realize the big bad has been using him and switch sides in the final showdown. We’ll see.


The Final Push

I’m so close to the end of this book. I could reach my target word count in a day’s work, but I won’t be at the end of the story then. This may be a somewhat longer book, but since it’s fantasy I figure that’s to be expected.

Normally when I’m at this point, I find myself impatiently rushing to the end because I’m so eager to get the book done, but I’m strangely reluctant to finish this one. I don’t really want it to be over with. I’m enjoying spending time with these characters. It’s like when you’re reading a book you don’t want to end, and you slow down to savor each page.

I suspect some of my current slowdown has to do with where I am in the book. I’m in the slight lull where they regroup before the final push, and I’m enjoying the characters having a moment to catch their breath and interact. The next thing I have to do involves shoving them out of a safe place and making them do difficult things, and I’m a little reluctant to do that, even as I’m also eager to see this part of the story play out.

No matter how much I drag my feet, I should finish this book next week. That means I’ll be in what I call Book Brain mode, when I don’t really want to think about anything else while I immerse myself in the book. I picked up some convenience food at the grocery store so I’ll have meals I can just reheat, and I might cook a few things this weekend so I’ll have leftovers. I took care of the serious errands this week, so I shouldn’t have to go anywhere until late in the week.

And then when I finish this draft I have some admin tasks to take care of, but then I’m going to give myself a little time off to relax and think. I need to start figuring out the next thing to write. I got a new idea I want to play with. It’s a long way from being ready to write, but I can start thinking about it.

movies, writing

Ending With a Bang

I’m getting close to the ending of the first draft of the book I’m working on, and that has me thinking about endings. There’s a frequently repeated bit of writing advice about how the first few pages sell this book and the last few pages sell the next book. You want readers to get to the end of the book and want to immediately read the next one. But what, aside from a huge cliffhanger, has that effect? As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with leaving a reader feeling something.

I discovered one trick for this a number of years ago when I was reading books to judge for a romance contest. I ended up with a book by a top-selling author, and I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t impressed. The book was doing nothing for me, but then I got to the end and read the resolution with a tear in my eye, and I realized she got me, in spite of my misgivings. The next year, I got another book by that author in my selection of books to judge. I read that book on a plane. Near the end of the book, something bad happened to a kid, and it was a real tearjerker moment. I just had the final scene or two of the book to read when the plane got to the gate and I had to put the book down to get off the plane. Then I had to get out of the airport, take the train downtown, get to the office of the friend I was visiting, get shown around her office, then go to a nearby bookstore cafe to hang out until she got off work before I was able to pick up the book again and read the ending. And that ending left me cold. That’s when I realized what she did. She’d have some really emotional thing that didn’t even have anything to do with the plot happen just before the ending so that you read the resolution of the romance and ended the book with a tear in your eye, and that gave you the impression that the book had really touched you. It was so quick from the tearjerking moment to the end that I may be the only reader who put the book down at exactly that point, since I had to. If you separated the ending from the previous scene, there was nothing special about it. She’d done a similar thing in the previous book, only it was an old person with a health crisis.

In my recent Star Wars viewing project, I was also looking at the endings because I recall always leaving the theater after one of those movies excited and wanting to see it again, even when the movie itself wasn’t actually that great. I remember feeling that way about The Phantom Menace, and I can barely sit through that movie. I’ve noticed that there’s a sequence in the last part of almost all of those films that I think has a lot to do with the way people react to them (the rest is due to John Williams because the music really helps). The last quarter or so of these movies builds to a climax with intense tension and high stakes, resulting in a cathartic moment that releases the tension (usually, it involves reaching safety in some way). After that, there’s celebration and connection, usually with hugging. And then there’s something to create a lingering emotional impression that has the audience feeling something as they leave the theater (again, with some help from John Williams).

The throne room scene at the ending of Star Wars, with the characters lined up on the temple steps and Han and Luke wearing medals
Yay! We won! And we’re heroes, with the medals to prove it.

Take the first movie: We have the space battle with the ticking clock — will they destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebel base? — with the space station blowing up being about as spectacular a catharsis as you get. Then they return to the base, and there’s lots of hugging. Our final emotional impression is one of triumph with the medal ceremony. You get a similar sequence in Return of the Jedi and the sequel trilogy. Battle, something blows up, hugging, then a big emotional hit. The Empire Strikes Back works a little differently, since there’s no clear victory. Our cathartic moment is the ship going to lightspeed, which means they’ve escaped and will be safe, but we get the bonding and hugging before that, when the Falcon rescues Luke. The prequels are all a downward slide. We get the regular sequence in The Phantom Menace, with that final celebration mirroring the first movie, right down to ending with everyone lined up on the stairs. The lingering emotional impressions are mostly nostalgic, since we’re seeing things happen that we’ve heard about or known must have happened, like Obi-Wan taking on Anakin to train or the start of the Clone Wars. Revenge of the Sith goes for full nostalgia, with a repeat of the twin sunset moment from the first movie, but with baby Luke and his aunt and uncle.

I’ve been looking at how this works in other movies and books. It’s less obvious in books, since they don’t have visuals or John Williams, but I have spotted it in some books. In The Mummy, we had the frantic escape, the “whew, we’re safe” moment, and the bonding, since that’s where the romance was resolved, though I don’t think the lingering emotional impression was as strong.

Oddly, the one of the Indiana Jones movies that does this the best was the most horrible. I rewatched Temple of Doom last weekend, and I kept pondering turning it off because it was so unpleasant, but then I found myself weirdly happy at the end and realized they’d done this sequence. We had the big action sequence, ending with the defeat of the villain (one of the few times Indy has something to do with that) and the cavalry showing up. Then they return to the village with the captured children and there’s lots of hugging as all the families are reunited. Our final impression is of Indy and Willie kissing, with Short Round on the baby elephant in the background, and everyone is happy. Doing a satisfying ending can salvage even an unpleasant movie.

I need to look back at my favorite books, the ones that have me wanting to either re-read them or read the next one right away, and see what the lingering emotional impression is. And then see if I can figure out how to use this. What do I want readers to feel when they close each book?

Books, fantasy

Another Fantasy Road Trip

I’ve been talking about that fantasy journey/road trip story with a bit of romance that I’m constantly looking for, and I’ve found a new one!

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher is just the thing. It reads like a fairy tale retelling, but it’s an original story (at least, I don’t recognize any particular fairy tales). A princess realizes that her older sister who was married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom in order to create an alliance and prevent a war is being abused by her husband, and since his family is under magical protection, it will take magic to do anything about him. So, she sets out to save her sister, doing the usual impossible tasks to get supernatural help, and then she and an unlikely team, including a witch, a disgraced swordsman, a demon-possessed chicken, an enchanted dog made of bones, and a ditzy godmother, set out on a journey to the neighboring kingdom to see what they can do about that evil prince.

We have the journey, the personal growth of the main character, the subtly developing romance, magic, adventure, and lots of good snark and humor. It does get a little macabre and doesn’t shy away from the horror of what’s happening with the sister, but it’s ultimately an uplifting story. It’s also short. I read it in a couple of sittings and was sad when it was over.

For another book recommendation, I also recently read Babel by R.F. Kuang. I think fans of my Rebels series might like this because it’s along similar lines, an alternate history about the British Empire using magic to maintain power and about the student secret organization rebelling against the empire. The story is set early in the Victorian era in Oxford, where foreign-born students have been recruited to the program that uses translation and language for magic. Magic is done using words from different languages that have similar but not exactly the same meaning, which means they need people who have native fluency in both languages. At first, these students are thrilled to be a part of Oxford life, but then they start to realize what’s really going on and how this magic is being used and have to figure out what to do about it.

This is a book that creeps under your skin, where you start seeing the story as one way, and then have your perspective shifted. There’s the idyllic student life and then the growing awareness of the real situation. I found the book utterly engrossing and thought-provoking. It’s written a lot like a history book, complete with footnotes.

A lot of my reading recently has been later books in series I’ve already discussed or else books I don’t really care to discuss, and then I suddenly had two good ones back to back.


Women of Action

After I finished my Star Wars marathon, I decided Indiana Jones would be a good next step, so last Friday I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then I guess I was in the mood for more adventure set in Egypt, so I watched The Mummy, the late 90s version with (Oscar winner!) Brendan Fraser. And I realized that this whole thing has given an interesting perspective on the role of women in action movies over about four decades.

I still remember vividly my reaction to Princess Leia when I first saw the original Star Wars as a kid. Our first impression was very princess-like. She wore flowing white robes and had that soft cowl hood around her head, making her look angelic. And then she whipped out a blaster and shot stormtroopers. That blew my nine-year-old mind. After that, she sassed Darth Vader, who intimidated everyone else. I’d never seen a woman get to be like that in a movie before. But in my latest viewing, I noticed that once the guys are on the scene, she practically gets demoted. She gets them out of the detention area and she gets a few snappy lines, but she mostly functions as the person to get rescued and helped by the big, strong men. It had never occurred to me before how Han just assumes Luke is the one to put on the gun when they’re escaping from the Death Star. It’s like he doesn’t even consider Leia could be useful, even though this is only Luke’s second time in a spaceship (the first time was on the trip to the Death Star). Luke had said he was a pretty good pilot, so wouldn’t it have made more sense to have him helping Chewie while Leia shoots the gun? They’d seen her handle a blaster. And it’s even odder to watch now that we know more about Leia. She totally could have handled that gun. After her strong start, she spends the final battle watching anxiously, and then in the second movie she’s essentially a love interest.

She doesn’t really get to do much interesting stuff until the third movie, when she’s part of the rescue operation and then gets to do some fighting (with the infamous gold bikini in between).

Marion from Raiders comes during those movies. I remember reading an article the summer that movie came out about how it was the summer of strong women in movies. Marion could out-drink men and punched Indy when she saw him, and she took out some bad guys with a frying pan in a fight. They also referred to the Bond girl in that summer’s Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, who was a scientist and fired a mean crossbow, and the girl in Dragonslayer, who posed as a boy. But Marion follows a similar trajectory to Leia, with a strong tough-girl start but then getting turned into the person who has to be rescued (and who keeps getting put in ridiculous costumes). Whenever she does something to help out, it backfires, like when she hides in the basket that makes it easier to capture her or she gets in the gun turret of the plane to shoot but then gets stuck there and has to be saved.

The Mummy (1999) movie poster, with the guy in the foreground and the woman behind him.
The guy may be in the foreground, but the woman is actually the protagonist of this movie. He’s just along for the ride while she drives the action.

Then we get to The Mummy, nearly 20 years later. They basically split the character of Indiana Jones into two people, with Evie as the brainy archaeologist side and Rick as the action hero side. She drives a lot of the action with her choices (some of them bad). I would say that she’s actually the protagonist of the movie, rather than being a reward or a sidekick. She’s the one with the story goal who makes the choices at each turning point that drag them deeper into the story. She’s the one with the knowledge that gets them out of trouble sometimes—and often gets them into trouble. So this is all a huge improvement over the way women tend to be depicted in action movies. And yet she’s also the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued frequently, and a lot of this happens when she’s wearing either a sexy outfit or a sexy nightgown. I do like the way the romantic relationship in the movie is treated as a partnership and her brains are shown to be an equal asset to his brawn. Not every “strong female character” has to be quick with her fists or good with a gun. Evie is just about unflappable, has a lot of knowledge, and thinks well on her feet. I just wish she didn’t need rescuing so often.

The Star Wars prequels came out around this time, and I’m not sure Lucas knew what to do with Padme as a character. There had to be a girl, since this is the story of how Luke and Leia came to be. Padme has a position of power and is shown to be brave and smart, but most of the time, she exists as a beautiful lamp. She doesn’t really do much of anything that’s all that important to any of the stories other than give birth and motivate Anakin. She doesn’t even really make a lot of sense. Anakin has opinions and actions that go against everything she supposedly passionately believes in, and this doesn’t seem to change her view of him.

But I think we’ve come a long way by the time we get to the more recent Star Wars movies and TV shows. We get a heroine in Rey who doesn’t need to be rescued. She’s not a “Rambo in drag” type. She can be gentle and caring. One of her Force strengths is in healing. But she’ll fight if she has to. She makes choices and sometimes screws up. We also get to see an older Leia as a true leader who’s capable of making difficult decisions for the greater good. Then there’s Rogue One’s Jyn. I love how in the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian, Mando’s team when they take on the Imperial ship is three women.

Most important to me is that it’s no longer just The Girl with all the guys. When I was a kid playing Star Wars with the neighborhood kids, when we’d run around playing lightsaber battles or pretending our bicycles were X-wings or TIE fighters the girls would fight over who got to be Leia. Some of my earliest storytelling came from making up new characters to play when I didn’t win the fight over getting to be Leia. Girls today might fight over who gets to be the main female character, but they wouldn’t have to make up new characters in order for everyone to play. There are female X-wing pilots, commanders, politicians, mechanics, rebel leaders, etc. True, there are generally still more male main characters than female main characters, even when the protagonist is female, but that’s better than in the earlier movies when there were two female characters who had speaking roles, and one of those had one to two scenes early in the movie before vanishing.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this development, and female characters come in for some harsh criticism, but that’s a subject for another post.


Rogue One and Romance

I mentioned in my previous post that the movie Rogue One shares a structure with historical romance, so now the explanation. This post will spoil the whole plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this movie is possibly the least Star-Warsy of the movies. It’s more like a war movie that has some spaceships. And maybe kind of like an old-school historical romance.

I haven’t read historical romances in ages, so this is based on the ones I read from the 70s and 80s, and it’s possible that there’s some selection bias here, in that it’s the ones I happened to read, but those old-school romances that were often dismissed as “bodice rippers” were often pretty decent adventure stories. There was generally some external plot, like war or piracy. You’d lose a lot of the story if you removed the romance, but there was still a plot outside the romance. Our hero and heroine were thrown together by some circumstance, and they had internal issues with each other. They might see past each other’s facades and resent that, or they might make each other feel uncomfortable things. Sometimes they were on opposite sides of a conflict (he’s a Norman, she’s a Saxon, etc.). In the first half of the book, there was a lot of bickering and bantering as they clashed. Then as they went through some kind of adventure ordeal, they’d realize they could trust each other and dropped their facades to fall in love. This was when the spicy stuff would kick in (though there might have been some less than consensual spicy stuff earlier because this was the 70s-80s). From that point forward, the conflict wouldn’t be between them, but was the two of them against the world, as they had to resolve that external conflict in order to be able to be together for good. I was the weirdo who read these for the war and adventure part, not the spicy stuff, and my favorite part was when they got over their conflict with each other to take on the bad guys together.

Now, Rogue One would never be classified as a Romance, given that there’s not so much as a kiss and both of them die at the end. But it does follow the same basic plot structure as those old romance novels.

They’re initially thrown together in an assignment, and neither of them is happy about it. Jyn is being coerced—if she doesn’t help the rebels get the information from the splinter rebel group, she’ll get sent back to the prison they broke her out of. Cassian has better things to do than babysit this brat. Now that we’ve seen some of his origin in the Andor series, it seems like it’s the case of people who remind us of the parts of ourselves we don’t like being the most annoying to us because he was once exactly like she is at the beginning of the movie, a rebel with no cause, just lashing out at the universe in general and taking no responsibility for anything higher or greater than himself. So, there’s lots of bickering as she gives him attitude and he doesn’t take it.

But they start to grow on each other as they go through the adventure together. They’re both good in a fight and work well as a team. He sees that she’s capable of being unselfish when she risks herself to save a child during a firefight. They start to bond as they escape together and move on to the next phase of the mission: finding her father, who’s been working for the Empire but who may have information on how to destroy the Death Star. But even as they bond, there’s a secret between them. She doesn’t know that his orders are to kill her father when they find him.

There’s another big action ordeal when they get to the Imperial base. He can’t go through with killing her father and sympathizes with her when her father is killed in an attack, anyway. She feels betrayed by his secret. But then he totally redeems himself to her when he takes her side and commits to going rogue to go steal the Death Star plans with her, along with other rebels he’s recruited. From there, it’s the two of them against the world as they work together to get the plans. Then they spend their final moments together, with him reassuring her about her father being proud of her, and they die in each other’s arms. There is a moment between them after they’ve completed their mission that seems pretty loaded, like something might have happened if the Death Star hadn’t shown up, but I don’t know if that was scripted or the actors playing with subtext.

Cassian and Jyn embrace as the Death Star shock wave approaches them at the end of Rogue One
I couldn’t find a good picture of the elevator scene, but this is our last image of these two, and it’s not entirely unromantic.

This may be why I like this movie so much. I’m totally a sucker for the “start with bickering, then take on the universe together” trope, whether or not it’s overtly romantic. It even works when it’s just friends, like all those buddy cop stories with the mismatched partners who start out hating each other and then become a great team.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this because the book I’m working on now fits into this pattern. I’m at the part where they’re starting to bond after going through something difficult together, and it’s so much fun.

movies, writing

More Star Wars Story Structure

In my last post, I talked about how the story goal was a problem for The Force Awakens, and that got me started thinking about the whole Star Wars series. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d share. I’m going to try to avoid totally giving away the endings, but I figure if you don’t know how the Star Wars movies end, then you probably don’t care.

I have absolutely no idea what the story goal for The Phantom Menace is supposed to be. Something about stopping a trade blockade? But that’s mostly offscreen for most of the movie. I think it might work best if you consider that Palpatine is the protagonist, and his goal is to be made chancellor. Everyone else is just running around being manipulated by him, thinking they’re doing one thing but it’s all part of his plan.

In Attack of the Clones, I think Obi-Wan is our protagonist, with his goal to track down who sent the bounty hunter, which leads him to learn about the clones. But still, I think Palpatine has his own plan to get emergency powers, which the rest of the movie is about, with him manipulating them into doing things that support him.

And that’s still going on in Revenge of the Sith, in which his goal is to take power and turn Anakin to the Dark Side.

I think the fact that the villain is driving the action of these movies may be part of why they’re not very satisfying. It’s not that much fun watching a master manipulator at work when the characters you’re supposed to like are being utter patsies and falling into all his traps. The tricky thing is that since these are prequels, the outcome was already decided. We know Palpatine has to win. The good guys can’t stop him. But there had to be better ways to go about structuring these stories to give the good guys more to do. My favorite part of the whole trilogy (aside from the truly epic lightsaber fight in the lava fields, which is even more impressive when you learn the actors trained hard to do most of it themselves) is the Obi-Wan plot of episode 2, where he actually has something to drive toward and has some success. Another thing that’s unsatisfying about this is that there isn’t really any room for character growth. I don’t feel like anyone truly learns anything or has real personal growth in this trilogy. As much as I like Obi-Wan in this, he’s a fairly static character. Anakin regresses. Palpatine doesn’t have a true protagonist arc, even as he’s driving the action. It’s not like he’s going through any kind of internal struggle.

As I mentioned previously, the goal in the original movie is to blow up the Death Star, with Luke as our clear protagonist.

The Empire Strikes Back is another villain-driven story. The only way I can make it work is to consider Darth Vader as the protagonist, and his story goal is to capture Luke so he can turn him to the Dark Side. The heroes don’t have the kinds of arcs that can drive a whole movie. Han and Leia just want to get their ship fixed so they can meet up with the fleet, and Luke wants to train to be a Jedi. Luke’s goal is more of a character goal than a story goal. Generally, a protagonist has to go through some kind of growth or change in order to carry out the story goal (like Luke learning to trust the Force before he can destroy the Death Star), but Vader fails here, so I guess he doesn’t go through that growth. But since it’s an evil goal, it may mean that since he didn’t pull off the evil goal, it meant he made the right choice and failed to be the villain he should have been.

In Return of the Jedi it gets pretty complicated. The big-picture goal is to blow up Death Star 2.0 while the Emperor’s on board, while the villains’ goal is to trap the Rebels and destroy the Rebel Alliance. But Luke has the secret goal to turn Darth Vader against the Emperor, while Darth Vader has the secret goal to turn Luke and gang up on the Emperor. All of these things are in opposition, and it’s zero-sum.

I was actually pretty disappointed in Return of the Jedi when it first came out, but I found myself liking it a lot more this time around, while I was less enthused about The Empire Strikes Back, which is considered by many to be the best of the films. I wonder how much of that is the dark=automatically good attitude.

I’ve already gone over the issues with The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi is a bit more focused, though it’s split into two plots that converge at the end. The Resistance wants to escape from the First Order, but there’s internal conflict because there are opposing factions within the Resistance who have different ideas for how they should go about this. Meanwhile, Rey’s side of the plot has her goal to recruit Luke to help the Resistance. Ultimately, this help is a big part of what allows the Resistance to escape. However, the protagonist isn’t all that clear. It’s Poe who learns the big lesson and undergoes a lot of change, though that doesn’t have much to do with whether they succeed or fail (he learns from the near-failure, but his learning the lesson doesn’t help them have success) and then there’s Luke realizing that he’s been wrong all along and finally taking action. I guess Rey learns not to be so afraid of the Force and to use it consciously when she lifts the rocks to allow the Resistance forces to escape through the tunnel.

In The Rise of Skywalker, the big-picture goal is to stop the First Order mega-fleet and deal with Palpatine once and for all. Rey’s our clear protagonist, as she has to face some tough truths about herself and finally open herself up to the Force in order to prevail, and she’s also helped by some groundwork she’s laid.

On the side stories, I think Han’s story goal in Solo is to free the woman he loves from what he sees as servitude, though things aren’t what he thinks. And Rogue One is about getting the information about the Death Star. That one has kind of a two-headed protagonist, with both Cassian and Jyn working together toward the same goal, in spite of having some conflict with each other. Basically, that movie is structured a lot like a romance, in spite of it not being romantic, and I think that may be a topic for another post because it’s an idea intriguing enough that I want to dig into it.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a story that’s not working, this is a good exercise to go through to spot plot problems. What is the story goal and who’s the protagonist? From there, you can figure out what the stakes and conflict are. This is also a good way to figure out what to focus on when writing a book blurb.


Story Structure and the Sequels

I’ve reached the sequel trilogy in my Star Wars rewatch, which means it’s almost over (but just as a new season of The Mandalorian is coming on, so there’s still new Star Wars). I actually like the sequel movies, mostly because I love the characters. The casting is perfect, and they all have a wonderful dynamic. I just wish that some of the storytelling around these characters had been better.

For instance, I watched The Force Awakens last weekend, and it struck me that the story in this movie is fundamentally flawed, with one giant, glaring problem: It doesn’t have a clear story goal, which means it doesn’t really have a protagonist.

A story basically boils down to a protagonist trying to achieve a story goal, with conflicts and obstacles making it difficult and some kind of stakes if they don’t succeed. The protagonist is the one who strives for and achieves (or doesn’t, if the story is more tragic) the story goal, with the struggle being difficult enough that they have to transform or resolve some personal issue in order to achieve it. Take The Lord of the Rings. The story goal is to destroy the ring. If they fail, then Sauron will take over all of Middle Earth and destroy it. Sauron and all his forces are trying to get the ring before they can destroy it, and if Sauron gets the ring, he’ll have ultimate power. While all the good guys are on board with the plan to destroy the ring, it’s Frodo who’s the protagonist. He’s the one who has to stick with it, and the experience leaves him transformed, so that he no longer really fits into his old world.

To analyze The Force Awakens, it helps to compare it to the original Star Wars, since to a large extent it was essentially a remake. Spoilers ahead for the whole plot for both movies.

In the original movie, the story goal, conflict, and stakes were laid out in the opening crawl: the rebels wanted to destroy the Death Star and the Empire wanted to stop them from getting the plans that they could use to destroy the Death Star. If the rebels failed, the Empire would be able to blow up planets (and might use that capability to destroy the rebellion). The whole movie is about the threat of the Death Star and the efforts to get the plans to the rebels so they could blow up the Death Star. While all the good guys are on Team Destroy the Death Star, Luke is our protagonist, since he’s the one who undergoes a character change in order to do so. He has to choose the Force over technology and accept his heritage as a potential Jedi. But he’s not a very strong protagonist, in the sense that he’s not really driving the action. For most of the story, he’s forced into turning points by the actions of other characters rather than truly making decisions. He doesn’t step up and take initiative until he decides to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star prison. His relationship to the story goal evolves through the course of the story. Initially, he’s just trying to get the plans to the rebels. Then he joins in the attack, wanting to help the rebels destroy the Death Star. It’s only at the last minute, after everyone else has been wiped out, that he actually takes on the goal of destroying the Death Star.

Now, The Force Awakens. Again, the opening crawl lays out the story goal and conflict. The Resistance needs to find Luke Skywalker. The First Order also wants to find him (to eliminate him). Our two forces are in opposition. The Resistance not only needs to get to Luke, but they need to stop the First Order from getting to him. Instead of needing to get Death Star plans to the rebels, they need to get the map to find Luke to the Resistance. That’s what the first half of the movie is about. Poe gives the plans to BB-8, who runs into Rey, who escapes from the planet with Finn and BB-8 and is trying to take BB-8 to the Resistance. Then she gets personally invested in the quest to find Luke when she has a disturbing experience with the Force, so she knows she needs to find him and get some training, but this also terrifies her, so she resists it and tries to run away.

And then the movie abruptly switches tracks. At almost exactly the halfway mark, we learn about Starkiller Base, which can blow up whole systems. Suddenly, the story goal veers over to being about destroying this base before it can destroy the Resistance. We get a few bits of the Luke story in Kylo Ren trying to get the map Rey saw out of her head, and I guess that’s kind of what the lightsaber fight is about (I suspect it was mostly because a Star Wars movie needs a lightsaber fight, but I think Kylo Ren was trying to keep Rey from getting away with the knowledge in her head and her latent Force powers), but the climax of the movie is about blowing up the base. Then we get back to the Luke story in an “oh yeah, that” way, with R2-D2 suddenly waking up and giving them the rest of the map, so Rey and Chewbacca can head off and find Luke.

So, which is the story goal, finding Luke or blowing up the base? The Luke story takes up most of the screen time. The base story doesn’t come up until midway through the movie, and then there are still bits of the Luke story woven in, plus the coda. There’s probably more conflict in the Luke story, since the First Order is not only trying to stop the Resistance from finding him, but they also want to find him themselves for their own reasons. Every bounty hunter, First Order sympathizer and criminal in the galaxy is on the lookout for BB-8. Rey has personal internal conflict relating to this quest. On the other hand, there’s no conflict at all in the resolution of it. R2 wakes up for Reasons. No one does anything to make that happen. Ultimately, finding Luke comes down to following a map. There’s no race against the bad guys, no one trying to get in their way. The conflict for the base plot mostly comes down to the First Order not wanting the base destroyed and sending some fighters out to intercept the Resistance attack force. All the effort to learn about the base comes in an offscreen recon mission, and then they have what Finn knows from having served on the base, so there’s not a lot of struggle.

But the stakes are all with the base story. If they don’t destroy this base, the First Order will be able to destroy anyone who opposes them and will probably wipe out the Resistance. On the Luke plot, we don’t really know why this is so urgent. As Luke himself says in the next movie, it’s not as though one old guy with a lightsaber is going to make that much of a difference. It’s mostly important because the audience knows Luke and wants to see him. I don’t think they ever articulate what will happen if they don’t find Luke. If the First Order caught up with them and they destroyed that thumb drive with the map to keep the bad guys from getting it, even if that meant the good guys couldn’t find Luke, what would the consequences be? We don’t know.

A test of the story goal is the role of the protagonist in making it happen and the effect on the protagonist. But who’s the protagonist of this story? Poe is involved in both plots. He’s the one who gets the map and sends it with BB-8 and he’s the one who blows up the base, but he doesn’t really go through any growth or change or personal struggle. Rey is the protagonist of the trilogy, but she’s not actually a driving force in either story here. She does help BB-8 and gets him to where he can return to the Resistance, and she has to change her mind about returning home instead of getting involved and about dealing with the Force when she sees for certain she has some kind of power she doesn’t understand, so she goes through some personal change related to the Luke plot. She has almost nothing to do with the base plot, aside from being present. I think this fuzziness about her role may have a lot to do with the reaction of some fans to this character (but that’s a topic for a whole other post).

It looks like in essentially remaking the original movie, what they did was divide that plot into two plots. Leia was on her way to recruit Obi-Wan when she was captured and had to send the plans with R2 (who may actually be the protagonist of the whole saga), but it’s likely her father’s real intent there wasn’t so much to bring in one old guy with a lightsaber, but rather to signal Obi-Wan that it was time to bring in Luke, since Luke would be Vader’s weakness (Leia would also work for that, but Bail was probably more open to using some kid he didn’t know as Vader bait than he would be to using his own daughter). Instead of weaving the threads together, they split the killer weapon and the old Jedi plots into separate elements that had nothing to do with each other.

I think it would have made for a stronger story if they’d ditched the killer weapon plot and fleshed out the Luke plot. What, specifically, did they need Luke for? Did they need a real Jedi to be able to deal with Snoke? Had Leia found a group of Force sensitive people who could be trained as Jedi, but needed someone to finish their training? And then build action around the search for Luke, so it takes more than following a map. They can’t follow the map because the First Order is tracking them, and they can’t lead them to Luke. They have to have a space battle to fend off the First Order. Let Rey still get captured and have to fight Kylo Ren and then escape. Maybe they do have to destroy the map to keep the First Order from getting it, so all seems lost, but then R2’s map points them in the general direction and Rey has to use the Force she’s been resisting to sense the Jedi temple.

It’s frustrating when professional screenwriters get something this basic wrong. It kind of feels like a movie made by committee by weaving together two different scripts. But at least I can boil down the problem here. I can’t figure out what The Phantom Menace is actually about or who the protagonist is supposed to be. Whatever George Lucas knew about story structure when writing the first movie, he totally forgot when it came to writing the prequels because there’s almost no structure there.


Robot Writers

One of the big topics in the writing world lately has been AI. There’s an AI program that supposedly can write as well as a human, given a prompt. And it’s already become a huge problem. Some science fiction magazines have had to close submissions because they were getting spammed with AI-written stories and couldn’t weed through all the submissions. Apparently, there are people who seem to think that selling short stories they don’t have to write is a get-rich-quick scheme. Give the AI some prompts, churn out a story in seconds, and then flood the publications with submissions, and something is sure to sell. It’s a quick and easy few hundred bucks made in minutes of work. Of course, that assumes that any of these stories sell, which they probably won’t, but there’s no loss to the submitter if they don’t, since they put no effort in. It’s the same principle as with spam e-mail. Might as well flood the world with it because it doesn’t cost anything more.

Except these AI submissions are pretty obvious and not that great, but the editors still have to go through all the submissions to find stories they might like. It’s hard to come up with a filter to screen out the spam that doesn’t discriminate against possible real authors who are just new and learning and don’t deserve a lifetime ban on submissions the way the people gaming the system do.

And, of course, there are already people “writing” novels with AI and publishing them on Amazon. A few minutes of work, then you’ve got a novel, and if it sells more than a few copies, you’ve still made a decent hourly wage. Even if most readers figure out it isn’t very good, it still increases the flood of books out there, making it harder to dig in and find the good ones.

I suspect that no matter how good AI gets at writing, AI-written fiction will never be that good because it comes down to the ideas. Just about any writer has had the experience of meeting someone who says they want to be a writer, but they don’t really want to write. What they have is a brilliant idea they want to share with a writer, have the writer write it, and they’ll split the profits. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a decent idea from these people. About 95 percent of them don’t actually have a story idea. They just think that their own lives are interesting enough to be a novel, so what they want is to write about themselves. I’m picturing all these AI-written books about boring men who’ve overcome some minor adversity.

What real writers know is that the idea is the easy part. Most of us come up with new ones every day. The trick is to figure out which of those ideas has what it takes to develop into a story and then to develop it so that it has enough substance to build a story around, and to do that, you have to write. Every time I’ve had an idea that feels totally complete, like I could just sit down and write the book, once I do start writing down everything I know about the story, I’m lucky if I get two pages. The idea is nothing without a lot of work. Feed that initial idea into a computer, and you’re not going to get any kind of decent result, especially since this is just a sophisticated auto-complete based on other people’s work. It merely guesses what word should come next based on all the input it’s received.

I think what a lot of the people using this tool want is to be published. They don’t really want to write. They just want a shortcut to the result.

Supposedly this tool does write good book descriptions, like what would go on the back of a paperback, but it can also be badly, hilariously wrong. I’ve seen one person describe it as more like having an enthusiastic intern who needs a lot of direction and supervision than like hiring a professional writer.