Posts Tagged ‘star wars’

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.


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.


The Star Wars Dystopia

I’m getting close to wrapping up my epic Star Wars rewatch, and something that’s struck me is how much of a dystopia that universe is. It’s not just during the reign of the evil Empire. The whole time, it’s a pretty unpleasant place.

Even during the Republic, this was a place where people were owned as slaves, and this was apparently perfectly legal. The good guys who were the guardians of truth, justice, and peace took small children away from their families to train them as warriors and allowed them no contact with their families. “Bounty hunter” seems to have been a major career field. There were crime syndicates running drugs and slaves.

Some of that may have been in the more marginal areas that were under less control, but the capital planet is basically an urban hell, an entire world covered in a massive, multi-level city, so the only people who get daylight live on the upper levels and the actual surface of the world is a dark underworld. This is the “good” planet.

I wonder how intentional some of this was when it was first envisioned. I’m sure some of it comes down to storytelling, since you don’t get good stories in happy, nice places with no conflict. The whole urban planet thing seems to have been an effort to make something look really science fictiony and take advantage of special effects, but I wonder if Lucas thought this was a nice place or if he was saying something with it. This is, after all, the guy who established his own headquarters at a ranch in the country rather than in a major city.

The people creating Star Wars stuff now seem to be leaning into the dystopian elements, acknowledging where the problems were. I got the impression that the sequels were about to really try to examine that, particularly The Last Jedi, which was pointing out that there was rot, whoever was in charge, and questioning some of the premises of the Jedi order. That didn’t get followed up on much in the next movie, but it seems like some of those questions continue to be raised in the other shows.

In a way, it makes this universe a better place for telling stories when it’s flawed and those flaws are acknowledged, but I’ve gotta say, this isn’t a universe I’d particularly want to visit. I would love to tell stories there, though, especially if I were allowed to question some of the things that underlie that world, even when the “good guys” are in charge.


Pacing Star Wars

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars saga (live-action movies and TV series) in interior chronological order. It blows my mind how much of it there is now. I think I started in November, and I only got to the original movie last weekend, with five movies and two TV series before it and five more movies plus 1 2-season (3 by the time I get there) and 1 one-season series to go. And that’s not even counting the animated stuff. I remember a time when watching all Star Wars content would have meant just watching that one movie.

It had been a long time since I watched the original Star Wars (I still can’t make myself call it A New Hope), and it was interesting seeing it again in the context of all the stuff that’s been added before it, especially the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, as well as Andor and Rogue One (I got a giggle out of thinking that Disney+ could put a “skip recap” button on the opening crawl if you’ve recently watched Rogue One). But the other thing I found interesting on this viewing was the story structure. I usually use this movie as an example when talking about story structure because the beats are so clear and it uses such a simple, fundamental structure (plus, most people are familiar with the story, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers or people not knowing what I’m talking about). But I’d never actually timed out the beats, looking at where they fall in the story. This time I did, and it turns out that while all the beats are very clearly there, they fall in unusual places, so this movie is paced rather unusually.

For one thing, we don’t even meet our hero until nearly 20 minutes into a 2-hour movie. And then it takes a little more time to get his Call to Adventure. He doesn’t accept the call and enter the “new world” of the story, in which he leaves the familiar for the unknown, until about 40 minutes in, close to the halfway point. This is stuff that usually happens within the first half hour or so.

But this is the final, edited movie. The script originally had something different, cutting from the opening space battle to Luke spotting a glint in the sky and then watching the battle through his binoculars. It then cuts back and forth between the stuff happening on the ship (the battle, Darth Vader’s arrival, Leia making the message with R2 and then getting caught, etc.) and Luke rushing to town in his landspeeder to excitedly tell his friends about the space battle he saw and getting mocked for it, then running into his friend who’d gone off to the Academy but was home on a break. His friend said he was going to run off to join the Rebellion and encouraged Luke to take some kind of action. This is the friend he runs into just before the final battle and who dies near the end of the battle. All this is in the novelization that was written from the screenplay before the movie was finished, and it was shot. You can find these scenes on YouTube. Lucas left them out even from the special edition.

That does introduce our hero sooner and show more of his motivation for what happens later, but if it had been left in, it would have delayed the Call to Adventure and the Threshold Crossing even more. Most of the info about Luke and his life that we get in this segment is repeated in his conversation with C3PO in the garage and then with his aunt and uncle at dinner. The only thing that’s sort of left hanging out there is the thing with his friend and why he’s so affected by the death of this one guy in a squadron full of people he barely knows. They added in a bit more of the reunion at the rebel base in the special edition so it’s not totally out of the blue. I think the pacing does work better the way it is, focusing on introducing the world and its greater conflicts before drilling down to the guy who’s going to have to deal with it.

With the Crossing the Threshold moment coming so late, there’s only about 20 minutes for the Tests, Enemies, and Allies segment — arrival in Mos Eisley, the cantina, meeting Han and Chewie, escaping from Tatooine, and the lightsaber training on board the ship. The midpoint of the movie happens when they’re brought on board the Death Star. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, that’s when they go into the belly of the beast, so that tracks.

This means that the last half of the movie is utterly packed with action. We’ve got the prison break, the trash compactor, a lot of running through the Death Star, the Swing across the gap, the lightsaber duel, the escape from the Death Star and space battle, and then the final battle. No wonder the movie leaves you breathless. After all that, you’re exhausted just from watching it. Going back to that idea of the first page selling this book and the last page selling the next one, the last half of this movie probably has a lot to do with its success. You leave with a sense of triumph, like you’ve just had a really good workout and have all those endorphins buzzing through your system.

It does start with a bang, with that iconic opening shot of the small ship pursued by the massive Star Destroyer, but then the first half is mostly worldbuilding and exposition. There are little bursts of lower-stakes action, but there’s still intense tension in just about every scene. You get the feeling of something building, and then the second half provides the catharsis for all that tension.

I may need to reread the novelization to see how Alan Dean Foster handled it in novel form (especially since I’ve met Alan and heard some of his stories about writing that book, which was published under George Lucas’s name).

Now on to The Empire Strikes Back, and I can get a bit misty-eyed at the idea that Rogue Squadron in that movie is an homage to the Rogue One team (even though it was reverse-engineered).


Surprise and Satisfaction

While I’m learning writing lessons from Star Wars, the season finale of Andor got me started thinking about audience/reader satisfaction.

There’s a tricky balance between meeting expectations and being too predictable, giving the audience what they want to have happen but not what they expect to happen. For a hypothetical example, think of the typical heist movie. The crew outlines their elaborate plan for carrying out the heist, then the job is on. But if everything in the plan works and the crew succeeds, it would be boring. If it fails and they get caught, it would be disappointing (unless maybe the twist is that you’re supposed to be cheering for the people trying to catch the thieves). So the crew has to succeed, but not in the expected way. What usually happens is that something in the elaborate plan goes wrong and we get to see the crew improvise to pull off the job by the skin of their teeth. Or else it only looks like things are going wrong and it turns out this is a part of the plan we weren’t privy to, that they knew that person was going to double-cross them and planned for it, so they’re triple-crossing the person who double-crosses them.

Just about all stories hinge on that balance between surprise and expectation. If you give people exactly what they expect, they tend to be somewhat disappointed. If you give them something that’s worse than what they expect (worse in the sense of less interesting — things going worse for the characters may be better for the audience) they’re really disappointed. The ideal is to give them something even better than what they expected. Surprise isn’t always good. I think some writers these days, particularly in TV, place too high a value on surprising the audience, as though that’s the only thing that matters, but if the surprise comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t feel like events were building to that shocking twist, that can still be disappointed. You get rewatch/reread value out of things when you can go back and spot the clues that build toward the conclusion that you might not have noticed before. If there’s no setup at all, you may be surprised, but you’ll also be annoyed. As I said, it’s a delicate balance to get surprise in a satisfying way.

I’ll keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers, but I was thinking about this in the lead-up to the Andor finale because the situation was being set up to be an obvious trap for Our Hero. The bad guys wanted to capture him and thought he would go to this particular event to honor his mother. The good guys wanted to take him out because he knew too much and were also lying in wait for him at this event. I thought it would be funny if he made a wise choice and figured the best way to honor his mother was to do something different and he didn’t show up to walk into the obvious trap while everyone else was there. But I figured that would be a disappointing outcome, since we’ve been looking for that showdown. You don’t want a major clash between most of the forces in the story while your protagonist is off somewhere else, in no real danger. On the other hand, it would also be disappointing if Our Hero walked into an obvious trap and only managed to miraculously escape because of his plot armor. The writers needed to find a way for him to be present at the big confrontation between all the forces without him being a complete idiot. He needed to do something interesting in this scenario and be involved in the big confrontation without getting caught or killed, and in a way that we believe he shouldn’t have been caught or killed (that doesn’t rely on everyone else being idiots in out-of-character ways). Ideally, this should be something that builds from the characters’ personal arcs, so that this outcome feels inevitable, and yet still isn’t entirely predictable.

I won’t say how, but I think they did manage to find something that I considered very satisfying.

As a writer, I often struggle with this because I like coming up with smart plans for the characters and I like them making smart choices — not walking into those obvious traps — but that can make for boring outcomes. I have to remember to let circumstances or other people’s choices mess up those perfect plans so that my heroes can be smart and still struggle. At the same time, you have to play fair and have the things that mess up the plan not come completely out of the blue. The possibility for those problems has to be set up. You can get away with a little more in making things worse for your characters with random coincidences, but you still have to be careful about making even the bad stuff make some kind of sense. You need to come up with challenges that reflect the cosmic lessons the characters are supposed to be learning in this story.

It’s also an issue when readers are anticipating a certain outcome to all the story threads that are being woven together. They’ll be disappointed if the thing they’re looking forward to seeing doesn’t happen, but they’ll also be disappointed if it does happen exactly the way they expected it to. Writers have to think of all the things readers might expect and find ways to throw in surprises. Every so often, you may give a few really clever readers exactly what they anticipated, but it’s only because they’ve solved the puzzle, and you have to really nail the execution for them to still enjoy seeing their predictions turn out to be correct.

I’ve heard the advice to make a list of things that could happen and strike out the first ten or so, since that’s what most people will think of first. Or you could take those things people will think of first and put a twist on them so that they happen, but in a different way. I usually end up changing my planned final confrontation once I get there. It’s still what the story was driving toward, but I try to switch things up a little by changing the setting or who’s involved. If I’ve changed my own plans, maybe the readers won’t see it coming in an obvious way.

And I guess if I’m getting all these deep writing thoughts from watching Star Wars stuff, that means watching Star Wars counts as work, right?

movies, writing

Saving the Cat

I’ve started a rewatch of the Star Wars saga, going in internal timeline order, since some of the recent series have put things in a new context (I’m only including live-action shows and movies in this because there’s so much of the animation that it would take me years, and I recently finished watching Clone Wars). I’m on the prequels now, and I figured out a valuable writing lesson from watching Attack of the Clones last weekend that I actually used in my own writing because it made me realize what I needed to do in the scene I was working on.

I normally fast-forward through the Anakin and Padme scenes when I watch this movie because that part is painful while the rest of the movie can be a lot of fun. I made myself watch the whole movie this time, and I think Hayden Christensen gets a lot of unfair criticism for his performance. He actually does a good job portraying the character as he’s written. The problem is that his character seems to be in a totally different movie from everyone else, particularly Padme. They’re all reacting to a different person than we actually see, and I think that has a lot to do with it all being so unconvincing. He’s this seething volcano of arrogance and adolescent rage, someone who hates the universe the way it is and thinks he could fix it if he could force everyone to do what he wants, but everyone’s acting like he’s this great guy who’s just a little cocky.

The romance really feels out of sync. It seems like every romantic moment is preceded by a scene of him being kind of scary, or at least creepy. Padme hears him having a hissy fit about how he’s the greatest Jedi ever and how unappreciated he is, and she has to ask him to stop staring at her because he’s making her uncomfortable, then she calls him out for mansplaining her home planet to her — and that’s what leads up to their first kiss. Since I usually skip these parts, I’d forgotten what happened, and based on her behavior leading up to that moment, when he started touching her and leaned in for the kiss, I expected her to flinch away and tell him to back off, so the kiss came as a shock. Later, the scene of them romping in the meadow and rolling around on the ground, giggling, comes after the conversation in which he talks about a dictatorship being a good idea, something she actually seems to find alarming since it goes against everything she believes. So why is she getting all romantic with him immediately afterward? And then before she declares her love for him, she hears him go on yet another rant about being better than everyone else and admitting that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that not only were there a lot of reasons why she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, but they also didn’t bother to give any reasons why she would. During their whole side of the story, we don’t see him do anything kind or heroic. There’s the chase through the city scene at the beginning, but she didn’t see that, and then there’s the battle after she declares her love. But during the middle of the movie, when she’s supposedly falling in love with him, he doesn’t actually do anything. He’s there as a bodyguard for her, but he never has to save her. They don’t have an adventure together where they have to work as a team — even when they’re in that factory, they’re off on their own, not working together. She doesn’t see him help anyone else.

The funny thing is, George Lucas has managed to make this sort of thing work before. I also rewatched Willow last weekend (to prepare for the launch of the series). That story has an even higher hurdle for the “why?” since it’s an enemies-to-lovers story, but you can see why she fell in love with this guy (the actors were falling in love in real life and ended up married, so there is something of an unfair advantage since they had crazy chemistry, but I think the script still supports it). First, we saw the way her mother constantly criticized and berated her, so when the guy starts spouting poetry at her and praising her, we can see it get to her (he was under a love spell at the time, but she didn’t learn that until later). It may have been the first kind words she’d ever heard. Later, we see her react to him being loyal to and protective of Willow and the baby. Still later, we see her impressed by his swordsmanship and bravery, the fact that he’s singlehandedly taking on her army in order to protect Willow and the baby.

In screenwriting, there’s a term, “save the cat,” which basically means a moment in a story when you make the audience like a character by having that character “save the cat” — they have a moment when they do something kind or heroic without receiving any benefit from it. That’s particularly useful when introducing a character who might be edgy or problematic if the story isn’t going to show them being heroic or good for a while, but you want the audience to like them. For instance, in the animated Disney Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief, stealing bread and then running from the guards. Along the way, he sees a starving child and hands over the bread he stole for himself. That’s a save the cat moment.

But I think the save the cat can be more than just for the audience. It can be a way of making a character like another character. There’s an example of this in another Star Wars film. Early in Rogue One, Jyn Erso is kind of being a brat. She’s being forced to do something she really doesn’t want to do, and she’s got an attitude about it. Cassian Andor is having to babysit this brat on a mission he’s not crazy about, and he’s tired of her attitude. Then they get caught in the crossfire when a group of rebels attacks some Imperials. She spots a small child who’s out in the open, in danger, and she jumps out of her hiding place to whisk the child to safety and return her to her mother. It works as a “save the cat” for the audience because we see that there’s a kind heart underneath the attitude, and I think it affects the way Cassian sees her. They get along a bit better after that point. In Willow, there’s not really one particular save the cat moment, but the fact that this brash swordsman is willing to risk it all to protect the small, weak, and helpless has a similar effect.

And that’s what we needed some of in Attack of the Clones. Lucas may have gone too far in showing Anakin’s downward spiral starting so soon. Maybe he could have held off with the ranting and slaughter of children until after Anakin was already married to Padme, or maybe it should have been in secret and she didn’t know about it. But at the very least, Anakin needed to save a few cats. He needed to whisk a child from danger, use the Force to levitate a kitten out of a tree or stop something from falling on someone. We needed to see that he had a good heart underneath the attitude and the rage. And we never did see that. The audience does see him saving Obi-Wan a time or two, but Padme doesn’t see him doing or being good in the whole time between their reunion for the first time since she met him as a child and the time she declares her love for him.

The characters I’m working with aren’t nearly that problematic, but I did have a situation in which I needed to get one character to trust another character quickly, even though she met him in difficult circumstances, and after thinking about these movies it struck me that she needed to see him doing an act of kindness that showed a gentler, softer side to him. And from there, I knew what my next scene needed to be.


So Much Star Wars

I’ve been gradually working my way through the Star Wars Clone Wars animated series, and am deep enough into it that I’m starting to see characters and situations that have been referenced in some of the live-action works, so the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

However, I still have a bit of a problem with the animation. There’s something really weird about the way the people look. I mostly listen to this show while doing something else, almost treating it as a radio drama, rather than watching it because the look of it bothers me so much, and I finally figured out what it reminds me of. The people all look like action figures, with their hair and clothes molded out of plastic. It’s like the action figure version of what they do in the Lego animated pieces. Or it’s computer-generated animation that looks like someone made a stop-motion animated movie using their Star Wars action figures.

And that got me started pondering … is this series the Toy Story of Star Wars? Is this what the Star Wars action figures get up to when we’re not looking? Or is it the drama that’s playing out when the kid who owns the action figures is playing with them (like the action sequence at the beginning of one of the Toy Story movies that turned out to be the kid playing with his toys, and this was the scenario he was imagining). Maybe this is some kid filling in all the plot holes of the prequels by playing out stories with his action figures.

It’s a pity that the animation is so weak in this series because the stories are actually pretty good and flesh out the characters rather well. There are occasional moments when it seems like the writers remember that this was originally supposed to be aimed at kids and they throw in a more kid-friendly episode, but most of it is pretty heavy and complex. I kind of wish we could have seen some of these storylines in live action, in at least an hour-long episode, though I think the special effects might have been complicated. Some of these things could only be done in animation. I’m getting used to most of the voice casting that’s different from the movies, and I’m no longer hearing the guy from Timeless when Anakin talks (that was disconcerting at first until this role became more familiar).

It still blows my mind that there’s so much Star Wars content now that at any time I want to watch something Star Wars, I can just turn on the TV and watch it — and I still have a few seasons of this series plus the Bad Batch that I haven’t even seen yet. I remember when I was a kid and the only thing that existed was the first movie. They didn’t do action figures until nearly a year later, so we couldn’t even make up new stories with those. We had to rely on pretending our bicycles were X-Wings or TIE fighters when we rode around the neighborhood. I actually liked the infamous holiday special because it may have been bad and confusing, but it was new Star Wars content while we waited three years for the sequel. Now it would take ages to get through every Star Wars movie or show, even if you watched something every night. Nine-year-old me would have been overwhelmed.