Five Storytelling Lessons From The Force Awakens
I’ve seen the movie — *checks calendar* — 473 times in the theater.
FINE JEEZ NOT REALLY.
But I have seen it three times, and for a person with alarmingly little time, that’s saying something. The Force Awakens has been a big deal around this house, obviously. For one, it ties into a little self-published novel I wrote called SPACE JARS: AFTERPANTS. But more than that, this is the first theatrical release my wife has seen in almost five years. And it was the first theater-going experience for our son, B-Dub. My wife never really had a Star Wars of her own — but now she does. She’s seen it twice and wants to see it again. She has, to my knowledge, never seen a film more than once in the theater.
Like I said: big deal around this house.
(Sidenote, this is why I think you have the effect of some folks being extra-resistant to negativity around the movie, particularly that snarkier brand of criticism. It’s because this isn’t just a movie. In some ways, it’s not a movie at all. It’s a puppy. The fanbase hasn’t had a puppy in a while and now we have one and it’s cute and enthusiastic and lots of fun even though it has its proper puppy flaws, but when a stranger comes and calls your new puppy ugly or rambunctious or gassy or whatever, some folks take that less as criticism and more of an insult. Perhaps not fairly, but emotions are rarely fair, I’m afraid. Star Wars is entangled with a great deal more than just movie culture. It ties into larger pop culture, true, but it also is braided in with friends and family and childhood and — well, that’s a complicated knot is all I’m saying.)
But I wanted to take a look at the film for some of the storytelling lessons it offers — in this case, not negative lessons (of which you could find some, I’m sure), but rather, positive takeaways that might wet your mind whistle when it comes to thinking about your story or other stories or, I dunno, delicious enchiladas.
ARE YOU READY, CLASS?
*hands out lightsabers*
LET US BEGIN.
(oh, some light spoilers found below.)
Worldbuilding Can Be About What You Don’t Show
Epic fantasy novels are wont, sometimes, to put all their worldbuilding on display. That’s why some of them are big enough to snap a horse’s neck — I’ve literally read a few that demonstrated roughly 40% story, 60% worldbuilding. Not much actually happens, but we sure do learn a lot about royal crests and dishware and the sacred toe-washing techniques of faraway lands. Some of these books are soggy with details — and that’s a thing people want to read, sometimes. So, it’s cool. It’s not my bag! But if you like it, then go forth and enjoy.
Just the same, one of the things I really adored about the original SW films 30 years ago was that they took a shrugworthy FUCK YOU attitude when it came to providing details. What were the Clone Wars? What the shit is a Bothan? Where did the Empire come from and why do they have such a space-boner for planet-destroying super-weapons? (Answer to that last one: the same boner most Earth countries have for reiterative superweapons, I’d guess. “What’s next, Admiral Bob?” “BIGGER SHIPS BIGGER BOMBS BIGGER BLOW-EM-UPS.”)
The prequels had less interest in that level of mystery. In fact, they worked very hard to answer the mysteries. Which is not a bad thing, it’s just worldbuilding in the other direction — heavier on the “soaking up the details” part of the equation.
The Force Awakens goes back to the storytelling roots of the films 30 years ago, and it just puts shit out there. Why is there a Resistance? Where did the First Order come from? What is that pig thing? (Answer: a happabore.) WHY DOESN’T SNAP WEXLEY HAVE A BODYGUARD MURDER-DROID NAMED MISTER BONES AS HIS ASTROMECH? Okay, fine, that last question is probably mine alone, but whatever. I’m still asking it and I expect our next President to address it.
In fact, let’s take one particular mystery — THE OLD DUDE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE. The movie opens and there is Max von Sydow in a dirt hut with Poe “So Pretty” Dameron, and he isn’t named, we don’t know who he is, and despite being a seemingly vital character, he is immediately executed (er, spoiler!) by Kylo Ben. If you watch the credits or read supplemental material, you’ll learn his name: Lor San Tekka. Supplemental material also provides some other information, none of it properly vital. And you might think that’s a huge gap. Some do, even still, think it’s an issue that the film didn’t explain much. But for me, the movie is an exercise in providing the very bare minimum to get you to the next scene. We don’t need to know who this guy is — in fact, he becomes quite tantalizing a figure given how his language indicates that this very moment is the culmination of his character arc. He hands over the Map to Skywalker and says, “This will begin to make things right.” Whoa, what? What went wrong? Why does he have the map? Why has he been keeping the map secret? What the hell? And then, VZZRAOWKSZZH the guy is torn down like a pair of ugly curtains.
And that’s all you get.
Sometimes, worldbuilding is better in the mind of the audience. It gains strength there. It multiplies like an image in a house of mirrors. Mysteries compel us. Unanswered questions draw us forward. Now, they become frustrating when the lack of answers stop us from comprehending the story, but that’s not what happens here. We know just enough to move forward.
This isn’t a solution for every story, but it’s an interesting test — if you strip out a bunch of the worldbuilding, does your story still work? It’s vital, I think, that it does.
Orchestrating Key Moments Is, Well, Key
Every story has flaws. Flaws are not by themselves bad things — the bugs only become bad when they remove us from the story, and they remove us from the story when they outnumber or outweigh the features. One of the features of The Force Awakens are moments that are almost perfectly designed to be moments you talk about later. Moments you remember. Moments you anticipate on a rewatch. The best stories have these scenes and beats — Die Hard is practically a conveyor belt of those holy shit moments. TFA has several. I won’t name them here because honestly, not sure I have to. (I bet you’ve already thought of at least one.)
It’s interesting when you hear the filmmakers talk about this movie, because you learn that they began with a question: how do we want the audience to feel? Not “how will this make them feel?” But rather, how do we engineer a narrative to stir certain feelings? Feelings of nostalgia and sadness and triumph — the mythic resonance of the old films remixed in a new way?
It’s not just about drawing a map to Skywalker. It’s about drawing a map toward certain emotions. One of the ways that the filmmakers do that, I think, is by plotting these big moments. Not just moments that are exciting (though they are likely that), but moments that are big in terms of the characters — big in terms of their emotional impact on the audience. It’s worth considering how you can do this for your own work. What do you want the audience to feel? What moments will get them to these feelings? How do you draw the map to that?
Characters Who Like Each Other? A Pop Culture Miracle!
Listen, I know we all want Poe and Finn to steam up the windows of an X-Wing with their sloppy tongue-hockey skills — but for my mileage, what’s greatest about all three protagonists is how much they seem to like each other as characters. They meet and near-instantly have a rapport. They may fight or argue, but it feels like a fight between people who intrinsically belong together. They are enthused to be together. It’s not bitter or a struggle to watch them interact — the conflict comes from the larger narrative, not from characters wanting to always choke each other. They have the delight of dogs meeting other dogs. They may be guarded for a moment but then it’s like, WOO I LIKE YOU AND YOU LIKE ME AND LET’S GO HAVE SOME MOTHERFUCKING ADVENTURES. The audience sees this and they feel like a part of it. Like we’re all part of some D&D adventuring group meeting up in a tavern for the first time.
This isn’t appropriate for all story modes, obviously. But for this kind of thing? It’s a great way to smash characters together and then propel them forward on the nosecone of a narrative rocket.
Fuck Yeah, Subtext
There exists a kind of meta-narrative component to The Force Awakens. Sure, the movie is totally about STARS and WARS and AWAKENING FORCE and all that good stuff, but it’s interesting, too, that the characters inhabit a world filled with the junk of the world we left behind 30 years ago as an audience — Rey lives inside a destroyed AT-AT on a planet of debris. She flies an even junkier version of the Falcon through the bowels of a super star destroyer (which, cough cough, is the Ravager from Aftermath). Kylo Ren is a literal fanboy for the Dark Side. He’s got like, a foam finger waving about (DARTH VADER #1! WOO!) and he’s clearly adopted the Dark Side’s fashion sense, too.
Max Gladstone (who wrote a fantastic piece about TFA through the lens of Star Wars roleplaying) pointed out to me that the line of Kylo Ren’s — “It’s just us, now” — is as much about the characters on-screen as it is about the audience. It’s about generational shifts — I’m a parent now, giving over the trilogy to my son. Just as Lucas has given the trilogy over to Abrams and Disney. The film itself has its own tangled messages about parentage, about the effect a parent can have on a child. It’s a coded message to the audience that this is a passing of the story torch, man. This is an old story with new characters. Not a reboot, but also not exactly a sequel. And then you can factor in various culture-leaning feelings — if Kylo Ren is a fanboy for the Dark Side and for Vader, his petulant, pathetic rage-pleas to Rey (“YOU NEED A TEACHER…”) sound a whole lot like he’s calling her a Fake Geek Girl (“…FOR MAGIC: THE GATHERING.”). And you could lean even further that Kylo Ren starts to vibe a whole lot like fans inside pop culture who feel betrayed by the changes of their fandom (“it’s about ethics in Dark Side fashion, that’s all, and also the SJJ Social Justice Jedi are taking over the galaxy and winning all the awards even though they’re a marginal order because really Vader was much more popular…”).
Don’t be afraid to play with subtext. Know your audience and to learn to speak to them not just with what’s overt, but also with themes and ideas buried beneath a layer or two of the story.
Extra Fuck Yeah, Inclusion
I am a white guy talking about diversity, so that should already make you narrow your eyes a little bit, probably — but I think it’s vital to realize that your audience is potentially far more than just, well, people who look like me. Cultural appropriation is its own sticky subject, and as authors, it’s a damn fine idea to make sure we’re not stealing someone else’s story or experience for our own. But, a film like TFA doesn’t have to worry as much about that — it’s a book about SPACE GUNS and GALACTIC WIZARDS and isn’t really in danger of appropriating any kind of actual human culture, which means it has full license to include all kinds of people in its ranks. That has huge meaning. The new film has a much bigger female audience than other films of its genre, and its two other leads are people of color. It’s worth considering as a storyteller if your characters are monochromatic and exclusive rather than inclusive of the audience you have — or an audience you could have if you decided to actually talk to them once in a while.
(Bonus, you know who my son sometimes pretends to be? Rey. And other times? Finn. He doesn’t see why they can’t be heroes or why he can’t look up to them and try to inhabit them — it’s a big change from a pop culture world that usually asks that little girls and children of color pretend to inhabit the stories and arcs of white male heroes.)
And just in case you hear that refrain that inclusion can’t sell — please remember three non-white-male protagonists have led the biggest box office film ever. That’s no small feat, and easily disproves the lie that films with women or people of color are somehow marginal.