#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee and #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 3: Digging #plotholes with false #mystery.

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Nothing grinds a writer like plot holes. Hell, I STILL can’t watch the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without griping at the screen about the absent explanation of how Lupin understands the Marauders’ Map.

No writer tells a story with the intention of digging plot holes (one would hope, anyway). If a writer loves the craft enough, that writer will do their utmost to tell a complete story, avoiding intentional plot holes like Biff avoids broccoli.

The bugger comes when the story sprawls over the course of multiple installments. Now the writer doesn’t have to reveal everything before the end of Act III. Important reveals can be put off until Act VIII, or XI, or even XIV. After all, what else engages audiences like a good mystery?

You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.

Robert McKee

JJ Abrams has never been shy over sharing his love of mystery. To him, storytelling is all about The Mystery Box, as this excerpt from his 2007 TED Talk shows.

On this page, it would seem that Abrams and McKee agree. If one answers aaaaaaall the questions before the story’s even begun, why should readers care about the story? I can only imagine how readers would have felt if Rowling had wedged Voldemort’s backstory into the first book of the Harry Potter series instead of the sixth. Honestly, I know what I’d have done:

Glazed over it.

But after reading five books about this villain, seeing his various reincarnations and the consequences of his ambitions, I’m dying to know who this dark wizard is and what drives him. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always felt like the least action-oriented book of the series, but readers are still okay with this because a degree of the mystery is being revealed to them. After the monumental battles in the fifth book, the series’ pacing allowed for a slow-down.

Regarding JJ Abrams and Star Wars, he likely felt comfortable building oodles of Mystery Boxes in The Force Awakens because he expected the later movies to open his boxes and reveal the answers. If we learned eeeeverything about the First Order, Rey, Luke Skywalker, etc in The Force Awakens, then we wouldn’t be curious to see what’s coming in the other films.

A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, Narrative Drive grinds to a halt…. But you must not abuse this power. If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out…. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial concealment of fact.

Robert McKee

Over-telling too early causes people to forget what is important and be confused by what isn’t. Under-telling, however, can be just as dangerous, and on this, Abrams is VERY guilty. Let’s walk through a few plot holes in The Force Awakens and consider whether or not these “conceals” are necessary or artificial. For comparison’s sake, I’ll use two very different trilogies, one of blockbuster scale (Hunger Games), the other not (Southern Reach).

ONE: The Beginning

I already whinged enough about how The Force Awakens simply dictated the universe must have the same stakes as the Original Trilogy without showing how the heck this galaxy far, far away started the vicious cycle all over again. This information, however, didn’t have to come in The Force Awakens. The first Hunger Games book doesn’t dive too much into the world’s history; instead, we get this information in bits and pieces throughout the second and third books. For the films, this storytelling method worked pretty well, as the first film could focus strictly on Katniss’ preparation and battle for survival in The Hunger Games at hand. In Annihilation, we have no idea where Area X came from, let alone the backstory of nearly all the characters. It’s not until Acceptance, the final book of The Southern Reach trilogy, that we learn the true motivations of the antagonist from the first book as well as where Area X came from. Had all that information been dumped on readers in the first 100 pages, they’d be bogged down and ignoring what really was important, focused instead on whatever words relay the current protagonist’s plight.

So as far as these opening stakes go, Abrams, you get a small pass.

TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival

As I described in Part 2, the character Finn, our Storm Trooper Turned Good, escapes the First Order with Rebel Pilot Poe. They crash the TIE fighter, and when Finn awakes, he finds himself alone with Poe’s jacket. The ship sinks in the sand, and as far as Finn knows, Poe’s died in the sand already. He says as much to the droid BB-8, and the story goes on, treating the pilot as lost…

…until he shows up at the Resistance base, healthy and whole.

How’d he survive the crash?

Dunno.

How’d he get off the planet without the First Order noticing? They were all over the place chasing down Finn, Rey, and BB-8.

Dunno.

And we never find out.

Now if Poe were a tertiary character, one with little presence in the story or impact on the overall plot, we could probably evade this plot hole without much trouble. Easy peasy–Poe woke up first and got away from the ship. He left his jacket because…well it doesn’t matter. He abandoned his new friend Finn because…well, it doesn’t matter. He got off the planet without looking for his droid BB-8 because…well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he got back to the Resistance to fight another day.

That sure is a lot of “doesn’t matters” for one character’s choice, isn’t it? A character’s choice that, considering what little we do know of the character, doesn’t make sense. Poe’s the one who wanted to return to this desert planet to find his droid, and yet he vanishes from the story entirely to arrive just in time to wave happily to the droid that, by all accounts, he was determined to find. But we never see him try to find the droid, the sole motivation for his actions in the first half of the movie.

A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of cause and effect….Maybe the audience won’t notice. But maybe it will. Then what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole.

Robert McKee

What frustrates a writer like m’self so much over a plot hole like this is that it would not have taken much to fill the hole. Abrams could have kept Poe out of the plot until Finn and Rey arrive at the Resistance base, sure. We could have seen him still recovering from the crash, demanding a ship to fly back for BB-8. We could have seen him on a communicator, checking in with ships on any signs of BB-8.

A character’s absence may be forgivable, but not the absence of motivation. When Katniss and Peeta are separated in the arena, we find out later on what Peeta was doing, and his physical/emotional state show proof of this. When the psychologist separates from the biologist, we don’t know what she’s up to. The biologist shoots her at the end of Annihilation, so we’re left to assume the psychologist was up to something nefarious. It’s at the end of Acceptance that we at last fully understand the psychologist’s motivations–and what the hell she was doing at the lighthouse in the moments before the biologist shoots her.

If Poe needed to be removed from the film to give time for Rey and Finn, then so be it. But that didn’t mean Poe’s arc gets to be fast-forwarded to where it’s convenient. He needed to be off-screen following through on his motivation so that when he’s back on screen, he looks like he was off-screen for a reason.

So as far as Poe goes, Abrams, that ship don’t fly.

THREE: Talking Lightsabers That Just So Happen To Be In A Mysterious Box In A Tavern’s Basement

This is the point where I audibly said “Bullshit” in the theater.

Finn, Rey, and BB-8 travel with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to some ancient looking planet’s cantina, where the owner Maz Kanata provides sage advice. While Maz and Han talk, Rey hears something and goes under the cantina into a big storage area, where a faint voice calls from a box. She opens the box to discover what the audience immediate recognizes as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz finds Rey and tells her about the force, but Rey refuses the lightsaber and runs off. So, Maz brings the lightsaber to Han.

“A good question, for another time.”

Say WHAT?!

…coincidence is a part of life, often a powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived.

Robert McKee

When used well, coincidences help tie together plot elements and propel the narrative along. In the first Hunger Games, for instance, it’s a pretty big coincidence that the other candidate chosen to fight for Katniss’ district has also been crushing on her for years. In Authority, the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the new director stumbles upon the psychologist’s old phone and, thinking it might hold useful data, takes it home. This just so happens to be the same phone the psychologist had taken into Area X on a secret expedition, so of course, that phone has changed into something else…a something that is now skulking around the new director’s home.

On Rey’s desert planet Jakku, there just so happens to be a seller of parts scavenged from other ships, and this seller just so happens to keep some junk ships…like the Millennium Falcon.

While I have a hard time imagining Solo losing his ship, I can accept it being considered garbage; after all, in A New Hope Luke takes one look at the Falcon and says, “What a piece of junk!” So that a scavenger has allocated the Falcon on the planet where Rey just so happens to live is an acceptable coincidence.

That Han Solo just so happens to fly Rey to a cantina where a sage-like character just so happens to have a vault with a box that just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber that just so happens to connect with Rey…

No.

That is not acceptable.

Had Maz mentioned living in Cloud City (where Luke had lost the lightsaber in his duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back), okay. Weird, but okay. At least there’s some sort of intent, a trail of motivation: Force-sensitive Maz discovers the lightsaber and feels its importance, so she keeps it safe until finding its owner. Or Lando’s team recovers it and gives it to Han, who entrusts it to Maz for whatever reason. Heck, in Rey’s vision of the Jedi temple burning and Luke crouched low by R2-D2, Maz could have been there ready to give him the lightsaber, but upon seeing the Knights of Ren hides instead.

Instead, we have none of these things. We have only the Mystery Box, and “another time.”

And maybe Abrams did intend to explain this Mystery Box another time. There were two more movies, after all, and he had notes for the other directors to help keep the storyline unified across the trilogy.

Only The Powers That Be in Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t see the importance of paying off those expectations. They had their own agendas, agendas that would take the galaxy far, far away into a new cosmos:

Political and social commentary.

Disney wanted a Star Wars trilogy that would inspire new and old generations alike to buy millions of movie tickets, toys, and theme park passes. Creating a story befitting the lStar Wars universe was never the top priority, not for them. Was JJ Abrams passionate about this project? Let’s just say yes. But loving a story-world and its characters is not the same as creating in that world. Abrams selected bits of the Original Trilogy he wanted to share in his own way; some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. The plot’s true shortcomings, though, can be summed up in two words:

Why? How?

Too often we are wondering how X happened, or why Z did ___. It’s one thing to have a mysterious villain, or an unknown backstory. But when a writer takes time to establish a character’s motivations only to ignore them until the plot makes it convenient for the motivations to come back, or a writer ignores the older characters’ stories so the plot’s MacGuffin can move to the newer characters, then there are serious problems afoot.

And we haven’t even TOUCHED the flippin’ Death Star 3.0 yet.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

More student assignments are coming my way in a few days, so I think we’ll have a lovely author interview next week. After that, we’ll wrap up The Force Awakens with a discussion of what makes a great villain…and why it’s unwise to go the safe route.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #robertmckee and #starwars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 2: #TheForceAwakens to #MissedOpportunity

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Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.

Robert McKee

November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:

Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.

Kathleen Kennedy to Rolling Stone, November 2019

It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?

Or did Kennedy forget Star Wars DID have comics and novels–decades worth, in fact?

In 2014, Disney officially announced all the published Expanded Universe (EU) stories of the Star Wars universe were no longer canon. All the adventures that took place after Darth Vader hurled the Emperor into the abyss were gone.

For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–

R2-D2 is HILARIOUS in these. A big favorite with my droid-lovin’ kiddos.
The theme song got better…eventually.

–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?

But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.

The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.

Robert McKee

Enter The Force Awakens.

Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU, devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*

Then folks saw the movie.

Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.

Robert McKee

Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.

Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

Hold on.

So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?

The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?

We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.

Robert McKee

Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?

Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.

Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.

However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.

The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…

As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.

Robert McKee

It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.

We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.

THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.

Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.

So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.

Robert McKee

Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.

Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.

It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.

Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.

Robert McKee

By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.

Robert McKee

These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in The Force Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.

Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

Robert McKee

Alas, it was not meant to be.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.