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My Element is Honesty. My Sin is Envy.

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Writing Tips with Nonagon: That one scene in Star Wars · 6:56am Jan 14th, 2016

So, spoilers, duh. Although this won't even make sense unless you've seen The Force Awakens anyway.

My instinct at the start of this article is to give a brief review of the film, but I'm not even sure that I can, since my opinion of The Force Awakens is so divided. There are some aspects of it that I really, really like and some aspects that I really, really don't like, and every time I've tried to tell someone my overall impression of the film I end up doing so much clarifying in both directions that I've practically covered every beat by the time I'm done. Ask me whether I like it and I'll probably say yes, ask me if I dislike it and I'll say exactly the same thing. It's almost easier to think of it as two separate films viewed simultaneously, one good, one bad, constantly balancing each other out and making the quality really hard to ascertain.

I could go over the entire film in detail, point by point, weighing out the good and the bad and reaching an ultimate conclusion. It's a tempting thought. But instead of just doing a review, I want to remember my purpose and ask a more important question: What can we learn from this? What elements of this story, both good and bad, can we pull into ourselves and make our own storytelling better? So to that end, I want to talk about just one, specific scene. The point in the story where, for me, everything I like and everything I dislike come to a head. It's the only point when I felt truly in awe, lost in the story, and fully invested in what was going on. It is also, paradoxically, the point where all the problems compounded and the story ended up losing me.

That scene is the firing of the Starkiller Base.

Everything about this setup is beautiful. The military leader gives a speech about the emergent power of the First Order - perhaps visually reminiscent of Saruman's famous speech to the Uruk-Hai, but the clean rows and colours give the impression of immense military might, of absolute obedience and total control. The weapon is charged and fired in a dazzling visual display, launching an incomprehensibly vast column of light into the sky as the entire planet erupts. The might of the weapon can be seen from across the galaxy, scarring the sky of every world with a bright red streak. We get a few brief shots of the targets as the light gets closer and closer, and their dawning terror as they realize what's coming. The music swells. In a matter of seconds, five planets are obliterated, or maybe one planet and its moons, that was never totally clear. And then the camera falls back to our heroes, looking up at the devastation above them, and we see their despair as they realize exactly what they're up against.

It's gorgeous. It's moving. The sheer scale and energy of the scene are beyond anything that's been seen in Star Wars before. And it all meant absolutely nothing because it doesn't connect to anything else in the film whatsoever.

On the "before" side of the equation, the base comes basically out of nowhere. It's barely alluded to, and only referred to vaguely as "the weapon", which is an odd thing to call it when all the characters involved know each other and have no reason to be discreet about what they're up to. (Unless "the weapon" is literally its name, in which case it's just that the Supreme Leader is very uncreative.) From a story standpoint there's no reason why just then would be the optimal time to show this off outside of narrative convenience, and from a thematic standpoint it's overkill on a solar scale. For that matter, the victims come out of nowhere, too; the Republic is only mentioned like twice, one of them all the way back in the opening crawl, and there had been no indication that they were a threat to the First Order or even a part of the story until seconds before they were destroyed.

The tragedy of this scene is that despite its sense of scale, I felt lost during this scene because it made me realize that the film had given me no sense of scale. And while I can understand why the writers would want to avoid the minutia of space politics after the Prequels were bogged down with them, this story ultimately runs into the same problem because the audience is expected to know things that we are not actually told. How big is the Republic? How was it founded? Is it equal in size and strength to the First Order, or is one superior to the other? Did one emerge after the other? Is there an ongoing struggle for power between them, or have they been peacefully coexisting up to this point? Do they between them have control of the whole galaxy, or are they both emergent powers in an overall climate of anarchy? Is the Rebellion technically a part of the Republic, or a part of the First Order? Was the destruction of a single planetary system, even an important one, really enough to completely defeat the Republic? If so, why was the Republic a threat to the First Order at all?

Not all of these are things that the audience absolutely needs to know, but we should be able to at least be able to infer the answers from the information that we are given. And of the Republic, we know very little except for the name. If you'll permit the comparison to the original trilogy, from the very first shot there was a clear relationship established between the two factions: the oppressive, overwhelmingly vast Empire and the oppressed, undersupplied Rebellion. In The Force Awakens we have three factions and are given next to no information about their scope, their politics, and their relationships with each other, other than that one of them is fascist and militaristic and likes to blow people up for reasons that we aren't told about. The end result is that when a string of planets are blown up, which from the way the scene is constructed is clearly meant to be horrifying and tragic, instead of having an emotional impact it just invokes this long string of questions about who was blown up, what that has to do with anything, and why I should care.

On the "after" side of the equation, very little is made of the Starkiller Base at all. Which is in many ways odd, because by all rights it should have become the central focus of the film. The Rebellion is now facing a weapon of a scale they've never seen before, one that can strike from anywhere, at any time, destroying whole solar systems without warning. The implications of that should be staggering, enough to carry a whole trilogy on. And yet none of that is ever actually brought up. The Rebels start discussing the base in a matter-of-fact way, somehow already knowing exactly where it is and what it looks like, and by the end of the film it's just gone. The Republic is never mentioned again, and I've got a sinking feeling that even in the sequels they and the base never will be.

None of the main characters seem that interested in the base, either. Sure, they go and blow it up, but none of them are that invested in it. Rey doesn't know what's going on and just wants to leave, Finn is just there to find Rey, and Harrison Ford as Himself is there to find Kylo Ren. Sure, they're all outsiders and don't know anything about the Republic either, but that's really just compounding the problem. The Starkiller Base becomes a B-plot in its own movie, and if it and the scene in which it destroys five planets were completely written out, none of the personal stories of the main characters nor the overarching quest to find Luke's map would be in any way affected.

Which leads us to the question:

Why is the Starkiller Base even here?

And while I wasn't there during the writing and for legal reasons cannot claim to definitively know, the only conclusion I can come to is that this beautiful sequence, the best individual scene in the entire movie, is only in here because someone, maybe a writer or a producer or a focus group, wanted there to be a scene in which a Death Star blows up a planet.

It's there because it looks pretty.

It's there because it worked last time.

It's there because there was a need to expand on the original in some way.

It's there because it's what people wanted to see.

It's there because the writer needed a way to keep the plot moving forward.

But to me, none of these, not even the last one, are reason enough why this scene should have been in the film.

Someone much wiser than I am once said that perfection has not been reached when there is nothing more for you to add, but when there is nothing more than can be taken away. And this is a really painful lesson, because it's one that I've been struggling with for all of my life, but it's the one that I want to leave with you today. When you're writing it's incredibly easy to get wrapped up in the beauty of individual scenes, trying to create the most emotion, the most stunning visuals, the most gripping narrative that you possibly can. But if you only look at things in terms of individual scenes, then the narrative as a whole begins to feel disjointed and inflated. Continuity, development, the concepts of setup and payoff; you have to know how your scenes interact and flow from one to the next, not place them down in solid chunks. And no matter how good a sequence is, if the flow of the story would be improved by taking it out, either rewrite everything else to fit or cut it. No exceptions.

And I know how hard this is. Believe me, I know. I used to argue with my teachers all the time that stripping the details from my stories would leave them feeling small and empty. I create backstories for all my characters, even the ones who only appear in a single scene. I stretch out chapters forever because I have no idea how to cut myself off. I am incredibly bull-headed about cutting anything and generally need at least two days of convincing to do so. To me, everything is indispensable. I read through my chapters and can't see a single line that I'd be happy to cut, lest the whole house of cards come tumbling down. But talking myself out of ideas is just as important as coming up with them in the first place - or, failing that, using them to evolve the story until it's become one of the seeds of the narrative rather than a fruit.

...huh. That was off the top of my head but it actually works well. Pluck the fruit from your stories, and turn them into seeds. It's a more positive expression than trim the fat, anyway.

That's what I'll leave you with. Pluck the fruit. And always remember that the more delicious it looks, the more you need to examine it in case it's something that exists outside of your story, not within it.

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Comments ( 4 )

For all the good I can say about the movie, the author's sense of scale is so bad, it's hilarious - so bad in fact that it makes me think it was done on purpose. :trollestia: (seriously, the "15 minutes till charging complete" should have been spent in elevators...)

What I loved was how they managed to show someone being a noob with a lightsaber while still making a good fight scene.

Also, the old lady.

Also, let all the pidgeons of New York crap on the car of the troll who made the Ep7 spoiler into a car decal...

The scene you mentioned felt awesome but out of place for me too.

Then I began rationalizing because I always try to make things fit.

The base was required for the story, but it was not what the story was about. The movie starts with scavengers living amongs the wreckage of the last great war. It has been like this since the old republic - always a looming conflict between the light and dark side.

planet-destroying doomsday devices are simply a thing that happens there.

I approve of this review.

That is all.

It's a compelling sentiment, and why I've worked as hard as I'm able to reduce, especially, the number of characters in my world. A relationship can be so detailed just between two people; must there be an additional twenty standing at their sides?

I suppose that's why survival horror is so compelling. When done right, every single detail is a glimpse into a character's troubled mind or dark past. Nothing is wasted, because every element is at least atmospheric. I hope those narrative devices, by the way, don't become cliché. There are some elements of human nature that can only be explored in subtlety. At least, that's how I feel.

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