Star Wars: that classic science fiction saga that inspired an entire generation of geeks, helped open the genre to mainstream attention, and spawned so many copycats that you can trace its plot and characters to hundreds of other works of speculative fiction (both good and bad).
It’s no wonder that, all over the world, people of all ages waited on the edge of their collective seats for the surprise seventh installment. It’s even less of a surprise that people felt strongly about this movie: both for and against it.
Love it or hate it, Force Awakens failed in some critical areas. Bad for the film writers, but good for writers everywhere. Let’s look at 4 ways Force Awakens went wrong and how we can do better.
#1: Deus Ex Force is Lazy Writing
Want to know the secret to a magic system that will earn you respect as a fantasy writer? I’ll give you a hint — it’s not an ambiguous all-powerful magical source who’s only consistent trait is that it’s always there when the plot needs it to be.
The tenuous rules of the Force that were established in the original trilogy were apparently discarded in favor of an unearned climax where Rey is suddenly able to match strength with the man described as overpowering Luke Skywalker and all his padawans — after hearing the Force mentioned a handful of times.
Force Awakens is hardly the only franchise to employ deus ex magica, but that doesn’t get it a free pass.
THAT’S NOT HOW THE FORCE WORKS: In fantasy/sci-fi, magic can all too easily become deus ex machina. This happens when the magic is written off as “mysterious” and given no boundaries. Far from being imaginative or whimsical, this kind of plot device will undermine your honest efforts at building a good plot and cast of characters. Make them earn every step of their arc!
My favorite line in Force Awakens was “that’s not how the Force works!” — yet ironically, in Force Awakens, no boundaries are placed on the Force except those of plot convenience. Don’t fall prey to this in your own writing. For a great example of excellent, believable magic systems, enjoy the works of Brandon Sanderson.
#2: Actions Speak Louder than Scripted Dialogue
My biggest problem with The Force Awakens was how it was constantly telling me things, but never taking the time to make me care. Every writer knows the “show, don’t tell,” mantra, but for me, it’s more helpful to think of it this way:
Actions speak louder than words.
The movie told me Kylo Ren was “struggling” (through a lot of soliloquies and on-the-nose dialogue from his parents), but his actions were very “typical villain with a touch of a tragedy” trope.
The movie told me that Rey was resourceful and clever, but in action and dialogue, she was only the favored pawn of the plot. She had spent a life time staying out of trouble… until the plot needed her to be captured. She didn’t believe in the Force… until the plot needed her to suddenly become a powerful Jedi in the space of 5 minutes.
I could go on.
Most writers can recognize showing vs. telling when it comes to descriptions. But the place where Telling is most destructive is the place where it’s sometimes hardest to notice — in characters, dialogue, and plot. (Something I’ll write about at more length in a later post.)
DO OR DO NOT, THERE IS NO TRY: To achieve a story that feels authentic, you must show more than you tell — but to show well, you must also approach your characters and plots authentically.
First, take the time to develop your characters into nuanced human beings, not just caricatures or four letters on a Myers-Briggs scale. From there, ask: how would these people act? React? Speak? Respond to plot events? Form relationships?
Build your plot from the interactions of characters with each other and the world. You’ll find that, this way, it’s much easier to create meaningful, organic interactions and situations.
Writing about deep characters is the way to get your readers deeply invested in your story. Let the emotional roller coaster come organically from your characters — don’t rely on shock value or shoehorning to pack a punch.
#3: Your Stakes are Only as Believable as Your Villain
Darth Vader will go down in history as one of the most iconic villains of all time. Everything from his appearance to his willingness to casually murder his own crew built him into a villain that was respected and feared across the galaxy.
Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is best encapsulated by the parody Twitter account, Emo Kylo Ren. In the filmmaker’s heavy-handed attempt to replicate an icon they couldn’t resurrect, they gave us a one-dimensional punk of a villain whose position of power makes about as much sense as Jar Jar Binks as a senator.
Then the filmmakers overcompensated for their weak attempt to duplicate Vader by writing in a ridiculously overpowered Death Star (with an equally ridiculously-convenient flaw), an Emperor Sidious redux, juiced up on pale flesh, vague dialogue, and over-the-top menace, and amping up the Stormtrooper game to Level: Nazi.
YOUR LACK OF COMPETENCE DISTURBS ME: When a writer uses an over-the-top villain, it cheapens everything else about the story. This is because the writer then has no choice but to resort to deus ex machina to resolve the plot, or you instead have your villain suddenly start making incompetent and inconsistent decisions so that your hero stands a chance. Both resolutions feel cheap, and undermine the character development you’ve done on both your villain and your hero.
So Disney, for the love of all that is good storytelling, take ten minutes and read through the Evil Overlord List before you make Episode VIII.
#4: The World Doesn’t Need “A New Hope” Again
The thing that disappointed me most about The Force Awakens is that it was literally A New Hope, with a female Luke Skywalker and better special effects. I walked out of the theater, $20 poorer, realizing that I could have watched the exact same movie on DVD and gotten a better-executed story (not to mention I could have worn my PJs).
I’ve always been irritated when writers think they can write “A New Hope” again and think we won’t notice. (Anyone remember Eragon?) So I was doubly irritated when Disney insulted my intelligence by calling The Force Awakens a brand new installment in the Star Wars saga.
A LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY: You are [mentally insert your name here]. You aren’t the writer of a New Hope. (And if you’re the writer of The Force Awakens, well — sorry, but I’m not sorry.) You have your own story to tell the world, and that’s awesome.
Take the time to learn the story you have to tell. It’s easy to fall to tropes and the classic stories we love, but, as The Force Awakens proved, we really don’t need to keep redoing A New Hope.
Now, whether you love Force Awakens or hate it, don’t let anyone (especially me) make you feel embarrassed for enjoying a story. However, enjoying something and claiming it’s good art are two different things.
Writers —I know you can do better. Don’t settle for box office tropes. Go the extra mile. Make something that’s authentically you. And please for the love of libraries don’t reheat Star Wars again.