What would you do if you found a body in the back of a hire car?
The art of telling stories is complex, and there is always more to learn. As I read books or watch films, I’m always on the lookout for tips and ideas, seeking to learn how good stories work and why other stories leave me unimpressed.
I went to see the latest Star Wars film recently, and while it was enjoyable enough as an escape for a couple of hours, the overall story didn’t excite me too much. I also didn’t feel it totally succeeded in closing the whole Star Wars nine-film epic story in a satisfying way.
When I analysed why this might be, I came up with a number of lessons for my own writing.
Lesson One: Actions should have consequences
There was one moment in The Rise Of Skywalker where I was genuinely excited for the direction the story was taking. Rey attempts to rescue a friend, but while using the Force she ends up destroying the craft she believes him to be on.
Kylo Ren has been trying to get Rey to join the dark side, and so far she’s resisted. But with a moment when her own mastery of the Force comes into question, and when ‘good’ use of the Force has such a negative outcome, surely Rey will start to doubt. This, I felt, was going to be the start of her descent toward possibly turning to the dark side.
But this wasn’t to be. In the very next scene, we (and Rey) learn that her friend was on a different craft. Her failure to use the Force ‘correctly’ has no consequence (at least, for her), and she carries on as if nothing has happened.
The problem goes deeper, though. If the choices a character makes has no bearing on their success or failure, then they’re just along for the ride. And if nothing they do really matters, why should I care about them?
Second lesson: Story events must come from somewhere
There’s a well-known saying—plot twists should be surprising yet inevitable. They should shock us in the moment, but in hindsight it should be clear that this was the only way events could be played out. Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense, and how it seems obvious on second viewing.
The Rise Of Skywalker fails in this right from the start, by suddenly mentioning that Palantine is not only alive and well, but also behind everything that happened over the two previous films. This reveal hasn’t been foreshadowed in these films, and his death seemed pretty definitive at the end of Return Of The Jedi.
It feels like a cheap move, or an attempt to pander to fans by bringing back an old character. Through the lens of story, it doesn’t work.
Just as actions must have consequences, events too must have origins. Otherwise, the story becomes nothing more than a bunch of stuff that happens.
Third lesson: The ending of a story is for tying everything together, not for introducing new characters and ideas.
There are some interesting ideas in The Rise Of Skywalker. We get insights into Poe’s back-story, and are introduced to a new (to us) character from his past. Also, we learn that Finn is not the only stormtrooper to have defected.
But this is the final chapter in a longer story. There isn’t the time orspace to develop these ideas, and ultimately they mean nothing. They feel tacked-on.
Maybe they serves some minor plot-point, or were an easy way to move the story on—but a well-told story would have found some other way of doing this. The ending should build on what has come before, not introduce new ideas and characters in order to work.
Lesson Four (the big one!): Have a vision for the whole story
The original Star Wars trilogy had a clear over-riding story (and I’ve written about this before, in this post), as did the prequel trilogy. But these latest three films, the sequel trilogy?
As one story, they’re a mess—and the reason for this seems to come down to a lack of clear direction. When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens, it seems like he had some idea of where things were going, introducing plenty of open loops. But in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson took things in his own direction (and, by all accounts, actively reversed many events set up in the previous film.) So in The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams had to weave together a whole array of disparate plots.
Whatever he did, he was always going to disappoint people—fans of Johnson’s direction would accuse him of trying to undo, rewrite or ignore the previous film, while fans of his first film of the trilogy would moan about how Johnson derailed the whole thing, forcing Abrams’ hand too much.
A story should build. Yes, it will probably go through twists and turns—but eventually, these will be resolved in a way that (in hindsight at least) makes sense. Again, a story is not just a bunch of stuff that happens, but a coherent whole.
This is true of individual stories (books, films etc), but also true of a series. The seeds of the eventual ending should be sown early on, and the final chapter (episode) should build on everything that has come before.
So, four reasons why The Rise Of Skywalker left me underwhelmed, as both its own story and the final chapter in a series. And (more importantly) four lessons that I can take into my own writing.
Another short story this week. I had the idea for this one ages ago, but only got round to actually writing the thing a couple of weeks ago. It came out pretty well as a first draft, but I’ve made a few changes and tightened things up a bit.
After looking back over 2019 (in this post), it’s now time to look ahead, and lay out what I hope to achieve over the next twelve months.
These aren’t resolutions, though. There’s too much pressure in that word, and it’s too easy to call myself a failure if I don’t keep to a specific resolution. Rather, these are aims. Some are specific, but others are more ambiguous. They’re realistic, though. And if I don’t achieve everything, then that simply means my aim was slightly off.
My first priority is to complete the sixth Dominions novel. I’m currently in the first round of edits, and things seem to be going well, so I’m aiming for an April release.
And then, I need a break from Dominions. I’ve already been throwing a few ideas around for a new series, and I’m going to aim to have a couple of books finished by the end of the year.
I’m continuing to write short stories, and 2020 should see the hundredth of these, along with the fifth Millenary anthology. In my mind, I always saw this as a good time to stop, but I don’t want to stop writing short fiction. It’s great fun, and also an excellent way of pushing my writing. So, once I have all hundred shorts out, I’ll change things up a bit. I might scrap my thousand-word limit, and possibly aim for one story a month rather than one every two weeks. I’m not sure yet.
This is something I struggle with, but my mindset on marketing has been shifting over 2019. Rather than seeing it as an attempt to get punters to part with their money, I now see it as a quest to put my books in front of readers who are likely to enjoy them. Selling my books should be mutually beneficial—I receive some financial recompense for my time, effort and money in producing the books, and readers receive a few hours of entertainment.
Over 2020, I’ll make a concerted effort to improve in this whole area. I’ve recently started Mark Dawson’s Ads For Authors course, and will be attending the Self-Publishing Formula conference in London in March. And I’ll continue to read books, listen to podcasts and watch webinars to keep on learning.
But learning is useless without implementation, so I’m going to put time aside each week specifically for marketing activities. This could be setting up and analysing ads, or seeking promotional opportunities, or contacting other writers, or any of the other ways I could help my books reach potential readers.
So, a quick summary. Over 2020, I will:
- complete and publish the sixth Dominions novel
- start a new series, and have at least a couple of books ready by the end of the year
- become far more focused on marketing, setting aside time each week to work on helping my books reach readers who will enjoy them