The Last Jedi from a story perspective

star_wars_episode_8_the_last_jedi_logo_720.0I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan. I saw (and enjoyed) the original films when they came out, and had the trilogy on both DVD (ask your parents) and video (ask your grandparents). I watched Phantom Menace when that came out, but haven’t watched any others.

Until now. Kids are a great excuse sometimes, and as they both wanted to watch the new film (at different times), I’ve been to see The Last Jedi twice. And I really wanted to enjoy it.

But I was underwhelmed. First time, it just felt like it didn’t deliver on its promises, so I paid closer attention when I saw it again, trying to work out why the film didn’t totally work for me.

Not being immersed in the whole Star Wars universe, I can’t comment on how it fits in with the other films, or the extended stories in books. I’m not qualified to comment on how it treated the mythology, or how it complemented or contradicted other stuff. Instead, I want to focus on the film as its own thing, especially the story (or stories) it contained.

I should state a couple of things before I go into details. First, these are my thoughts. You may disagree, and I’m fine with that‌—‌and my thoughts may well change over time (in fact, I found the film more enjoyable second time round, but maybe that was because I wasn’t approaching it with the same sense of expectation). And secondly, what I write below will contain spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film, and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now (although please come back when you have watched it).
I’ll start with the largest story problem.

The story-line that doesn’t go anywhere

In well-structured, satisfying stories, everything has a place. Apparent digressions ultimately serve a purpose, either filling in details of the story or providing a better understanding of the characters and their particular arcs.

In The Last Jedi, I felt that there was a whole sub-plot that didn’t do either of these things. It was a diversion that went nowhere, and it took up a great deal of the middle of the film. The part I’m on about? Finn and Rose’s attempt to disable the First Order’s tracker.

This storyline starts off well. Rose and Finn figure out how the First Order is able to track the rebels through hyper-space, and they bring Poe in on their plan. They need to disable the power to the tracker by breaking in to a particular part of the First Order’s lead craft, and for that they need a master code breaker. Apparently, only one person is capable of such a feat.

Finn and Rose head down to Canto Bight, where they spot this person in a casino, but they are arrested and imprisoned before they can approach him. So far so good storywise‌—‌plans going awry adds tension, after all.

FinnRoseDJ

And they wind up in a cell with DJ, who might be another master code breaker. Bit of a handy coincidence, but I’ll let that go for the moment. (I’ll also ignore the fairly heavy-handed stuff about people profiting from war). Of course, Finn and Rose escape, with help from DJ (so he appears to be a good guy), and they get on board the First Order’s vessel.

They get to the power supply, but are stopped. Meanwhile, Poe has taken over command of the Rebel fleet, preparing to jump to light-speed when the tracker is disabled, when he is stopped by Leia.

The plan is in ruins. It’s a good middle-build crisis moment. How are the Rebels going to escape now?

Turns out, Leia and the others in charge of the Rebels already had a plan, which they were working on all along. They didn’t need to jump to light-speed again, because they were aiming for an old base where they could hide out. So there was no need for Finn and Rose to disappear off to the casino, and Poe’s mutiny was also pointless.

So they failed, but it had no impact on the story. The whole episode was of no consequence. It might have given the viewer some action scenes (Finn’s fight with Phasma‌—‌more on that later‌—‌and the faither stampede through the city), and introduced one of the more interesting characters in the film in DJ (or maybe I think that because I enjoy watching morally ambiguous characters), but as far as the story was concerned, it was nothing.

Yes, DJ saves himself by exposing the Rebels’ plan, but surely there could have been another way to weave this into the story (like, maybe, the First Order plot the possible path of the Rebel fleet and see that they are heading to an apparently abandoned planet). And yes, there were character moments, especially between Finn and Rose, but these could have been included elsewhere.

This was, for me, the biggest problem with the story, because it added too much wasted time to the film. But it wasn’t the only issue.

Kill the minions, then the big boss — not the other way round

In stories, battles and problems have to increase. The enemy has to grow harder to defeat in each conflict. It works the same in video games‌—‌kill the little guys and work your way up to the big boss. It keeps the tension high. And when the final bad guy is defeated, that’s a major resolution, maybe the ending payoff of the whole film or game (at least, until the next round).

But The Last Jedi kind of does away with this. We have the Supreme Leader, Snoke, who is this film’s equivalent of the Emperor in the original films. About half-way through the film, Kylo Ren takes the captured Rey to Snoke. Yes, we know that Ren is conflicted, with light and dark battling within, but this feels like a moment when dark wins.

snokeYet it doesn’t. He kills Snoke with a cheap trick (and for someone who seems to be inside both Ren and Rey’s heads, it’s surprising that Snoke doesn’t see this coming). The Supreme Leader is dead, killed by his protege. It should be a high-point of the film, a major resolution.

But then, Snoke’s guards attack, and we have the fight scene where the heroes battle through increasing odds. Only, the final battle is already behind them.

Yes, we get to see Rey and Ren battling side-by-side (although, personally, much of the fight choreography felt like it was trying too hard to please the audience, rather than showing us the characters’ true selves), and it sets the scene for their conflict afterwards, but it all feels a bit anticlimactic.

So, the big fight scene at the end wasn’t real?

And on the subject of big fight scenes, I have to comment on the one at the end, between Luke and Ren. This has been building throughout the film, seeded by the memories of what happened when Luke was training Ren as well as being the supposed Last Jedi’s final stand, and this film’s true battle between good and evil.

luke-skywalker-star-wars-last-jedi-hrYet there are major problems with this encounter. I could forgive the slowing down of the pace when Luke appears, as we have been waiting for him and Leia to have their moment together on screen‌—‌it doesn’t particularly work with the story’s flow, but it’s an audience-pleaser. And the shot where Luke heads out to face the First Order single-handed is visually arresting.

It’s after that things go awry. First, we have Luke being bombarded by everything the First Order has, and surviving.

But that’s cool, right? He’s stronger than ever. He’s what the Rebels have been waiting for. He’s going to save the day. How can this be a problem?

Heroes, to work effectively in a story, need to be flawed. The perfect character is ultimately boring, and we soon lose sympathy. If a hero has a flaw, an Achilles Heel, nothing is set in stone. Even though we know the hero will win the day (because, especially with films like Star Wars, that’s what we’ve come to see), we still need that slight uncertainty, because it keeps the tension high. If the hero is invincible, the big fight becomes little more than a formality.

By giving us an invincible Luke, The Last Jedi’s final scenes become routine.

And what of the fight between Luke and Ren itself? It’s been building, and we expect something jaw-dropping. We want a classic battle, with twists and turns as two masters go head-to-head. We want that moment when it looks like evil has triumphed, just before good rallies its strength and tears evil apart.

So what do we get in The Last Jedi? A bit of posturing, some verbal sparring, and a couple of parries.

Then Ren cuts through Luke with his light sabre.

This could have been fantastic. It has echoes of the fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film, where Obi-Wan basically sacrifices himself because he knows this will strengthen Luke. This could have been a glorious death, where good triumphs even as evil seems to have won.

Instead, the impervious Luke survives. Even when Ren sticks the light sabre through his chest, Luke is unaffected.

Because he’s not there. It’s some kind of projection, or ghost-self. In reality, he’s back on his island.

That might have been a cool concept to play with, but it left me feeling cheated. Not only is Luke invincible, but he’s also not really there. The whole fight, at that moment, became a sham. It wasn’t the big battle the film had promised. If Luke was facing the First Order to distract them from the Rebels’ escape, it also served to cheapen the story.

And a few other things

There were other things that didn’t sit right with me from a story-telling standpoint:

  • In Finn’s fight with Phasma, we see Finn fall off an edge. But what we don’t see is the moving platform just beneath him, until he reappears and kills Phasma. This felt like a bit of a deus-ex-machina, with luck saving the hero rather than the hero saving himself. Yet this problem could have been rectified so easily. If we’d seen, for example, Finn and Rose being brought up on the platform as prisoners, we would have the foreshadowing that would have made Finn’s reappearance after falling a cool ‘of course!’ moment.
  • Holdo’s sacrifice, when she sets a light-speed path through the First Order craft. Yes, it’s a good moment (and the lack of sound works well), but we haven’t had enough time with Holdo to care about her. She starts off as an antagonist to Poe, getting in the way of him saving the Rebels, and her sacrifice is consistent with a redemption plot. But as a small part of the larger story, it isn’t enough. It feels like a handy way to get rid of an unsympathetic character. I can’t help feeling that having someone like Leia making this sacrifice would have made a far greater impact (and, if Luke had physically died in his battle with Ren, while the Rebels escaped, Leia’s sacrifice would have provided foreshadowing for this, as well as being a great passing-the-baton moment, from the old characters to the new).
  • Poe gets chewed out (and demoted) for going against orders and leading the attack that resulted in the destruction of a First Order destroyer along with all the Rebel bombers. But whose orders were the bombers following? If they all went against Leia, isn’t that poor leadership on her part? And if (as seems to be hinted at) the plan was to bomb the destroyer anyway (otherwise why would the fighters and bombers be ready), surely Poe was simply following pre-arranged instructions. Why did the Rebels plan the mission if they weren’t prepared to follow it through?

Things it got right

It’s easy to be critical, and to focus on the problems. But that’s never the whole story, and there were many things in The Last Jedi that worked on a story level. They kept the tension high with a ‘ticking time bomb’ (the First Order chasing the Rebels as their fuel depleted, and the understanding that destruction is only a matter of time). And as messy as the whole Rose and Finn storyline was, the mentor/trainer storyline with Luke and Rey was well done.

Having a reluctant mentor is a classic trope, and The Last Jedi uses this effectively, giving us enough to understand and sympathise with Luke’s bitter attitude. It also shows Rey’s persistence, although maybe some failure from her along the way might have helped (but it would also have added time to an already long film). And Rey saving the Jedi writings was a nice touch, including Yoda’s line about there being nothing in the tree that Rey did not already have access to‌—‌foreshadowing that only becomes apparent in hindsight.

I also enjoyed how the story worked in Kylo Ren’s conflicted inner being, and this brought back memories of Darth Vader, and his eventual turning against the Emperor (maybe hinted at by Snoke’s line about seeing a new Vader in Ren.) I know I said I would only comment on this film, but his conflict does set things up well for Episode IX. This is also mirrored in Rey’s apparent willingness to look into the dark side (although she’s a bit of a cipher for ultimate good, so I’m doubtful that this will be developed.)

There’s also potential in DJ, even if the storyline he surfaced in was a mess. He reminds me in many ways of Han Solo‌—‌out for himself, and willing to bend what morals he has to look after number one, but with the potential to be one of the good guys.


So, what do I think of the film overall? It has its problems, and I think there were many missed opportunities to make something far stronger, but it isn’t a bad film. And maybe it was never meant to be a clear story. The main Star Wars films work in trilogies, so maybe it is better to view The Last Jedi not as a complete film, but as the middle build of a larger story. Maybe the problems in the story will, in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be important building-blocks, foreshadowing events in Episode IX.

Although that doesn’t make The Last Jedi a better film as its own thing.

Feel free to disagree with me. As I said earlier, these are my own thoughts, nothing more. If you think I’m way off the mark with any of this, let me know‌—‌I’ll listen to other points of view, and I’m willing to change my mind if your arguments convince me.

And I suppose that’s one way in which The Last Jedi has worked well. It’s got people talking about Star Wars again (just like The Force Awakens did). It’s once more increased the visibility of the brand. And it’s built more anticipation for Episode IX, for those who want to see an improvement and for those who want more of the same.

I just hope they come up with a good story.

What makes a scary story work?

graveyard-384604_1280Summer is over. Nights are stretching out, and days are growing colder. Leaves are falling from the trees.

It’s the time of year for Halloween stories.

But what makes a story scary? What is it in these tales that makes us shudder or gasp? How do scary stories work?

Trying to answer those questions in a thousand words or so is impossible, but I have a few general thoughts on this. I’m going to focus on a couple of films, but this all applies to books as well‌—‌I’ve kept these thoughts close while writing my own sci-fi/horror series. The films I’m going to mention most are Alien and An American Werewolf In London, and there will be spoilers below.

Normality

Scary stories are usually fairly extreme‌—‌undead creatures, different realities, powers that run counter to how physics tells us the world works. For this to have an impact, there needs to be something we can relate to. Horror is always worse when it is played out against an everyday backdrop. The creepy haunted house can work, but only if there is some kind or normality about it. Take Stephen King’s The Shining‌—‌the setting might be a large, seemingly empty old building cut off from the rest of the world, but it’s also a hotel, where people go to relax and enjoy themselves.

But the more mundane the setting, the greater the impact of the horror elements. The Exorcist is set in a normal house, with a single-parent family. In Poltergeist and Ring, TVs play an important part. Then there are the stories where dolls come to life and cause havoc, like Chucky in Child’s Play.

Why does this work well? Because we’re used to the normal stuff. We’ve probably all had good times in a hotel. Many of us live in regular houses. We watch TV. Our children have dolls and other toys. And in a scary story, these normal settings and objects take on new, frightening aspects.

AmericanWerewolfIn American Werewolf, we start on the Yorkshire Moors (slightly creepy because it’s night-time, but still relatively ‘normal’), and then go to London. It is relatively easy to imagine a monster stalking a dark, misty moorland, but surely not in a modern city.

Even a space-ship can seen normal. In Alien, there are no shiny control panels, and things look used. The crew are workers, and we can relate to them‌—‌yes, they might be in outer space, but they’re just doing a job. They’re just like us.

That familiarity helps us relate to what is happening in the story, but it also forces us to see our own surroundings in a new light. When a werewolf is staking people in a city, we start to wonder what that noise coming from outside might be. When toys come to life with murderous intent, those glassy eyes in the bedrooms of our children send a shudder down our spine.

Imagination is scarier than reality

Scary stories work best when things are left to the imagination. When all we are presented with is shadows, and maybe some kind of noise, our minds fill in the blanks — and our minds know just what terrifies us.

In Alien we don’t see the complete monster until the very end of the film. We see parts of it, in shadows. We see what it leaves behind. We see some of the characters’ reactions to it. But we don’t come face to face with it for a long time.

That’s one of the reasons the sequels don’t work as horror films‌—‌we see too much of the aliens. By the time we get to Alien Resurrection, and have two xenomorphs swimming effortlessly towards the camera, we know what to expect, and there is nothing like the same sense of dread.

Jaws works the same way (and that film borrows heavily from the horror genre). We never see any part of the shark until the second half of the film, and even then only see the whole thing near the end.

In both cases (Jaws and Alien), some of this was down to practicalities in the film-making process — there were not the resources to effectively show the whole monster. But the film-makers used this limitation to their advantage. Rather than try to show us everything, they left it up to us to create our own monster.

TheGrudgeThis is a classic case of ‘less is more’, and I’d like to give another example. In the original version of The Grudge, there is a scene with the main character having a shower, and a hand appears, rubbing her hair. There is no indication where this hand comes from — it’s suddenly there, touching her. She’s in the shower (an enclosed space) and she’s naked (and vulnerable), and suddenly there’s something else in there with her.

This scene doesn’t work as well in the American remake. Here, we get to see the hand growing from the back of the main character’s neck before it touches her head. This is grotesque, but it’s not nearly as scary as the original‌—‌precisely because what we don’t know can be worse than what we see.

Those who tell good scary stories understand that less is more, and that when our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, it taps into our own fears to conjure up something personally terrifying.

Anticipation is vital

Something jumping out and going ‘boo’ might make us jump, but that fright is gone as quickly as it appears. For longer-lasting terror, there has to be a build-up. There have to be small clues that tell us ‘something’s not right’. The dread must creep up on us, like dark mist, until we suddenly realise that we are being smothered.

The Monkey’s Paw is a great example of this. (Again, there’s going to be spoilers. If you haven’t read this story, it’s in the public domain, so you should be able to get hold of a copy for free. Check out Project Gutenberg.) The monkey’s paw grants wishes, and at first that seems like a good thing. But the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true here. The couple who find the paw wish for money, and it duly arrives‌—‌as compensation for the death of their son in a workplace accident.

This is the set-up. We learn that wishes come at a price.

The mother wants her son back. The father had to identify the body, so he knows just what the accident did to their son. He tries to stop his wife, but she grabs the paw and makes her wish.

There’s a knock at the door. The mother races down the stairs, and struggles to free the latch. Meanwhile, the father is scrambling around, dreading what will happen when his wife sees the abomination at the door. She’s thrown the monkey’s paw down somewhere, and he has to find it. He needs to stop what’s about to happen.

We never get a description of the son, but that doesn’t matter. We can imagine it (again, the power of imagination), but what gets our hearts pumping is the race between the mother and the father, and the fear of what will happen when she opens the door.

It is the anticipation that drives the horror.

AmericanWerewolfSceneI’ll give another example, from one of the most memorable sequences in American Werewolf. We see a commuter stepping off a tube train. The train disappears into the tunnel, leaving him alone on a platform. He hears a noise, but he thinks nothing of it, and he carries on his way. The noise repeats, and he calls out, telling whoever it is that he doesn’t find this funny in the slightest. But there is definitely something around. He starts to get nervous. He walks faster, and then he starts to run.

We do see the werewolf, briefly, but by that time the commuter has collapsed on an escalator. The werewolf appears at the bottom, and starts to climb. We cut back to see the commuter, as he watches this thing approach, and the terror grows on his face.

I can’t remember if we see the attack. But I can remember the build-up, because that is the scary part.

The false ending

This occurs in thrillers a lot, but works very well in horror too. It’s usually the moment where everyone in the cinema jumps out of their seats at the same time.

There’s an example part-way through American Werewolf, in a dream sequence. The main character watches his family being slaughtered by monster-soldier things, and when one of them pulls a knife across his throat he wakes up with a jerk. He’s in his hospital bed, with a nurse watching over him. It was only a dream. The nurse, seeing he’s awake, goes to open the curtains.

And as she reached the window, one of the monsters leaps out and stabs her in the chest.

It’s a shock because we never for a moment suspect that he’s still dreaming.

Alien_posterAlien saves the false ending for the final moments of the film. Ripley sets the Nostromo to self-destruct, then races to reach the escape pod (after finding the ship’s cat, of course). There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and the alien is somewhere on the ship. It’s a great sequence, and when she finally seals herself into the escape pod and ejects, and the Nostromo explodes, we feel her relief.

And then something moves in the shadows. She has not destroyed the alien. It is in the escape pod with her.

False endings are often the most memorable parts of stories. We already have the build-up of adrenaline in the tension-filled scene before, and then we have that fake release, followed by the sudden shock that makes our hearts leap.

It’s the perfect scare.

So there you have a few reasons scary stories work. Of course there are more (like the fate worse than death, and the corruption of innocence), and I’m interested on your thoughts on this. What gets your heart racing in a story? What makes you jump out of your skin in a book or a film?

 

When Novelisations Work

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems of film novelisations, using Star Wars as an example (and you can read that post here). It’s time to redress the balance, and write about a book-of-the-film that works.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleI first read William Kotzwinkle’s novelisation of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when it came out, back in 1982. I remember enjoying it, and I can also recall thinking that it felt like a ‘grown-up book’. It had some rude words in it, and for a young boy this was a definite plus-point.

As far as I can tell, it is no longer in print, and my copy disappeared long ago. However, I came across an audiobook version on Youtube a few weeks ago, and gave it a listen. And I really enjoyed it.

I think the ‘rude words’ I remember occurred in a scene where Elliot and his brother are arguing, and one of them uses the phrase ‘penis-breath’ as an insult. Nowadays, that’s not too shocking, but this was the eighties, and I wasn’t yet a teenager. It was one of those phrases that contained the proper biological term, so it was almost okay, but it still pushed the boundaries. It’s a phrase I can imagine children using. They might not understand why it could be insulting, or what it implied, but it was definitely not something you wanted to be called. It wasn’t a phrase many parents would allow their children to use.

In the book after that insult is thrown out, Kotwzinkle gives us a glimpse into the mother’s thoughts. She wonders where her children could have picked up such a phrase, and worries about what else they might be exposed to. And underlying this (and much of the mother’s musings) is a feeling that she’s losing control. She’s a single mother of three children, holding down a job and trying her best, but maybe that’s not good enough.

This moment highlights why Kotwzinkle’s ET is more than just a reminder of the film. He gives us rich insights into the characters’ thoughts and emotions. He doesn’t simply describe what happens on screen, but translates those subtle facial expressions into an interior dialogue that breathes life into the pages.

Kotzwinkle does this for the character of ET as well. In the film, the alien comes across as child-like — he’s smaller than the children, and he shows a bemused wonder at much of the world around him. At times (such as when he samples beer and becomes drunk), he’s there to provide comic moments. But in the book he is an ancient scientist, specialising in Earth’s plant-life. He is intelligent, and he cares greatly for plants and all other life. When he becomes drunk, he is confused, and we feel for him.

He also feels drawn to Mary, the mother. This might be hinted at in the film (it’s a long time since I’ve seen it), but in the book he becomes infatuated with ‘the willowy one’. When he is dressed up (a ‘comedy moment’ in the film), Kotzwinkle has him wondering if Mary will accept him if he looks more like a human. This interior dialogue turns a light-hearted break in the action into an internal struggle, and draws us closer to ET.

The film, like many of Spielberg’s others, is a ‘children’s film for all ages’, and I can’t help but think that Kotwzinkle was aiming this book at an older audience. Where the film saw things through the eyes of the children, especially Elliot, the book focuses more on ET and Mary. It’s a subtle shift, but one that helps make the book more rounded. Children can still read the book, and enjoy the story of ET and Elliot. But older readers are able to understand Mary’s worries, and are presented with a far richer story.

Kotzwinkle has written many children’s books, so he must have known what he was doing. And I would imagine he was given the freedom to go where his writer’s instinct led him. Whoever commissioned this novelisation must have known they were hiring someone with literary credentials, and they let him do what he had to do.

Yet he doesn’t stray the events in the film. Like the Star Wars novel, it’s almost a scene-by-scene rendition. But it takes the visuals and the dialogue as a starting point. It delves into the characters, using the palate of words rather than visuals and sound. It uses the strengths of writing to turn Melissa Mathison’s screenplay into a proper novel.

Maybe the Star Wars novelisation is an anomaly. I haven’t read enough books like this to draw any firm conclusions, but I did listen to the Dark Star audiobook recently. This was written by Alan Dean Foster (who also wrote the Star Wars novelisation), and much of this book is concerned with the characters’ internal struggles. It manages to turn a surreal film with a minimal plot into something intriguing and engrossing. In the film, characters stare off into the depths of space. In the book, we delve into their thoughts, their desires and their fears. It still retains the humour of the film, but adds a rich underbelly, much as Kotzwinkle’s ET adds another layer to Spielberg’s film.

Both books show that movie novelisations can stand up as novels, and can even, in many ways, surpass their source material.

Oh, the audiobook version of ET I found is on the ‘Audiobooks for the Damned’ channel on Youtube. If you have any interest in 80s films (from blockbusters like Back To The Future and Terminator to cult classics like Scanners and the aforementioned Dark Star), and a few hours listening time spare, check it out.

The Problem With Novelisations

There are many ways to tell a story. Two of the most popular are books and films, and although the same story can be told in both formats, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it is rare that a single title will work well on both screen and page.

In my experience, if the movie is an adaptation of a novel (or short story), the movie will not work as well. Conversely, if the book is a movie novelisation, the original film will be superior. There are exceptions, where both book and movie stand up on their own (Fight Club, The Princess Bride, Lord Of The Rings, and Trainspotting spring to mind), but generally whichever came first is the stronger telling, and the adaption is a reflection.

StarWarsI read the original Star Wars novel when it came out (way back in 1977). I’m sure I enjoyed it, because I remember reading it a few times. But I re-read it recently, and I was unimpressed‌—‌and I think I know what the problem was.

It follows the film too closely.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Harry Potter books is that JK Rowling doesn’t write novels, but films in prose form. Maybe that’s overly harsh, but the books are very visual, and it is easy to play the films along mentally when reading them. But if Harry Potter is films in prose, Star Wars is little more than a straight description of what appears on the screen.

Yes there are some additional scenes, and occasionally we are in the heads of one of the characters, but generally, the book describes the film, scene by scene. It’s like a fleshed-out script. Yes, reading the book reminded me of the film, but it also made me regret wasting my time ploughing through the words when I could have got a better experience spending two hours with the DVD.

Films are visual, but books need to work harder to evoke similar images. An expression on a character’s face can convey emotion, but to convey the same emotion in words requires more (or different) work. It is not enough to simply describe the images.

Think of the space battles in Star Wars. On the screen, we cut between close-ups of the pilots and wide shots of X-Wing fighters screaming past. There are explosions all around. We hear voices, and laser fire. Everywhere is action and adrenaline-fuelled excitement, and the speed of movement only increases the tension.

In the book, we get paragraphs describing these quick cuts, and they soon become a list of what is happening rather than a narrative of the action. One moment, we’re with Luke, then suddenly we have someone firing a missile from another fighter. Then we’re back with Luke for a moment, before a paragraph describes fighters screaming through the trench on the Death Star. After that, we’re in another cockpit, with sparks surrounding the pilot as he cries out.

The cutaways work on film, but not in the book.

I’ll give another example. At one point in the film, the camera watches R2-D2 following a path on Tattoine, and we get the impression that he (it?) is being watched, and we feel nervous anticipation. In the book, we get a description of this scene, but it conveys next to no emotion.

Why? In the film, we are concerned about the little robot (or at least we are interested in seeing what happens next). We feel for R2. But with a straight description, everything is distant. We are too far removed from what is happening.

For that scene to work in text, I can’t help feeling it would have been better to be in R2’s head, or at least see his point of view. Maybe have a description of the rugged terrain, and the caves along the route, with R2’s sensors picking up life-forms. There’s movement, high up on a cliff, but when R2 turns his head, it’s already gone. But he has his mission, and he needs to carry on, even though he doesn’t like this inhospitable terrain. And there are all the stories he’s heard, and the information in his data banks, of the creatures that roam this desert planet.

See what I mean? In text, we need to be closer to the characters’ emotions. We need more than a description of what is happening. A cool scene in a film might grab us, and a brief glance at a character is often all that is needed to convey emotion, but in a book we often need something more internal.

The book is a ‘novelisation of the film’, and so maybe the author (credited as George Lucas, but I believe Alan Dean Foster did the actual writing) was limited to what he could do. Or maybe the book was rushed, being pushed through to release at the same time as the film. After all, Star Wars was the movie where merchandising really took off, and the ‘book of the film’ perhaps should be seen in light of that.

Back in the seventies, the only way to see the film was at a cinema, until it was released on video three years later, and on television a couple of years after that. Fans didn’t have the opportunity of on-demand viewing, but the merchandise surrounding a film kept it fresh. The action figures enabled fans to reenact their favourite scenes. And maybe the book’s main purpose was to be a reminder of the film, and the way the movie played out in my head as I read the book should be seen as a mark of its success.

I can’t help thinking it could have been a great novel, though. The story itself is a classic, taking the Hero’s Journey and placing it in an exciting new setting, with alien worlds to explore and a cast of interesting characters. And these characters have conflicting motives that change over time. The story has an incredible scope, from the bickering robots to the world-destroying space-station, from Luke being ripped from his quiet home life to Leia’s political machinations, from Solo’s ‘get what you can’ attitude to the battle of ideologies between Empire and Rebellion. Love and death, war and peace, survival and friendship‌—‌Star Wars touches on them all.

Surely this deserves more than a bulked-out movie script.

Wayward Pines, Star Wars and the Structure of a Series

 

I’ve just finished reading the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (okay, so it sometimes takes me a long time to get round to books), and I really enjoyed it. I loved the way Crouch evoked the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, and when the truth behind the town of Wayward Pines was revealed, it was not at all what I was expecting. The trilogy was well-paced, and although I read them fast, they didn’t feel rushed. But there was one thing in particular that I kept on thinking about, and that was how well the series was structured.

In fact, the series structure reminded me a lot of the original Star Wars films. I’ll explain this in more detail as I go on.

The first book, Pines, starts off like an amnesia thriller (with a main character coming to after an accident and not understanding exactly what’s going on around him), and for the first half things get stranger and stranger. When the ending does come, it works well, bringing the book to a satisfying close while still leaving enough open for a sequel.

This is one thing that struck me — although the book is part of a series, it is also complete in itself. If I had not gone on to read others, or if Crouch had not written them, this book would still work. It’s like that first Star Wars film (IV, not I) — the story ends, yet there is so much more that could be explored in the story universe.

Wayward, the second book, picks things up a short while after the first finishes, and it has a different feel. Where the first book is more of a mystery, as the main character uncovers the truth of the town, the second looks at what he will do now that he knows this truth. And it’s good that it feels different — it’s not like a big-budget film sequel, where the story is basically the same, but the explosions are bigger and the body count is higher. Instead, it takes the original idea and expands on it.

Where the first book comes to a definite close, things are different at the close of the second book. Although the main story arc is brought to a conclusion, there is a huge cliffhanger. The hero manages to win, but the final chapter stars to show the dire consequences of this, and it’s clear that he’s not out of danger yet — in fact, the worst is yet to come.

Back to the Star Wars trilogy, and The Empire Strikes Back. In that film, Luke has survived his duel with Darth Vader, but he’s lost a hand, and Han Solo’s frozen in carbonite. We know, as viewers, that the story is not yet over.

With Wayward Pines, if this had been the ending of the first book, I would have felt annoyed. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. Unless a book makes it pretty clear that there will be a cliffhanger ending (for instance, if it is clearly part of a serial), I expect some sort of complete story, and if the story is left hanging I feel tricked. Even if the story is good enough that I want to find out what happens next, a big part of me resents paying out for this. I’ve read too many continuing stories where, a few books in, it feels like the author has run out of steam, and I’m left reading something that fizzles out to nothing.

Yet I didn’t have a problem with this ending in Wayward. I think there’s two reasons for this. First, there was a full story, despite the cliffhanger. Second, it was the second book in the series, not the first. I’d read enough to know I was enjoying the ride, and I was invested in the series. I went on to get the third because I genuinely wanted to, and not because I needed to know what happened next.

So on to the third book, The Last Town. It starts off exactly where the second ends, and the initial third is pretty much non-stop action. Initially this concerned me — I wondered if the action was being used to disguise a weak plot — but the story is solid when it kicks in. And, again, it was not simply a rehash of what had gone before.

The ending of the book works well, and also brings the complete trilogy to a solid conclusion. There is a single-line epilogue that leaves scope for more books, and there are plenty of aspects of the story-world that could be developed, but the trilogy feels like a whole. Although I’d happily buy more Wayward Pines books, I don’t need them in order to feel that I’ve had a great reading experience.

Again, this is like that original Star Wars trilogy. Yes, there are all the other stories, either films or books, and more are planned. But the original three films work on their own. I can explore more of this universe, but I don’t have to in order to understand the originals.

The way the Wayward Pines trilogy is structured gives me something else — confidence that Crouch won’t write a follow-on simply because ‘it will sell’. If there are more books, I would imagine they will be thought-out, and will expand on rather than retread ideas.

So as a summary, what have I learnt about the structure of a series from these books? This is personal, and you might not agree with this, but for me, there are three main things:

  • I don’t like to feel tricked into buying more books, so for me a complete story, with sequel potential, works well (especially as the first book in a series).
  • If there is a cliffhanger ending, the book still needs an overall story arc that is satisfying.
  • Second and third books should not simply be ‘more of the same’, but should push into other areas.

I’ll probably write more at some point on what I think makes a good or bad series (or serial), but I’ll leave it for now.

(See what I’ve done there? I’ve come to the conclusion of this post, but I’ve left it open for a sequel. Maybe the next time I write about this topic, I’ll have to make it a two-parter.)