What Not to Do – Lessons for Writers from THE FORCE AWAKENS

BEWARE SPOILERS (Obvs)

First, it should be said that I am not a Sith. Let’s get that out of the way. But The Force Awakens has been out for over a week now, so it’s time to take off the cloak of Star Wars fandom and get a little more real. I’ve seen it twice and enjoyed it both times, but the numerous script issues kept it firmly in the “good, not great” category when it could have risen so much higher. This presents a perfect opportunity for us to do a little deconstruction and learn some writing lessons. So, here are seven things The Force Awakens should teach writers.

1. Let your story breathe.
Whatever your story needs to accomplish, give enough space to get it done and slow down once in a while. Let us get to know the characters–and let them get to know each other–in quieter moments, not just moments of action or peril. Readers need to connect with characters before caring that they’re in danger. Also, we need to believe the characters’ relationships with each other, which means they need to be earned. Can anyone explain how Poe and Finn were suddenly best friends after knowing each other for literally minutes? What about Rey seeing Han as a father figure after spending basically a day with him? Because these relationships were given virtually no time to develop, they felt contrived and unearned. The only reasoned they managed to somewhat work is that the actors had good chemistry.

2. Know when enough is enough.
You can only cram so much plot and so many characters into one story before it bursts at the seams. Try to do too much and what you end up with is less a story and more a patchwork of loosely connected scenes. You end up sacrificing even necessary exposition in the interest of word count (or screen time, in this case). For instance, think about all the warring political structures in The Force Awakens. The First Order is some manner of oppressive government still plaguing the galaxy. There’s also the New Republic, which was born from the Rebellion after the Empire fell. Between them is the Resistance, which apparently the New Republic has denied supporting. But if the First Order and the New Republic grew from the Empire and the Rebellion respectively, why would the New Republic make a secret of opposing the remnants of their old enemy? Everyone would already know their history, so there would be no point in denying it. The screenwriters may know exactly why this is the way things are, but if so, they didn’t leave enough room to explain all the apparent logical gaps.

3. Don’t over-plant seeds for sequels.
Seeds are called that because they should be hidden and take up very little space. They should never distract from the story you’re telling now. If readers can easily point and say that’s a seed for later, you probably took a narrative wrong turn. The Force Awakens did this so much that it was hard to keep track of them all. Some of that time would have been better spent on the story of this movie.

4. Don’t cut corners with your story.
That means don’t overlook gaping plot holes, take crazy leaps, or write something too ridiculous to excuse. It comes across as insulting the reader’s intelligence, as if you believe they won’t notice. Trust me, they will. A planet that eats suns, and when it’s destroyed there’s suddenly a tiny sun in its place? Rey never learned how to use the Force, yet she’s mind-tricking stormtroopers and defeating a trained Dark Force warrior? Please. Now, some may argue that the next movies could reveal Rey actually did have Jedi training as a child. If that’s the case, this movie failed to suggest it adequately enough to make her sudden skills believable. (It would also force the next movies to explain her apparent amnesia.) If it turns out she does have some secret Jedi history, it would have taken a mere line or two of dialogue to make the suggestion without revealing the full story.

5. Don’t dumb down characters for plot convenience.
Tying in with the last point, Kylo Ren fought two characters who had barely even held a lightsaber, and somehow not only did they survive, but Rey actually beat him. NO. He would have cut the newbies to smoking ribbons in a matter of seconds, and again, Rey’s possible Jedi history is not a factor because it was not adequately represented (if it’s the case at all). The fact that Kylo Ren somehow forgot his training takes narrative convenience to the level of narrative cheating.

6. Don’t over-rely on humor.
Humor is great when it’s used wisely, in the right moments. When it’s not, it comes across as ham-fisted and so try-hard that it undercuts the drama, which lessens the stakes you’re going to so much effort to build. The most egregious recent example of this was Iron Man 3, which made a joke of everything until nothing could be taken seriously. The Force Awakens wasn’t nearly on that level, but there were definitely times when it tried too hard to be clever. Unless you’re writing a full-on comedy, use humor like a scalpel and not a sledge hammer.

7. If there are no real consequences, then there are no real stakes.
So, the Death Star–er, Starkiller Base–destroys multiple planets, including the one hosting the New Republic’s central government. What happened after that? What were the consequences? Absolutely nothing. Not only does it not affect the plot, but no one in the Resistance even mentions that the government supporting their movement has been literally vaporized. The destruction has no weight because the story and the characters don’t give it any weight. It’s the First Order’s big move, but it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. So, why should we care?

These are all fixable problems. So take note, writers, and don’t let them creep into your own work.

Now, suit up and get writing!

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