Storytelling: Having a Backbone

By: Daniel Amaro

 

        When I was a little kid, about 6 or 7, I was enjoying a quiet night of reading a book I can’t remember the name of. It didn’t last; my dad stomped up to my door and knocked on it; he had with him a concrete demand to join him in the living room. It didn’t matter what tone he used; I’ve learned to comply every time he’s told me to do something. So, I got out of bed and followed him there. I couldn’t help but worry a bit; I thought it was going to be about a bad grade. Either that, or it was about the arguments I was getting into with my classmates. Either way, I spent the walk to the living room thinking he was going to ream into me. I’m pleased to say it was neither of those; the stack of DVD cases sitting on the table told me otherwise. 

 

        My dad had decided it was time to broaden my film horizons, and show me something he grew up with; a very specific trilogy of movies. I couldn’t say no; I didn’t spend time thinking about what kind of media I consumed, I was always open to trying something new. Truth be told, I didn’t know anything about these films, just their fame and their titles; I think that’s why I went in with high expectations. So, I sat on the sofa while my dad set up the first film; I wasn’t entirely sure why he kept claiming it was the “first movie”, when I could clearly see “Episode 4” emblazoned on the front of the box. Still, he inserted the DVD in the player, took a seat near me, and we kicked back as the show started. It quickly became clear the films EARNED their reputation. 

 

        The first thing I saw was the opening line, fading into view in a blue font: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”. It remained there for a few seconds before it faded away again, leaving nothing but the black screen. I glanced at my dad and he looked back at me; part of me was curious what was going to happen next. My dad gave me a knowing grin then; I’ve learned that grin meant something was up. Then the trumpets started. For the second time, I jumped… and I sat mesmerized as the gold-outlined opening title flared onto a now-starry screen, followed by the opening crawl of golden text giving us the basic plot of the movie; through my dumbfounded stupor, I made out words and sentences like “rebels”, “galactic empire”, “Death Star”, all while the blare of the trumpet faded to a powerful orchestra. By the time I saw the first starship flying over Tatooine, followed a few seconds later by the far larger Star Destroyer, the shock had faded away and was replaced by glee; I knew EXACTLY what I would be watching, over and over again, for a long time. 

 

        My dad and I got through all three movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, in just one night. As I got older, I put time into learning the lore behind the movies. I read the comics and the books. I watched the prequels and survived Jar Jar Binks. Pretty soon, I ended up a fan. There was a lot that made me love the property, but the things that truly drew me into it were the characters; for all the flashy special effects, grand storytelling, space battles and costume designs, the core of Star Wars lies in people like Luke, Han, Leia, Vader, Palpatine, and countless others; regardless of allegiance, these characters carry the story. Something I noticed about Star Wars is how it treats its minor characters; they receive names, backstories, sometimes even their own comics. None of us cared about the Imperial officer who fired the killing shot that destroyed Alderaan. But someone evidently did, because even that guy ended up with his own story. Years later, I read an announcement that Disney had acquired the rights to the Star Wars properties. I grew up on a lot of their movies, so I was excited to see what direction the company would take the franchise. Looking back on it, I honestly think I failed to consider the long-term ramifications; mostly I was concerned about being at the premiere to The Force Awakens

 

        I… didn’t make it to the premiere. But watching the first film of the sequel trilogy was still certainly the experience. When I saw the fanfare explode onto the screen, just like it did in the original film, it was like my childhood hitting me in the face. And when the two hours were up and the end credits began, the theater erupted in applause. But I walked out of there unable to really make up my mind; sure, what I saw was amazing, a great way to usher in a new generation of Star Wars fans. But I also couldn’t help but feel it was too… similar to the original film; similar spaceship designs, a clone of the Empire versus a clone of the Rebellion… the list went on. Ultimately, I brushed off my worries. I was another hardcore fan in an ocean filled with them, so I figured my opinions wouldn’t mean much. As per J.J. Abrams’ style, he left a lot of “Easter eggs” in his film; setups for plotlines placed here and there, and I was hoping to see them explored in the inevitable sequel. 

 

        I realized I was right to be worried when that sequel did arrive. 2017 gave us The Last Jedi, and 2019 The Rise of Skywalker. As I sat through those two works, watching the storylines I grew to love crumble apart, I felt something. Whatever joy and excitement I had was now leaking out of me like water from a faucet. All that was left was unbridled disappointment. The Force Awakens had the beginnings of different plotlines set up; what happened to Phasma? How was Finn going to develop further as a potentially-force sensitive ex-Stormtrooper? Who was Snoke? Not only did The Last Jedi not follow through on those setups, it seemed to take an active glee in sabotaging them; in attempting to “subvert expectations” and do something different, it ended up derailing what The Force Awakens was trying to build up. 

 

        In this new era of storytelling, many writers fall into the trap of sacrificing plot for the sake of surprising their audience; we can call this “subverting expectations”, and a great way to screw it up is if the writer has no idea what they’re doing; The Last Jedi was no exception to this. The end result was an incoherent clusterfuck of dropped storylines, plot convenience and contradictions in lore, visual effects that had no substance beyond making the film look cool, and worst of all? Characters with even less depth than the puddles of rain I liked jumping in as a kid; Finn is sidelined to the comic-relief after all the buildup he received in the first film. Poe is turned into the hotshot pilot with the classic development of learning how to be calmer. Phasma gets about 7 minutes of screen time before she goes off and dies, and we have to learn about her through supplementary material. The biggest insult, however, is Snoke; he’s talked up as an evil even greater than Palpatine, and yet he amounts to nothing, killed without so much as leaving a mark. Truly, this film was the first sign that Disney went in without a plan. In the end, I walked out of the theater among confused and disappointed fellow fans. All I could think about was what the third film would look like after this. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t great. 

 

        I simply can’t call Rise of Skywalker as bad as The Last Jedi… because in many ways, it’s worse. Like the last film, it runs on coincidence and subversions rather than building up to the next part of the plot, and relying on concepts; the difference is that Rise of Skywalker felt like it was trying to fix the active sabotage of Last Jedi, and the entire film had an “overcast” over it; a dull, almost rehashed atmosphere, a mark that at some point, Disney just stopped caring. The characters don’t fare well either; for instance, Lando Calrissian is barely even in the movie, and mainly they use him to charm the rest of the galaxy into helping the Resistance, in a scene I can only describe as a rip-off of the “portals” scene from Avengers: Endgame. And there’s Rey herself. Most of the characters who have been built up as major players have been sidelined, just to make way for her; a character none of us can relate to, because there’s nothing about her that stands out to us. There is no distinguishable personality, she’s inexplicable skilled in things she logically shouldn’t know about… after a while, it becomes irritating. Between that and the other issues with the film, and the dawning realization of how thoroughly Disney has squandered this, irritation from fans was quick to turn to anger. 

 

        I’ve lost track of the times I’ve sat down in front of my computer, opened a Word document, and tried to find the words that could properly explain my feelings on the matter. Up until now, the absolute best I could muster was just one word: disrespectful. In just two movies, Disney managed to uproot over 40 years of lore, character arcs, and worst of all, fan investment in the story. Personally, I’m of the opinion that fan reception holds far more worth than that of a professional critic; these days, critics seem too obsessed in political messages. But fan reception is based on the merits of a story that left them with a satisfying payoff; people don’t want a political agenda, they want something good, and as entitled as it may sound, a storyteller DOES owe their fans that payoff. Sticking to a story from start to finish means it eventually becomes part of a fan’s world, and actively antagonizing the fanbase while taking something they love apart? It never ends well. Thus, fan reception was absolutely scorching; we felt cheated

 

        It’s been about a year since then, and I’ve had PLENTY of time to accept an ugly truth about Disney. At heart, they’re a corporation. A corporation’s goal is to make money; Disney just happens to be obsessed with presenting themselves as a pioneer of societal “wokeness”, and they likely saw a chance to further that reputation in Star Wars. I’m not against progressiveness; I’m all for it, especially if it leads to a better future. But if it screws up a good story, we definitely won’t be happy. In trying to push political nonsense into a set of new films, Disney forgot (or ignored) the things that truly made Star Wars great; it’s not the cool space battles, or the escapism that gave people a chance to get out of the pain of the current era (though that certainly played a part); it was the story’s heart and soul that stuck with us for generations, given through the characters and their relationships and their struggle to work towards a happy ending. 

 

        Still, I have these movies to thank for some things; they taught me what to avoid in my own work, and I hope I can pass this off to you. The first thing I want to note is a tip; I’ve learned this one from doing my own personal writing, watching others forget it, and most recently, the chaos of corporate hacks trying to cash in on George Lucas’s magnum opus: storytelling is and will always remain the backbone of writing. I’m going to try and explain it in terms of food; think of storytelling as a cake. It’s the spongy, delicious part that readers devour and enjoy, and we count characters in this part as well. Now we take the icing into account; sure, the action, the superpowers, the cool character designs and the sultry sex scenes give the story flavor, but that’s all they are; the icing on the cake. So, ask yourselves… what exactly happens when the cake itself is missing, and all that’s left is the icing? Take a look at the Star Wars sequel trilogy for your answer. It’s like eating a snack without a characteristic taste; it probably wouldn’t even leave you satiated, because there isn’t even a story there to leave you satisfied.

 

        There’s something else I want to point out; the last thing you want to do is dedicate your supplementary material to explaining what the fuck is happening. What precisely was the First Order? How did Palpatine get brought back to life? What were those planets Starkiller Base destroyed, and why was the New Republic limited to just them? Tying this back to what I said about storytelling, Disney had so little time to answer these questions, that they had to tell it in comics and manuals; another sign that they failed to prioritize the story. If you can, find a way to work exposition in to describe the concepts in your story, but don’t put all the focus on it; it might even leave you with some potential plot points to go back to in future work! 

 

        Finally, I want to focus on the thing that truly doomed the sequel trilogy, “subverting expectations”. Being able to surprise the audience is great, being able to build up to it is even better; throw some foreshadowing or hints in there to help readers anticipate what happens, and make sure the payoff leaves them satisfied even if they saw it coming. Of course, there’s always the chance you make the buildup too obvious, but it’s certainly better than having no buildup at all; you will only be muddying the coherency of the storyline, and then there’s the disappointed and angry readers to consider. 

 

        The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy should be held up as an example. Sadly, I’m not talking as a reminder of the diversity and political “wokeness” Disney is so desperately trying to convey. They need to be remembered as a mark of what happens when storytelling is sidelined or outright ignored, in favor of spewing political bullshit, barely-thought out concepts, inconsistent characters with no personality beyond how they must be to further the plot, characters you can’t relate to because they have no flaws that HELPS you relate to them, and active refusal to hand off the property to someone who can not only get it done, but also cares. 

        So… fuck you, Disney. For turning a piece of my childhood—and one of the biggest inspirations for my own literary universe of fantasy, magic, sci-fi and heroes—into the cinematic equivalent of reheating stale leftovers.