Sometimes you want to jump into the deep end. Sometimes you think better and check the depth first. Then you realize there are monsters lurking beneath the surface. As it was when I wrote an article spouting off about the Star Wars prequels.
My article was a reaction to the Obi-Wan Kenobi stand-alone movie. Sixteen years as a hermit in the Tatooine desert just sounds boring to me. Especially when the prequels should’ve been written around his point of view, anyhow. Then I thought I should probably do a little research. I couldn’t be the only person to have an opinion on these movies.
<Clicks on first thing.> Mr. Plinkett’s movie review. Good as any, I guess.
Hmm… this Obi-Wan POV thing sounds naïve.
My article made me watch the movie reviews. The movie reviews pointed out major flaws. I then recognized those major flaws in the first novel I’d ever written. In those flaws, I saw well-worn patterns of new writers.
Basically, I came to an astounding conclusion watching these Mr. Plinkett reviews, one that rocked my writerly self-identity. The only reason I’d started writing was out of revenge for my unarticulated disappointment with the Star Wars prequels. Yet in this quest for revenge, I wrote in every way I unknowingly despised.
That Plinkett guy pretty much covered everything. Despite the narrator’s slow dumb talking, the humorous/horrific serial killer shtick, or the overwrought fixation on pizza rolls, the character Harry S. Plinkett described perfectly all that was wrong with these movies in a balanced tone of WTF and genuine compassionate critique. The reviews dove much deeper into the Star Wars prequels than I could’ve and explained how so many awesome devices were totally ruined by a lack of subtextual understanding.
Basically, George Lucas gets all the blame for the prequels. He gets all the credit for the originals, too. These two sets of movies create bookends of what’s good and bad in storytelling. Ideally, progress goes from bad to good over time, but not so much with these. I’ll let Plinkett describe that.
But here’s what got me. I saw the same processes, reasoning, and justifications from the first novel I’d ever written illustrated in these movie reviews. That’s when I saw what the mirror had been reflecting the entire time. I’d become the monster I’d swore to vanquish.
I still remember the day it all started. Standing at my workstation, wondering what went wrong, writing my first story ever on the back of scratch paper swearing it would be better than Star Wars. Ambition was not my shortcoming. Writing skill was. Over several sporadic years, an epic space opera unfolded and fourteen hundred hand-written pages later….
I took the first third to a writers conference ready to get rich. Instead, I discovered a couple basic reasons it sucked. Boring and unreadable for starters, then it went downhill from there.
Here’s the thing. Nobody said the story idea sucked. It was written by a base armature with no education or training. I had no idea how a story should be told so it didn’t sound like microwave instructions. Exposition, cheap trauma, clunky dialog and the most egregious of all—wandering POV.
Plinkett pointed out all of these in the Star Wars prequels.
But Lucas had written brilliant pieces in his earlier career. I mean… fucking STAR WARS!!
Exposition—how many times were we treated to long scenes in the Jedi council discussing or revealing information about the plot instead of watching the plot unfold? Yes, my first novel was rife with exposition, hell, so was my second. Jury’s still out on the third. Exposition is a trap all beginning writers fall into. They’re often unsure of what’s important and how to say it so they throw in the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, elaborate scenes and vivid imaginations (as if that’s a bad thing) take on greater importance than necessary and wind down confusing roads. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes a work of art great because so much relies on elements that were artfully left out. It’s something that needs to be experienced.
Cheap trauma—characters need believable motivations to do the things the plot demands, otherwise, readers can’t identify, get bored and don’t trade you their money. There’s a balancing act between making a reader want what the character wants and annoying the bejesus out of them. New writers often use violence and humiliation to justify implausible actions. I know I did. I remember wondering what should happen to make this character abandon the old ways. Something to break it down for a chance to grow and take control. Ah ha! Rape. Then I wrote it feeling very uncomfortable, yet believing this form of trauma was the only way to transform my character. This was weak writing. It was not compelling, did not foster the kind of sympathy I had expected, took readers out of the story and turned the antagonist into a cartoon bad guy. There was no nuance. There was no possibility of return for the antagonist, nothing to compel readers toward sympathy for that character’s perspective. I couldn’t build or sustain consequence filled tension for the duration of the book. The character was all bad. Just kill it. Why read the rest?
With the Star Wars prequels, we see cheap trauma transforming a character (though we’re never given a real protagonist) when Anakin’s mother is abducted and abused by the Sand People. This inspires the rage that nudges Anakin toward his dark feelings. Immediately everyone saw what this scene did to create the antagonist Darth Vader that we know and love. But it also created deeper problems for the rest of the movies. How could anyone, except a severely damaged person, like Anakin after that? Yes, his actions were understandable, but too far, man. Too far. It made Anakin all bad and irredeemable, yet there was always supposed to be a modicum of goodness in Darth Vader. Generals leading armies under some form of orders at least have a sliver of excuse. An out of control child-killing maniac? Nope. Not even burning him in hot lava and imprisoning him in a robot suit brought back any sympathy.
Clunky dialog—Write like humans talk and you realize civilization is doomed. Don’t write like humans and nobody cares. Dialog is the most intimate form of a character’s expression that writers have to work with (internal dialog included). On one hand, it’s easy because we all talk. To friends, to cats, to ourselves if the cat’s not around, it doesn’t matter, we talk. But in a literary setting dialog has to work hard. It has to be clear and concise, it has to move the plot, it has to stay true to the character and often it’s the vehicle for subtext. It’s the public representation of a character’s self and may or may not depict what’s going on inside. All these aspects should be considered for every dialog line all the way through. Too often beginner writers don’t quite grasp the awesome responsibility dialog carries. They’ll prattle inanely, then give Starship Troopers type rally speeches to outline the plot. Yes, this is how my first novel read. Literary dialog needs to be pithy. It needs to reveal something or set up a contradiction. It needs to carry its own interest and be there for readers to know they’re following a person, but it can only do that if it remains uncluttered, succinct and unexpected. With the Star Wars prequels, hardly any of this happened. Lots of planning explained the plot, none of the banter revealed anything about the characters and so much political this-and-that cluttered the movie with justifications for motivations and future scenes. Dialog is the icing on a cake. Some people like more, some less, but no amount is a proper dessert without a cake of a plot underneath it. Trust me. Icing alone is just sadness and regret.
Wandering point of view—My first novel spoke from whatever character I had in mind at any given moment. Some stories are told from omniscient perspectives and some authors are masters of the art. I was not. Characters are, in their simplest reduction, devices by which stories are told. They translate information into emotions, senses and
situations humans can relate to. Beginner writers tend to not grasp just how close a perspective can get and therefore how intimately a story can be told. With the Star Wars prequels, there was never a singular character to cling to. The result was a muddled interpretation of far-out alien worlds. This is where my original (very timely, I know) article took place, arguing for a witness’s perspective instead of many shallow character perspectives. Stringent consideration needs to be given to the person, plant or thing interpreting the plot. That simple acknowledgment builds consistency throughout the rest of the story. That consistency cuts down on the need for exposition. The reduced exposition opens room for more literarily natural dialog. Hopefully, from there, appropriate motivations can be established. All because a writer stayed with a distinct point of view.
Listening to those reviews in a simple dumbed down voice, I’d seen all the cliché mistakes of a beginner writer on display along with the consequences. Things like exposition, cheap trauma, clunky dialog and wandering POVs reduce tension and nullify the stakes. Nobody ever told me that my story was bad. Nor are the stories of the Star Wars prequels bad. It’s just that they were told in ways that deprived readers and audiences of characters and motivations to identify with and care about. Instead, both examples suffered from an ignorance of the true meaning of storytelling. Again, I’ll let Plinkett explain what Lucas was thinking. My thinking, however, was revenge. While stories about revenge might entertain, tales written explicitly out of revenge miss the point of why people will devote their time, money and faith in a writer’s ability. Writers can only hold up their end of the bargain when they focus solely on the purest reasons for telling their greatest story.