At the heart of every story is a single golden thread running from beginning to end, defining its essential elements. We take this thread, and we add characters, plots, and scenery. But which characters, plots, and scenery? Effectively, what version of the story do you tell?
The final catalyst for this article was a video by Left Foot Media wherein the creator takes apart another video by some Marxist hack who will get no publicity from me. One of the points made by the Marxist hack is that The Last Jedi defies our expectations (which it certainly did—by being a garbage tier movie) by subverting tropes about leading men in action films.
Specifically, he claims that men in action films are meant to push the plot forward by being decisive, righteous, respected, and by taking charge in most situations. "They are expected to achieve success by becoming more and more powerful as the story unfolds."
They are expected to achieve success by becoming more and more powerful as the story unfolds.
Ok, leaving aside an entire genre in which the leading man is defined by the lack of this kind of development, and leaving aside the fact that the idiot actually includes clips from exactly that kind of movie in his video... No. I'm sorry. He's just wrong about every part of this. And, unfortunately, he's wrong about it in a way that Left Foot Media didn't cover, so now the job falls to me to take it apart in a place where no one is ever going to read it.
What do we really expect from a story?
One thing I see storytellers struggle with day in and day out in my writing group is the process of applying craftsmanship to storytelling.
Now, to begin with, the concept of craftsmanship implies a set of skills and agreed-upon best practices that result in a better product. For example, tables have stable legs so that the table doesn't collapse under the weight of whatever is on it when someone bumps into a leg. Doorways and doors are both made with square corners so that we can always find doors that fit. Ceilings are generally placed high enough so that you don't bump into them with your head. If a general contractor subverted these expectations in your home, you would not hail him as an artistic visionary; you would sue him for breach of contract.
So, the application of storycraft is not about tropes or expectations, but about what is and is not a serviceable story. It's not about economics—it's about human psychology. There are things that work, and there are things that don't work. If you do things that don't work, you will drive a stake through the heart of a four billion dollar franchise, and Walt Disney will rise from his grave, shamble forth wearing moth-eaten mouse ears, and ass-fuck you with his zombified cock.
Ruin Johnson's The Last Jedi is a perfect example of this. What you have here is about sixty minutes of semi-decent movie that is, inexplicably, rooted in a slow-speed chase through outer space and utterly without a B Plot. To this we add a second, slightly shorter movie that is also utterly without any subplots, and then we attempt to staple them together with a pair of terribly-executed B Plots out of a C-grade movie—you know, one that's not good enough to enjoy but not bad enough to develop any kind of cult following. This is not good storycraft, and I can pinpoint exactly why.
Ruin told the wrong story. In fact, he told the wrong stor-eez, plural.
Before I get too far afield, let me answer the question I posed above: what we expect from a story is that characters will be presented with a set of problems and will work to solve those problems. Everything they do will fail and the situation will become worse and worse until they achieve some manner of breakthrough and things get better again.
Shit got worse, and then it got unworse.
—Every story ever
Yes, this is incredibly simple and formulaic, but that's because the human psyche is likewise simple and formulaic and just hasn't changed that much in the past two hundred thousand years. It hasn't changed much since the introduction of written language, and I promise you it has changed none at all since the release of Star Wars in 1977. That's not surprising when you consider that the lifespan of the average mammalian species in the fossil record is about a million years; we're just not old enough to undergone much change. For those of you who really think you're that much smarter than your great great great great (...) uncle, well... How smart do you really have to be without any dire wolves trying to eat your spleen?
The thing is, this is highly formulaic, and it only works if you actually apply the formula correctly. For one thing, your audience needs to care about (not hate) your characters, and your characters need to undertake actions that advance (not jack off onto) the plot. For another, the thing that saves everyone needs to be something that was developed, be it characterization or McGuffinization, over the course of the story. But now I'm onto my next topic.
What did Ruin do wrong?
We had a main story that went nowhere, and two side stories that achieved nothing.
I can hear you now. "Nowhere? That's harsh!" But I'm serious. They started off on a shithole planet facing annihilation from above, and they ended the (first) main story on a shithole planet facing annihilation from above. Congratulations, Ruin, you just wasted the first two thirds of your runtime.
"Well, the side stories didn't achieve nothing!"
(...I mean, I know I'm putting words in your mouth and that you probably already agree with me, and I'm sorry. Please just play along.)
Yes, in fact, the side stories achieved nothing. The Space Nazi and the Feminazi went to Casino Royale to get help and failed utterly, and MaRey Sue went to Planet Porg and failed utterly.
"No, Luke came back!"
...Luke's involvement amounted to a sign saying, "Wait here." Any idiot could have come out to "negotiate" the surrender of the base and argued for five minutes and achieved exactly the same thing. We know this because that's how the movie began. And I'm not even going to get started talking about the obnoxious plot hole Luke's story presents.
Anyway, the point is that Ruin didn't tell a good story. But it's not the magical, golden thread that is the problem: it's the things he built up around it. He created characters that have no reason to exist, situations that don't make sense, and decisions on the part of his major players that are justified only by the existence of the script and the fact that the actors read it and—God only knows why—decided to stick to it.
If you were paying attention to my use of the thread metaphor, you might notice that I just suggested there was a story worth telling here, and that Ruin simply fucked it up. No, you weren't hallucinating.
Tell me more about this golden thread
Any story can be worth telling. In this case, the story is as follows:
We expected that the death of the Galactic Empire would herald a new era of hope and prosperity. That hope has been dashed by the resurgence of evil, calling into question everything the heroes of the Rebellion believed in and fought for. Now, it falls to a group of new heroes to step into the breach and once more prove that the light is truly more powerful than the dark.
See? There is nothing wrong with that. There's not even anything there to complain about. This is why, when someone comes online to ask, "Hey, guys, what do you think of my story concept?" everyone just says, "It's fine. Go write it and then come back." Because at the heart of every story is a golden thread that cannot be wrong.
...It's everything else that can go wrong.
There are several ways you can mess up:
- Starting at the wrong time
- With the wrong characters
- In the wrong place
- For the wrong reasons
- Working toward the wrong solutions
I'll illuminate each of these in turn.
At the wrong time
Horace exhorts us to begin in the middle of things. This advice is not always practicable (although it's important to remember that he was leveling his advice squarely at epic poetry, where this caveat may not apply), but it's certainly best to begin at a point near enough to the meat of the story that the reader does not feel that time is being wasted. The reader's hourly rate is obscene, and I promise you can't afford it.
Ruin begins at the wrong time by starting off literally on the wrong planet, for no apparent goddamn reason. He then leaves it and goes to another very similar planet, again for no apparent goddamn reason. This is reminiscent of the way a dog spins in circles before shitting or lying down, except that dogs apparently have a reason.
This is a classic case of first-draft-only-draft-itis. If you brought this screenplay to my workshop, I would ask you why you chose to start the story where you did. If your answer was, "I wanted to ape The Empire Strikes Back," I believe I would be justified in banning you from my group forever, because clearly you are not interested in the storyteller's craft or in improving your own skills or anyone else's, and you have little to no regard for your audience.
With the wrong characters
This is a big one. The sole reason Ruin follows the characters of Edgar Allen and Bobby Goodbrother through the entire film is so that he can demonstrate that they are not good lead characters. Literally. That's the point Marxist McRetard was making in his video: that Ruin subverts (I fucking hate that word now) our expectations by taking our heroes and making them into chumps. The reason this is a problem is not that subversion is a bad thing...
...It's that no one likes a movie about chumps. Of any gender. Under any circumstance. For any reason. Even jagoffs like Billy Madison and Bobby Boucher are the heroes of their own story. If you aren't the hero, it isn't your fucking story.
Let that sink in. If you aren't writing about the hero of the story, YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME.
Every minute spent with Poe Cameron Diaz, FN-90210, and Jake Skywalker is a minute I could have been jerking off instead of watching Ruin Johnson do it.
In the wrong place
This may sound repetitive, but I meant "the wrong place" as a reference to setting. Not to the setting of any specific scene, per se, but more to the setting of the entire story. Ruin is only marginally guilty of this in the sense that Walt Disney's shambling, zombie-cock-ass-fucking corpse demanded that this film be made, and it was definitely going to be made by someone. The right decision for Ruin would have been to pass on the opportunity to make it himself.
Sorry, I can't help you assassinate a beloved shared mythology today. I have to go
wash my hairjerk off.
—Ruin Johnson, in part of the multiverse that doesn't suck
But the problem here is that this story would have been better told in some other universe. Yeah, it would be a slightly different golden thread, but the truth of the matter is that you also want to choose which nine yards of thread you want to use. You need to choose the best nine yards. George Lucas already gave it those nine yards in 1977, ok? Just let it go, guys.
In more general terms, it's important to select a setting appropriate to the story you want to tell. If your core story is about a son reconciling with his father after thirty years apart, you should set it in our world rather than cluttering it with orcs, elves, and magic rings. If your story is about a Dark Lord who will one day return and the terrible weapons his servants may wield, then...
...Ok, sure. Los Angeles. Why the hell not.
For the wrong reasons
Obviously, when you set out to tell a story, your foremost concern should be to leave your audience enthralled. Your foremost concern should not involve making a martyr of some purple-haired floozy in a cheap prom dress.
...If I am perfectly honest, what I had in mind here was the motivations of the characters rather than those of the storyteller himself. Ruin has a real problem with characters that either have no motivation at all (MaRey Sue) or a motivation that makes no sense even after we've taken into account the ridiculous circumstances he has built up around them (everyone else).
In short, if a character's actions do not make sense—if the audience cannot see how those actions would reasonably be expected to achieve the desired outcome—then the audience won't buy it. I'm not going to sit here and list all the things in the story that don't make any goddamn sense. I'll just give you one which, in my mind, is more than enough to make the entire movie a fucking fever dream:
Blowing up enemy starships that cost more than our entire fleet is bad. You are demoted.
—Idiotic carpet-munching bint
Never mind that Diaz is proven right not five minutes later when the whole "escape" plan goes to shit and the entirety of the surviving enemy fleet arrives right behind them after their hyperspace jump... God fucking damn it, I'm not going to get bogged down in this. NONE OF THIS GARBAGE MAKES SENSE AND YOU KNOW IT.
Working toward the wrong solutions
Most of the other items on this list can be forgiven if you have a good ending. This is because the ending is the taste left in the viewer's mouth as they're trudging out of the theater, or the thing that keeps the reader up at night once they've finished your book, or the thing that spawns a billion fangirls to pen their private Mary Sue-y fanfiction so that they jump your protagonist's bones in spirit. At that point, your audience isn't worried about what happened at minute 51 just as long as what happened at minute 151 was good enough.
Ruin fucked this up, too.
Again, there are two A Plots, because he couldn't come up with one A Plot that was big enough for the whole story. The first one ends with Captain Chlamydia committing either an act of hara kiri with extreme prejudice, or shameless cultural appropriation, or both.
This is a problem because the concept of a hyperspace ramming has never been addressed in the Star Wars mythology except to explain why it doesn't work. Yes, I know Disney
mercilessly raped cleaned up the previously-canon Expanded Universe to do away with little inconveniences like rational worldbuilding, but I really don't see that as a viable excuse. The scene was visually stunning and absolutely heartbreaking, and not because I'm going to miss Vice-Admiral Vaginectogram; it was heartbreaking because it destroyed any sense Star Wars ever made.
As for the other ending, it consisted of Jake Skywalker almost redeeming his Ruin-ed character. Except that he didn't even really show up. And then he died of a heart attack because apparently he never heard of 2% milk.
I honestly don't know why Ruin did this. The character was already a chump. Now he's a dead chump with a weak heart? This is just insult to injury. It's like forcing a tauntaun out into the freezing-ass cold so that it dies of hypothermia, slicing its guts open so that you survive when it didn't, and then bitching about how it smells.
Cold, man. Just cold.
So how do you know what story to tell?
Tell the story that best captures that perfect, magic, golden thread. Tell the story that best uses plot elements, characters, and setting to convey the feelings you want to convey in the most succinct, most poignant way possible. Unfortunately, there isn't a right way to do this; there are just lots and lots of wrong ways.
Tell the story that speaks to you. If the story that speaks to you is a hatchet job on a beloved shared mythos forty years in the making, maybe get therapy.