Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Writing Lessons from Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Lizzie)

Probably like many of you, I went to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi over Christmas break. Don't hate me, but I must admit being disappointed with it--I wasn't expecting to ask myself "when will this movie be over?" while watching Star Wars! Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike it--I actually did like it, but was still somewhat disappointed.

As a writer should, I considered what I did and didn't like about the story and how I could apply those lessons to my writing. Here are some takeaways. Note: There are some spoilers. Many references are to the original three films, however.

Lessons from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

1) Humor is huge

I loved the opening scene where Poe tricks a First Order leader during the radio call, pretending not to hear the officer's replies in order to buy time. It was bold, impudent, and perfectly fit Poe's character.

Humor of various types was scattered throughout the movie. Star Wars is known for what I think of as "creature humor" (the mechanical mice and R2D2's reactions and so on) as well as the arrogance and sarcasm of some characters (Han Solo's arrogance, Leia's calling Chewy a walking carpet), and situational humor (Han, Luke, and the rest "escaping" into a garbage compactor in A New Hope). This movie also employed humor that was less subtle, obvious ploys for laughs like the standard "I don't think they like me very much." "I can't imagine why." routine. This begs the question, what type of humor fits my voice or my genre?

Cute critters like these from The Last Jedi add humor to the story.

Take away: Humor is usually a plus. The caveat is that the humor should match the expected tone of the story. Should the humor be subtle, clever, slapstick? And what is the balance of humor to seriousness? Is the story meant to be humorous overall or does the humor help keep the violence or sadness from overwhelming? (For more on humor, read K.M. Weiland's post How to Write Funny, which is based on Thor: Ragonk.)

2) Have a Hero; it's expected

It took a loooong time, but Luke finally showed up to save the day. We were expecting it; we would have been very, very angry if he hadn't. Also, Rey didn't turn to the dark side, and Poe managed some pretty good tricks too. This is good.
Luke Skywalker

Takeaway: If a hero and heroic actions are expected in your story, you'd better have them. If your genre calls for something, like a happy ending or a dramatic sacrifice or romance, be sure to give it to your readers. Don't be too stingy with small payoffs along the way or make your readers wait too long. The longer you make them wait, the bigger the pay off had better be.

3) Inside or Out: Action or change of heart

For a movie titled The Last Jedi, Rey and Luke (a possible new Jedi and an old Jedi) add little to the overall storyline of saving the rebel forces. Rey was supposed to find Luke, get some training, and bring him back. Instead, they are hidden away on a remote island arguing most of the movie, with Luke being difficult about returning to the rebels because of an issue in his past. This is all tied to Kylo Ren and his internal conflicts. So the jedi characters are all stuck doing "inside stuff" for a good portion of the movie. Drama instead of the action/adventure I expect from a Star Wars movie. Rey does go off on a separate quest with some action, but even though this results in the death of a major bad guy, don't make any difference in the goal of saving the rapidly dwindling rebel forces. Leia, Poe, Finn, and new character Rose, are responsible for that plot line, which does have the expected action/adventure.

The conflicted, highly troubled Kylo Ren, subject of much of Rey and Luke's time together.

Takeaway: Know your reader's expectations about the balance of action and introspection/convince-the-bad-guy-to-change. Are your characters doing what they are expected to do? 

4) Streamline your plot line: hanging around too long could be fatal

The Last Jedi was two hours and thirty minutes long. I think they could have chopped off thirty minutes easy. This movie, as some stories do, felt like beads on a string--one small goal/fight after another after another, getting bigger, but when you think you it should be time to wrap it up, it just keeps going. Yes, the overall goal was to save the rebel forces, but there were so many side jaunts it didn't feel like a true goal. Finn and Rose and the droid go on a quest, but they didn't actually succeed, so what was the point? (This is Star Wars; I expect the main characters to succeed. Or was the quest simply "fun enough" to justify it? But that's a subject for another day.) There's Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren's plot line that didn't really affect the rest of the story until the end and was mostly about internal conflict. There was a mutiny of sorts among the rebels that could have be avoided if purple-haired lady had answered Poe's question with "Yes, I have a plan to protect us and this is it..." In my opinion, Poe's mutiny was adding unnecessary drama and length.

Visiting a jazz club-type setting is practically a given in a Star Wars 
movie, but like any setting or plot point, it must fit organically into the overall

Takeaway: Before adding a plot point, subplot, battle, trouble between hero and heroine, etc., ask if it is really necessary. Are you simply adding drama or length? Are you adding subplots merely to utilize characters that don't fit into the main storyline? Is a subplot entertaining enough to justify adding the length to an already long story? Could a very simple communication (which any rational person would make) have prevented the episode (like Poe's mutiny)? Readers hate this type of drama, or at least I do; figure out a better way to up the tension or move the story along.

5) Death and Destruction

An epic fantasy is expected to have a lot more death and destruction than say a fairy tale or a romance. Even though Star Wars is an epic fantasy, I wasn't expecting quite so much loss. When Catniss's sister dies in The Hunger Games, the reaction is "wasn't the point keeping her alive?". You have to consider whether the losses will make readers wonder if the characters failed. It's okay to have national or cosmic success in defeating the bad guys but still have characters suffer great personal loss, just consider whether you would accept it if you were the reader. 

Likable droids add to the humor and help us
tolerate the death and destruction of action movies.

Take away: Consider the level of death, destruction, or cruelty your readers expect and care to deal with. Near total destruction, rape, death of certain characters (beloved ones or children) are deal- killers to some readers, so just know your audience and be okay with some readers disliking your stories.

6) So many characters, so little time together

Maybe those who've read all the Star Wars books and watched the movies multiple times knew who all the characters in this movie were, but it seemed to me there were way more characters than I cared to keep up with. Was I really supposed to remember that Storm Trooper Finn has a showdown with? Enough to care for a showdown?

More importantly to me, we didn't get a building of the relationship between Poe, Rey, and Finn, which I was hoping for based on the tight connection between Leia, Luke, and Han. I was hoping for friends adventuring together; that's not what I got.

Poe off to blast something. Alone.
Take away: Do your readers want action or character interaction? How can you balance them? How many characters does your story really need? Which ones will your readers remember for later interactions?

7) Replay: we've seen this before

If you're doing a series, be conscious and careful of reusing themes, settings, or events. A trip to a jazz club-type place, a soul-seeking jaunt to a creepy cave, a foolish mission to turn Dark Vader or Kylo Ren away from the dark side. Been there, done that in the original three and again in The Last Jedi. Good or bad? Die-hard fans or new watchers may love the hat-tip to the old, or just be ignorant of the reuse of material. The in-betweens may not be enamored enough to enjoy the repetition.

Take away: Be wise in your reuse of settings, events, and character-types. It can enhance the story or appear like a lack of creativity.

Have you seen The Last Jedi? What did you think of it? Or what were some writing tips you picked up from a recent book or movie?


  1. Nice reflection Lizzie, although I fall into the "loved it" category. I was so glad to be presented with something else, other than a Death Star, that was the Rebel Forces' focus.
    I also loved seeing the new settings, new characters, and new creatures brought about by the creators. The thing I picked up regarding writing? Misdirection creates tension. There was a lot of great misdirection in the trailers for this movie, and I loved being surprised. The other thing? Make sure you fulfill your promises. Whether or not they realize it, the next movie is a huge project. The creators will have to finish off this franchise in a satisfactory way. I'm glad I'm not the one responsible for it! :-)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jill. Yes, the next film will be a huge project! I'm glad I'm not writing it either.

  2. This was such a fun post, Lizzie! I haven't seen The Last Jedi yet, but these were some great points and made me even more curious about the movie :) We've been watching Dr. Who lately and I feel like that show really demonstrates that if you exude confidence in your story and have great characters, your audience is willing to forgive a lot of convoluted world-building!


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