Why That Movie Wasn’t a Failure

I’ve been confused for some time about the complaints of Star Wars fans of The Force Awakens. You have probably heard them…

“That’s not a story; that’s a pitiful fraction of a story.”

“There wasn’t enough character development!”

“How can I understand this story? The movie raised more questions than it answered.”

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But the people who say these things really mean them. These are die-hard Star Wars geeks who were anticipating another good movie, but somehow J.J. Abrams didn’t meet their expectations. They aren’t trolls; they are disappointed fans.

I knew from day one that these arguments had some underlying logical problem, but I could not pinpoint what that problem was, nor why people seemed to think their complaints were legitimate. And the dichotomy wasn’t limited to Star Wars. People might well have blurted the same things about The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit trilogies, but that wouldn’t have made sense, either. Somehow I knew that the “half-story” arguments were true for some trilogies and not for others. But why?

Then it struck me: there are two kinds of trilogies, with completely different functions and rules. I call them the triplet and the triad.

The Triplet: Three Stories in Three Parts

In music, a triplet is three notes in a row, one after another. They are all equal in that each gets a third of a beat, but otherwise they are distinct notes. They might have different tones, they might vary in loudness, or some might be played staccato and the others legato; they all give off a different sound. They are three separate notes. Yes, actually, I am a part-time music teacher. How did you know?

Some trilogies are like triplets. They are all linked together somehow- maybe having the same characters, setting, or theme- but each movie or book in the triplet is a complete story by itself. Often these trilogies begin with one wildly successful story that inspires the author to make more.

The first Star Wars trilogy is a good example of a triplet. A New Hope was originally intended to be a stand-alone film, but its monstrous success led to two sequels (and, unfortunately, three prequels). In keeping with the first film, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi were both written so that they could also be stand-alones. Each film has the same characters, but each one tells a different story about those characters.

The Chronicles of Narnia is another example of a triplet- or septuplet, in this case. The first book written was, in fact, the second in the series: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis wanted to write stories for the children who came to stay with him during the Luftwaffe raids on London, so he drew inspiration from history, mythology, and his own childhood games. Each book centers on the world of Narnia, but aside from that, every book has a different story.

The Triad: One Story in Three Parts

In music, a triad is three notes played at the same time. We sometimes call it a “chord.” Each of these notes has a different tone, but they work together to form a single sound. If you take even one of the notes away, the triad is no longer a complete triad.

Triads are like the other kind of trilogies. Each movie or book in the triad tells only a fraction of the story, and when you take each part together, you get one complete story. Granted, in some triads, each story might possibly be able to stand on its own (like An Unexpected Journey in The Hobbit trilogy), but this is not usually the case. Most of the time, each part gets only one act, which doesn’t make a whole story. Its job is to set up the story and conflict, introduce characters, ask questions, and draw people in for Act II. You can usually tell triads apart from triplets by looking for a climatic moment followed by a resolution that answers every question. If the big showdown has not happened and nobody has won for good, then the story isn’t over yet.

This is the case with The Force Awakens. We are introduced to a new problem- the First Order and Kylo Ren- and a set of new characters. We learn to ask questions: Does Rey get trained as a Jedi? What will become of Finn now? Where did they both come from? Can Kylo Ren ever turn good? The storytellers can drop as many hints as they like, but it isn’t time to answer the questions yet. Thus, folks like me have no choice but to be hopelessly interested in the story.

The Lord of the Rings is also a triad. The Fellowship of the Ring only contains the first act of the story, and though it leaves us crying as Frodo and Sam make the tough decision to simply walk into Mordor, yet we are still left with questions. So we are drawn into the theater each December to find out what happens in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Now hopefully you can see why the “underdeveloped story” arguments about the newest Star Wars film don’t make sense from a storytelling perspective. Expecting a full story from The Force Awakens is like me watching The Fellowship of the Ring and then refusing to watch the next two movies because not all of my questions were answered. Well, of course Frodo didn’t get to Mordor, and of course Aragorn didn’t save Minas Tirith; those things don’t happen until Act III in The Return of the King. And I haven’t even met some prominent characters like Gollum, Eowyn, and Faramir. If I really want to have my questions answered, I should stick around until the final act.

So why don’t people recognize this fundamental difference at once? I think it’s because the The Force Awakens was dangerously close to being a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie. The original was a whole story; naturally, fans had a subconscious expectation that the new movie would be the same, and they were disappointed to get only one act. For me it was different. Not being around for Star Wars in the seventies and eighties, I was blessed to go see this movie without those expectations.

All in all, I learned two things from the Star Wars trilogy discussion. One, fans ought to keep their trilogy categories straight, because mixing them up is unfair to the writers; and two, writers must not try to copy a different kind of trilogy, because that is unfair to the fans. If J.J. Abrams and all other Star Wars fans had kept triplets and triads separate, more people might have enjoyed The Force Awakens for what it was: one piece of a larger story.

And, after this discussion, I hope that you will learn to enjoy your favorite triplets and triads even more.

Have you ever heard of the differences between the two kinds of trilogies? What are your favorite triplets and triads? 

Also, I’ll be doing a Q&A series on self-publishing soon, but first I need your questions! If you wonder about any aspect of indie publishing, comment and ask me.

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What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

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Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.