The Last Jedi and Reinventing Franchises

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

I don’t think Rian Johnson wants us to be in any doubt about his approach to the Star Wars universe in The Last Jedi. This is not your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be – for the same reason that Sherlock and Elementary are not identical to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Stories exist to be reinvented, to reflect their times, to reach out to new audiences.

There are many excellent articles out there on why it was necessary and right to depart so radically from audience expectations, and how the movie achieves its emotional impact, but I’m going to take a look at it from a screenwriting POV. I think The Last Jedi is an object lesson in how to reinvent an existing franchise – and with more movies and television being drawn from existing material, that’s a skill we’re all going to need.

So what can we learn, as writers pitching to take control of a franchise, from The Last Jedi?

(SPOILERS, obviously…)

Characters are not interchangeable. Rey is not Luke, and Kylo is not Anakin Skywalker. The characters of the new trilogy may fulfil similar plot functions – gifted hero, tormented villain, hotshot pilot, amusing droid – but plot function is only a starting point, a shorthand to indicate intent to the audience. It’s who the character grows into that matters –

Because who the character grows into shapes the story. If Rey was Luke and Kylo was Anakin, then inevitably they would just rehash the same story again. It’s how they differ and who they choose to be that propels us into a fresh, unpredictable story world, because –

Your job is not to tell the same story again. Which is really all I need to say on that point…

The new outweighs the old.  A lot of fans clearly wanted these movies to be about Luke, Leia, and Han. Of course that’s understandable. Every time we fall in love with a character, we want to know everything about them. But that’s not necessarily an impulse that writers should indulge. There is such a thing as too much information!

Characters play their role in the story and then move on. Dragging them awkwardly back into the limelight and constructing a new crisis for them can actually cheapen their original story.

Instead, the new characters must drive the story, and the old characters provide a canvas against which they make their decisions. Poe must decide whether to be Leia, or lead a different way. Rey thinks she’ll be a hero like the ‘legend’ Luke Skywalker, and Kylo fetishizes Vader’s strength: but they’re both forced to confront their own strengths and weaknesses and grow to understand that they can only ever be a better version of themselves.

The story doesn’t know who the hero is. It’s easy to assume, as a writer, that everyone in your story world accords the central characters the same importance that you so. It’s also fatal to your narrative.

Look at the complaints about Vice-Admiral Holdo not explaining her plan to Poe. “If she’d only told him, everything would have been fine!”  Problem is, that complaint assumes that Poe is the most important character in the scene – that is, it assumes the POV of the audience.

In fact, Holdo’s operating according to the rules of her world. A mere pilot doesn’t have an automatic right to know his senior officers’ plans, especially in a combat situation, and with a tracker on board the ship that suggests possible traitors. She’s acting completely logically – and if we feel cheated, it’s because we’re according Poe an importance he  doesn’t actually have.

(The brilliance of this particular plotline is that it mirrors Poe’s emotional journey. He too thinks he’s the most important person in the room, and has to relearn his place and his role in order to truly lead. Nice piece of writing there…)

There are exceptions, of course. Many people in a Sherlock Holmes universe have heard of the great detective. But no one is going cut Mulder & Scully slack during their investigation just because it would be convenient for the story. Your job as a writer, then, is to find a way to place the characters at the centre of the story, so you can tell it easily, without everyone else assuming their importance…

Most great story universes are funnier, goofier and more child-friendly than you remember them being. All those people whining about Poe keeping General Hux ‘on hold’ to delay him? Did they never see this scene?


Every story has a range of tones, from the humorous to the serious. Some stories have a wider range, or lean more to one end of the spectrum, but there’s always variation. Without it, the audience becomes numb to the story, exhausted by unbroken seriousness or bored by constant frivolous comedy. Make sure you’re bringing that whole range of tones with you, or you’re not being fair to the story universe.

Know where the heart is, and how to reproduce it. The heart of Star Wars isn’t space battles or dark lords or farm boys becoming heroes. The true heart is simpler and purer than that: love, hope, friendship, quietly doing what’s right even when it’s going to get you killed.

Bring that with you, and you can kill the Big Bad without ceremony, subvert the bad guy’s redemption scene, make the legend a washout and the apprentice already beyond training. As long as the heart is solid, the world remains recognisable. And if you understand the heart, you understand the universe, whatever else you change.


The Real World

In the few days since America inexplicably elected a frequently bankrupt sexual abuser and racist blowhard as their new President, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t want to live in his world, or the world of his alt-right crybaby trolls.

I understand why you’re saying this, I do. I don’t want to belittle your pain, or the problems to come. But let me put it to you that we don’t live in his world. No matter how much he yells and stamps his feet, he still lives in ours.

Because no matter what he says, the facts of human existence have not changed. Women are the equals of men. Black lives do matter. Latinx are as much a part of America as any other race. Sexual assault is wrong. LGBT+ people are as valuable and as “normal” as anyone else. Those are facts, and no amount of speeches, laws and publicity stunts can change that.  And every time he does something that denies those facts, he isn’t changing the world – he’s simply lying about the nature of reality.

Those lies will, of course, cause cause terrible suffering for those that they are turned against. Lies tend to do that. And it’s all of our duties to mitigate that suffering in any way that we can.

But like the cult leader who insists that a UFO is about to descend and ferry the faithful to paradise, he’s living in a fantasy world. The “Great Again” America that he and his followers are looking to create is a bubble of delusions, and eventually it will burst, and everyone will have to face up to the lies he told them, and they told themselves.

There are hard times ahead for the world. That bubble may yet expand far beyond America. But those of us who can see the world as it is still have that much to cling to. Human lives still have the value they have always had, and a single act of kindness, however small, is more valuable than all the political posturing and hatred he can muster.

It’s our world, not his. Let’s live like we believe that.




Wolfblood US DVD release date

For those of you in the US – and elsewhere with an all-region DVD player –  there will be a Region 1 DVD of Wolfblood season one available on December 31st…


Amazon details here –

Also available from various other US stockists, of course…


Wolfblood Season Two: UK Transmission Date

It’s finally confirmed: season two of Wolfblood will begin on Monday September 9th, with episodes on Mondays and Tuesdays. Can’t wait to see what you make of it…

UPDATE – and here’s the teaser-trailer!


Why Murder Is More Difficult Than You’d Think

Here’s why murder mysteries are hard to write.

In any other kind of story, we come in at the inciting incident – the point at which the action of the story begins, the point at which the hero’s world is turned upside and she has to take action to save the day. Then we follow her through a gradual process of learning, changing and growing, up to the final decision where she triumphs over adversity/ her enemies and gets what she wants (or more likely, what she needs).

Murder mysteries do not work like this.

A murder mystery has an inciting incident: a body is found, or a person reported missing. They have a denouement: the murderer is caught and the detective’s theory vindicated. But that process of learning, changing and growing, the second act of your story, is missing – because all the significant events in the story have already happened. The victim is already dead, the clues have already been accidentally left or deliberately concealed, the various suspects’ have already done and said most of the things that will make them suspects or eliminate them from the enquiry.

The detective spends the second act finding out about things that are in the past – the dead man’s brother hated him, he’d changed his will, he had an illegitimate daughter, there was a diamond ring missing from the body… So I suppose he’s learning, in the strict sense of the word, but not in the self-revelatory sense in which we use the word when we’re talking about character. The detective can’t change and grow (and neither can anyone else) because nothing is happening to him. He’s just discovering information about historic events, all of which are beyond his ability to influence.

Put another way, a normal drama is like showing a football match from beginning to end. A murder mystery is like explaining why the two teams have to play each other (they’re both finalists in the FA cup, say), showing some flashbacks to previous matches to explain their rivalry, and then showing the last five minutes of the match to establish who wins.

This would explain why many murder mysteries have a second or even third murder during the course of the action, or interweave a subplot about the detective’s work life or home life. It’s current action. Something is actually happening to the character, allowing some level of character development. Because without that, it’s really difficult to sustain a story.

Undoubtedly there are writers who are brilliant at this. They manage to involve us intellectually with the puzzle of the story, and engage us with characters despite the fact that they’re not changing and growing. That’s a real skill, and if you’ve got it, congratulations!

But if you’re having difficulty structuring a detective-style story, as I so often do, perhaps bearing all this in mind will help…