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?

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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.

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I’m A Success, Get Me Out Of Here!

As much as it offends my English sense of modesty to admit it, I seem to be a bit of a success now. Certainly I’m not paying the bills by working in a supermarket any more, and that’s pretty much the definition of being a successful writer, right?
Now, I’m not complaining… Well, all right, I’m a writer, we do nothing but complain! However, I love my job and wouldn’t change it for the world. But what’s interested me over the last year or so is how much actually getting to do what you want changes how you do what you want. And I’ve been noticing a few things.
Something always has to be ’your day job’. Once, I was working the tills at a certain supermarket, and going home to work on Wolfblood evenings and weekends. So writing Wolfblood was the thing I really wanted to be doing. Now I am doing it… And suddenly the other projects I’m trusting to get off the ground seem a lot more exciting and attractive than doing yet another draft of episode five!
Part of that is the attraction of the new, of course. The only script that’s ever perfect is the one you’re just about to start writing, so that’s the one that seems the most fun. But also, to an extent, Wolfblood is my day job now. I love every second of it, but it’s somehow not quite the same experience.
There’s more to writing a TV series than just writing a TV series. There are public appearances, invitations to speak to students or at festivals, meetings, visits to the set, possibilities of spin-offs and merchandise to be dealt with, and of course, endless questions on the blog and on Twitter. Writing the show only takes about six months of the year, but non-writing stuff devours a surprising amount of the rest…
It’s harder to impose your own deadlines once you’ve got used to having them imposed for you. On Wolfblood, of course, when outlines and drafts are handed in is dictated by the production schedule – and there’s always a script editor eagerly awaiting the episode you know you should be working on. But it’s fatally easy to get used to that, and to think of any day when you don’t have an externally-imposed deadline as a potential day off!
Writing anything that isn’t Wolfblood is… odd. Working on a TV series, you’re constantly handing in versions of your work and getting feedback. Reactions are immediate and honest. Ideas are shaped collaboratively. And then you return to something you’re writing on spec, and there’s just you. No feedback, no one to share ideas with, no one to remind you not to blow the budget. It feels a bit weird – and frankly, rather scary…
In other words, however much of a “success” you become, you always go back to square one for the next project. That new idea doesn’t come pre-approved, there’s no one to force you to work on it, and there’s no one rooting for it but you.
And surely that’s a good thing?

The Genre Of Hope

The London Screenwriters’ Festival twitter account recently asked a very interesting question; what is the greatest film genre?

And yes, I know, comparisons are odious and all that… (Hey, wait, I just quoted Evelyn Waugh and John Donne at the same time. Does that mean I’m an intellectual now?)  On the whole I’m not a big fan of Top Tens and  Greatest Ever Blah and “this is better than that” of any kind. The urge to line things up in a definite order and crow over which beats which is not conducive to craft, let alone art.

But it did occur to me that there’s a real answer to this question. And the answer is science fiction.

Why? Because science fiction is the genre of hope.

Horror peers into the abyss of the human heart, drama examines the minutiae of everyday life, historical fiction tells us where we came from (all fascinating things, of course) –  but only science fiction can explore the full potential of the human mind and heart, both for evil and for good. Science fiction tells us who we are, who we’re capable of becoming, and what we need to conquer, in the world and in ourselves, to get there. And that’s why I write it.

The Screenwriter’s Voice: Part Two

We know what a screenwriter’s voice is now: their style, their tone, their personal outlook on the world of their story, condensed into the prose of their scripts. Next question is: how do you develop one? Well, you can ask yourself a few questions…

What’s your brand? Hollywood screenwriter Doug Eboch has an excellent blog post on what branding means to a screenwriter, and how to use it, here http://letsschmooze.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/whats-your-brand.html

Branding is what puts your name at the top of the list for a particular genre (and yes, there are lists!) Branding is what separates you from all the other writers who can write in your genre.

Your voice contributes enormously to the perception of your brand, and you need to think about how the way you write relates to the person you are. Are you witty? Precise? Apparently chaotic, or laser-focused? Laddish and matey, or formal? This is why imitating someone else’s voice won’t get you anywhere. There’s no point in your work being a shallow ripoff of Shane Black or Aaron Sorkin if it doesn’t match you.

What’s your genre?  If your voice is hilariously funny, but you write tragic family melodramas, you can guarantee anyone reading them will misinterpret your intentions. If you write horror or thrillers, your voice had better be fast-paced and able to create tension. If your work is slow-build character pieces, you need to be able to conjure up a world of internal emotion in a sentence or two. Develop a voice that reinforces the world you want to create.

Your voice, or your character’s? This is something of a delicate balancing act. If, say, your story world is drily funny and your hero is sarcastic and snappy, then your prose voice should reflect that to an extent. But if your voice is exactly the same as your central character’s dialogue voice, their individuality may disappear into a generalised sea of snark. Whatever your voice, your characters must still stand out as individuals, recognisably part of your world but not inseparable from it.

Shorter is better.  A novelist can afford to develop a voice that rambles, that goes off in random directions, that luxuriates in complex words and rich description. A screenwriter can’t. Even if you make a point of your work being erudite and grammatically rich, it still has to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

Don’t get too hung up on it.  Which seems like a contradictory thing to say, after two posts on the subject, but in the end, voice isn’t the thing you’re selling. It’s a sign of professionalism and an indicator of talent, but it’s a bonus feature, not the main attraction. If the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you can pretty much forget all about voice.

But then, if the story you’re telling is intriguing and emotionally compelling, you’ll probably find you develop a voice to tell it in anyway…

Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

There’s a story you sometimes hear among Christians, about a famous preacher who was asked about the ‘main thing’ for a Christian to concentrate on. Peace? Love? Hope? Faith? The preacher smiled and said, “The main thing to think about is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

And strangely enough, that applies to writing too.

Any working screenwriter is busy keeping a lot of balls in the air, and attending to a lot of career-related activities: meetings, self-promotion, attending talks and seminars on writing, returning favours to people who’ve helped you, mentoring and advising younger writers. Oh, and, er, writing a blog…

Once you have a show in production, there are a million and one other things you either need or want to keep an eye on too. And they’re all so tempting. A set visit, a lecture, a writers’ social event or a speed-networking evening feel much more like significant, effective work than sitting at your laptop does.

And yes, they’re important. They’re necessary.

But none of them are the main thing. The main thing is writing, and you need to keep it the main thing.

If you’re not writing every day, coming up with new ideas every week, finishing a new script every two to three months, then you’ve lost track of the main thing…

Inspiration. Or not.

A lot of people seem to think writers recline on the sofa all day, waiting for inspiration to strike. On the other hand, there are all those quotes from working writers about how they just sit in a chair eight hours a day and work, inspiration has nothing to do with it. So which is true?

Well, both. Inspiration is what creates the spark of an idea in the first place. Inspiration is what keeps you interested in that idea, as characters, plot points and emotional climaxes occur to you one by one throughout the writing process. Inspiration keeps you afloat as you face draft fifteen of the first episode, or yet another notes meeting with a totally different group of execs to the ones you met last time, all of whom have contradictory ideas.

But inspiration is like love – you don’t *feel it* all the time. The wild flush of emotions you feel when you fall in love aren’t supposed to last through a fifty year marriage, and the first flush of inspiration won’t last through the writing of a novel or a screenplay either. But that’s fine. They’re supposed to be replaced by new emotions, a new and evolving relationship with the loved one  – or the script.

So if you’re a new(-ish) writer who’s worried that you don’t feel excited about your idea any more – don’t be. That’s perfectly normal. This is where discipline takes over from inspiration, and you rely on your craft, and the memory of what it was you wanted to say or experience in the first place, to get the work done…

The Path is Behind You

I spend a lot of my free time hiking. Why wouldn’t I, when I’m lucky enough to live on the southern edge of the Snowdonia National Park? And one of the things you notice pretty quickly while hiking around here is that the path you’re supposed to be following is not always obvious.

That is, it’s not obvious for the next twenty or fifty yards. When you reach that mudbath hollow up ahead, which way should you go on emerging? Does the path carry straight on over those rocks, or turn left or right somewhere among them? Is this the copse of trees where you should ford the stream, or aren’t you there yet?

But here’s the thing about hiking. If the path isn’t clear right in front of you, all you usually need to do is look behind you, or much further ahead.

If the path behind you is fairly straight, and lines up with the one gap in the wall up ahead, then follow that line towards the gap and you won’t go far wrong. If you can see a clear stretch of path on the hill ahead, then take the safest path through the mud and join up with it when you can.

And that’s the best way to approach writing your screenplay.

Sitting down first thing in the morning, it’s pretty common to have no idea what was suppose to happen in this scene (even if you have an outline to work from!) It’s easy to forget what plotlines this section is supposed to join up with, what past events you’re supposed to be referencing, or what your characters are thinking and feeling at this point. So that’s when you look backwards, and further ahead.

Read back over the last ten pages or so. Maybe further back, in a story with a lot of intersecting threads. Read until you’ve hit a couple of plotlines that relate to the scene you’re writing. Then think forwards to the next scene or sequence whose purpose, theme and conflict you’re sure about.

You now know the rough bearing of the path. All you have to do is navigate through the mud of your plot until the two sections of story join up. Simple.