Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Real Life Head-Heart-Gut Trios in “Humans of New York”

And here’s the last one:
I found this gratifying: more than once on the site, Brandon discovers genuine polarized ensembles wandering the streets of New York!  Even when advocating such trios, I usually stress that they’re more common in fiction than they are in real life, but it turns out that they’re more common than I thought.

First we get a Heart / Gut / Head (in that he’s risk-averse)

And a Heart (in that his goal is more childlike) / Head / Gut (with an extra gut tagging along...)

It’s simple enough to differentiate characters by giving them different responses to a question, but an even better way to establish their personality is to have each one interpret that question in a fundamentally different way, showing us that their brains are hard-wired differently, and so they’re inevitably going to create conflict.

So that’s it for HONY week.  I urge you all to haunt the site as I do, gleaning more insights into human nature and tools for establishing a blast of personality right away.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: Kid Logic in "Humans of New York"

After yesterday’s heavier material, let’s look at the gentler side of “Humans of New York”: the kids. Once again, what Stanton does seems easy (Kids say the darndest things!) but there’s more going on. Whenever I’ve had to write kid characters, they utterly defeat me, because I can’t resist the natural urge to simply write them as little open-hearted adults. The key to writing kids well is to understand their bizarre logic. Stanton focuses in on this aspect like a laser.

Kids are worried about things that only kids worry about.  Sometimes this causes them to overestimate their challenges...

And sometimes to underestimate them:
And whoops, here we are back in tragedy-ville, because utilizing kid-logic fears can also be a great way of making the horror of a situation feel more real:
Kids have almost all of the same worries and anxieties as adults, but they process them in strange ways. Good kid-character dialogue reflects our own fears (large and small) back at us in a funhouse mirror, allowing us to see anew in a fresh and startling way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: Keeping the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange in Humans of New York

Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton recently expanded his focus radically by tagging along on a 50-day UN tour of 10 countries. Thankfully, he proved to be equally adept at getting great portraits and stories abroad as he has been at home.

Once again, it’s easy to undervalue his accomplishment. It might seem easy to generate sympathy simply by entering a refugee camp and letting people describe their troubles, but there’s actually a huge danger that such stories will alienate and even annoy audiences.  (Such as in the ads brilliantly parodied here.)

Stanton succeeds because he obeys the number one rule of world-building: make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. In other words, get us to identify with these people (They’re just like us!) while also making it clear that they’re going through some things that are totally beyond our experience (I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to have to live through that!). The trick is constantly keep your audience on their toes, not knowing if the next details will be universal or shocking.

So we get lots of horror stories such as this one:

Right alongside utterly universal worries such as this:

Once we get used to fact that some of these people are enduring epic struggles unique to their situation:

We then see others who we assume are also suffering from geopolitical terror, only to discover that their pain is the same sort of thing we can just as easily suffer here, such as this man…

…or this girl, who surprises us by offering an entirely atrocity-free reason for her broken arm:

By interspersing universal stories with shocking ones, Stanton keeps us alert, unable to “other-ize” his international subjects. In the link above, I showed how Letters from Iwo Jima did the same thing to instantly bond us to the hero. This is an essential skill for making your audience feel at home in an unfamiliar world.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy in "Humans of New York"

Why am I spending time on Humans of New York? (After all, it’s not as if this material isn’t already widely shared on the internet) Because I think that what site creator Brandon Stanton does has many good lessons for writers.

Ideally, every writer would do what Stanton is doing: for at least an hour a day, walk around talking to people on the street, collecting unique language, unique life details, and compelling real life ironies. Unfortunately most of us lack the time and/or temperament, but the good news is that we live in the golden age of information, so we now have sites like this that provide treasure troves of perfectly chosen character moments.

As writers, we have two nearly impossible jobs to do: first we must create a great unique-but-universal character, then we must succinctly convey that greatness, that uniqueness, and that universality, in a flash, so that the character will swiftly blossom to life in the mind of the audience, allowing our stories to really begin.

And that’s what truly wonderful about Stanton’s work. It’s easy to credit the site’s success to his skill as a photographer and an interviewer, but there’s a third element that’s equally important: he’s a great editor. He asks several questions designed to create emotional and unique responses, gets a chunk of material to work with from each person, and then he cuts all of that down to just the right snippet to instantly make these people fascinating. That’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s a big part of our job.

Let’s look at some of the ways he makes certain subjects instantly likeable. The trick, of course, is empathy, and one thing he’s good at is making opposite types of people equally likeable.

This guy’s humility is instantly appealing:

Whereas this lady wins us over with her swagger:

We love this guy’s humble appreciation of his job:

And this guy’s yearning to escape his, expressed with such telling specificity:

We sympathize with this man’s poverty:

But we’re also sympathetic to the problems caused by this man’s wealth:

Fiction writers have to be all three types of god: All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Journalists such as Stanton, on the other hand, are denied the first because they cannot create their subjects, so they have to make up for it by focusing even more on the other two.  They can’t let their confirmation bias get in their way when they approach people, molding their subjects to fit their prejudices.  Instead, they must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it. This is true in real life, and so it must also be true in our fiction.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Humans of New York #1

I don’t have time for a long post today, but I think I’ll spend this week looking at lessons that can be drawn from “Humans of New York” posts. I’ll have more to say about the site soon, but for now I’ll just start with this one, which is one of my favorites:

This exemplifies two rules: The importance of an “I understand you” moment at the beginning of a romance, and the importance of ironic positive developments. Presumably, both men came to the party determined to be antisocial sticks-in-the-mud, and then the two sticks saw each other across a crowded room. (Fun fact: I used to write songs in college, and one had the chorus “I don’t care and you don’t care so let’s not care together”)

More tomorrow...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Prophesies Suck, Legacies Rock

At last! The final Star Wars post…
It’s the word I hate the most in all of fiction: prophesy. Prophesies are the laziest form of lazy writing: foreshadowing without any shadows. There’s nothing worse then the horrible sinking feeling I got at the end of the fifth Harry Potter book when the prophecy was revealed. I at least had some vague hopes that it was a fake out, but alas it wasn’t.

Even when the ultimate point is that prophesies are a bad idea, as in the Star Wars prequels, they’re still coldly alienating to an audience: That usually just means that it comes true in an ironic way, which still implies a predestined universe, which is something that audiences hate. We want our heroes to have free agency, to choose to be great, and earn their place in our hearts, without a prophesy telling us (or them) how special they are.

But as James Kennedy pointed out in the letter that started these posts:
  • Aunt Beru says, “Luke's not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him” and Uncle Owen responds, “That's what I’m afraid of”, now we’re truly intrigued by Luke – there’s more to Luke than even Luke knows, and they key to it all is his father! So we’re subtly prepped for when Ben Kenobi starts talking about Luke’s father: whatever Ben says about Luke’s father (great star pilot, Jedi knight, cunning warrior) is something that is potentially true about Luke. Aunt Beru has promised it in this scene! She’s planted the seed here!
All the way from “Oedipus” to Guardians of the Galaxy, the secret of the hidden birth has been a beloved third-quarter twist. Of course, the even bigger reveal in The Empire Strikes Back will up the stakes for Luke, but even this first movie has a smaller version of the revelation: Luke finds out that his dad was a great Jedi.

A belatedly-revealed legacy is the smart version of a prophesy. On the one hand, if you believe in nature over nurture, then you’ll feel that you can inherit the qualities and/or abilities of your dad, even if you’ve never met him…but even if you believe strictly in nurture, a secret-dad reveal can still have a powerful psychological effect on a person, because we all have limiters in our head saying “a person like me can’t aim that high.” Finding out about great accomplishments in your family lets you know, “hey, why shouldn’t I be able to do the same thing?”

Luke just chortled when Threepio called him “Sir Luke”, but once he finds out more about his father from Obi Wan, he begins to change his way of thinking: Hey maybe a guy like me can be a knight…

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Value of a Counterintuitive Metaphor Family in Star Wars

An unexpected metaphor family can be a great way to add complexity to a character. It’s fine to simply draw a character’s metaphor family from the role they play in the narrative (the cop can’t stop using cop lingo at home, the doctor sees everything in medical terms) but sometimes it’s more interesting to skip over the obvious choice and choose a metaphor family that subtly highlights a suppressed aspect of a hero’s personality.

Obi Wan in Star Wars is a great example. His role in the story at first seems to be that of “jolly old elf” / hermit / wizard, and that’s all true, but none of these labels determine his metaphor family. His language reveals that all of those roles are somewhat of an affectation hiding what Obi Wan really is: a general.
  • One of his first lines could come out of the mouth of Patton: “Quickly, son, they’re on the move.”
  • When he gives Luke an emblem of his religion, he gives him, of all things, a laser-sword, and he praises it by pointing out that it has superior target accuracy to a laser-gun: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”
  • Later his concern with weapon accuracy continues: “Sand People always ride single file to hide their numbers. And these blast points, too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”
  • And there’s plenty more general-speak… “But it also obeys your commands” “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
It’s not just a matter of his knowledge-set, his word choice is inherently militaristic: referring to their “numbers”, “blast points”, etc.

This isn’t to say that Obi-Wan isn’t a spiritual character, he clearly is, but if the spiritual wisdom he dispensed was accompanied by a more new age-y metaphor family (which would be the default choice) then we would be more likely to see him as a hoary old stock character. Giving him a metaphor family that speaks to his suppressed former life enriches the character and makes his wisdom seem much more powerful, because it’s clearly hard-won.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: Luke as Emotional Manipulator in Star Wars

Just a few more Star Wars posts, I promise! There’s a lot to talk about with this movie!
I’ve said many time that every character should pursue what he or she wants using verbal tricks and traps, rather than direct requests or confrontations. This isn’t just true of dishonest or manipulative characters: even nice guys should use tricks and traps to pursue their nice guy goals. As I said in my original post on this topic:
  • Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. Anyone who is clever and persuasive knows that they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps. Take a look at the knife scene in Twelve Angry Men. As a lone holdout juror in a murder trial, Henry Fonda pretty much plays the ultimate living embodiment of human decency. He’s one of the most humble and noble heroes in the history of movies. And he does it all with tricks and traps.
Another character notable for his open-hearted idealism is Luke Skywalker. There’s a reason he dresses all in white: he’s unambiguously good! But Luke, too, is a big fan of tricks and traps. He actually uses a lot of indirect and manipulative dialogue, in an admirably crafty way:
  • He tries to trap his Uncle Owen by talking up the usefulness of the new droids before slyly segueing to the idea they could take his place on the farm. (“I think those new droids are going to work out fine. In fact, I, uh, was also thinking about our agreement…”)
  • He goads Han into accepting a lower offer in the Cantina (“We could buy our ship for that!”) and pushes him to work harder on the broken lightspeed (“I thought you said this thing was fast?”)
  • He hammers away at Han when he won’t help in rescuing Leia, circling around him looking for weak spots, until he finally figures it out (“She’s rich!”)
  • Once he wins Han over, he’s the one who comes up with the trick where they pretend Chewy is their captive.
We think of Han and the slick one, but he’s actually transparent and plainspoken, while Luke is far more wily, and more likely to wrap Han around his finger. This culminates in the finale, when Luke finally convinces Han to totally betray his own self-interest by hitting him below the belt one last time: “Well, take care of yourself, Han... guess that's what you’re best at, isn’t it?” Han just can’t stay away after that.

Obi Wan isn’t the only one who knows how to play mind tricks!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Drop Some Half Facts

Speaking of novelists who read the blog, I’m happy to report that occasional Cockeyed commenter Jonathan Auxier has found a ton of success with his latest novel, “The Night Gardener.” I love this book, and while I read it, something became clear to me: the value of the half-fact. This is nothing I haven’t advocated before (to a certain extent, any form of foreshadowing can be considered to be a half-fact) but I’ve found that thinking of it in this way is particularly useful.

When the book begins, an Irish girl and her younger brother are roving the English countryside in a rickety wagon looking for work. As they do, two half-facts keep coming up, because it’s clear that she wants to avoid both: what happened to their parents, and where their cart came from. She keeps accidentally veering onto each topic and then abruptly pulling away.

This shows the two types of half-fact: We eventually find out what happened to their parents (as you might expect, with all that foreshadowing) but, oddly, we never find out where they got the wagon.

You might think that audiences would get frustrated by foreshadowing that never pays off, or that the author owes it to the audience to keep things airtight, but this isn’t true. As long as most of the dangling half-facts pay off, we don’t mind it all of some are left dangling.

Of course, if you’re going to leave it incomplete, it should be the sort of half-facts that we can fill in for ourselves. It’s not hard to figure out where they got the wagon, after all: they probably stole it. When they dangle references to the wagon in the beginning, we expect to the get the full story later (and perhaps see some consequences) but we don’t mind at all when it never pays off. If we think about it again, we just fill in the other half of the fact on our own.
Let’s look at the two types of half-fact in Star Wars, starting with the kind that does pay off: there’s no better example of this than the holographic recording, which literally cuts off halfway, over and over again, only to finally complete itself later.

This example shows another value of the half-fact, it’s a great way to parcel out the exposition. First we see Leia record it but don’t hear anything, then we hear the first half of the message 15 minutes later, then we get the second half 15 minutes after that. If we’d gotten the whole thing during the recording or the first playback, it might feel like an awkward info-dump, but by cutting it off, Lucas achieves the opposite effect, making us anxiously anticipate finding out the rest.

Of course, there’s also no shortage here of half-facts that don’t pay off, but, again, each is something that we can fill in on our own: “I fought alongside your father in the Clone Wars.” Huh? What? When will we hear more about that? Well, not for another twenty-five years, as it turns out, and by the time we do, we’ll wish Lucas had just left us with our own suppositions. It was a lot more fun not knowing the other half of that fact.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Way the Worlds Work in Star Wars

One last note on the world-building in Star Wars: I pointed out before that stories have to reflect the way the world works, even if they’re not set on our world at all, and I used the prequels as an example of movies that fail to do so. It’s only fitting to circle back around now and contrast the original trilogy.

The prequels were rightly criticized for getting lost in the minutia of trade embargoes, but the fact is that this wasn’t an inherently bad idea, it was just poorly done. In the original trilogy, Lucas has a similar level of geopolitical complexity, but he weaves it into the fabric of the movie far more seamlessly, and it subtly magnifies the power of the story.

This isn’t simply the story of a bunch of rebels who get tired of the king’s tax collectors, raise a big banner and march on the castle. These rebels hold official positions and travel under diplomatic cover, the empire barely tolerates the oversight of a toothless Senate (sounds vaguely familiar), distant provinces operate autonomously, etc.

This brings us back to another thing James Kennedy pointed out last week:
  • Luke might not enjoy being a farmboy on Tatooine, but he’s really good at it. He works hard and draws knowledgeable, canny conclusions about the stuff that happens around him. He knows the area and he knows the value of money. We'll see this again and again going forward.
Indeed, economics is everywhere in the Tatooine part of the movie, and, unlike in the prequels, it makes us care more. It makes this world real, despite all the weird inexplicable stuff going on (what exactly are they farming, anyway?)

This brings us back to another reason that Hammil’s performance is so remarkable: he creates a world that’s much bigger than what we see onscreen. What are Womprats? Where’s Anchorhead? We never find out, but Hammil effortlessly convinces us that he knows, and that’s all we need.

Indeed, this is true for every performance in the movie. In retrospect, Harrison Ford’s infamous on-set complaint (“George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it”) probably refers not to overly simplistic lines, as is generally implied when that quote is cited, but to all of the bizarre unexplained specifics that the actors were expected to casually sell to the audience (“Nerf-herder!”).
In other words, Ford was complaining about how good the dialogue was, not how bad: it required him to do an unprecedented amount of work creating a larger unseen world. Luckily, he proved himself wrong: he could say it, and helped make a wonderful world come alive, both within and beyond the film frame.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Shaggy Dog Storytelling in Star Wars

Here’s one last tangent I saved up from James Kennedy’s epic Star Wars response, discussing the section where the droids blunder their way across Tatooine:
  • The great thing about the movie so far is that it's like looking in an anthill -- just the various interlocking parts of the social ecology of this weird world. When you think about it from a screenwriting-manual point of view, it would be easier for R2D2 just to land by chance near Luke's farm. Maybe some well-meaning note-giver of an early draft of this script would say, "Why not just have Luke see an escape pod streaking down from the sky, and then he goes and investigates it, and finds R2 and C3P0 himself? That's much more active and heroic!" But in fact that would ruin everything, because the great pleasure for the first 15 minutes is not following a hero's journey, but watching how the big Rube Goldberg machine of this crazy space world works -- every piece tightly logically related to the last, and yet every piece satisfyingly bizarre. Child-sized brown-robed junk dealers with glowing eyes who speak in an incomprehensible jabber? Yes! The Jawas' introduction, and the implication of a larger economy that they fit in, makes the whole world feel more real, which is necessary when the world is brand-new and crazy.
    Same with how HARRY POTTER spends time at Diagon Alley -- why not take Harry straight to Hogwarts, “get to the story”? Because when you are in the business of constructing an alternate world, you need to see many locations and social structures in it before the place feels real. The worst mistake in fantasy is to be too efficient in your storytelling. Maybe this is why bestselling fantasies are always so long?
Do I agree? Not entirely. At the risk of sacrilege, I feel like the droids wander around on the planet for a little too long. The movie is 123 minutes and I feel like this was the place to cut those extra three minutes out.

That said, I do agree with James that it was brave of Lucas to create the Jawas and give the droids some wandering around time. Part of the appeal of the movie is that it’s filled with such utterly strange and seemingly random details that don’t really “make a point” (What do the Jawas mean? What would the story lose if they were taken out?) but just make this feel like an endlessly strange and fascinating world, so it’s a plus that the details don’t all back up the theme.
This also speaks to the movie’s shaggy-dog plotting. There’s very little set-up and pay-off. There are no verbal callbacks. We never cycle back around to anything (never go back to Tatooine, etc.) or cut ahead (introducing the rebel base before Luke gets there, etc.) This creates a sort of meandering all-over-the-galaxy plot-progression that’s actually quite thrilling in an off-kilter kind of way.

In short, this movie is loose. This was a huge risk. Persistent verbal and visual pay-offs are very satisfying to an audience, and details that all reflect one subtle thematic dilemma can build up tremendous power. By keeping many of its details and plot turns loose and semi-random, the movie gambled on a very different type of appeal: scruffy charm.

This unusual strategy succeeded brilliantly. All of that randomness created a sense of utter reality: who could make this stuff up?? The immensely appealing characters draw us into this weird world and make us feel welcome, at which point all of the bizarre details and plot-turns become fascinating rather than alienating.  It was a trick that dozens of space-opera follow-ups tried to duplicate, with no success, but in this case the risk led to a huge reward.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Luke's Late Introduction in Star Wars

Alas, Star Wars has never gotten an adequate DVD or Blu release. It seems fairly obvious at this point that Lucas feels humiliated by his inability to get back to this level of quality, so he’s decided to simply degrade the quality of the originals rather than attempt to compete.

This means that Lucas has never officially released the deleted scenes, which are essential viewing for anyone attempting to understand how this masterpiece came about. Luckily, the scenes keep popping on the internet, despite Lucasfilm’s periodic attempts to scrub them out.

Last week, James Kennedy and I debated the question of why we like Luke despite the fact that he has an underwhelming intro scene, and why we’re willing to wait 17 minutes before a real hero shows up. Today, let’s go back and address how that tricky situation came about.

Originally, Luke was not just our hero but also our POV character, literally. We meet him much earlier on, watching the Star Destroyer battle through his binoculars from down on Tatooine, then we see him run to tell his friends about it, and then he has a discussion with his old friend Biggs who has just returned from flight school. You can watch these scenes above.

What did these scenes do for the movie?
  • Establish who Luke is: his personality, his situation, and his goals
  • Give him more instantly likable dialogue: “I’m quiet, I’m quiet, listen to how quiet I am, you can barely hear me.”
  • Give Luke more of a classic unjust social humiliation: His friends think he’s lying about the battle and the girl mocks him for it, but we were there and saw it with him, so they’re mocking us too, strongly establishing our identification with Luke.
  • Create parallel characters for Luke (those who are content to stay vs. one who has already left), showing him (and us) possible paths he could take.
  • Establish who Biggs is.
  • Establish more precisely why Luke can’t leave.
  • Establish more precisely the nature of the Empire and its relationship to the outer planets.
  • Establish why someone like Luke who hates the Empire would want to go to Imperial flight school, (Biggs reveals that would-be rebels graduate and then instantly defect to the other side, which they have to locate through rumors.)
So then these are the consequences of cutting these scenes out:
  • Luke is left with a much more indistinct intro scene.
  • We just have to guess who Biggs is when we briefly meet him later.
  • We have to infer Luke’s situation from his conversation with his uncle, though it’s never clear.
  • We have to infer the nature of the Empire from later scenes with Vader, though it remains unclear.
  • We remain utterly baffled as to why Luke wants to go Imperial flight school if he hates the empire so much (though most of us don’t notice the discrepancy until later viewings)
So then why were these scenes cut?
  • First and foremost, because Luke was wearing a goofy hat. They saw the dailies and instantly realized their mistake, but it was too late to reshoot. (And even if it had less goofy, hats shadow the eyes and make characters harder to identify with.)
  • The locations don’t have as much character as the other locations in the movie. They feel far more generic, with fewer unique and fascinating details.
  • These scenes are all backstory and no frontstory. Luke is passively receiving and dispensing information. His actions here effect no changes.
  • More importantly, they take up way too much time. The story really begins when Luke sees the hologram. That would have happened at 28 minutes instead of 20, which would have been unacceptable.
Does the movie get away with it? Absolutely. As in this previous example I cited from The Terminator, it’s clear why it was necessary to have these scenes in the script, so as to form a reader’s bond to Luke on the page, but once the footage came in, it became clear that Hammil’s performance was so good that these scenes became unnecessary: even in the underwhelming scene that now introduces the character, Hammil is telling us most of the missing info with his eyes, so we don’t need to hear it out loud.

Later, in the dinner scene, Luke’s words are insufficient to clarify what’s going on, but his eyes and tone of voice tells us everything we need to know. The actors playing Owen, Beru and Ben tell a lot of it with their eyes, too. (So much so that, in Empire, the filmmakers realized that they could add a big twist to justify the complexity of emotion going on behind everyone’s eyes when they mentioned Luke’s dad.)

It must have been hard to cut these scenes (“But then it won’t make any sense when he runs into Biggs at the end!” etc.) but they demonstrated an admirable dedication to tone over plot. It was more important that the story remain fast, fun, and exciting, even if it made a lot less sense. Why are today’s modern blockbusters all 150 minutes? Because filmmakers no longer have the courage to cut these seemingly-essential but ultimately-extraneous scenes.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Response to James: Why Do We Like Luke in Star Wars?

Over the last three days, we’ve seen James Kennedy’s epic response to my question about Luke’s possible petulance in Star Wars. Here’s my response to his response:

To begin, here’s some stuff I agree with:
  • I certainly agree that Star Wars is a much weirder story than most people realize.
  • Good point that Luke doesn’t have to sell us on the world or tone of the movie because he’s not our POV character, which means that he doesn’t have to be as likeable. He’s not saying, “Hi, I’m Luke and let me show you my crazy world!”, he’s just saying, “Now that you’ve accepted this crazy world, here’s a hero!”
  • That said, it’s still truly bizarre we put up with 17 minutes of prologue without a clear hero. As you point out, it helps that everyone (except 3PO) is pursuing goals hardcore while we wait. (Of course, this problem is just a result of the fact that the first two Luke scenes were cut out. We’ll take a look at those scenes next week and consider what effect they might have had.)
  • You make an interesting case that giving Threepio a bath is “saving the cat.” Not sure I buy it, but it’s possible.
  • The “Sir Luke” line is very key, of course. “Just Luke” is a mini-version of the false philosophy: “A guy like me can’t be a knight.”
  • Ben being too old is key: “I’m smarter and more bad-ass, but I’m too old to do it myself, so I have to train you.”
  • I definitely agree that one of Luke’s big strengths is that he’s cheerfully gung-ho: Looking for the droids, rushing to fight the sand people, rushing back home, selling his speeder, rescuing Leia, eager to blow up the Death Star, etc.
And some stuff I definitely disagree with:
  • We read the dinner scene differently: I think Luke is trying to break the agreement: To me the implication is that he already agreed to stay on another season until the end of the harvest, but now he wants to get out of that by saying the droids could take his place instead. I could see how you could read it either way.
  • You say: “Even when he is stalking off from a family argument, he's still going to finish the cleaning chore Uncle Owen gave him. Even though he's entitled to his emotion, he going to do his work anyway. This is whiny? This is petulant?” In a word, yes! There’s a difference between petulance and defiance. Luke is not defiant, he’s not angry, he’s not surly…he’s petulant. This is the dictionary definition of petulance: “childishly sulky or bad-tempered”
  • I totally disagree with your contention that Luke puts 2 and 2 together about the dead Jawas. Just the opposite: he’s totally fooled into thinking the Sand People did it until Obi Wan figures it out and corrects him.
But let’s get to the main question: I think that Luke certainly does sound whiny when he says he’d rather go to Tosche Station, but it’s saved by the fact that his small flaw gets an outsized comeuppance. This is a classic trick: Luke deserves an upbraiding, but, “You can waste time with your friends later,” is excessive. This is always a great way to be introduced to a character, because we see that they have a real personal problem that we can worry about, but we also get to burn with indignation for them because we see that they’re being over-punished for it. Ironically, this bonds us to the character more than it would if the humiliation was not at all justified.
I originally had his big flaws listed as “naïve and whiny” and his flip-side strengths as “idealistic and eager,” but thanks to you I now realize that this isn’t quite it. The naïve/idealistic pair is definitely there, but the other pairing (which is more prominent) would be better described as impatient/gung-ho (Yoda pretty much says this outright in the Empire, come to think of it). This is why we aren’t bothered by his petulance (until the 4th or 5th viewing, when we suddenly notice it): It’s not his personality, it’s his flaw. We sense right away that it’s the aspect of his personality that he needs to change, which makes it a bug, not a feature. The flaw is the one aspect of the hero that we are not asked to identify with.

This also links back to a previous post: the flaw should usually be something you would admit to in a job interview. When an interviewer asks you about your flaws, you would never say “whiny”, but you might say “impatient”, because that’s the more sympathetic version of that flaw.

So thanks again to James for the illuminating discussion! ...But wait folks, there’s more! Spinning out of James’s thought and my re-watch, there are many more storytelling tips that can be gleaned by re-examining this movie:
  • The pros and cons of cutting out Luke’s intro scenes
  • The value of the droids wandering around (including one more argument from James’s letter that I haven’t included yet)
  • The value of semi-random worldbuilding
  • The value of a legacy
  • The value of the “half-fact”
  • Lucas’s respect for “the way the world works” (even though it’s not our world)
  • Luke as emotional manipulator
  • Obi Wan’s counterintuitive metaphor family
Come back next week as we dive in further!

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Guest Expert James Kennedy On Why We Love Luke Skywalker, Part 3

Heres the rest of novelist James Kennedys keen analysis of Lukes introduction in Star Wars (He also had a tangent that I snipped out for now, but Ill run that next week as part of another discussion)...
25:50 Luke goes back into the garage and C3P0 is hiding. Why? Because R2D2 ran away and C3P0 is ashamed he couldn’t stop him! Luke goes right back to being a realistic kid in trouble: “Oh no! How could I be so stupid? He’s nowhere in sight. Blast! ...Boy, am I ever gonna get it. That little droid is gonna cause me a lot of trouble!” R2D2 himself problem-solved, bamboozling Luke into removing the restraining bolt so he could travel on his own to Kenobi’s. Everyone, not just the hero, is ingeniously problem-solving all the time. This is much more satisfying than just saying “the robot ran away why I wasn’t in the room” -- by introducing this technology of “the restraining bolt” that Luke was definitely responsible for removing, it makes R2D2’s running away a direct function of one of Luke’s choices, and so makes his agency feel more important in the story.

27:00 The next morning, we don’t see Luke on the farm. Uncle Owen asks Aunt Beru, “Have you seen Luke?” and she replies something like “He left early” and after some conversation Uncle Owen says that Luke had “better have those units on the south range by midday or there’ll be hell to pay.” He’s still a kid, under his uncle’s thumb, and the stakes are established: he’s in trouble, he’s got to get that robot back, it’s an expensive piece of valuable equipment!
27:25 Luke and C3P0 are in a sandspeeder looking for R2D2. They spot something that might be him on the scanner. Hit the accelerator!

27:40 We see sand people preparing to take a shot at the sandspeeder. Luke is in danger, and he doesn’t even know it! They are following Luke, coming after him! He’s in their territory.... this makes us pity him, hope that he doesn’t get hurt, that the sand people don’t get him.
27:55 Luke finds R2D2 pretty quickly, which again demonstrates that he's a resourceful problem-solver -- with a whole desert planet to look in, Luke is able to succeed at this. He’s capable of solving small problems, so we trust him to solve the big problem of the plot, eventually. Much more effective than if he had wandered in circles forever. C3P0 says to R2D2, angrily: “You’re fortunate he [Luke] doesn't blast you into a million pieces right now!” But Luke, with mature, take-it-down-a-notch calmness. says “No, it's all right, but I think we'd better go” because he knows this is a dangerous area and he's not an idiot -- again, he's good at being a canny, practical farmboy who knows the territory. When R2 says he detects “several creatures approaching from the southeast,” Luke immediately knows what's up and says, “Sand people! Or worse.” He’s informed, he’s qualified to take us on this adventure!
But then Luke does something that always made me love him. Instead of running away in fear after he concludes there might be sand people about, he grabs his rifle and says, “C’mon, let’s go have a look. C’mon!” That is: even though it’s a dangerous situation, Luke has some grit, some spirit. He doesn’t turn tail and scurry away home afraid. He faces danger, but not foolhardily -- or actually, maybe a little foolhardy, because at 28:45 a sand person attacks, and Luke is in real danger, and we hope he doesn’t die! His rifle gets broken, he rolls out of the way avoiding the sand person’s battle stick (not his first time in a fight with a sand person?) Then horrifying howl, and cut away to empty desert valley. We feel how desolate this movie would be without Luke.
29:00 The sand people drop an unconscious Luke and loot his landspeeder. There comes a scary noise and the sand people run away as an even more scary figure appears. The scary figure approaches Luke . . . what will it do?!. . . but it removes its hood and it’s just a nice old man! We know he’s nice because he’s nice to R2D2. And we also know Luke will be OK, because he says so: "Oh don’t worry, he’ll be all right.” to Luke: "Rest easy son, you’ve had a busy day.” And Luke, as always quick on the uptake, says "Ben? Ben Kenobi? Am I glad to see you!” All these cognitive jumps that Luke makes add up.
30:48 When Luke says how came to own R2D2, and mentions Obi-Wan Kenobi, he gets significant suspicious looks from Kenobi, same as with Aunt and Uncle. WHAT IS THE SECRET EVERYONE IS KEEPING FROM LUKE?? Since it’s being kept from both Luke AND us, we identify with Luke more closely.

31:45 Before they leave the valley, Luke goes back for C3P0 and the wounded robot says, “Leave me behind, I’m done for.” Luke displays his can-do, never-say-die spirit: “No you’re not, what kind of talk is that?” and carries the robot. He’s helping out his robot friend, encouraging him! And you say he’s unkind?
32:17 at Kenobi’s house. Remember, everything that is said about Luke’s father is potentially true about Luke, since Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen agreed that Luke has a lot of his father in him. He was a "jedi knight,” the "best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.” We can legitimately expect all of this to be true about Luke too, and so we have another promissory note about his character we expect to be cashed later. When Luke gets the lightsaber, and when Ben Kenobi explains the Force to him, Luke is respectful and a close listener with intelligent questions. All of this makes us like him because we have similar questions and we care too.
34:50 Leia’s complete message plays (so Luke has, in a roundabout way, accomplished that goal. He’s the kind of person who accomplishes goals! Another thing to like!) We learn R2D2 is important to the rebellion and has important info. Obi Wan takes it seriously, so that gives Luke a warrant to take it seriously without looking like a hothead going off half-cocked. And we know we can trust Obi Wan because he saved Luke's life.
35:35 When Ben invites Luke to come with him to Alderaan and learn the ways of the force, Luke is very reasonable to say no, which makes him more believable. An unstable, fundamentally unserious person would say, “You’re right, old man I just met. I’ll ditch my aunt and uncle who need me. Let’s go.” Instead, Luke says quite reasonably, “Alderaan? I’m not going to Alderaan, I’m going home. It’s late as it is.” This shows he is responsible, perhaps too much so. Ben says, “I need your help, Luke! She needs your help! I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.” (Ben, whom we implicitly trust now, is basically guaranteeing the viewer that Luke is important, needed, and valued.) Even though this is exactly the opportunity Luke has been dreaming of, he’s a canny practical peasant, and he says “I can’t get involved...I’ve got work to do...my uncle, how am I never going to explain this?”
But even though Luke refuses to help Ben, he never refuses outright: he says, “Look, I can take you as far as Anchorhead. You can take a transport there to Mos Eiseley or wherever you’re going.” Another telling line! A bad screenwriter would have Luke say, “Look, I have to go home, so you’re on your own, here’s your droid, good luck, bye.” A slightly better screenwriter would have Luke say, “Look Ben, I have to go home, but I can drop you off somewhere on the way. Where do you need to go?” But Luke’s actual line is great because of course Luke KNOWS the territory, he knows that if someone wants to get off the planet, they have to go to Mos Eiseley -- and that Anchorhead is the place that’s on the way between here and home. Luke is knowledgeable about his own world, he knows the lay of the land, so we trust him to learn about any new situation with the same detail and depth. Luke is no idle, impractical dreamer -- he understands the world he’s in, and uses that knowledge, and that knowledge shows in nearly every line. That makes us like him!
36:35 The bad guys have a conference on the Death Star. Vader chokes someone. Vader mentions the Force. Wait, Kenobi just mentioned the Dark Side of the Force! This stuff is real!
38:50 Luke and Kenobi and the droids come across the Jawa’s transport on their way to Luke taking Ben somewhere, and the transport is totally blown up, Jawas slaughtered. Luke puts 2 and 2 together and figures out it couldn’t have been done by sandpeople. Kenobi agrees and proves it must’ve been stormtroopers. Luke does another chain of reasoning that makes him realize that those stormtroopers must be after the droids, and so they must be going to his . . . home! Luke figures this out all by himself mostly, which makes us love him: he’s smart, he can figure stuff out! Luke jumps into his landspeeder and goes home alone, even though Ben shouts, "Wait Luke it’s too dangerous!” Luke is smart but impulsive. What’s not to like there?
40:00 Luke comes home and it’s a smoking ruin. He sees the blackened skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Another 30 second scene of us silently FEELING stuff with Luke while the music swells, and he gets the same determined look as when he stared into the setting sun after his quibbling dinner with his aunt and uncle. We already feel he’s grown a bit since then. Wait, did we really only meet this guy 23 minutes ago? He's already been through so much! There’s an implicit promise that he’ll continue to cause a lot of stuff to happen for the remaining 80 minutes.
40:40 Back to the Death Star. Leia being tortured. Man, this Empire that Luke is against is some serious bad news! Luke is against this? We root for him as David against Goliath! We want him to help this brave princess he’s seen in the hologram before she’s tortured to death!
41:20 Luke comes back to Ben and plainly states what he wants, now that his family has been killed: “I WANT TO COME WITH YOU TO ALDERAAN. THERE’S NOTHING FOR ME HERE NOW. I WANT TO LEARN THE WAYS OF THE FORCE AND BECOME A JEDI LIKE MY FATHER.” Clear, understandable, awesome, brave, adventurous goal. Surely we’ll follow Luke anywhere now!

I could go on and on.

Time and again Luke indicates -- in countless tiny ways that add up -- that he’s ready for an adventure and has the chops to deal with it. For instance, before they go into the cantina, Ben says “Watch your step, this place can get a little rough” and Luke says “I’m ready for anything.” A dozen of these lines, sprinkled throughout the script, are more effective than one big engineered artificial moment in which he demonstrates those personal qualities. Luke is game for this story, he wants to be in this story, he is going to succeed in this story! He’s not moping, not petulant, not whiny, not unkind.

More little things: Even when he’s in the rough cantina, Luke yanks the shirt of the grizzled bartender who has his back to him and orders something. Luke’s no shrinking violet! Even after the monster at the bar threatens him, and Kenobi cuts the monster’s arm off, Luke picks himself off the floor, says “I’m all right” and then there’s not a further word about it. You’d think he’d be traumatized, but he’s tough!
Where we really see Luke's mettle is in the way he constantly stands up to the more experienced and sneering Han Solo. When Han Solo tries to overcharge them for the services of the Millennium Falcon, Luke immediately blurts, in his canny farmboy bargaining way, “Ten thousand? We could almost buy our own ship for that!” To which Han Solo contemptuously replies, “But who’s gonna fly it, kid? You?” At which point Luke stands up for himself -- justifiably, it turns out -- and says, “You bet I could. I’m not such a bad pilot myself. We don’t have to sit here and listen to this...” And he gets up to leave -- but when Kenobi indicates he sit down, Luke acquiesces, and Kenobi finishes the bargaining. Luke is a hothead, but he isn’t a dick, and he’ll follow the advice of the guy who has stuck out his neck for him twice. Another instance of Luke being a canny practical peasant: when he sells his speeder to pay for the Millennium Falcon trip (in itself an irreversible and therefore heroic action) he can’t help but say, “Look at this, ever since the SP-38 came out, these just aren’t in demand.” He knows the value of a space dollar, and we respect that.

And so when Luke says “What a piece of junk!” upon seeing the Millennium Falcon, we’re inclined to believe him, and it sets up another way that he can be less than impressed by the less than trustworthy Han Solo. When they’re trying to leave the Tatooine system, and the star destroyers are coming after them, Luke shouts “Why don't you outrun them? I thought you said this thing was fast!” which is EXACTLY the thing you say to someone who has been boasting about how fast is spaceship is. Luke is never a docile passenger -- when Han Solo tries to bullshit his way about how much trouble they’re in, Luke reasonably snaps back “Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining?” He’s invested, he’s knowledgeable, he’s challenging, he has his own ideas about what’s going on, and even when he gets smacked down with Han Solo’s contemptuous “traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy!” he still keeps asking questions and having ideas.

Indeed, when they get to the Death Star, it’s Luke’s idea to spring Leia out of her jail cell; further, it’s Luke’s idea to put Chewbacca in binders and pretend he's a prisoner so they can get access to the detention levels. At almost every turn, it’s Luke who has the great idea and is pushing everyone else along.

So, what’s NOT to like about Luke?

Well, I do in fact have a few things to say about that! Come back tomorrow for my rebuttal, in which I concede some points and hold my ground on others. In the meantime, let me thank James for his not-so-brief brief for the defense! Make sure to check out his novel The Order of Odd Fish and The 90 Second Newbery Festival.