Podcast

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Star Wars

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Farmboy Luke Skywalker gets a chance to leave his backwater planet and join the rebellion when two droids, Artoo and Threepio, crash on his planet, leading him to magical hermit Obi Wan, cocky smuggler Han Solo, hirsute co-pilot Chewbacca, and kick-ass Princess Leia. Together they take on Darth Vader and his Death Star.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A farmboy on a distant planet becomes the hero of a galactic rebellion.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
The kid who didn’t get to go join the rebellion becomes the hero of the rebellion.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Very much so.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes and no.  There’s a lot of plot, so much so that we need an exposition pre-roll, but compared to the prequels, it’s fairly straightforward.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Luke, though we find Han more appealing.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Yes.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 (Unless you’ve seen Hidden Fortress) The farmboy, the mercenary, the princess, the hermit and the princess.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Darth Vader
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest hope: he finally gets his chance to go be a pilot.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
It begins his spiritual awakening. We sense that Han could never power a lightsaber, for instance.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
It is at first, because of his aunt and uncle.  It’s pretty easy to want to do after they’re killed.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Only he can make the shot because only he has the force.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Transform situation: He blows up the death star, transform hero: he’s a hero now and gets a medal to prove it.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Lots of swashbuckling fun and otherworldly imagery
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
That opening spaceship! Darth Vader. The two moons. The light saber, the Death Star, etc. 
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
See above.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Somewhat: Obi Wan is killed.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 21/22
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
This is tricky, because the hero’s introductory scene was cut. Why is Luke so likeable?  He’s petulant and whiny, not kind, not very funny. We like his wisecracking, his curiosity, his dreamer quality, and his very universal quality of frustration at living in a remote rural area. As with Downhill Racer, we come to like him the most when he looks off into the distance at sunset.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The unhappy farmboy
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
The would-be galactic adventurer
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Only vaguely: Farmboy/Schoolboy “Boy am I gonna get it!” “C’mon, let’s go have a look!” For the most part, he is a pure everyman. We strongly identify with him but we don’t really admire anything about him. 
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Petulant, whiny, wisecracking
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Ineffective disputation
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Solve R2’s problem before it gets him in trouble.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “It looks like I’m going nowhere.” “I see, Sir Luke” [chuckles] “No, just Luke” (aka, “I can’t be a knight”) Later, he says, “I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Fix R2, get him back, take Obi Wan only as far as Anchorhead, etc.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: That he’ll never get to be a pilot.  Hidden: That he’ll be corrupted.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Naïve and whiny.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Idealistic and eager.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so: wants to hear more about the rebellion, more about his father, see the whole video, etc.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
He comes up with clever plans throughout.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I deserve better, I know what I’m doing, It can’t be that hard.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Only he is pure enough to tap into the force and self-taught enough to make the shot.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
He doesn’t boast about the force, but he certainly boasts about his home-grown shooting abilities.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s always angling to get off the planet.  Even getting and fixing the droids is part of his plan to replace himself so he leave.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
He ignores his guardians (even before they’re killed off.)
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Mainly just second hand (he boasts and others compliment him “I understand you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself.”), but we see his innate talent for the force when he practices his lightsaber.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
He wants to go off to flight school and feels left out, but he’s not dealing with the moral complexities.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
He’s told he has to stay on another season. “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” And later, “It looks like I’m going nowhere.” R2D2 tricks him into removing the restraining bolt, then runs away.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
His new robot has a message for the rebellion, and leads him to a friend of his father who proposes a “damn fool crusade”
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Only commits to taking Obi Wan to Anchorhead
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
He commits late, at 38 minutes in: “I want to come with you to Alderan, there’s nothing here for me now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Mos Eisley turns out to be a hive of scum and villainy. Their pilot turns out to have a price on his head.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Hires it done, lies to Han about cargo.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Fun lightspeed effect, actual fun and games with chess game, lightsaber practice. They all think they’re about to arrive in Alderaan and have it made.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
In this case, bigger disasters happen at the ¼ and ¾ points, (the deaths of Luke’s parent-figures and mentor) but there is a midpoint disaster, as they realize that the planet that they’re heading towards has been destroyed, and their ship is seized.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Infiltrates the Death Star
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Not in this one. Good and bad are readily evident.  Betrayals and redemptions will come in later movies.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
It becomes very thrilling, cross-cutting between four groups in danger.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Sees Obi Wan die
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
This causes him to doubt the force, fall back on his reliance on technology and his original dream of becoming a fighter pilot.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Not until the end: “Use the force”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Finally discovers true goal: use the plans to blow up the Death Star.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, they plan to attack the Death Star…
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
…but the Death Star attacks them first.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes. Not in the same place, but all part of the same confrontation.  Everyone but Threepio takes part (even Artoo is in the X-Wing.)
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
He resolves his inner struggle at the final moment in order to succeed.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
He’s now a celebrated hero.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (The gang takes over the Death Star command office) 16/20
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
No, they’re flying by the seat of their pants, and they don’t know what they’re going to find.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
We don’t see them make the plan, we just begin with the culmination of it.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
They’re surrounded with people trying to kill them.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
No, they’re all in mid-conversation already.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not really
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
We know that Darth Vader can sense Obi-Wan, and that Leia’s death order has been given.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
More plot than character, but character is revealed in Han’s decision, and Obi Wan’s farewell. Luke, Han and Chewie all take offense at things.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
In the first debate, we’re not sure if Luke should go with Obi-Wan. In the second, we’ve come to love Leia, so we side with Luke when he tries to convince Han to rescue her. 
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
First Obi-Wan wants Luke to stay and Luke wants to come, then Luke wants to go and Han wants to stay.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Obi-Wan and Luke are also arguing about Luke’s destiny, Luke and Han are also arguing about Han’s flaw.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Not really.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Luke sells Han by mentioning the princess’s money, not her beauty, because he’s fallen in love with her himself.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Luke tempts Han into it by playing on his greed.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Obi-Wan touches Luke’s arm once to convince him. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Artoo physically access the plans, Han tries to put cuffs on Chewy, then hands them to Han, who puts them on Chewy, Luke hands Han a helmet to signal it’s time to go.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Luke is convinced to stay, then he convinces Han to leave with him.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
They find a secure place to hide, then they decide to leave.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
The previous scene left us asking, “What’s their plan?” The scene intro answers that. New: Will the room be breached?  Will the new plan work? Will Obi-Wan’s plan succeed?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 “What should Artoo and I do if we’re discovered here?” The only answer they get is sarcastic.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We’re very worried, especially after Obi-Wan’s pointed farewell.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 15/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Even Darth Vader deals with disrespect in this movie, in the interrogations, we understand the stakes and worries on both sides, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru both have strong and independent points to make, etc.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
One could argue that Obi Wan has an unlimited perspective, but he is wisely killed off, leaving lots of people who are unsure of themselves.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Luke and Han are both just trying to solve short-term problems until near the end.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
The crushes remain sublimated in this movie.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Han hides his true situation from them, and vice versa.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Owen and Luke talk past each other, nobody listens to Threepio, etc.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Lots of good made-up jargon. Good smuggling tradecraft. Believable structure of the rebellion (hiding behind the cover of a phony diplomatic mission, etc.)
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Han: Pirate / Hawksian tough-guy “She’s fast enough for you, old man” “It’s going to cost you something extra”, Leia: Veneer of diplomacy, revealing royal-born contempt “I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board”, Obi Wan: Jolly old elf on the surface “since, oh, before you were born”, revealing General (“Quickly, son, they’re on the move.” “Sand People always ride single file to hide there numbers.) (Even when discussing the force, he can sound like a general: “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.”), Threepio: British pessimist (the accent is twit, but the language is lower-class) “we’ll be smashed into who knows what!” “It’s our lot in life” “And don't let me catch you following me begging for help, because you won't get it.”, Default personality trait: Han: Cocky, selfish, smug, Leia: brave, spunky, smug, Obi Wan: wise, tough, Threepio: worrywart , Argument strategy: Han: wisecracks, ridicule, shoots first, Leia: superior knowledge and cynicism, Obi Wan: Either does his Jedi mind trick or says something wise then goes silent and leaves it up to you, Threepio: Constant hectoring, cites odds, lists everything that could go wrong.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Very much so. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes. 
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Four way polarization: Luke: heart, Leia (and Threepio): head, Han: gut, Obi Wan: spirit.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
No, which is why the sequel writers decided not to get them together after all.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
We start out with a massive onscreen info dump, but the exposition is parceled out deftly from that point on. Breaking up the video playback into two sections is a nice trick.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Somewhat, when Luke and Leia confront Han.
PART #6: TONE 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Combines sci-fi and fantasy throughout
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Space opera, sword and sorcery.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
The hero, the rogue and the mentor are all fairly traditional, but the princess is kick-ass, which defied expectations at the time.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
The fairy tale element is consistent throughout. C3PO calls him “Sir Luke” accidentally.  The side-wipes give it a ‘turning the pages of a fairy tale” feel.  “That wizard’s just a crazy old man.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
What are the plans, why does the empire want them, and who will end up them?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Opening title, followed by scroll.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Not really.   Again, these were cut (contrasting Luke with his friends who didn’t leave and his friend who did leave.) Han isn’t really a parallel character because he and Luke haven’t faced the same choices.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 “He has too much of his father in him.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.” 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Han acts selfishly until he doesn’t, Luke trusts technology until he doesn’t.  Even Threepio offers his circuits to repair Artoo in the last spoken line.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
The plans are used to destroy the Death Star at the very end.
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Spirituality vs. technology, freedom vs. unjust peace, solidarity vs. personal safety
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
The first is implied when Uncle Owen says Luke should work on the robots instead of seeking out a “crazy old wizard”. Also this: “You mean it controls your actions?” “Partially, but it also obeys your commands.” Also: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” The second dilemma formed the heart of Luke’s discussion of Biggs, which was cut, but it’s implied by this exchange: “It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's such a long way from here.”  The third is prefigured by Han’s discussion with Greedo.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Endanger relatives to help the cause of freedom? Risk the mission to save the princess?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
The farmers don’t care about the revolution. The empire has a toothless Senate to give it a fig-leaf of democracy.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
The farming community couldn’t be more bizarre, but it’s recognizable.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
The whole thing mirrors Vietnam very closely.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
The empire resembles America (and the good guys the Viet Cong) and gives us a pretty unpleasant picture of ourselves.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Helping the rebels gets his aunt and uncle killed.  Rescuing the princess gets Obi Wan killed.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
Somewhat. Part of the appeal of the movie is that it’s filled with such utterly strange and seemingly random details that don’t really “made a point” but just made this feel like an endlessly strange and fascinating world, so it’s a plus that the details don’t all back up the theme.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Somewhat. The plans of the Death Star, the lightsabers.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Spirituality is better than technology, but even more dangerous in the wrong hands.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
He defeats the bad guys using the technology he learned at home, not by acting like the other pilots.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Vader lives, the empire continues, and Jabba’s debt is still looming over Han.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
The finale is wordless.
Final Score: 113 out of 122

1 comment:

j.s. said...

Even if STAR WARS does become your checklist's statistical poster boy, your gift to the world of storytelling will be in liberating the reasons for admiring/emulating it from the Procrustean bed of the Hero's Journey.