Writing Tips From The Last Jedi
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, and I always have been. I’ve watched the movies countless time, and I’ve read a good chunk of the extended universe. I am not a fan of The Last Jedi. It had its moments, but the overall story was problematic and lazy. I’m going to leave out my nerd reasons for disliking the movie and focus on the writing. So, I’ve put together some of the movie’s major weaknesses to hopefully provide some insight into how you can write better than the writer of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson. Most of the issues within The Last Jedi stems from Johnson’s unwillingness to follow up on The Force Awakens. He let plot points drop and ignored vital questions and clues for shock value. For being parts one and two of a trilogy, the two movies feel disconnected.
Suspension of Disbelief
In every single story, suspension of disbelief is crucial. Suspension of disbelief is when your reader agrees to go along for the ride. They accept that your world has dragons or elves or magic. They accept that your main character just got their dream job after almost running over their future boss. Or whatever. As long as they can understand the rules and you obey both your own rules and logic, they’ll follow you. In order to keep your readers engaged, you need to maintain their suspension of disbelief. In the Star Wars Universe, we accept the existence of the Force, lightsabers, and millions of types of species. But the story still needs to be logical.
The crawling text of The Last Jedi tells us that “The First Order reigns” and Snoke is taking control of the galaxy with his massive army. Later on, Rey says the First Order will have no problem conquering with their legions. What legions? What army? The First Order is theoretically the remnants of the Empire plus whatever brainwashed soldiers they’ve somehow managed to raise in a couple of decades. Except the Empire had two Death Stars blown up. Then, in The Force Awakens, they blow up Starkiller Base. That’s an entire planet full of their soldiers. They showed us how many people they had, and then that planet blew up. It’s gone. Those people should be gone. How is Captain Phasma even alive? Furthermore, during The Last Jedi, they destroy a Dreadnought and kamikaze Snoke’s ship. How is there any of the First Order left? They’re not producing clones anymore. By creating an endless stream of soldiers and saying that the First Order can supposedly still conquer the galaxy after an entire planet of their people and resources are demolished, the movie has lost my suspension of disbelief. (They further lose it when General Organa somehow survives instant space death. Yes, she can use the Force, but how does that save her from immediate death?) That means from the very beginning I don’t trust the movie or what it tells me. They’re not playing by the rules.
The proper way to do a plot twist has been on my mind lately, ever since The Game of Thrones TV show killed Littlefinger in a plot twist that left viewers having to fill in the blanks. A well-done plot twist is one that your readers don’t see coming but makes perfect sense in the end. Your reader should be able to reread your work and go “Of course! It’s so obvious now!” If your readers think it’s cool but can’t follow any breadcrumbs to get there, you’ve done something wrong. This brings me to Rey’s parentage.
So, let me start off by saying that there’s room in the story for J.J. Abrams to fix this problem in the next movie. Johnson recently said the door for her parentage was still open since he’s not writing the sequel. However, Johnson still made it clear how his movie felt about the issue. Rey’s parents are nobodies who sold her for beer money. Sure. Except that doesn’t make sense when you consider The Force Awakens. She was clearly set up to be someone, potentially a Skywalker or a Kenobi. Leaving aside the nerd stuff (like, how is she more powerful than a Skywalker since they’re the descendants of Space Jesus?), Rey picks up the Skywalker lightsaber and has a vision. In this vision, she sees Luke, and Obi-Wan Kenobi talks to her. She sees herself being left on Jakku as a ship flies away. Luke didn’t have a vision when he picked up his father’s lightsaber. Her vision is important and tells the viewer there is more to her story. The Last Jedi doesn’t even address it. It ignores it completely in favor of a shocking twist that contradicts the evidence presented to past viewers. I understand the appeal of a heroine that’s stronger than the legendary Skywalker bloodline even though she comes from nothing. It’s inspiring, but it doesn’t connect to previous work. No matter if you liked this twist or not, it’s poor writing.
This is going to be short. If something doesn’t progress your plot and/or it doesn’t add to character development, it shouldn’t be in your work. By which I mean, if you need a random trip to a casino to find a codebreaker only to have that mission fail to add drama to what amounts to the longest car chase ever, there’s a flaw in your entire story. Sure, that thread introduces Rose, but that could have been done differently. Sure, we discover what rich Star Wars people are like and get some sort of lesson about war profiteering, but was that necessary to the overarching story? The only real payoff from this storyline is Rose and Finn becoming friends and Finn’s fight with Phasma. But again, these things could have been achieved differently. Plus, it doesn’t contribute to an arc for Finn. He goes from running away at the beginning of the movie to facing the First Order head-on in the end, but I don’t know how he got there. As it is, the casino story feels disconnected from the rest of the movie. It feels like you are watching a separate film with marginal stakes. Why are they wasting time talking on the balcony when the entire Resistance is in trouble, and there’s limited time? There’s no need for any of it except giving us the added excitement of another chase scene.
Subversion of Expectations
Expectation subversion can be a useful technique with a great payout. It’s exactly what it sounds like. The writer builds up expectations in order to subvert them for surprise and/or tension. George R.R. Martin does this often, generally by subverting our understanding of main character privilege. At the end of The Game of Thrones, the reader assumes Ned will live because they’ve spent so much time in his head, and he’s important. Main characters never die. So, when Martin kills him, they’re surprised and upset, and Martin gets bonus points for being realistic. The reader is hurt, but they understand why he died because Joffrey’s insane. However, when used incorrectly, expectation subversion can make readers, or, in this case viewers, feel cheated.
The Force Awakens built up Emperor Snoke as a villain to be reckoned with. He managed to turn Kylo right under Luke’s nose, he rules the galaxy with a cruel iron fist, and he, for some reason, likes to hologram himself as being massive, emblematic of his power. There were rumors that he was really Darth Plagueis, one of the scariest Sith in the Star Wars Universe. To an extent, The Last Jedi supports this view. Snoke is a fully-realized Sith with powers Palpatine didn’t even have. He’s able to pull information out of Rey’s mind, shocking considering that Kylo, with his Skywalker blood, was unable to achieve this. Then, in a bizarre coup, Kylo kills Snoke Scott Pilgrim style (“Actually, muchacho, I poured the soy in this cup, but I thought real hard about pouring it in that cup. You know, in my mind’s eye, or whatever.”). This is before we find out who Snoke is and how he got to Kylo. This is after we discover just how powerful he is. And then, he’s dead. Suddenly, the villain we’ve been investing in for a movie and a half is gone. Since he dies so easily and quickly, we’re left wondering what was scary about him in the first place. It’s insulting to the viewer.
Poe and Vice Admiral Holdo
Credit where credit is due. There was one arc within the movie that I really appreciated, and that is Poe’s arc. Some fans are upset about how Poe is portrayed and believe he would never act that way (Luke Skywalker fans sympathize). However, the writing was good. Overall, I see Poe’s arc as a man coming to grips with not only his ego but his sexism. When we first see Poe, he’s executing a clever plan to take out the Dreadnought and disobeying General Organa to do it. The plan works, but many people die, and he loses all their Bombers. Naturally, she demotes him. Yet, when General Organa is in a coma, Poe clearly believes he’s about to become the Resistance’s new leader. Right before the new leader is announced, he begins to stand up. He’s then surprised by Vice Admiral Holdo’s appearance who is “not what [he] expected.” He doesn’t tell us what this means, but it’s code for “But she’s a woman.” She’s also a war hero, but Poe immediately distrusts her and demands her plan. The message is clear: Poe doesn’t truly respect women leaders. He respects General Organa but not enough to follow her orders. He disregards Holdo’s orders and leads a mission behind her back, one that fails and ultimately kills a lot of people. He believes that aggression is the only way to survive and win fights. He has to learn how to truly be a leader by understanding when to fight and when to run away. He has to learn how to protect his followers, including not leading them to their deaths unnecessarily. He has to learn to respect women leaders so he can learn from them. He learns this through a painful arc during which he makes several mistakes. The writing is slow, thoughtful, and satisfying.
I’ve talked to multiple people who believed that Vice Admiral Holdo was a villain for most of the movie. That’s not really surprising. We see her from Poe’s view, and certain aspects, like the music, support that view. However, we never receive evidence of actual treachery. She’s only guilty of not telling Poe her plan, but she was never under any obligation to tell her plan to a Captain who had just been demoted and lost an extraordinary amount of people and resources. Seeing as he led a mutiny, he proved he couldn’t really be trusted. We later learn that she was doing exactly what General Organa taught her and was cleverly ensuring the Resistance’s survival. She also sacrifices herself to ensure their escape, a heroic act that demonstrates her loyalty. Furthermore, there’s this touching scene between Holdo and General Organa in which Holdo supports her General and exemplifies the General’s lessons. It’s a scene about women leaders creating more thoughtful, strong, and intelligent women leaders. It’s inspiring and corrects our view of Holdo, firmly establishing Poe’s past views as incorrect. This is a powerful message to include in an action sci-fi movie, and it’s one we can all learn from. It goes to show that every writer has their strengths, and Johnson is capable of true character development.
Like it or not, The Last Jedi is our sequel to The Force Awakens. I was willing to forgive The Force Awakens’ many issues because I trusted the next two movies would correct them. However, one of those opportunities is gone, and, now, the third movie has even more issues to address. At least the movie served as a good learning opportunity.