Storytelling Lessons from The Force Awakens

I’ve seen The Force Awakens a lot. Eleven times as of this blog post. Suffice it to say I really, really like the movie. Is it my favorite Star Wars? Right now I’m inclined to say yes, but only time will tell how it stands up to the rest of the saga. One of the reasons I love TFA so much is how great the characters are. Old and new, I fell in love with all of them. Yes, even Kylo Ren.

I recently started writing a new manuscript. This is essentially a rewrite of my first book, which had characters I loved but a plot that was meh. I kept several of the main characters, fleshed out new ones, and reworked the story into a much more engaging plot. While figuring out my plot beats I kept thinking about character agency. I wanted my characters to drive the plot. Even though there are some situations where bad things happen to the characters, I want them to react to those events and set the story off in another direction.

Why was this at the forefront of my mind? Because it’s exactly what happens in TFA. The film starts with Poe Dameron on a mission to get the map to Luke Skywalker. He fights back against the stormtroopers, ensuring his capture. Before that happens, he gives BB-8 the map, setting the plot in motion. The stormtrooper known as FN-2187 decides not to fire on the villagers, making him a target for his superiors. He chooses to rescue Poe and leave the First Order. During the escape, Poe flies them back to Jakku against the wishes of FN-2187, now known as Finn. Their ship crashes and Finn, unable to find Poe, walks to the closest town. He immediately sees Rey, a scavenger from the planet, in trouble, and decides to help her. Because of this, they wind up leaving Jakku together on the Millennium Falcon. Of course, none of that would have happened if Rey hadn’t chosen to rescue BB-8 from a fellow scavenger, nor if she’d chosen to sell BB-8 to Unkar Plott.

The three new heroes–Rey, Finn, and Poe–all make major decisions that set TFA’s plot in motion. The story doesn’t exist without them, and that’s what I want my books to be like. I want the characters to leap off the page in their dialogue, in their descriptions, but most of all, in their actions. I don’t want to say “Plot Point A needs to happen, therefore Character C needs to do this.” Instead I will write my stories by thinking “Character B did this, therefore this happened, but Character A does this.”

Another lesson taught by TFA is to let your readers come to their own conclusions. TFA doesn’t tell the audience what happened, it shows them. We’re never told exactly what happened to make Han and Leia estranged, but we can infer their arguments over their son are what led to their separation. The specifics don’t matter. We’re not told how Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s Jedi Order, but we can speculate to our heart’s content.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people screaming “plot hole!”, when the explanations to their questions are present in dialogue and character actions. Just like Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, I don’t want to to assume my readers need their hands held throughout my books. Even though I’ve come up with a ton of backstory for this world, the book itself will barely show the tip of the iceberg. Which is just the way it’s supposed to be.

I wanted to update on my resolutions for the year. I’m getting ready to query Aurora, and I’ve started writing my first of hopefully two manuscripts. Once I finish this manuscript, I’ll go back to revising The Mage Queen. On the reading front, I finished two books (one a reread) and set a goal to dip my toes into the Vorkosigan saga while I’m on a cruise in two weeks. I also plan to spend as much time as possible writing on my balcony and by the pool.

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