How to Fix “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
One of the most nerve-wracking things about being an artist is the fear that, no matter how hard you work and how much time and effort you put into your art, it will always fall short. In fact, the more mainstream your work is, the more likely it seems that it will be torn apart for all of its flaws.
This certainly happened in 2015 when the Star Wars film franchise was revived with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I enjoyed the movie far more than other Star Wars fans at the time: Finn, Rey, Poe, and BB8 stole my heart, and their story was suitably entertaining. While many fans claimed that the movie was too similar to A New Hope, I felt there was something else missing that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time.
Fast forward four years later, I have gotten my Master’s degree in creative writing, delved deep into the study of story structure, and written/edited my own novel. From this perspective, it became immediately clear as I was watching the film again the moment The Force Awakens shot itself in the foot. And it was not because it was too similar to A New Hope. Rather, it wasn’t similar enough in one way that really mattered.
The Force Awakens starts off strong. It introduces its three main characters quickly and in a way that endears them to the audience. Poe is the cheeky pilot who, rather than being intimidated by a Sith who can stop a blaster shot IN MIDAIR, mouths off to him as a sexy captive. Finn is the nervous storm trooper who gives himself pep-talks while breaking his enemy out of prison and then holds onto that enemy’s jacket like a security blanket when he becomes stranded alone in the desert. Rey is the fierce, justice-minded fighter, protecting BB8 for no reason other than a belief in bodily autonomy, even if that body is made of metal. We have two pathetically adorable meet-cutes between Finn and Poe, and then Rey and Finn, an awesome escape from Jaku in the Millennium Falcon, and the setting of a plan to get BB8 back to the Resistance as the main characters are thrust fully into the story.
At this point, everything in this film has been entertaining as hell. Even the villains are nuanced and interesting, with Kylo Ren showing a propensity for following his own interests over that of the First Order’s, and his rivalry with Commander Hux adding flavor to a previously bland group of generic “bad guys.” Unfortunately, after the appearance of Han and Chewy, things start to go a little off the rails.
This is the beginning of the Second Act. The main characters are inextricably tied into the plot now—Finn and Rey are off Jaku, the First Order is looking for them, and they have accepted the urgent mission to get BB8 to the Resistance base. Looking at the movie from the perspective of story structure, at this point Rey and Finn should start making allies and enemies and getting the tools they need to defeat the First Order. While this partially happens with Han’s and the lightsaber’s appearance on the scene, this is not enough to push the story along.
Because nothing the characters DO or SAY affects anything that happens.
In the first half of the Second Act, the main characters should be reacting to the pressures of the antagonistic force. They should be doing everything they can to escape or beat that force, but always in a way that is reactionary. Finn and Rey are just helpless in this section of the movie. They meet, follow around, and listen to various new allies without ever trying to make any action whatsoever, while Han and Maz Kanata become the main reactionary forces.
So what does reactionary mean, here? Let’s look at Han as an example:
He sees his ship flying through space while he is in the middle of a job—He reacts by disabling his old ship and taking it back.
His ship is boarded by people he borrowed money from—He reacts by trying to talk his way out of the situation.
The rathtars are released on his ship—He reacts by shooting at them with his blaster and Chewy’s bow, then escaping on the ship he just reacquired.
Chewy is wounded—Han reacts by letting Rey be his copilot during their escape and then offering her a job as second mate.
In each of these situations, a setback occurs which directly impacts Han and he does something to survive it. He is making decisions, but it is always in response to the setback. Consider this format when you are writing the first half of your own story’s Second Act, but don’t forget to give those reactions to the protagonists and not a side character, no matter how important he was in a previous movie.
At this point in watching The Force Awakens, I had a feeling that something was wrong, but then I got to the Midpoint. In K.M. Weiland’s accessible breakdown of story structure on her site HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com, she says that:
“Legendary director Sam Peckinpah talked about how he always looked for a “centerpiece” on which to “hang” his story.” (The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint)
In The Force Awakens, the centerpiece is the First Order destroying the Republic in one fell swoop.
The main reason The Force Awakens falls below expectations is that the Midpoint has nothing to do with what the main characters have done so far.
The destruction of the Republic is planned as a side note to the ongoing conflict of the First Order hunting Finn and Rey for the map to Luke Skywalker. Nothing Finn or Rey have done up to this point prompts the First Order to destroy the Republic. In fact, the First Order must have been preparing for this moment for years. While it is possible the threat of Luke Skywalker returning would increase their urgency to take over the galaxy, nothing Rey or Finn have done recently has anything to do with this threat. This, I believe, was the biggest pitfall of the movie.
So, how do you avoid this same mistake? The answer is simple:
The antagonist’s actions at the Midpoint should be a direct result of the protagonist’s reactions in the first half of the Second Act.
You see where The Force Awakens slipped up? Without any reactionary choices from Rey and Finn, the First Order had nothing to increase the urgency of their actions. In this way, Rey and Finn are in no way responsible for or related to the destruction of the Republic. Therefore, though the scene is impressive and the death toll must be astronomical, it causes barely a blip in the audience’s emotions because it does not tied to our heroes.
The obvious comparison in A New Hope is the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. Unlike in The Force Awakens, this moment is a direct result of Leia being captured and refusing to break under torture. It is also closely related to her character as her home planet. The destruction of Alderaan impacts Luke as well since he was headed there with R2D2. This similar scene in A New Hope has a bigger impact on the story than the more dramatic version in The Force Awakens. The moral?
Don’t confuse big-and-flashy with impact. Sometimes a smaller moment will have more weight as long as it is directly related to the protagonists and their actions.
Now, you may feel like your story is doomed to recreate these sort of mistakes, but that is why I wanted to share my thoughts. We can learn from even the bad stories around us, perhaps even more so than from the good ones! So, fellow creatives, consider using The Force Awakens as a guide on how to structure the First Act of your story, and how NOT to structure the Second.
Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Have you ever struggled to figure out what to do with the middle of your story? Did this analysis help you figure out something that was missing in your own story? Let me know in the comments.