Guys, I’m more exhausted than a one-legged bantha in a pod race.
These last couple of weeks of the year are going to be a whirlwind for me. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. So I’m letting you know right now, updates will be sporadic. I do plan to put a new Black List script review up Wednesday. But who knows after that. Maybe I can astral-project a post or two. Then again, I’d be risking death. I’ll have to think about that.
Speaking of thinking, I’ve been thinking a lot about The Last Jedi. Whether you liked it or hated it, I love that it’s inspiring general audience screenwriting debate. Regular people talking about plot! Regular people talking about storytelling! That’s awesome.
And what I dig about Rian Johnson is he doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. When you ask him why he made the choice in regards to Rey’s parents, he tells you. Hell, he goes into specific detail about it.
In listening to Johnson discuss his two most polarizing story choices in The Last Jedi – Rey’s parents and killing Snoke – I noticed that he mentioned a very specific screenwriting maxim in determining those choices. That maxim was: “What choice in this moment results in the the most dramatically interesting result?”
This is a storytelling tool that’s been around for years and something most screenwriters learn in the late intermediate and early advanced stages of their training. The idea is this: when you’re posed with a big choice in your story, you should ask, “What choice can I make here that will have the most dramatic impact on the story/character?”
As a basic example, let’s say your hero is trying to decide if he should shoot the bad guy. Before you write this scene, you ask the question, what choice is going to have the most dramatic impact? If the bad guy says, “Go to hell,” there’s nothing dramatic about that. It actually makes the hero’s decision easier. However, if a woman walks up and our hero realizes it’s the bad guy’s innocent wife, that makes things more dramatically interesting because pulling the trigger now requires more variables to be processed.
So Johnson’s whole thing with Rey’s parents was, “What’s the most dramatically interesting thing Rey could hear?” He noted that Rey hearing she was a Skywalker had zero dramatic implications. And I would agree with him. Same thing with being a Kenobi. Nothing dramatic about that. But, Johnson argued, what if a girl who was so sure that her parents were important and were coming back for her one day, found out that they were nobodies and had sold her off for a few space tokens? That’s a much more dramatically compelling dilemma, Johnson argued, for Rey to wrestle with. I would agree with him on that as well.
Moving over to the Snoke scene. Same deal. What’s the most dramatically compelling thing that could happen in this scene, Johnson asked. If Snoke tosses these two around just to let them know who’s boss, the scene ends, and Snoke continues to rule the galaxy, that’s not very dramatically compelling. If Rey gets turned to the Dark Side, that’s more dramatically compelling than the first option but Johnson still felt it wasn’t enough. If he killed Snoke, however, now everything was up for grabs. And that uncertainty of who would take the reigns and how the new order would be established was the most dramatically compelling option of them all. Which is why he went with it.
So why are so many people divided over these choices? Johnson is following sound screenwriting advice. And the bold choices technically achieve what he set out for them to do.
Well here’s where Johnson gets it wrong. He forgot that there are two sides to every screenwriting choice. There’s the character you’re making the choice for. And then there’s the audience you’re forcing the choice upon. Johnson was so consumed with what would have the most dramatic impact on Rey and the First Order, he forgot to consider whether the audience would actually like these choices. And sometimes the most dramatically potent choice and what the audience wants to happen don’t line up.
Let’s go back to my earlier example with the hero deciding whether to kill the bad guy. Let’s say, in that moment, the hero decides, “Actually, if I kill this dude, he doesn’t even suffer. But if I shoot his wife in front of him, he’ll be in pain for the rest of his life.” Technically, that’s a more dramatically interesting choice. But is it the choice the audience wants? I would argue no. It’s barbaric and makes my hero unlikable. So clearly these two maxims don’t always line up.
And I’m not indicting Johnson alone on this. This is a mistake writers make all the time. We get so caught up in the world we’ve created that we forget that we’re actually creating it for somebody else. If you’re not including the audience in the process, there’s no reason for your script to ever leave your computer.
I don’t think anybody believes that Rey’s parents being nobodies was the best choice for Rey’s story. I know some people were okay with it. But the BEST choice? No way. There’s an answer in that question that could’ve been both dramatically interesting, like Johnson wanted, and crowd-pleasing, like the audience wanted. But Johnson was so focused on how this answer impacted Rey, he forgot to ask whether the audience would be excited by it.
And don’t get me wrong, it can go the other way too! Attack of the Clones was the most audience-service Star Wars film ever made. Not a single choice was made in that script with dramatic consequence in mind. It was only about “What does the audience want to see?” And that film is probably the least liked of all the Star Wars movies. So you can O.D. on either.
Which is why I endorse both. Like Johnson says, make choices that have the most dramatically compelling impact on the character/story. But don’t forget to consider whether the audience wants them to happen. Ultimately, you’re there to serve them. You’re not there to serve yourself. You’re not there to serve your characters. You’re there to serve the audience. Keep them happy and they’ll stay off your Twitter feed.
Just for fun, can you come up with choices to the two big moments I listed above (Rey’s parents and the Snoke Scene) that you believe would both have a ton of dramatic impact and that the fans would love?