The most frustrating quality of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is its adherence to a particular idiosyncrasy of the sci-fi serials that also informed the original 1977 feature. While the Lucas-produced Star Wars films went to the Flash Gordon / Buck Rogers well for their settings and action, The Force Awakens adds the cliffhanger to the mix, making it far less a standalone cinematic experience than either the original or its sequels and prequels. This new one is built to redirect your attention to its own sequel, and the trilogy, and beyond, as well as to the marketing itself, by insisting on not fulfilling its central character Rey’s basic story arc… “who is she?”
The nature of the cliffhanger of STTFA is fascinating in its subtle cruelty. The film sets up a simple question: Who is Rey? “Who is Rey” is the main story, no? Granted it’s not the first storyline introduced. That would be “Where is Luke Skywalker”, from the opening scrawl. Then we learn what Poe Dameron and Finn are all about and who Kylo Ren is. These three or four plot lines are more or less answered early. Luke can be found with a map found by Poe, Finn is a soldier, Ren is Darth Vader 2.0. From the moment Rey’s story kicks in, though, she’s emoting melancholy and loss. She displays more than a few faroff looks. Other characters are given pauses to consider her. The editors allot additional frame counts for all those beats. The film slows down every time her heritage is called into question. Rey quickly becomes the emotional center of our attention, the main mystery we assume will be answered in the climax. Then the film lops off the last step in this arc with an empty final shot, delaying the payoff for a later date. It feels like chaos at the end (which is really interesting), like something went wrong.
As a salve for that feeling of incompleteness, this chaos is a classic, twisted approach of those old serials like Buck Rogers (1939) and Flash Gordon (1936) which left their audience, in the time before episodic television, unfulfilled and a little angry each week, and which of course generated more ticket sales. The modern machinations of the cliffhanger are now a major staple in current television (The Walking Dead, ad nauseum). And it has been well-honed in the last few decades of great modern serialized comics.
There’s a thing called the “The Levitz Paradigm”, named after writer Paul Levitz, explained in a chapter in The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil, and the main structural tool for Levitz’ run on DC’s Legion of Super Heroes in the 70s and 80’s (and mentioned in Orbital Operations). Gene Ha breaks The Levitz Paradigm down thusly:
Basically, the procedure is this: The writer has two, three, or even four plots going at once. The main plot—call it Plot A—occupies most of the pages and the characters’ energies. The secondary plot—Plot B—functions as a subplot. Plot C and Plot D, if any, are given minimum space and attention—a few panels. As Plot A concludes, Plot B is “promoted”; it becomes Plot A, and Plot C becomes Plot B, and so forth. Thus, there is a constant upward plot progression; each plot develops in interest and complexity as the year’s issues appear.
Visually, it’s a chart:
The darkened cells represent key moments in a character arc and an issue simultaneously.
While these photos represent stories from 1986 or so, the Great Darkness Saga from 1982 feels like a particularly successful example of the technique, with minor aspects of that storyline seeded up to six months before it kicked in. Another case in point might be Chris Claremont’s 70s and 80s run on X-Men, including (what is now known as) the Dark Phoenix Saga where the progression of Jean Grey’s powers began as a minor plot line buried in the first five issues following the Uncanny X-Men’s 1976 reboot and slowly became the “A” story by 1980.
Similarly, Warren Ellis recounts a meeting between Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore where a discussion about story structure might have occurred vis a vis Chaykin’s 1983-1989 run on American Flagg!, which logically could have led to the insane contents shown in the following photo of Moore’s 12-issue breakdown for his aborted Big Numbers, the first two issues of which ran in 1990.
Gene Ha analyzes what he sees above:
While it definitely is a Levitz Grid, it doesn’t use the Levitz Paradigm. In those terms, the plot progression is:
Until issue 11, where he wanted to add yet another letter.
According to ComicsAlliance.com, writer Jonathan Hickman’s barely fathomable flow chart shown below is basically a Levitz Grid used to plot out two Fantastic Four books that ran during the issues #570-600 of the main book. Hickman’s run manipulated the whole of the FF mythos, revitalizing idle side characters and villains (Dragon Man, Annihilus), tracking multidimensional Reed Richardses, building to the death and resurrection of Johnny Storm, and employing a multi-generational family unit in a meaningful way, all while maintaining a palpable sense of momentum over 50-60 very dense comics.
All of the above examples are spreadsheets with the issue numbers sequenced in one direction and the various plot lines and character arcs stacked in the other, with the initial “A” plot at the top and the plot related to the big finale at the bottom of the list. Often the “A” Plot disappears, unresolved, only to resurface later on.
Television writer’s rooms often rely on some version of these tools, of course. Producer/Writer M. Scott Veach (Leverage, CSI) talks about the common “whiteboard grid” that doesn’t have a corresponding horizontal of character and plot arcs:
All the shows I’ve been on, and in most of the shows that I have visited to see friends or whatever, there will be a large whiteboard that is split into a giant grid. The columns are episodes – so the left-most column is episode 1 and the right-most column is the season finale (either ep 13 or 22 usually).
The columns are horizontally split by anywhere from 8 to 15 lines. So that there is a variable number of boxes in each column. The first column might have 8 boxes, the second might have 14, the third might have 10…
So for each episode, major plot points/turns are written in the boxes of the column. When we start working, the grid only has the pilot filled in (since this has already been shot typically). As we work, we begin to fill in more and more of the grid.
When working on each individual episode, they get their own whiteboard (or three) and the big grid will often get ignored for days. But whenever we need to reminded of where we’re headed or need to make sure that we’re not getting ourselves tangled up by plot, we can look at the big grid for guidance.
When we need to present to the network/studio our plans for the season, they will come into the room and we’ll show them this big grid as we explain the overall plan.
I’ve seen people taking pictures of the grid but strangely, I’ve never seen the grid transferred to paper. Probably because it does the most good by being up and in your face at all times. If we had to go looking for that sheet of paper with the season long arcs on it, we’d do it a lost less.
But many would argue that the best shows, even the procedurals, have character-based arcs that weave throughout the main story of the week. A show like Breaking Bad usually strived for a resolution at the end of an individual episode in some way, but the purpose of a season was clearly to explore, in a more long-form format, everyman Walter White’s extreme life choices when facing death.
The better comics-related projects like Jessica Jones and The Flash reveal a dependency on simmering subplots. In Jessica Jones subplots for characters such as Nuke, Jeryn Hogarth and Patsy Walker burble to the surface of mid-season episodes, pushing the A Story of the Purple Man to B and C status, but only temporarily.
The modern twist on the Levitz Paradigm is the fluidity of the plot sequencing. While the old serials would sequence plot lines linearly, new replacing old, without seeding multiple ones, and Levitz would juggle multiple ones at a time but often promote one to the A slot linearly, modern filmmaking experiments with when plots are introduced and paid off. Plot A can apparently even be introduced, massaged into corners of the film and then ignored, counting on a modern audience to assume the inevitable sequel will pick it up in a year or two. Instead of Levitz’ constant upward plot progression, “Who is Rey?” is shuffled to the background, and then the movie ends just as the most natural moment to answer the question comes up.
Another structural device, linked to recently by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction’s Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, explains and supports the concept of a character arc, and why the unsolved “Who is Rey?” is frustrating. It belongs to Dan Harmon and might be called “The Circle of Super Basic Shit“. It initially looks like so:
Here we go, down and dirty:
- A character is in a zone of comfort…
- … but they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation…
- … adapt to it…
- … get what they wanted…
- … pay a heavy price for it…
- … then return to their familiar situation…
- … having changed.
Something like this only works superficially on a show like Harmon’s Community, of course, where real character change is anathema. According to Harmon, “It just means that the focus of step (8) is less riling-things-up and more getting-things-back-to-where-they-started.” Harmon lets it become a source of Abed’s meta commentary, though.
Rey’s arc in SWTFA is almost a boilerplate of this 8 step circle, with plot holes. We find her alone, scavenging, going about her day in a comfort zone of squalor (1). Her good heart and desire for information motivates her to help Finn and BB8 (2), for which she gets shot at by Stormtroopers (3), escapes in the Millennium Falcon (4), and bests gangsters and monsters. The question of her heritage comes back into focus in Maz Kanata’s castle (5), where flashbacks reveal slaughtered Jedis, the Knights of Ren, and fleeing spaceships. Obi Wan Kenobi calls her name, suggesting a potential familial connection. She pays a heavy price for this new information in the ensuing shootouts, captures, chases and lightsaber battles (6). In the end she “returns” to a potentially familiar situation, rebestowing Luke Skywalker’s with a familial heirloom (7). But while she’s changed drastically, having built a new family unit with the Rebellion and connecting with the Force, the core mystery is left unsolved. She hasn’t received what she wants.
The question of her heritage is unresolved, making her arc and the film as a whole feel incomplete. As Harmon writes, “It’s not that stories have to follow this structure, it’s that, without some semblance of this structure, it’s not recognizable as a story.” The last scene is loaded with portent, the audience is sitting there engaged and expecting some confirmation that she’s come home. And the filmmakers give us more long looks. It’s a strange decision, because one can imagine an emphatic, emotional climax if Luke had verbally confirmed some kind of connection to her.
And, of course, it’s a setup for Episode VIII and beyond.
Harmon goes on to discuss how the structure applies to our experience of the real world:
This second circle shows the dividing line where a character should enter a state of chaos, between #3 and #7 on the first circle. Chaos is good. All storylines can be broken down as a descent into the unknown (either a literal or figural fear of death) and an eventual return. The “unknown” is key. Harmon’s caveman versions goes: You (1) Need (2), Go (3), Search (4), Find (5), Take (6), Return (7) and Change (8).
Needing something leads to looking for it, and chaos, and often lots and lots of expensive special effects.
And, of course, distributing these basic character arc points throughout a tv show whiteboard grid would turn a simple episodic breakdown into a Levitz-style paradigm.
The artistic success and viewer engagement of episodes of a serialized tv show are probably heavily reliant on how closely the show sticks to a structural device, and its scripts. The same with a film trilogy.
Star Wars (1977) seemed to answer the question of “Who is Luke Skywalker?” quickly. We thought we knew enough: bratty farm boy destined for greatness. Lucas might have thought that was enough, too. But we found out more in the sequels, with each new piece of information feeling like the product of a writer’s deeper development of his character rather than one long, unfolding plan.
Unfortunately, the unstoriness of Rey’s amputated arc strongly hints at a few behind the scenes scenarios.
Take-away #1: There’s the chaos of human beings making things out in the world, not always knowing where their stories are going or, in the case of smaller budgeted efforts, if they’ll have enough money to make more. Occassionally a writers room must hand their script over to a production team that doesn’t or can’t adhere strictly to the scripts, that then rely more heavily on editors who fix it in Post. A million real world events could contribute to a production losing their roadmap at times, and to a resulting messiness and even banality (the hit-or-miss quality of Arrow and Agents of SHIELD, for instance). On the other hand, some productions (like the first seasons of The Flash and Agent Carter) seem to keep the background chaos to a minimum — perhaps because they have stronger on-ground leaders — and more rigorously follow the path set by the writers. Such shows give off the sense of a solid internal logic, that they have more of a grasp of their own finales, both the climax of the season but also of all the individual characters’ directions, and when the scripts check in on or check out of an arc or plot it feels purposeful. The audience is assured that their time investment won’t be wasted on chaos.
One could take the charitable approach along the lines of “Even shitty movies take a fuck-ton of work to make… Nothing with craft is an accident.” (Matt Fraction). Or one could pick up that STTFA gives off the sense of internal chaos, that it doesn’t know what it’s doing, that some of the more impactful emotional beats were made up on the spot without logical narrative connections figured out beforehand, and inches the film uncomfortably closer to a wasted time committment.
It’s also surely possible that Daisy Ridley’s rawness and empathic connection to the audience surprised the filmmakers, that Abrams and company weren’t expecting such small emotional beats on the page to radiate so impactfully on the screen, throwing off all the scenes around them. Chaos from great acting.
Take-away #2: Perhaps the unanswered nature of “Who is Rey?” was a result of changes after the shoot — rewrites and reshoots, last minute ADR — because someone realized that Rey’s backstory was too complicated to explain in the time alloted.
The long shot that ends the movie, rotating around the two characters who haven’t uttered a word yet, is only superficially powerful. In its avoidance of any meaning that the film has built upon during its run time, we are left with a complete lack of payoff where one is expected (a kind of big WTF). In fact, instead of Rey’s heritage being the main point of that moment, an alternative reading could simply be that it is supposed to be all about Luke being brought back into the fight, like Michael Corleone in Godfather 3. In which case the script really broke from traditional norms by abandoning the “A” story to introduce yet another entirely new arc.
In either scenario — one, that Rey’s heritage is too complicated to unpack, having been emotionally set up too strongly by the actress and/or the film, or, two, that Luke’s call to action is too weak, lacking as it does connective emotional tissue throughout the film — choosing an open Levitz Paradigm that’s missing a reolution over a classical closed arc approach and pushing the storylines of Rey and Luke to the future, treating a trilogy of films like a run of issues of a comic, or a series of tv episodes, could be seen as a passable bandaid on an incomplete screenplay.
Take-away #3: The Force Awakens is employing a strange, new, synergistic marketing strategy that begins with the shooting script. In some ways this is the worst case scenario heralded by this dangling “A” Plot: that Marketing and Executive mandates ingeniously insisted on not resolving the “A” Plot to drive greater engagement (like overly long blog posts). Was Marketing in the room with Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt?
As unlikely as aspects of these take-aways are, they all point to the main problem with the film. It’s surface pleasures give way to a submerged sense of emotional distancing, of a typically narcisistic strategy to create and then hold back attachment, and to use this generated but unfulfilled attraction to maximize profit. At its core the film is a soulless venture all too easily represented by that empty long shot.