Five Takeaways From ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’
January 14, 2020
Your weekly break-down of a popular movie or television episode to see what a screenwriter—or any writer, for that matter—can take away from what’s on screen: what worked, what didn’t, and how you can use what’s popular to craft better stories.
This week, we’re visiting a galaxy far, far away and taking a look at Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Love it or hate it (and there are plenty of both), there’s so much that a writer can take away from this epic conclusion to the saga George Lucas started a lifetime ago.
*WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!*
- When in doubt, blast off with mystery.
Talk about dropping us in the deep end. The Rise of Skywalker opens on Kylo Ren amongst violence and swordplay, then we hop on a spaceship following the mysterious Sith Wayfinder, and then we’re on to the dark planet of Exogol, a mysterious place hidden on every star map. Right from the get-go, we’re plagued with question after question. It’s a surefire way to keep your reader turning pages: ask questions and don’t give answers. Every murder mystery and horror movie begins this way. Who did it? What evil lurks out there in the dark? The Rise of Skywalker barely gave us time to breathe, whipping us along at a breakneck pace for much of its first act. It’s exciting, nerve-wracking, and can even be a little frustrating for some. But that’s the thrill of a good movie: figuring out what’s going on! However, as with everything in storytelling, you’ve got to be careful front loading too many mysteries. The Rise of Skywalker had the unfair advantage of using characters we know and love in a world we are familiar with, so a lot of the “heavy lifting” in terms of exposition was taken care of. When you’re writing genre pieces like history, fantasy, and sci-fi, you don’t want your mysteries to confuse us so much we do the unthinkable—put the script down or change the channel.
- Chekov’s Laser Gun: if you’re going to set it up, you gotta pay it off.
In an 1889 letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, master of the short form Anton Chekov said, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." And behold, a storytelling trope was born. Now, “Chekov’s gun” refers to every element of a story that should contribute to the whole. Not just physical items, but character traits, side plots, and thematic elements as well. The Rise of Skywalker presents some great examples of this.
In the desert tunnels of Pasaana, Rey Force-heals a terrifying desert serpent, transferring some of her life force into the injured creature. What seems on the surface like a simple, kind act by our heroine, is in fact showing us this skill and how it works. That way, when it really matters—like when Rey dies fighting the Emperor—Ben Solo’s life Force transfer to bring her back makes sense. It’s a plot point set-up that pays off in the finale, and also fits in well with Star Wars’ overall theme of balance. Another great example is when Kylo Ren snatches a necklace from Rey during their Force bond conversations to figure out where she’s located. This seems like a convenient plot point (and it very well may be), but it also depicts Rey and Kylo’s ability to pass items back and forth through space and time. That way, when the screenwriters need to save the galaxy, we understand how Rey passes her lightsaber to a reformed Ben Solo so he can defeat the Knights of Ren while on his way to try and help Rey bring down Palpatine. Proving Chekov’s gun is a wonderful tool for every screenwriter’s toolbox.
- Toying with our emotions (and not in a good way).
The Rise of Skywalker gives us the fake-out death of Chewbacca at Rey’s own hands, as well as a heart wrenching sacrifice by C-3PO where he allows his own memory to be deleted, effectively taking away everything he’s ever known. These are high stakes, emotional moments that tug at audience heart-strings—where the movie rises above pulpy action and the actors deliver great performances. Our hearts sink while tears well in our eyes. It’s beautiful storytelling. Except… The Rise of Skywalker almost immediately reverses those decisions through plot contrivances and editing sleight of hand. In a sense, it undoes everything you emotionally went through with our characters with little more than a shrug. The takeaway here is this: Careful going back on your story decisions, because it makes us feel like our emotions are wasted and you’ve lied to us. Chewbacca’s “death” was a six-minute story detour and C-3PO’s sacrifice was almost immediately negated with R2’s backup files…rendering it not really a sacrifice at all. It can all come across as a cheap trick.
Now, as a writer, you may feel like you’re being clever, and that can be the case, too. But there are the unintended consequences of fake-outs, immediate reversals, and too many cliffhangers that turn out to be misdirection: you lose your audience’s goodwill and trust. You’re telling them that you don’t care about their emotions and that this is a game for you. See, the audience is invested in your characters and toying with their emotions can turn from a thrill to abusive. Or, perhaps even worse, the audience will instinctively know you don’t have the guts to really put the characters in jeopardy. Either way, you need your audience to have faith that they are in good hands, so if you lie to them, cheat them, and play with their emotions too many times, they’ll soon lose emotional investment because, on a subconscious level, they feel like they can’t trust you.
- The Rise of the Space MacGuffins.
The Rise of Skywalker doubles down on MacGuffins (whether that’s a loving nod to the Death Star plans of A New Hope, or a lazy writing choice, depends on your point of view). In every story with espionage, mystery, or suspense (which is nearly every film, series and story in existence) MacGuffins are the object or objective that motivates the characters. In Episode IX, we have little black pyramids called Sith Wayfinders, a Jedi hunting dagger with a secret map in the handle, abandoned spaceships in the desert, and droid programming that needs deleting to unlock ancient languages—just to name a few.
Usually it’s just one; the golden fleece or a computer virus, secret plans in a spy thriller or the jewels in a heist movie. A MacGuffin can be a secret instigator for the characters, but the audience does not necessarily need to care about it (and honestly, usually doesn’t). The MacGuffin is simply a catalyst. However, if a MacGuffin is used well, the action and reactions characters have about your MacGuffin can reveal their feelings towards other characters and even things they don’t realize about themselves. Here’s the double-edged sword of the MacGuffin: They can be a great way to get your characters into a story, but they are just that—an item. They aren’t a replacement for character, conflict and emotional stakes. One MacGuffin can be tricky to navigate in your story, and when you start adding multiple MacGuffins, you’ve created a treasure hunt and not a movie.
- You can’t please every Jedi and Sith.
In 2019, there was no movie as divisive as The Rise of Skywalker. See, no matter how much Rose Tico this movie had in it, one half of the audience was going to be angry. No matter how much of The Last Jedi’s plot threads The Rise of Skywalker continued, there were going to be angry fans and disappointed critics. Rey’s Parents? No winning there. Digitally recreating Leia after Carrie Fisher’s passing? Someone is going to be offended. Changing Luke’s character drastically from Episode VIII? That gets the fanboys rabid. This movie had an impossible job, and no matter what, half of the people who watched it were going to feel let down. So, if you can’t make the proverbial “them” happy, who can you make happy? Yourself. Remember, on some level, what you’re writing has to be your vision, your story, and your film. It’s cliché, but it’s true. So, after you’ve done rewrite after rewrite, taken round after round of notes, there’s going to come a moment where you must commit. Where you double down on what you love about your story and put it out for the world to see. Whether you’re just beginning, or you’ve got dozens of manuscripts under your belt, there comes a moment where you have to draw your line in the sand, where you stand by your story. For that reason alone, it’s hard not to appreciate what J.J. Abrams and company have done with such a massive social undertaking as this film. May we all be brave enough with our own story to hold it up for the world to see when the time is right.
Ultimate Takeaway: Veering between high emotional stakes and eye rolling plot complications, this is a movie that was never going to make us all happy. Still, it succeeds way more than it fails. This is a loving tribute to what George Lucas began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and it satisfies with amazing visuals, great performances, and plenty of nods to its space opera roots.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.