Vanquish, Writing

No, Your Trilogy Doesn’t Need An “Empire Strikes Back” Moment

The Power of The Dark Side, yada, yada, yada
The Power of The Dark Side, yada, yada, yada

Another week of writing, another preponderance of movie makers humble-bragging about their projects. This week, it’s Colin whats-his-face of Jurassic World fame. Not only is the director of one of 2015’s more pointless money-making sensations talking about Jurassic World 2, but the usual scuttlebutt points to him saying that the second movie will be, naturally, darker. Just like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. (or Episode V, for all you purists out there.)

This is not the first nor the last direct response to hopeful fans that it’s important for a trilogy to “go darker” and to mention Empire in the very same sentence, much less the same breath. There’s no overstating how much of an impact Episode V has: poor Han Solo encased in carbonite and taken by the bounty hunter Boba Fett; Luke finding out his father is that person, and losing his hand and lightsaber to boot; and Leia ends up at the end of the movie with only a nice brotherly hug and nothing else. The film is clearly a darker turn than the film that preceded it, not only in terms of story but in cinematography. Hoth is bleak and cold enough to force you to hide inside a dead Wampa. Vader’s Super Star Destroyer Executioner is an arrow straight to the heart. Bespin is a golden-colored hot mess of clouds and an Art Deco Cloud City laid out in purples and menacing equipment. The Rebels are scattered and their base is shot to pieces by a couple of walking mechanical elephants, our heroes have few places to turn and no one left to trust. The guy who runs Cloud City is a seedy con man who puts Colt .45 Malt liquor in his bantha juice. Luke is directed by his old master to land in a swamp and take lessons from a creepy, backwards-talking, 900-yea- old elf who sounds just like Fozzie Bear.

Is your trilogy really required to have its Empire moment? This is a task that faces many writers, who, encouraged by the popularity of books that go on and on (Game of Thrones, etc.) we end up writing The Lord of The Rings when we really meant to just write a collection of short stories about your misadventures in the bathroom. Sooner or later, writers feel that the only means to propel the story is to create a dark section. This is descent into the Woods, the Dark Tree, however the mythological patterns tell writers to proceed.

Then there’s the plot twist that made everyone who’s seen Empire gasp; the bad guy turns out to be your hero’s father. Holy Conundrum, Batman! Take the one thing your hero hates, the villain, and make him his only surviving relative. Will Luke send a Life Day card to Daddy Vader? How awkward can Father’s Day dinner actually get? And what’s going to happen when Leia finds out she’s a part of this whole twisted Skywalker mess? (Say hello to my therapist droid: 2FREUD-PIO.)  Joking aside, it’s easy to see why George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan became so enthralled with this idea. It keeps the hero loop going for an entire other film (Jedi), with one relative trying to turn the other to his side of the Force.

But does a writer need an Empire moment (or even an entire Empire storyline) in his or her story’s structure? Is it so important to put your heroes in the worst place possible and then watch them crawl out with help from a sudden redemption moment (Vader tosses Emperor down a chasm) or a lucky coincidence (the Ewoks turn out to be expert guerrilla fighters and can build a tower to destroy an AT-ST walker in no-time-flat.)

We’ve experienced Sansa Stark’s horrifying marriage (if you can call that a mawwwaage) in Game of Thrones. Is that her Empire moment? (“Feed him to the dogs! Oh wait, that was just a figure of speech….”) How about Gwen Stacey’s death in (nobody really cared to watch) Amazing Spiderman 2; is that Peter Parker’s Empire moment?  Is The Walking Dead nothing but Empire moments, strung together like an endless chain of tragedy and death? Do we need to drop the floor out from underneath our protagonists to give them an interesting story? Has the Empire moment now reached the level of cliche; we expect the floor to fall out and we can’t wait to see our heroes kicking tail in the next book. It’s just another obstacle for your character to overcome. Another blip in the story outline.

If you have another idea, let me know. I’m wrapping up the second book of the Vanquish series and poor poor Briley … oh no! … don’t confront that heavy-breathing guy in the mask, the black cloak and the bad attitude. He’s got nothing but bad news for you….






Put Away Chekhov’s Gun And Other Writing Crutches

What could that be on the wall??
What could that be on the wall??

So I’m watching Disney’s The Jungle Book as a rental on my television. It’s an enjoyable movie, considering all the time and effort put into the visual effects (which is all the film’s release marketing could talk about). The digital effects that render the talking animals is outstanding, and I can almost forgive myself for laughing at Bill Murray and Christopher Walken’s singing of such hoary standards such as “The Base Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”.  Frozen, it’s not.

But…I was flabbergasted by the blatant reference that came at the very beginning of the film and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the finale. Dead trees. I know, it makes no sense but I don’t want to ruin the film for people who haven’t seen it yet. But writers of all kinds seem to find it necessary to make some pointed reference at the beginning of their story, to loop back around and have it play a part in the finale. In other words, “Chekhov’s Gun.”

Now, this is not a reference to the character on Star Trek and the late actor who was recently killed. The character of Chekhov was named for the famous Russian author and playwright. The reference “Chekhov’s Gun” is a writing technique. Explicitly stated, if a gun appears in the first act of a story, said gun should be used by the end of the story. This adage doesn’t necessarily apply to weapons, but to plot points. If a man-cub is having a pointed discussion with a talking black panther on the importance of dead trees, then you’re rest assured a dead tree is going to show up at the end and have some effect on the story’s outcome. It does. The whole story comes to a predictable ending. Not very exciting. Not very satisfying.

Regrettably, the Gun it’s an overused technique that borders on cliche. If you walk into a deserted house and you focus on a creaking chandelier hovering over your characters’ heads, then the reader will expect the chandelier to drop at the worst or best opportune moment. All I can say as a writer is, really?

What can writers do to avoid Chekhov’s Gun? Can the finale use the object in question without blatantly showing a spotlight on it before it comes into play? Are you mistaking the Gun for foreshadowing? If we zip back to The Jungle Book, it makes no difference to the outcome if the character recognizes a dead tree or not. We all know climbing one, complete with creaking and snapping sounds, already is dangerous.

So, ditch the Gun and let the scene play out.

Darkest Hour, Writing

A Review for DARKEST HOUR and Engaging Young Readers in History

BBC Infographic
BBC Infographic showing differences between British and German forces at the Battle of Britain

Received greate news from Peter Schweighofer, my editor from West End Games’ The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal. He posted a review of DARKEST HOUR on his own website, Hobby Games Recce. Peter publishes his own games and dabbles writing source material that deals with cool historical subjects, including World War II. Some of the highlights from his review:

The young adult themes – life changes, increased responsibility, social struggles, the weight of one’s choices, and the personal brutality of war – seemed a little heavy handed at times, but worked well within the historical fantasy context to weave an engaging story…apparently the first in a series.

The article also includes mentions of The Battle of Britain in wargaming. I love jumping on Peter’s site because he pays attention to a lost artform–the tabletop and roleplay game.


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