Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Fantastic. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been a Chuck Wendig fan ever since Blackbirds (you have read Blackbirds, haven’t you?). Nor am I saying that because his blog is a fountain of NSFW writing inspiration (though it is).

I’m saying that because it’s a Star Wars book that tells a great story, fills in some of the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, and manages to feel like a Star Wars movie in novel form. That’s a tough balancing act, and kudos to Wendig for pulling it off.

Here’s what I learned about writing from it:

  • Don’t be afraid to be opinionated in giving description. It can help keep things brief while still being vivid.
  • Part of what makes a hero feel scrappy is not things going right, but things going wrong, all the time. Little blunders and bad luck that they just manage to survive make them feel more real and keep the reader rooting for them.
  • You can frame the start of scenes just like framing a shot in a movie. Think of a character’s head popping through a hatch, or opening on a lightsaber glowing in the darkness. Can be a visual hook into the rest of the chapter.

How to Fix Revenge of the Sith

Almost done with the prequels. Thankfully this is the best of three, though given the generally low standards of the first two that isn’t saying much.

What Went Wrong

I’d be remiss if I didn’t once more point to the most comprehensive take down of these movies.

Most of the problems with Revenge of the Sith are carryovers from mistakes made in the first two movies, emotional beats that fail to land with as much impact as they should because the foundation work for them hasn’t been done.

For example, Padmé and Anakin’s romance should feel tragic, with Anakin’s concern for her driving them apart even as they try to keep their growing family a secret. But their interaction in Attack of the Clones was so still and formal, it’s hard to believe either of them would miss the other, except that the plot calls for them to. Instead, their “love story” feels like a piece of background that Lucas wanted slotted into place, as cold and unfeeling as a CGI’d starship.

Even Count Dooku’s death, which should be a pivotal moment, is treated so perfunctory that it feels trivial, just one more Sith slain by a righteous Jedi. No big deal.

How to Fix It

For starters, we need to make the changes I outlined previously, for the first two movies.

This means there’s no Count Dooku in this one. He died in Attack of the Clones, a tragic end for a renegade that thought he was doing the right thing.

We also have to continue rewriting the scenes between Padmé and Anakin. Two people in love, hiding their child from their superiors, should display a lot more fear and desperation than they do. We need to see their relationship deepen and grow, despite their need to keep it in the shadows.

It would help if we got some hint that Padmé made an effort to hide her relationship with Anakin. We should see her dating other men, or dropping hints that she was being courted by someone else, to deflect attention from the young Jedi that apparently spends every night in her quarters.

Ditto for Anakin. We need to see him lying to the other Jedi, making excuses and begging away from assignments that would make him leave the capital. We need to feel the danger that Anakin and Padmé are in, and how far they’ve already gone to maintain their relationship. So when we see Anakin slipping to the Dark Side in order to save her, its one more small step along the path that he’s been on for years.

We also need to see more tension between Anakin and Palpatine, preferably over Padmé. As a Senator that’s presumably alarmed at the direction the Republic is going, we should witness her at her work: campaigning for re-election (with Palpatine possibly campaigning for her rival), lobbying for support for bills from her other Senators (bills that would likely reduce Palpatine’s authority), giving interviews with the media to support her position.

All of this should make Palpatine grit his teeth, and Anakin should be constantly defending Padmé to the Chancellor. It’d be one more sign to the audience of his feelings for Padmé, and it would tip off Palpatine to the significance of Anakin’s devotion.

And once Palpatine realizes that, he decides to kill Padmé.

That’s the final change we make. The visions Anakin sees of Padmé dying are not of her “losing the will to live” — which is frankly insulting for such a headstrong character — but of Palpatine draining her life force.

We know Palpatine has manipulated the Jedi’s visions of the future before. He decides to kill Padmé, knowing the visions of her in danger will drive Anakin further down the path to the Dark Side.

His plan is originally to blame her death on the Jedi, pushing Anakin to break with them for good. But when he finds Anakin near death after his fight with Obi-Wan, he drains her life force and uses it to keep Anakin alive, in a single stroke sustaining his most powerful apprentice and sealing Anakin’s allegiance to him.

Emerging from the Shadows

Novel’s at 66,694 words.

This week’s events have thrown more light onto the villain of the novel: what he wants, how far he’s willing to go to get it, and just how long he’s been planning to take it.

One of my protagonists is gone. The other has to carry on mostly alone now, and I don’t know if she can survive. She’s out of her depth, and she’ll need all the allies she can find — or cajole — to win this one.

Here’s hoping.

How to Fix Attack of the Clones

Another tall order. I like this one more than Phantom Menace, but it’s flaws are deeper, even if there aren’t quite so many mistakes.

Let’s dive in.

What Went Wrong

Again, I’ll refer you to the abundant literature on what’s wrong with this movie.

How to Fix It

There are two major changes we need to make, and a few minor ones. The major ones involve Count Dooku and the romance between Padmé and Anakin. The minor ones are shifts in emphasis that make the movie more interesting.

Let’s start with the assassination attempt on Padmé’s life, which leads to Obi-Wan and Anakin guarding her and makes the entire romance subplot possible.

The assassination makes no sense. They put it down to Padmé being the leader of the opposition, but the opposition to what? The Chancellor is from her world, so Naboo is basically ruling the galaxy at this point. How could she be part of opposing her own government?

There’s also no tension in that first explosion. We don’t know what’s happening, suddenly things are blowing up, and now we’re watching a scene that should be moving and sad between Padmé and her guard. Unfortunately, since none of the guards even have names in the last movie (or this one), let along personalities, none of this works.

The explosion needs to almost kill Padmé. We need to see her coming down the runway, and watch it blow up, and her vanish under a pile of rubble. They dig her out and get her to a hospital, where we learn that several leading senators have had unfortunate accidents in the last few months. None looked like assassination attempts, until now. That’s why the Jedi get involved: to solve a genuine mystery.

With this change, the confusion at the beginning adds to the tension. We care about Padmé, and we share her confusion at being targeted. Who is after her? Why are they targeting Senators? We want to know, so we want to watch the rest of the movie.

This leads directly into our first major change: the romance between Padmé and Anakin.

It has to be entirely rewritten, from start to finish. Anakin spends the first part of the movie glowering at Padmé like he wants to take her in the basement and do weird things to her with a pair of pliers. He spends the second half glowering at her like she’s just hit his favorite puppy. All of that, along with the lines about “teasing the Senator” and “I hate sand” and everything else, all need to go.

Instead, their feelings for each other should be a surprise to both of them. They should remember each other, and be friendly — but nothing else — at the start. As they flee Coruscant, they reminisce about their adventures from the first movie, and catch up on what’s happened in their lives since then (this sharing will also catch up the audience, filling in details on how Palpatine has taken Anakin under his wing and why Padmé gave up being Queen to become a Senator).

Once on Naboo, among the beauty of her retreat, they both start to relax their guards, and discover they enjoy talking with each other, perhaps too much. This should climax with the kiss on the balcony, as a mix of everything their feeling: the danger they share, their past history, the way they can confide in each other.

The very next scene is Anakin having his nightmare about his mother and waking up in his room, sweating. We skip the fireside scene and its awkward “I’ve brought you into this incredibly romantic room to break up with you” vibe altogether.

Instead, we let their decision about their relationship be ambiguous. Neither of them has decided to take things any further than that initial kiss. They could still pull back and stay friends, stay loyal to the causes they’ve pledged themselves to. Or they could take the plunge together, and damn the consequences. It’s not knowing that adds tension to the scenes that follow.

Anakin doesn’t tell Padmé about his nightmare at first, but over breakfast that morning she pulls what’s wrong out of him. And when she hears, it’s *her* idea to go to Tatooine and look for his mother, not Anakin’s. He wants to keep Padmé safe on Naboo, and doesn’t want to put her in danger. She sees a chance to distract both of them from their feelings for each other, while helping out a friend (she might even feel her own debt to the woman that sheltered them on Tatooine and allowed her own son to risk his life to help them).

She wins the argument, setting them on their course towards the final third of the movie *and* reinforcing our impression from Phantom Menace of Padmé’s willingness to take risks.

Now instead of the stiffness of the kiss between Anakin and Padmé before they’re led out to the Coliseum to die, a stiffness that comes from it being a kiss with no risk behind it, a “might as well say this because it has no consequences” scene, it’s one of mutual discovery, of the two of them realizing that they do love each other, and deciding to act on it.

So that’s Padmé and Anakin sorted. Now for the last major change: Count Dooku’s role.

As written, he screams villain at every turn. He dresses all in black, he speaks in ponderous “I’ve got you now” style, and he’s played by Christopher Freakin Lee.

While I’m a Lee fan to my core, the character as written is completely uninteresting. He’s a cackling capital-V Villain in a trilogy that’s all about how good intentions can lead you astray, about how evil can masquerade as virtue, about how hard it is to tell what’s the right thing to do.

Dooku should be an earnest renegade. Instead of being Palpatine’s Sith apprentice, Dooku discovered that Palpatine was a Sith, and broke with the Jedi Council because of it. He didn’t tell them because he didn’t think they would believe him, or if they did that it would be because Palpatine had already corrupted them. He went from system to system, cobbling together an Alliance to fight Palpatine and bring down the Sith.

He’s behind the assassinations, but only because he thinks the Senators he’s targeting are in league with Palpatine. In Padmé’s case, it would make perfect sense for him to add her to the list: she’s from Palpatine’s homeworld, she helped him become Chancellor, and if Dooku looks into her future, he can see the rise of the Dark Side.

Dooku thinks he’s the good guy, doing something hard but necessary to fight a greater evil. We should see him as being very similar to Qui-Gon, if Qui-Gon had lived and disagreed more with the Jedi Council.

He doesn’t want to fight Obi-Wan when he captures him. He makes an earnest attempt to get Obi-Wan to join him, to help him overthrow the Sith that have taken control. The scene between them should be fraught with tension, and we should actually wonder if Obi-Wan will join the rebels at this point, especially once he realizes that Dooku is telling the truth. When he refuses, and Dooku sentences him to death, it should be with regret and reluctance, not relish.

All of Dooku’s scenes should be shifted to show the conflict within him. When Mace Windu shows up with the other Jedi, Dooku should be horrified, not triumphant. He doesn’t want to see the Jedi Order destroyed, but he can’t let them win, either. He’s in an impossible situation, and his dialogue with Windu should be a plea for his one-time friend to join him, to stop doing the bidding of the Sith.

All the way up to the final combat between Dooku, Obi-Wan, and Anakin, he should be trying to get out of the fight, trying to find a way to work with the Jedi instead of against them. His reluctance should be clear at every point, and it should be the Jedi that act as the aggressors, that push him into fighting them.

This will inject a sense of tragedy into each scene Dooku’s in: we know he’s only playing into Palpatine’s hands, even if he doesn’t, and we can see how the Jedi are blind to how they’re being manipulated as well. Dooku becomes a much more interesting character, and we should feel sorry for him when he dies.

That’s the last change we need to make to the movie: Dooku should die at the end.

He should still take Anakin out early, by lopping off his right hand. He should still fight Obi-Wan off, and then move to escape. But Yoda stands in his way, blocking his path.

Here, Dooku refuses to fight his old master. He’s lost his way, but he’s not a Sith. He won’t go that far.

Trapped, he turns back to fight Obi-Wan, to see if he can get out a different way. Obi-Wan has gotten Anakin back on his feet, and together they manage to fight Dooku till he is on his knees, and disarmed. Helpless, he agrees to go back with them, to face trial and punishment.

Yoda turns to go back into their transport, and Obi-Wan as well. Dooku and Anakin are left alone for a moment.

This is when Anakin finds out Dooku was behind the assassination attempts. Dooku tells him as part of one last plea for mercy, for Anakin to help him, and as a warning about what he thinks Padmé will do. Instead, Anakin is enraged that Dooku would threaten Padmé’s life. Filled with anger, he kills Dooku.

Thus the movie ends with three things certain. Palpatine has grown so powerful that even the opposition to his rule is playing into his hands. Padmé and Anakin are going to act on their love while keeping it hidden. And that love, though unlooked-for and hard-won, is driving him towards the Dark Side.

Running Off the Rails Holding Scissors

Novel’s at 64,623 words.

My entire plot’s taken a huge left turn.

I’ve been off outline for a while, but not in a scary way. Most of what’s happening has followed on from what’s happened before, a nice logical progression of “this has happened, so the character would do that” kind of writing.

It let me forget that this novel has a villain. And they’re not sitting idle.

On Wednesday morning, they insisted on doing something so terrible, it’s thrown all my plans out the door. One of the characters might be dead. Another might be about to turn criminal.

And the villain? Well, they’ve taken a huge leap forward towards winning.

There’s no telling where the story’s going. It’s terrifying, but thrilling as well. I have to write it, now, if only to find out what happens next.

How to Fix The Phantom Menace

Stay with me on this one. Underneath all the Jar-Jar antics and the layer-cake of special effects is a good movie, I promise.

But there’s a lot of work we have to do to uncover it.

What Went Wrong

I don’t think I can add anything to the many others who have chronicled the movie’s shortcomings.

Let’s move on.

How to Fix It

Three major changes will do most of the heavy lifting for us.

First, Anakin needs to be older. Preferably pre-teen, say 11-12 years old. Just this one change by itself makes so much more of the movie make sense.

When Anakin meets Padmé for the first time, his lines are kind of creepy for a little kid. Make him a pre-teen, though, and suddenly he’s a very young man trying (and failing, horribly) to hit on an older woman.

The Jedi’s later remark that Anakin is “too old” to be trained is nonsense for a boy that looks no older than any of their younglings. If Anakin were 12, though, and already arrogant and head-strong, those objections would be sensible.

Second, we need a different motivation for the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. I know, I know: the second movie gets bogged down in Senate procedure and no one cares. But that’s my point: the movie as written does a horrible job of making us care. The right explanation, embedded into the script, would go a long way to fix that problem.

Instead of some vague “trade dispute”, we should have a concrete problem. Naboo has an ore that gets mined by the Gungans and processed by the land-based Naboo into some material needed for making droids. Both the Trade Federation and a rival group buy that material from the Naboo and make their — rival — droids from it.

The Trade Federation comes to Naboo and asks them to sign an exclusive trade deal, so Naboo will only sell to the Trade Federation, which would give the Trade Federation a lock on the droid market.

Naboo refuses, of course, so the Trade Federation cranks up the heat: a blockade of the planet, cutting off all trade to the rest of the Galactic Republic. The Senate has to get involved at that point, since the Trade Federation are breaking the free flow of goods across the galaxy.

This is the dispute the Jedi fly in to resolve at the start of the movie: not a vague thing, but a concrete drama with greedy officials and brave (if naive) patriots facing off.

This scenario also sets up the “symbiont circle” between the Naboo and the Gungans that Obi-Wan talks about. Without the Gungans to mine the ore, the Naboo wouldn’t be able to refine it and sell it, generating trade. In return, the Naboo provide the Gungans both money — of course — and technology, by maintaining the systems that keep the Gungans underwater cities going.

The Trade Federation, with their invasion, break this circle. They not only take control of what industry the Naboo have, they start mining the planet themselves, using droids instead of Gungans.

This is why the Gungans have to flee their cities toward the end of the movie. No one is maintaining them — the Naboo are rather busy — and they’ve lost their main monetary supply. Not to mention all the extra drilling the Trade Federation is engaging in, to suck Naboo dry before the Senate can act.

Our final change is a series of small ones that add up to a big one: we need to shift both both Jar-Jar and Padmé’s roles in the story.

Jar-Jar needs a purpose. He’s a goofy-looking character that’s supposed to provide some comic relief, which is fine in theory, but he needs to serve some use for the other characters.

We should give him several things to do. To start, when he runs into Qui-Gon at the beginning, he should accidentally save the Jedi’s life: when they fall under the bot transport, Jar-Jar shields Qui-Gon from the heat of the transport’s engines using his large, floppy ears, keeping them both safe. When they leave the Gungan city to travel through the Planet Core, we should see Jar-Jar giving them directions, acting as their navigator. In their initial encounters with Trade Federation droids, Jar-Jar should take out a few, if clumsily and slowly. And when Qui-Gon goes hunting for parts on Tatooine, Jar-Jar should follow at a distance, unseen, “swimming” through the sand with just his eye-stalks showing, determined to keep watch over the human to whom he owes a life-debt.

Finally, Jar-Jar, not Anakin, should be the one locked in the fighter that ultimately — and accidentally — takes out the Trade Federation’s droid command ship. Taking Anakin to Naboo makes no sense, he’s too young (at any age) and should be left safely on Coruscant (perhaps under the watchful eye of Senator Palpatine?). Jar-Jar’s goofiness fits in perfectly with what happens in this sequence, and playing the hero here sets up his presence in the Senate later on.

Padmé’s scenes should all be shifted to show her headstrong, sometimes reckless, nature.

When the Queen and the Jedi are debating going to Tatooine, we should actually see the debate. Her Captain should make his case for not going, the Jedi should make their case for it, and the Queen should have her handmaidens weigh in. This last will frustrate the Jedi, so used to being obeyed without question, and give the fake Queen a chance to hear from the disguised Padmé what she should do.

And when Qui-Gon actually leaves the ship to search for parts, the Queen should send Padmé because he needs a translator: it turns out Padmé speaks Huttese. Instead of Qui-Gon playing reluctant tour guide to the handmaiden, we should reverse this. It’s Padmé who has seen poverty up close — which is perhaps why she ran for Queen in the first place — and the Jedi that has been coddled in the Inner Worlds. This change will give Padmé much more depth as a character, and reinforce the sense that maybe the Jedi are a little out of touch, a little too arrogant, to play their role properly anymore.

A final Padmé change: in the final assault on the palace, when she and her guard are pinned down by droids, *she* should be the one to shoot out the glass window and insist they winch up. It’d be a nice echo of Princess Leia’s garbage chute solution during her rescue, and again show us that Padmé is able to think sideways to get around problems.

With these changes, we take a movie that can be skipped without missing anything to one that is crucial to understanding the rest of the series.

Anakin, the young hotshot, both too old to be properly trained and too young to be left alone, shows both great potential and great risk.

The Republic is coming apart at the edges, its reach shortened and its ability to settle disputes peaceably in doubt.

Padmé’s recklessness in the pursuit of what she wants lets her reach her goal, but only at the cost of launching Senator Palpatine’s career as Chancellor, paving the way to his ascent to Emperor.

And the Jedi, assured and passive on the outside, are shown to have grown too insular, too used to their comfortable lives in the Inner Worlds to see the dangers to the Republic from within, or even to find a child as talented as Anakin in the Outer Rim.

Steady On

Pushed the novel to 62,769 words this week.

I’m trying to worry less and less about picking the right words, about using the right sentences to get my meaning across. As I drift further from my original outline, I’m trying to focus on discovering what happens next, on keeping things consistent, rather than the particular phrasing I’m using.

That’s rough for me, since I’ve always been careful about the words I use when talking or writing, always worried about saying the wrong thing, about failing.

But in this case, failure means not speaking, not writing. So long as I can get something down, I can move forward, and discover more of the book. I try to remind myself of that, and to remember that only once the book is done can I go back and make it right.