What we can learn about setup from Star Wars
You’ve probably seen the latest and (supposedly) last Star Wars movie in the Skywalker saga. If not, prepare yourself for some spoilers.
In preparation for the final movie, I watched all the Star Wars movies in chronological order per the storyline (not release dates), as well as the Solo and Rogue One spin off movies and the first season of The Mandalorian. I’m not a huge Stars Wars nerd, but I am a story nerd and wanted to see if watching the movies in this way changed how I experienced the final movie. What I ultimately gained from doing this, though, was a reminder of the importance of setup in storytelling. Here are a few points I picked up:
World-building is so, so important.
Although I had seen all of the movies, it wasn’t until I watched them in this way that I truly grasped the fact that the Empire formed in the aftermath of a fallen democratic government. I know that may sound surprising to others who have seen all of the movies, but that detail did not sink in until now.
Watching the manipulation of power that brought on the decline of the government and rise of the Empire in the first three movies and then the impact of that change in power around the galaxy in Solo and Rogue One gave me a fresh perspective when I got to A New Hope. While I had understood that there was a rebellion pushing back against evil forces, the fact that the rebellion was fighting a corrupt government didn’t hit home until I watched the movies in this way.
I can’t overstate how this realization changed the way I processed the rest of the story. The motivation and passion of the rebellion took on a new weight and made the story more meaningful.
Don’t leave a reader hanging.
Yes, you can have loose ends, but if you’ve set a reader up to get some sort of conclusion on a subplot or big reveal, don’t leave them hanging. In The Rise of Skywalker, when the team is sinking in the sandpit, Finn says, “Rey, I never told you . . .” I sat up straighter, sure we were going to see their relationship change. It had been building up over the previous two movies, and while I wasn’t convinced they loved each other in a romantic sense, you never know.
But then we never find out what he never told her. Even after Rey flat out asks him. WHAT DID HE NEVER TELL HER? After the movie ended, it was one of the first things I mentioned when debriefing with friends in the theater lobby. Be selective and purposeful when you create loose ends, as they stick with your audience, and not always in a good way.
**I was haunted for days by this. Thankfully, there’s the internet. After a little digging, I found an article from a panel where it was revealed that Finn wanted to tell Rey he was Force sensitive. I’d rather have found that out in the movie, though.
Consistency is vital, but also break some rules.
The key here is not to break rules of your world that you’ve already established. With the Star Wars saga being what it is, there have been many filmmakers and writers along the way, each wanting to put their own stamp on the series. And while this makes for interesting takes on the same world, it can also lead to conflicting elements within the storytelling. Sometimes it works, but other times it’s frustrating. For example, Leia being a Jedi Master vs. Force healing.
The only hint of Force healing power in prior movies was when Obi-Wan healed Luke’s headache in A New Hope. It does appear when Baby Yoda does some healing in The Mandalorian and, apparently, in some of the novels and spinoffs. So, the presence of this in the latest movie depends on what you view as canon and, therefore, if you see this as having been setup previously or not. Having not gone that deep into the Star Wars universe, it came as a bit of a shock to me.
However, the introduction of Leia as a Jedi Master is plausible because of setup in prior movies. For example, even though Jedi are supposed to be trained as children, the fact that Luke was trained as a teen/adult setup the option to have Leia train when she was older as well. Leia’s powers have also been hinted at in other movies, which allowed this element to feel like a natural progression in the story. And, to the point of breaking the rules, Leia being a Jedi Master is pretty badass and the content we all wanted, thereby making it a pretty satisfying reveal.
The key difference here is how the introduction of these elements changes what was possible in the past. Leia not having stepped fully into her Jedi powers in past movies doesn’t necessarily change the storyline. However, Force healing would have made a massive difference throughout the saga, and therefore leaves audience members wondering why certain characters didn’t employ this power at important moments (*cough* losing a hand *cough*).
When we build any story, we have to think about how we are setting up our reader (or viewer, in this case) for something. Skilled storytellers consider how one tiny detail leads into another and so on until the tiny details add up to the big reveal or the climax or to some spark of change in their characters. The way a writer sets up a story plays a major role in creating a satisfying experience for their audience. And when setup goes array, writers run the risk of losing their audience and the thread of their story.