The last couple of posts I wrote started somewhere different from where they ended. Each time, I sat down with an idea in mind, an idea I wanted to explore and develop.
When I finally pushed the “Post” button, however, what went up onto the bar was nothing like what I was originally thinking.
There’s nothing new in that, by the way. I’ve talked before about the fact that this blog is mostly just random impulse and stream-of-consciousness. A lot of these posts are, in fact, conversations that you and I could very well have sitting side-by-side at a local bar…
I sat down today to once again try to explore that idea I’ve had lurking in the back of my mind for the last few weeks. Unfortunately, I’m a bad person. In addition to my many other bad qualities, I also happen have the focus of an adolescent squirrel. A drunk adolescent squirrel.
So, instead of that post I’ve been meaning to write, you get…
You know, THE box — that damned box everyone always talks about getting out of.
Now, look…I’m the guy who gave up a successful, rewarding career to (a) write full-time and (b) live in Yellowstone. I’m pretty much the last person in the world you should listen to when I talk about “getting outside of the box”, but…well…you’re already here, and that’s what I feel like writing about, so…
Let’s start where this whole train of thought derailed, shall we?
Yep, you read that right, Star-freaking-Wars. That ultimate in-the-box, unoriginal, derivative arc of stories with which pretty much every single person in the United States grew up. It doesn’t matter to which “generation” you belong, there’s a Star Wars for you. Gen-Xer? You have the original trilogy. Gen-Y and (kinda) Millenials? You have the (**censored**) prequel trilogy. Kids today? You have…ahem…Kylo Ren. Sorry about that, kids.
I grew up on Star Wars. I remember arguing with my friends, after we’d all seen The Empire Strikes Back, about whether or not Vader was lying about being Luke’s father.
I remember thinking Han Solo was the coolest person in the Universe.*
*Erm…I still do.
I remember arguing about who was stronger in the Force, Luke or Vader.
When I put aside my fan-boy hat, however…
When I (try to) think about the entire run of stories/films from a non-fan perspective…
When I approach the whole thing as a writer…
Yeah, that’s when shit changes.
Based on myth and legend as those stories are, there are just far too many irritating elements that “have” to be in there. Worst of all, from a writing perspective, is the “requirement” for a happy ending. For the heroes to save the world, for the dreaded “happily ever after.”
Yeah, yeah…I know that all of that is fundamental to much, if not most, of mythology. I know also that it was an established and accepted way for the singers and storytellers of the past to teach about the “right thing to do,” and about the rewards that would come with “doing right.” I know all of that, but my understanding of those dynamics still can’t remove the stench of the inherently saccharine nature of such “rules”.
Star Wars ended with the destruction of the Death Star, and medals for Luke and Han…
Empire — the darkest of the originals — ended with Luke healing, and Leia flying off to rescue Han…
Jedi ended with — ahem — the destruction of the (other) Death Star, and an Ewok party…
Don’t even get me started on how the prequel movies ended — they were even more sugar-coated! No one suffered, no one (important) died. There was no sacrifice, no cost. There was, in the words of my current protagonist, no price to pay.
And that’s perfectly acceptable…for kids. But what about adults? What about folks who understand that there is more to life than black and white? What about people who know that good and evil are a spectrum, not a binary choice?
For us, you have to go to the one Star Wars film that actually manages to get outside the box: Rogue One.
Rogue One is the redheaded stepchild of the Star Wars universe precisely because it gets outside the box. It is also, to my mind, the best of the stories…for the same reason.
Watch that film and think first about the simplest method of communicating mood, tone and theme in the directorial tooldbox: color scheme. Rogue One is all about shades of gray, all about colors that shift and blend with each other. There are few scenes with primary colors in the film, few patches of bright contrast, other than in the nostalgic look back at the heroine’s childhood, and in the final battle.
Take that color scheme, then — the film equivalent of word-choice and connotation for us print writers — and use it to give perspective to the film as a whole. Although the struggle between Rebel Alliance and Empire is the backdrop for the whole thing — as are our memories and knowledge of the black & white universe of the other films — there are no clear cut “good guys” in Rogue One. The protagonists are all flawed and broken…just like the rest of us.
Even the “bad guys” have elements of gray to them, when you get right down to it. Okay, yeah, the Oppenheimer-inspired character is pretty blatant and heavyhanded, but his boss (the main antagonist) has his own reality and morality, if you’re capable of looking beneath the shallowest layer. And don’t get me started on Vader…*
*Okay, do get me started on Vader. Mostly because, when James Earl Jones spoke his few lines, I got the freaking chills. I’m pretty sure there is nothing more iconic than that dark suit and incredible voice to anyone from — or even near — my generation. I love Jones as an actor, but more than anything else, he will always be “that voice” to me.
What really gets Rogue One outside the box, however, is the vision and conception of the story. I would say “the end,” but that is far too trite and easy. No, the writers and director did a much better job of getting outside the box than merely making a statement with the movie’s climax; they ran threads of meaning throughout the entire story.
Which is what we’re supposed to do as writers, you know.
Oh, those thematic elements? What are they? That’s easy: there is always a cost, there’s always a price to pay.
They took a minor, relatively undeveloped character from the adult-ish Star Wars cartoons (Clone Wars and Rebels) and turned him into a fucking statement. Saw Gerrera is one hell of a vision of the tired, battered warrior who is neither good nor evil, but rather a blend of both. I could write an entire post just on that one character, and everything they packed into him…but that’s for another time.
Hell, Cassian Andor — the second protagonist, played absolutely brilliantly by Diego Luna — has a great bit of that to him as well…which is why he is the only Star Wars character who comes anywhere near Han Solo in my personal pantheon of hero-ness.
Oh yeah…about that cost, about that price that always has to be paid…
In the rest of the Star Wars universe, everyone important lives. If someone actually dies, you don’t know their name, and you certainly don’t care about them. Even Annakin, Obi Wan, Qui Gon Jin and Yoda didn’t actually die, they just did their holy-ghost-thing and hung around for residuals on future movies…
So, that’s the box — everyone lives, and the happily ever after fades away with a triumphal march…
But what happens when you finally get outside that box?
Then you can take the characters you spent two hours making the audience fall in love with…and you kill them.
Outside the box there is a cost to struggle and war. Outside the box, sacrifice is not discomfort and difficulty, it is death. Outside the box is not mythology, it is life.
I had other examples, by the way, that I was going to use for this post. Other bits and stories I was going to dive into. I was going to talk about Amazon’s brilliant The Boys, and its subversive take on superheroes. I was also going to get into Disney/Marvel’s own redheaded stepchild of Deadpool. I was going to get into them, but I’m not sure a 10,000-word post is a particularly good idea at this point…
The takeaway from all this? That’s easy. The takeaway is a question that all writers have to ask themselves: do you want to write mythology, or life?
Mythology is a comic book. It is primary colors and simple answers. It is medals and honors and happily-every-after.
Life is…dirtier. Life is suffering and pain. Life is neither good nor evil, but a blend of the two. Life is sacrifice and, yes, death. But if life is all of that, it is that in context. It is all of that as the price that must be paid for heroism, and for victory, and for doing right…
Gee, can you guess where I come down on that question of what you write?