So beautifully plotted: narrative structure in the Thrawn Trilogy
“'Captain Pellaeon?' a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation.”- Opening line of HEIR TO THE EMPIRE
Released in 1991, '92, and the final installment in '93, the books HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, DARK FORCE RISING, and THE LAST COMMAND are among some of the most well known in the Star Wars universe. Collectively known as the THRAWN trilogy for ages, that is the designation I'll use for them throughout this article although there might be another trilogy of the same name in the future. Altogether, the books have sold an estimated fifteen million and have been #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The series was voted the 88th of NPR's most influential sci-fi and fantasy books of all time. This is the series that saw the introduction of fan favorites like Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Thrawn, Borsk Feyla (er...fan non-favorite?), and Gilad Pellaeon. It also saw the introduction of worlds such as Coruscant, factions like the New Republic and Imperial Remnant, and gave us the Chiss and Noghri species. In the Star Wars universe, this series chronicles the birth of the twins, Jacen and Jaina, and the Thrawn campaign against the New Republic. The fledgling New Republic nearly topples from internal pressures and from the brilliant maneuverings of the Empire under Thrawn. Thrawn's further use of cloning technology threatened to throw the galaxy back into another round of the Clone Wars. In the real world, the THRAWN trilogy stands out for being the series that jump-started the EU as we know it today. While content was produced before it, most of the following works were built on the foundation established in these novels. Those earlier references were reworked into the timeline at a later date. It isn't alone in this honorific accomplishment either. The comic series, DARK EMPIRE, which was produced around the same time and they decided would follow the THRAWN trilogy, and the West End Games sourcebooks helped produce the foundation to support a franchise. George himself had given Zahn WEG material to use for his Heir to the Empire novel research. Before we continue too much further, this article will draw heavily on the articles for CHARACTER and WORLDBUILDING. It is highly recommended you reread those articles. We will be discussing how many of those concepts fit into the structure of a story as we go along. Today, we are going to be covering Story Structure. It's a subject many love to talk about for hours on end; It's also a subject few have actually talked about. How can that be? Well, there are many misconceptions regarding the structure of the stories we tell. Afterall, stories - be they film, games, books, comics, or any other medium - are subjective. You either like it or you don't, yet you can't tell an original story anymore! It's entertainment. They are/should be apolitical. It's just a story, don't get hung up on it. You know what they should have done? Genres are real. You're overthinking it, just enjoy it for what it is. Stick to the formula! It would have been better if they did unrelated x with y character. This story doesn't know if it's a comedy or an action thriller. Of course the characters aren't real! Just up the ante and have the villain threaten, like, the whole world because that's what makes a story epic. Needs to be darker, more gritty, more realistic! There wasn't enough action, like, it just needed more x and y duking it out. You need 3 acts in a story. Give the character some unrelated hobby or something, easiest way to make them 3-dimensional. We have to cast a white actor so the white demographic will have someone to identify with - if the script doesn't call for it then we'll just have to resort to using makeup. Fast action equals fast pacing. They need to just tell an incomplete story and ask the audience to buy the rest of it. But she's the love interest trope! She can't do that! Jango, shoot her...or, or something. Right? The history of what people have assumed about the nature of storytelling is both fascinating and terrifying. Stories are a type of philosophical argument about human nature that imparts experience and commentary by way of taking the audience through morphing logical discourse. The structure of story itself has never changed from its creation as a philosophical argument. Purely entertainment? Far from it. Subjective? When was the last time you heard a logical argument be labeled subjective? Apolitical or lacking social commentary? We still call the message of a story the 'Moral Argument' or the 'moral of the story'. Are stories formulaic? No more so than the use of mathematical proofs could be considered. Does a philosophical argument need to be dark and gritty to be meaningful? Sounds silly when put that way, doesn't it? The anagogical structure of the THRAWN trilogy is a contrast between the Empire and the Rebellion - what makes them different? Many lines and scenes are brought in from the original trilogy as intertextual elements to emphasize and amplify the points explored. Thrawn was created to highlight this difference, and he does so by being a foil to Leia most of all. Leia represents the heart of the rebellion, and that dictates her story spine. It is why she can bring the Noghri to her side, why she is holding the New Republic together politically, and why she is giving life (including literally) to multiple people in this book. Thrawn is the opposite, and this is his blind spot. He studies art, not because it is some fantastic talent that is 'cool,' but because art (mediums dedicated to sharing what it means to be 'human') is a glaring example of his shortcoming. It is a technique in contrasting stage elements and symbols. By emphasizing art, the reader is going to pick up, subconsciously, that he lacks in the ability to empathize through shared experience. It is always right in front of him. Moreover, while the Star Wars universe is filled with aliens like our mythologies are full of non-human creatures, we humanize them a great deal for the sake of story and relatability. Thrawn is not a non-human simply because that is 'how badass he must be to get the position!' - That is the surface story. He is not human because he cannot understand what it means to be 'human' - that very thing art is supposed to convey. It is this shortcoming that blinds him to what becomes his downfall. We can also infer the times he was not able to understand a culture's art that it dealt exclusively with the sharing of empathetic experiences with others, but that is a side issue (what? did you think that was some great mystery we could never solve?). Before we can truly delve into it, we need to know how the Anagogical structure works.
Within every tale, there is both the visible story and the invisible one. When most people see and interact with a story, they only see the surface, much like how people only see the road of a bridge or the simple structure of a house. Like these metaphors, the story structure is much more complicated than it appears at a glance. There are supporting beams and substructures, hidden electrical wiring in the walls, foundations, and so forth. Just because they are not readily observed in the day to day engagement by the audience does not mean they are to be discarded. They are arguably more critical to the actual function of the structure - in our case, that is the human truth we want to bring before the audience. I introduced the Anagogical structure in the article on worldbuilding. Lost on the cutting room floor of that article was the context for the term I revitalized. Anagogical was a type of allegory favorite in Medieval literature. As the allegory, it was the invisible symbolism that arched over a story as a type of superstructure. In the Middle Ages, this element of storytelling was purely religious and abandoned with the Enlightenment. While no term has recaptured it, the structure has still been employed to the modern day. Due to the religious nature of the allegorical superstructure, what defined the use of the Anagoge (roughly translates to 'superstructure') was how it shaped the text of the story. Allegory has been a crucial part of Western storytelling for longer then we have had written record of, but it is often in service to the story (confusing it with symbolism). With the Anagoge, this is undeniably reversed. The story is in service to the allegory. In modern times, the use of allegory has fallen and has become something of a lost art. In the words of Angus Fletcher in his work, ALLEGORY, "The whole point of allegory is that it does not need to be read exegetically; it often has a literal level that makes good enough sense all by itself...Nevertheless, we must we avoid the notion that all people must see the double meaning, for the work to be rightly called allegory." To understand the importance of the Anagogical structure, we first have to understand the way the audiences engage with the story, and why they do. There are three levels - the allegory, the relational, and the surface level.
The most important part of the Anagogical structure is the allegory. This forms the core of a story's structure. The questions asked by each act and the dialectic character spines form the chunk of the argument the storyteller is trying to make. No character is what they seem until the allegory can be drawn out of them. I do not mean this in a way such as the aenigma (a form of allegory developed to hide messages from those in power, be they kings, the church, or merely modern-day censors), but in a more general sense. All stories have allegory at their heart.
The next level is relational. Aristotle, in POETICS, once brilliantly labeled the most pleasurable part of consuming a story is deciphering the human nature of the characters. We tell stories to understand human nature better. While the arguments in the allegory can be about anything, the relational levels deal with how those concepts interact. The most well-known examples I can point to are those found in Greek mythology, where the deities personified many different elements from forces of nature to behaviors to the embodiment of ideas, and their relationship likewise personified the way those concepts interact.
Finally, there is the surface level. We often call this the 'Text' of the story. It covers what happens at face value. As crucial as the subtext and invisible story is, the surface text is not to be forgotten. It is all that the creator can be sure their audience will engage with. It acts as a gate and hook. The audience may not even realize the deeper context their subconscious is engaging with the story, but they cannot experience any of it if they are not engaged with the text first.
The deep character is a concept we talked about in the article on character. Here, we are going to explore how it interacts with the story structure. We will be looking at Leia Organa-Solo during the events of DARK FORCE RISING and in particular her deep characteristic as the manifested heart of the New Republic (and the Rebellion before that). The deep character elements are a necessary part of creating dimensionality. Either the deep character element is played off another element of deep character - an internal fight over who that character fundamentally is - or the deep character is set against a character trait.
We are introduced to Leia in DARK FORCE RISING with a scene recapping the final battle in HEIR TO THE EMPIRE. This is a meeting of allies, the leaders of the New Republic. Currently, the New Republic is set against itself. Of particular note is how being the symbolic heart of the New Republic plays against her spouse, Han Solo, when her deal to meet with the Noghri, Khabarakh comes to light.
Following this, she and Chewie travel to Endor for their meeting with the Noghri. While waiting in orbit, the heart of the New Republic passes through the late heart of the Empire! The spot where emperor Palpatine died on the second death star.
When they reach the Noghri homeworld, there is a surprise in orbit: a Star Destroyer. Leia has to act quickly to save the life of her former enemy, Khabarakh, from her friend and ally, Chewie. When they arrive, the learn about Khabarakh's family and the history of the Noghri people. Of note are the exploitation and covert slavery enforced by the Noghri's Imperial lords. We see the contrast between Leia and her father, Lord Vader, in the role of royalty. So of course, Leia's foil across the whole series is Thrawn himself, whom she comes very close to encountering directly. As two characters of significant influence, they challenge each other by proxy of their influence over the Noghri people.
This comes to a head when Leia realizes that 'third son' meant Great-Grandson. This revelation kicks off how long the Empire has enslaved the Noghri and how long ago the battle that devastated their world was. She must now convert the hearts and minds of the population.
Leia gains allies, but still loses the battle. The Noghri do not overtly join the New Republic's cause. This is not shown with the Noghri however, but rather instead with the Battle for the Dark Force - a fleet of two hundred battle ready dreadnaughts. In the Battle, Leia gains the help of Karrde and Garm Bel Iblis but they are too late - most of the Dark Force, also known Katana fleet, has fallen into Thrawn's hands.
Deep characterization forms the essential bases of the argument being made. In a way, they are living precepts merely disguised as fictional characters. Start with a concept or two (which the story disguises as a character), ask questions to refine and change it (such as from acts and sequences) to transform it into another concept (the character by the end). Stories are not entertainment. They are lessons. Shared Experiences. Arguments told by the storyteller. We consume them to enrich our lives, learn, and to understand others better. In the world of the ancient Greeks, the art of story and drama were elevated to the level of religious ritual and art. It should come as no surprise then that the vital arc in any story is identical to structures taken from philosophy, such as Deconstructionism and Dialectics for example. We call these Character Spines. It is an evolutionary process of logic that is being employed under the disguise we call a narrative. At the basic level, the character's thesis value, they then explore their antithesis through confrontation or change, and then they form their synthesis value. For our purposes, we will be looking at a structure of a character's Starting Value, the Contradiction thereof, a Contrasting value, a Negation of the Negation, and finally a Synthesis value. This is the dialectic exploration of our story's theme. Each character will become or encounter these values in the course of the story. It's not just human-like characters who can explore these - worlds, ships, and anything else can be used. The key is that they either have to explore it through antagonism or through becoming. Non-sentient objects and stages are generally limited to the later as they become and transform around the hero. Through the fictional experiences that we craft in the story, we are making a philosophical argument to our audience. This message is sometimes called the 'moral argument' or the 'moral of the story'. Due to the further nature of Story, and the mediums being built on empathy for the characters to engage us, a story will always be in service to our understanding of our human natures. As argued in the article on worldbuilding, any story that fails to do this will be forgotten in favor of a story that will help us survive and navigate our lives. We no longer learn from those who proposed a flat-earth view of the world in ancient times, but we do still learn about Newton's theory of gravity despite us now knowing it is technically incorrect. The closer and more accurate to human nature your argument gets, the more relevant it will be, even if it ends up being proved incorrect in humanity's future. As we prepare to explore the dialectic structure, I should clarify that story is closer to an argument via debate than a lecture. You have to include the counters, as accurately as possible, to the argument. Characters are not points within the argument, they are lines of reasoning. If the audience does not get a chance to respond, and human nature will invite them to play the devil's advocate - which usually means some backlash (usually subconscious) where they will pick at the story. They do not need to agree with your story's argument but present the argument and counters , and they will remember and engage with it because of the insight gleaned regardless. That need to present the counter-argument in a story well is why villains and antagonists who are understandable do a better job of engaging the audience. That is why the dialectic structures of logic are so often used to frame a story. Make your case through debate instead of a lecture. The more complete and complex these arguments are, the more interesting it will be to the audience. Within a story, all characters start with a value that is derived from the theme and the anagogical structure. What does this particular character represent and is exploring? Where do they begin their journey within the story? Often, this is some lie about the reality in which they are living. Something about the belief is off. If it is not, then the story is exploring the consequences of holding that belief or value.
These need not be done or appear within a story in any specific order. That can even go in the other direction with them overlapping. Contradictory and Starting values for example. In HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, we learn Han Solo has gone 'Respectable' from one of his former smuggling peers. This establishes his Starting Value and his contradicting (and former) value in the story. The contradicting value is what most think of when it comes to an antagonist. This value represents the most opposite of the character.
Next, we have the Contrasting value. If the value of the character is exploring is Truth, and the contradiction would be a lie, then the contrasting value would be true 'from a certain point of view.' Not quite the opposite value of the character, but still an antagonizing force to some extent.
The Negation of the Negation is usually when the values the character professes are turned against them. Love turns to Self-Hate. Freedom turns to voluntary-slavery-because-you-think-it's-freedom. Loyalty turns to self-betrayal. A search for truth would be facing self-deception. Have a character that's been acting out of love for others? That love the character has for them will be the very thing that damns them. To expand on what this argument is saying, the negation of the thesis is the antithesis. The antithesis, when push to its conclusion, will form its negation, the synthesis. To be more specific, the negation of the negation is when the antithesis (or thesis in some situations depending on how you order your dialectic spine) consumes itself. One of my favorite stories of all time is the Director's Cut of Ridley Scott's KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. In this film, the character of Sybella has an exciting Negation of the Negation in her arc. Throughout the movie, she makes sacrifices for her beloved son - the great love and motivator of her life. We also see her struggle with her brother's leprosy going so far as to avoid him when he is near death and being haunted after his death of it. We see her dismiss her religious beliefs for her desires. Everything is negotiable to her. Anything can be waived. She sacrifices everything for her son's well being. So then the critical moment strikes: Her son is leprous, too. She wonders what her child did to deserve this and comes to the frightening conclusion that no kingdom is worth him going to hell and that she will go to hell instead. So the loving mother kills her only son to save him from eternal damnation. Out of love for him. Already having damned the rest of the kingdom along with a great many people. The sacrifice cannot be undone. When she finally sees that the monster in the mirror is her, it is all but too late. "Save the people from what I have done." It is a potent moment in the character's arc as the value the character is exploring has been twisted back in on itself as a force of antagonism. Finally, that leaves us with the Synthesis value. What has the character settled on from their journey? What conclusions have they drawn? This is the end of the line of their arc.
Of course, ones does not have to stick to the structure I laid out above. A story is a philosophical argument, so any philosophical theory of logic can be employed.
When we first meet Luke Skywalker in HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, we see him engulfed in a Force dream. In this iconic scene, we see the basis of Luke's story spine. He is not the last of the old Jedi, but the first of the new. His dialectic spine will explore what it means to be a Jedi. The scene ends with a profound argument on that front from Luke himself, "a Jedi cannot get caught up with matters of galactic importance, that it interferes with his concern for individual people." Luke's starting value in this is already quite far along. This is because a big part of Luke's journey is about trusting his training and himself; the challenge is in living up to the ideals he has. Within HEIR TO THE EMPIRE though, his spine focuses on teaching and learning.
The next part of the spine happens soon in the story. Luke is trying to train Leia...and it is not going well. He struggles with the idea of losing Leia, or the twins, to the dark side due to his inability to be a good Jedi teacher. He tries to mimic his training, but the one-size fits all approach falls short for her.
Following that, Luke encounters a Star Destroyer and Interdictor trap. He must now learn on the fly and think on his feet to adapt to the situation. This is the antithesis to the “one-size fits all” training he tried with Leia. He has it in him to escape, but it is ultimately his fear that leaves him crippled and lost.
Now Luke finds himself on Myrkr - a world that due to the Yslamari on it, sends Luke back to the days of being an untrained farm boy. He is in the role of the student starting out. Mara plays a role in Luke's dialectic spine - someone who does not want to train with Luke, someone who does not want to touch the Force. To survive the forest with her, he has to teach her the basics nonetheless. Did you know that HEIR TO THE EMPIRE was also the first published appearance of the Jedi Code? It was not created for the novel, but the philosophical elements of the Jedi Code play out in the events and are an integral part in Luke's story spine. "There is no emotion, there is peace" plays out with the skipray crash. "There is no ignorance, there is knowledge" is explored in getting the message to the X-wing computer and thus to Karrde. "There is no passion, there is Serenity" is the reveal of Mara and her having to learn to work with Luke despite her passion for killing him. Then there is a surprise Vornskr attack, playing out the importance of "There is no chaos, there is harmony." Finally, "There is no death, there is the Force" is the showdown at Halla city, particularly with the archway. Next time you reread the novel, pay attention to the flow of those events, and the descriptors used. It is not an accident these align with the Jedi code. This sequence of events forms Luke's Synthesis value. While he participates in the space battle to come, his story spine reaches its conclusion at the archway in Halla. The space battle belongs to other characters. We hear a great deal about character arcs but what do they mean? What role do they play in the story? A character arc is a by-product of the character's dialectic spine and the other changes forced on the character by arcs, sequences, and other elements of the story. While the dialectic spine happens entirely in the subtext, the character arc happens entirely on the surface. The dialectic spines from the characters will cover the whole of the story, but they are far from the only element. Since we covered how the Anagogical structure affected the elements of space and stage in the worldbuilding article, we now move to how it affects the element of time. This evolution and sequence as arguments move from exploring point to point is measured by a number of units. They are Acts, Sequences, Scenes, Shots (Or Panels, for comics), and Beats. Each one brings about a different change in the story's direction. First, we have the Act. An Act is a segment of the story that establishes the general flow of the story on a large scale. Each Act represents a significant shift in what is portrayed in the story. There can be as many acts, or as few, as the story calls for - but most have 3, 4, or 5. Often, an act differentiates between antagonistic forces or individually establishes the significant conclusions in the story's argument. After that, we have the sequence. The sequence is something that exists in two-fold within story terminology. First, it means the order the story elements are told and presented. Second, it will sometimes refer to a series of continuously connecting story elements. An act is a sequence, but not all sequences are acts. In the prose medium, a sequence is better known as a Chapter. In film, a sequence is likely to encompass an event. The traditional 'final battle' is a sequence. From there, we have the scene. A scene is a unit of the story that ends when the stage or time is changed. Each scene has its own back and forth in regards to the values on display by the characters. The primary purpose of a scene is to present and detail an immediate choice that is to be made, intentionally or not. Shots, or panels in comics, are what creates scenes. It, in the process in which they are cut together, that makes the flow of the story. Along with the artistic composition of immediate storytelling, be it visual such as film, comics, and illustration or through sentence choice in prose, we also have the transitions between shots that form the backbone of a story. In film, this is the Kuleshov effect. Alfred Hitchcock hypothesized a famous experiment involved a handful of shots. We start with an old man. He is watching something out of the focus of the camera, so we only see him. We cut to - new shot - a woman and a baby. Then we cut back to a shot of the man, smiling. What kind of man is he? Now let's take those same shots, only instead of a woman and a baby, lets put in a shot of a woman in a bikini. We start with an old man. He is watching something out of the focus of the camera, so we only see him. We cut to - new shot - a woman in a bikini. Then we cut back to a shot of the man, smiling. So, what kind of man is he? This is the power of shots and shot choices. The smallest unit of a story is called the 'beat.' In theory, a beat can encompass multiple shots, but usually, there are numerous beats within a shot. Primarily, a beat is related more to the scene rather than a shot. Beats are made up of character's behaviors. A single action and the reaction invoked.
Now that we have the terminology out of the way let's look at how these elements are constructed. Modern stories often have 3 acts, as popularized by Syn Field in his book, SCREENPLAY. Classical stories had 5, influenced by the work of Gustav Freytag's, DIE TECHNIK DES DRAMAS (The Technique of Theater) and his pyramid concept. Aristotle argued that a story need, at a minimum, only one act. In many ways, the structure of story does not change all that much - just how vague the middle acts are - as most intuitively know the first act is the setup and the final act is the resolution. Which is true...most of the time (all rules can be broken if you know what you are doing). Modern films even refer to their second Act in terms of 2A and 2B, with a Midpoint (a major turning point) in the middle of the script. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, such as BATMAN BEGINS, contained 4 acts. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a modern example of a 5 act structure. A five-act structure is merely a refinement of the 3 act breakdown. Like the bone structure of a skeleton among humans, all stories share something of the same structure underneath. This is not formulaic, as many believe. While human skeletal structures are mostly the same across our species, every face, every physical body, is unique.
So what makes up an act? The best definition I have ever come across comes from Michael Tucker of the youtube channel, Lessons from the Screenplay. "Think of an act as the dramatic question it introduces to the story, persisting until the question is answered and the protagonist has made a choice that sends them in a new direction," Aristotle argued each act was centered around the turning point it built up. The subplots of an act are connected to, and help answer, the question of the act - even if they resolve after the rest of the act is completed in the story.
An act and its associated subplots is a small story in itself. Individually, they have their protagonists, antagonistic forces, inciting incidents, journeys, and climaxes.
An important note when it comes to subplots is that the protagonists in them do not need to be a character whom we see the story from their point of view; Only that we know them well enough to experience their story. The protagonists in this element of a story become one who solves the question for themselves.
The antagonist, or the forces thereof, are in some way derived from the question itself. The protagonist cannot resolve the question due to this reason.
All storytelling begins with an Inciting Incident - something which cracks the mundane facade of the protagonist and poses the question to them. This can be as drastic as an Imperial Assault on Hoth...or as subtle as buying an R2 unit from Jawas.
What happens next is the protagonist begins their journey in answering the question posed. They have to want to solve the question the act poses. It's tied into their desire. As they build to it, they are stopped - or hindered - by the forces of antagonism, which creates a crisis in being able to resolve the question.
This forces them to make a choice, to reveal something about who they are, and change the direction of the story in the process. The protagonists have brought about a climax to the question. For good or ill, there is no going back for the protagonist.
The resolution in the new direction of the story; The result of the choices made. As an act, this new direction often brings about another question and thus sets up the next act in the story.
A sequence is a continuous element within a story. It should be noted that a story, even one that has multiple ongoing arcs at the same time, is only a single story. The masks of the characters being worn might be changed out as we take the audience to the next scene, but there is only one story being told. A continuous story. A sequence is a series of uninterrupted scenes that reinforce each other within the story structure. Because there is only one story, one meta-argument being made, a sequence will often bridge scenes that do not share characters or stages. Every sequence has three elements that make it up. The establishing, the transformative, and the resolution. These can be individual shots, or they could be scenes, depending on the length of the sequence. After that, we have the next sequence in the story. No shot or scene is left standing alone.
To create tension within a sequence, every scene must go from positive to negative or from negative to positive. This does not mean a scene is entirely negative or positive. If a scene is built on the value of love/isolation and has a negative (positive to negative) tension, the scene will have the character striving to make or foster a love connection, but things will turn for the worse at the scene's turning point. We will get into this further when we examine story beats. For sequences, the important thing is that scenes go back and forth. A negative scene happens before and after a positive scene and vise versa. The more drastic the change, the more tension and faster pacing. The scene, as well as the beat on a smaller level, with the most change, is the Turning Point. Also called the Peripeteia if the turn comes around to its opposite and is an essential development in the story.
Sequences are not roughly thrown together. They flow. Afterall, a sequence is a part of a continuous element of the story that trades out the masks of character and stage to tell a smaller story within the larger. The exchange of one scene to another is called a transition. These have connective strings bridging the end of one scene with the beginning of the other. Often these are visual or audible elements within a scene.
An important detail is that these scenes do not have to be in chronological order, just in the order of their tension. In the battle at the Imperial Palace in THE LAST COMMAND, Zahn structured the scenes to play up reveals. Why? Because reveals about the hidden nature of allies was the theme of the sequence. To accomplish this, Zahn put the chronological order behind the importance of these reveals. We begin with Mara, after having revealed herself to Leia, stumbling on an Imperial squad in the palace. The scene ends with someone pointing a blaster at her, although we do not know who. Then we jump to a scene with Lando and Garm Bel Iblis. Halfway through, they stumble on Mara and Garm threatens her with a blaster. The scene continues from there. This pacing is kept up all the way to the end of the battle when Leia surrenders so Mara, behind the Imperial Commando team, can help eliminate them. We have one scene end, and the next scene will start a few minutes before that mark and continue after it. Sequences are powerful things. They contain the bulk of emotional inflictions on the audience. Shifts from the peaceful to the tragic to the righteous fury within the story are difficult to accomplish so let's spend a second to look at how they are done. They are accomplished through buildup and payoff, which we will discuss later, and by crafting experiences through the situations. So often in stories, creators will errantly try to tell the audience what to feel. Let's say you meet someone for a drink, and they tell you "I am sad." Do you feel sad? Moved? No. We do not naturally tell stories that way - why then do we try it in our films and novels? When we tell stories that draw out emotions from others, we do it by setting the stage and letting them become engulfed in the situation. The audience empathizes with the characters, putting themselves in those experiences. Let's look at the sequence in A NEW HOPE with the emotionally powerful binary sunset. It is an iconic shot. Visually dramatic. Swelling music. However, that is not enough. The sequence is a part of is what makes it emotionally compelling. We'll start with Luke cleaning R2 and stumbling across the recording of Leia asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for him. The scene contains numerous elements that hint that Luke wants to leave for adventure. He feels trapped. This is the running theme of the sequence. He stumbles on Leia's message asking for help. She's trapped too. R2 is trapped by the restraining bolt. We then transition to the next scene, the Lars family dinner. We again see how Luke is trapped on the farm. He's not just trapped physically, he's also trapped in terms of his knowledge of the father he looks up to. He wants more. Every character from Leia, to R2, to Luke in this sequence wants to be free. Finally, we transition to the scene of the binary sunset. The emotional theme has been reinforced that now when it strikes us, it strikes hard. The moment the music swells is also the moment he looks down. Without saying a word, we all understand that it's not going to happen. The scene swipes to reveal the turning point of the sequence: R2 has left the homestead. R2 has broken free. Yet it's not a good thing. It is very dangerous. Luke is panicking. The direction of the story has changed, and that one action propels the story and frees them all. This is how you enthrall your audience's emotions to the service of the story. Have you noticed, as we have been working our way through story structure, that so many of these elements are nearly identical? Why then, are stories like this? The answer comes back to the reality that all storytelling is a form of argument. If A=B, and B=C, then surely A=C? Anyone who has wrestled with the transitive property in mathematics or philosophy knows better. As storytellers, we cannot merely rely on implications and assumptions when it comes to our argument. Therefore, we found a way to say A=B and say B=C and say C=A and say further still that A=B=C. The repeating story structure is what allows us to do this as each argument takes place in a different level of the story structure. This unity of arguments - not a repeat of them, but a unified logical argument - is what we call theme. The theme is a unifier across the story. It tells us the subject matter our argument. The theme in THE LAST COMMAND is Allies. Every character will make choices concerning this theme and explore different elements of it from start to finish. Theme is an element of the stage. We covered it heavily in the article on worldbuilding. This time, we are talking about the theme in relation to time. There isn't a single stage in a story; there are many. Each scene has its stage. A stage is more than just the physical set; it's the situations the characters find themselves in. Often, the theme also plays out in the sequences and acts. For this, we will be looking at thematic sequences. Leia and Han begin THE LAST COMMAND by having to abandon allies. Luke is looking for clones, and gains help from Karrde, despite Karrde clarifying that he is not on the same side. Mara wakes up from a month of medical recovery, thanks to her help in the previous book's final battle, to find Ghent helping the New Republic and Winter. Then the sequence changes to a crisis of allies. Luke is left alone as stormtroopers ambush him - and severely disrupts the life of an innocent man. He is driven outside of civilization, literally, for his actions. At the next council member meeting, we see the New Republic and its allies in disarray. Fey'la is shunned and self-shamed into silence. Karrde is skeptical. Garm Bel Iblis is absent. So then Leia goes into labor with the twins, which removes her as well. Han feels tossed aside after the birth of the twins. Following that is a sequence of hidden allies. Luke visits the Noghri and discovers the new world Leia is helping them build. Leia and Mara deal with the reveal that Mara used to be the Emperor's Hand. While Mara says she will kill Luke, Leia sees right through it and treats Mara as a secret ally. This is then confirmed in the attack on the Imperial Palace, where Mara quite literally plays the role of the hidden ally by sneaking around the palace to save Leia, Han, and the twins. Moving on from there, we have the unlikely allies. The Noghri send Leia an honor guard. They break Mara out to go with them to Wayland. Coruscant falls under attack, and Leia runs into Ghent and puts him to good use. Mon Mothma comes to ask Garm Bel Iblis for help. Revealing allies. The Noghri show up on Wayland to help. They have revealed the location of Wayland to the New Republic. Leia, Ghent, Winter, and Garm Bel Iblis run scripts to find Delta Source by examining all of their allies in the palace but it is only though Leia's revelation about another ally that leads to the discovery of Delta Source. It is revealed to Mara that Luke is the son of Vader. Karrde reveals the number of asteroids the New Republic is looking for around Coruscant. It all comes down to trust. What allies can, and do, you trust? Mara trusts Luke to kill her if she falls under the Jedi Master's sway. Trust is the only way they have to fight the clones. Before Thrawn's death comes, they are discussing how the New Republic will assume betrayal in their ranks. The mad Jedi Master is trying to bury them alive, intent to clone and raise them anew himself. Through teamwork and trust, such as Leia using the Force to assist Mara in seeing, they stop him. On the other hand, the Empire cannot trust their allies as the Noghri turn on them. Politics and social institutions often play heavy roles in science-fiction and fantasy tales, particularly in the themes of the stories. In fact, if you were to pick up any novel in the genre, there is a good chance you'll find more royalty (specifically Princes and Princesses) running around than farmhands within the pages. The critical part of any creative endeavor is not to provide the audience with the right answers, but to ask them the toughest questions. We shine spotlights on human nature, and that includes human society, often revealing the ugly truth of it in the process. An argument for keeping the status quo is ignored, but the haunting question of 'why', of 'how could we do this?' will persist for many ages. This cannot be restated enough because political stories often come down to that difference. One of the great elements of the THRAWN trilogy is its use of politics to expand and deepen the Star Wars galaxy. Thrawn exploits political maneuvering to great effect time and time again. In the timeframe this article was being written, politics in fictional stories - especially politics that didn't conform to a review's likings - was a tough subject to tackle without eliciting feverous calls to 'keep politics out of [story]'. Every story will have a political message though, intentional or not. This is because politics affect us all the time. Some people are lucky enough they never feel that affect them directly. Others feel the touch of politics so strongly their ability to survive is threatened and dependant on engaging with it. There is no universal political ideology storytellers adhere to. Wherever they fall, most tend to be far more socially aware on average because hearing more human experience gives you more and better stories to tell. Diverse human experience is the engine of originality. Kinda like drawing on nature to come up with concept art designs but using philanthropy instead of visual patterns. With a solid deconstruction, the social issues that a storyteller wants to address would not limited to a time or place. If you know what you're talking about, you can thoroughly address issues most of humanity won't face as a whole for another hundred years or more. We've seen this happen time and time again in the past and present, and there's no reason to believe it will stop happening going forward. The idea there is no such thing as an original story is a lie; it means that person has stopped seeking out new human experiences beyond what they've already explored. The THRAWN trilogy accomplishes the goal of remaining relevant to audiences with an engaging political subplot anyone can enjoy because it deconstructs post-revolutionary experiences people have go through. We'll talk about this more in the next article but some should be addressed here. Politics are a tricky subject so let's start with what not to do when writing about politics. The trilogy avoided any of the political buzzwords, jargon, or colloquialisms of its era. For ease (as this is not actually a dissertation!), we'll just call them all buzzwords. These buzzwords are a fascinating phenomenon within the realm of language. They begin as jargon and code phrases within a small community or base and spread from there. For our purposes, a buzzword is any term that doesn't have a wide-spread, set definition and/or relies on cultural context. At the time of this writing, buzzwords include things like "Millennials", "Wikiality", "triggered", and phrases like "Social Justice Warriors" (also abbreviated as 'SJW's). Take enough steps back, and any cultural dependant references can fall into this category. For Sci-fi, the genre often goes out of it's way to avoid these at all cost. You're not going to see the term "Millennials" used in a Star Wars story in the same way it's used in modern life. We'll talk about cultural context more in a second. For now, let's look at words and phrases with non-set or very wide definitions. If a buzzword is solidified/coined via the help of Academia, it is likely to survive within that context and will reach other languages through academic sharing across international and cultural lines. This is how language evolves on the wide scale. Let's look at some examples. We'll start with a word that has a set/academic definition different than the popular definition. The word 'trigger' is used to prevent and warn of potential anxiety and panic-inducing scenarios. It is relevant to people with PTSD. It's also a common word used to describe an emotional reaction in popular culture, but what and why it holds that description is far less defined. The second usage, unbeknownst to most, began way to bully and belittle people who had PTSD from less acceptable sources (such as people from communities that have PTSD rates much higher from their experiences in the US then returning combat troops have) and spread from there. That later usage of the word will die in the years to come as all buzzwords usually do, and when that happens, the context will revert back to its face or academic value. If you used the term offhandedly as it's used in the modern cultural context of 'negative/major emotional response/offended', you run the risk of your audience taking it the different way. So if your hero is using it as part of a good-natured joke, now they'll be viewed as a bully of the extremely vulnerable and as cruel as any villain stealing candy from a baby because only the medical context of the term in this sort of usage is sure to survive in the coming years. Context matters, and if you have something that is dependant on a cultural context, it can have a major impact in what your audience hears you say. Think of it like a meta retcon to your story. Remember, a retcon isn't a downright change, it's a change in context. Context can change a lot in a story. Now lets look at an example that is poorly defined with no definition backing it up in academia, 'Social Justice Warriors' or 'SJW'. It's a term that has become popular in the Star Wars fandom in recent months. It will never be academically translated into other languages and when the term 'dies' as a buzzword in a few years (if that - buzzwords die relatively shortly after becoming popular), it will only mean it's base value ('those who fight for social justice') and nothing else. There will be no asterisk saying "well, I only meant those 'extremist'". As a term, it has been used by both people who are against all diversity and by people who are for diversity but are against corporate exploitation of that diversity. There's no agreed on definition. So everytime someone says "SJW" - future audiences will only see someone that promoted social justice and wonder what the hell was wrong with the presenter or think they're talking about a Star Wars without Jedi (as a literal embodiment). There is no addendum you as an author or creator get to add once the context dies - hell, your bones might be dust by the time some of your audience is reading your work on holographic datapads while waiting for their transport off Alpha-Centauri. One thing you might have noticed is that both examples I choose are rooted in empathy and it forms a third point to be aware of. Both examples are of phrases that can hurt people and throw up red flags for certain communities, whether you mean them in that way or not. As your audience learns to be more empathetic and understand others - and as that is the inherent core goal of story itself across all time and mediums, it's unavoidable - more and more of them will avoid such problematic content if they find it in your work. We see this all the time of "I used to love X but then I found out about the creator and issue Y...." There is no faster way to date your work and strip it of any timeless quality you could hope for it to have. This goes back to the rule of thumb of always err on the side of empathetic characters. From heroes to villains, we engage with stories because we want to understand more about human nature.
This isn't just limited to political buzzwords, although they do not have have as drastic an effect to merit a grave warning. Rather, they help set the tone and framework of the story. Small shifts in terminology are much more common from sci-fi and fantasy storyteller, such as using the term 'refresher' as opposed to 'bathroom', 'washroom', or 'restroom.' Curse words and phrases are noteworthy for this, especially changing ones invoking religious deities that do not exist in the fictional world.
So far these have all been textual because text survives the longest, for good or ill of the creator. Many a playwright and novelists have fallen victim to mishaps such as political buzzwords (including blatant racism) in the past for example and their works are more and more losing their influence on literary history as society becomes more aware. Alas, non-verbal coding can suffer this as well. Coding characters, such as the assumption wildly colored hair means a queer character, fades into obscurity as the stereotype the coding is based off of dies. In this example, as people realize a queer person can have natural or dyed colored hair like anyone else, the assumption of queerness due to hair color fades from the audience's mind. Another example is in the way masculinity has been coded throughout history. If you saw a man in tights and brightly red heels today, would your first reaction be to bow because clearly this is a man of great power and prestige! Afterall, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the wearing red heels by the most powerful members of society (those with access to the King's Court) was regulated by French law and the practice itself was similarly common in the rest of Europe. It was the equivalent of the epic beard or lumberjack coding in today's terms. External context will change.
The second also has to do with cultural context and intertextuality. When George wrote A NEW HOPE, he based the Rebel Alliance off the Vietcong. When he wrote REVENGE OF THE SITH, the line "If you're not with me, than your my enemy" based off a similar quote from US President George W. Bush. When you watch these movies today, do you pick up on that? Probably not. But the movies are still solid and stand on their own. They are not reliant on the intertextuality to understand. For those not from the UK, how many of you picked up that Jacen's "I feel the hand of history on my shoulder" quote in LEGACY OF THE FORCE: REVELATION echoed Prime Minister Tony Bliar? Not that many, huh? You cannot be sure any part of a cultural context will transfer with the rest of the story. So while Story is a philosophical argument, that doesn't free it from still being a logical entity. Like a mathematical equation, it cannot reliably draw on cultural context to survive or be solved once that context dies (and all cultural contexts eventually do). Any context it requires has to be provided within the argument itself much like an equation. Star Wars has always been a vessel of political commentary - and always will be - but it has a solid history of providing its own political context for that commentary. This actually comes largely from the THRAWN trilogy itself and by relying on repeated histories. How do tyrants come to power in democracies? How do civilizations die? What normally plagues new revolutionary-built governments? A good political story is actually just a good allegorical story. Again, the best creativity doesn't give you the right answers, it gives you the toughest questions. You don't have to give the audience an answer, good or bad. Not all arguments have solutions. A rhetorical question is a solid form of argument that doesn't. Furthermore, unless you desire your audience to form their own mental argument to that of your story, your story is going to look more like a debate than a lecture. This is why dialectic forms of arguments are the most used structures of story. Now that we got that out of the way let's talk about ways to tackle such topics well and in timeless manners such as Zahn does. First and foremost is the allegory. Everything that happens in a story is in large part due to the anagogical structure, which is allegorical. The most popular form of this is romance. When a character falls in love in the story, it has nothing to do with their gender, physical beauty, or any other element of the character - it is a manifestation of their innermost desire towards the deep character of the other. It has to tie in to their story. Action genre movies are particularly guilty of forcing romance subplots that do not belong. The surface elements of a good romantic subplot are not left out either, adding commentary of human nature to what we see in a story. Politics are the same way. The second a policy or politics disrupts or hinders the life of a character, it becomes a part of the antagonizing forces in that character's arc. If this force is not connected to the Anagogical structure or other antagonizing forces that make up the story, it does not belong in the story any more than a random, out-of-place villain does. This is because that is precisely what it is. Social institutions, be they gangs, governments, politics, or a Jedi academy, follow the same conventions of allegory as any other element must within a story.
In the THRAWN trilogy, this comes in the form of the New Republic, Karrde's Smuggler Alliance, and the Empire. The allegorical context used is a classical one for social and political institutions. The individual vs. society. In such a dynamic, one is emphasized over the other. The reason this is a classic political dynamic is neither side is 'the answer,' and it uses the same dynamic that has been a part of human politics for recorded history. Go to either side in certain contexts and disaster can strike, yet they need not be mutually exclusive. At the same time, either option is usually a viable approach to some degree. It is a wonderful balance to cover many political contexts. In later books, a character named Tenel Ka must make a choice about her desires to be a Jedi (individual) or about what is best for Hapes (society). In HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, it is emphasized that Leia must often choose between the New Republic (society) and her Jedi training and time with Han (individual). By contrasts, the smugglers have to choose between their desires (individual) and coming together to undermine the Empire (society). The more a character knows about any particular subject, their more specific their nouns and verbs gets in dialogue. This means a politically minded character like Leia should be able to talk political circles around us - something that will easy foil any attempt to keeping politics hazy and unfocused in the story's allegory. If one wanted to draw from the real world to be more specific in a character's position, a good rule of thumb is that the center of human politics across any political axis' would be found with the United Nations and international law. These positions are something most people in the world can/have agreed on and special interest generally has trouble swaying to any political extreme. Right or wrong, it is the center. That makes international treaties very useful to storytellers to draw on as inspiration for solid political positions for their politically savvy characters to take up. The question almost always being answered by politics in a story is how does that society (or a powerful character) go about solving the problems of society (or creating them in the case of the villain, ignorant, corrupt, or just the local conspiring Bothan). In the THRAWN trilogy, the question is how do you bring different people and groups together once the threat that initially unified them appears to be no more.
A good storyteller will have characters that take up political positions based off their own values within the story and not parrot the storyteller's personal ideology. This can be difficult because not all storytellers are professors in Political Science to fully understand the nuances of the positions taken up by individual characters, but storytellers do often listen intently when the people around them share their experiences. When researching a position to give a character, find the experiences from the people who are/would be affected the most to better they can judge if the position is safe to assign to their character. For example, a character that leans towards empowering the individual might promote a political stance of a universal basic income to fight poverty in their society. A character that leans towards the greater good of society end of the paradigm might guarantee a job for everyone that wants it within the government or public service sphere. These work because, while you can argue all day about which is more effective, they do not hurt or hinder others allowing a character like Leia or Padme can take up either of them as befitting their personality. A character that is likely to find ways to systematically fined the poor, exploit their labor, put up anti-homeless architectural elements, actively do nothing/ignore, and/or make housing and medical access impossible for the poor, is going to be perceived as a villain regardless of their role in the story otherwise. Any political position that hurts or hinders others will not be neutral in a story and should be careful about including unless there is a purpose for it in the story.
Such dynamics will often play out as the stage in the individual scenes as they consolidate their position with other allies and better understand their human environment. A scene is a collection of shots, panels, or paragraphs that relay the story. It begins and ends when the stage changes, either physically or through time. Like other elements of the story, it tells its own short story within its shorter framework.
Every scene will contain one or more values within its subtext. As the scene progresses from beat to beat, these values between the characters and within the scene will shift step by step. The back and forth, push and pull, of these subtextual values creates tension.
Within a scene, every character has a desire (often multiple; one within the immediate scene and one of the greater story), a force of antagonism in their way, a choice or conflict to make, an action to achieve their desire, and how they express themselves. We can simplify many of these down to a desire, action, a conflict, and how they change. You will need to know what these are for every character that is active in that scene.
The desire is what your character wants within the scene and the greater story. What are they after?
The Action is what are they doing to get or manifest their desire.
Conflict entails the forces of antagonism and the choice they have to make. The more pressure the conflict puts on the character, the more we learn about them in the context of the scene.
Finally, what do the characters change in regards to continue trying to reach their desire? This does not always mean they change, but merely their approach or plan to achieve their desire will change.
All scenes follow the Establishment (Action), Transformation (Conflict), Resolution (Change) dynamic established above. We do not need to go over it again. All that has changed is the scale. That does bring around some small differences though. The reason we are interested in a character's desires in scenes is that they become much more evident now that we are in the more intimate spaces of our characters. They leave clues about for us to find, even though the character might not be aware of them. As Aristotle rightfully pointed out in his THE POETICS, the most profound pleasure of theatergoing is learning to see through the surface behavior to the human truth beneath. That leaves us with the component that makes up any given scene: the Beat.
What is a beat? In essence, it is the changing direction of a story. Sometimes you will see the term used to denote turning points or peripeteia, but I would label that an inaccuracy. As a unit of story, it is the smallest of them. Just how small are we talking? Only an Action and the Reaction. It is a change in behavior and the reaction to that stimulus. If the only behavior we are looking at stays the same over a 10-minute fight sequence, then the beat is 10 minutes long. If the behavior changes in the middle of a sentence, the beat might only be a few heartbeats. I was taught that a beat, in shorthand, is little more than a gerund phrase. You will see that in action in a bit.
Every beat begins with an Action. One of the characters does or says something that they hope will move them closer to their desire. In a good scene, the characters are playing off each other seamlessly. Many of the actions can look like reactions, but they are not. The character who is performing most of the actions is the one in control of the scene.
From that action, another character - or the environment - responds to the stimulus provided. This is the reaction. To understand the difference between action and a reaction, let's look at a single beat in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE. For context, the beats before this one all had Greedo as the one performing the actions, so Greedo has been in charge of the scene up thus far. The beat just before is Greedo saying he has been looking forward to this (Han losing the Falcon (his symbolic life) and potentially his actual life). Han reacts negatively and with dry sarcasm. Action: Han shoots Greedo. Reaction: All the patrons turn to look at him. In the beat immediately after, Han slowly gets up out of the booth, looking shocked and still processing emotions, as it dawns on him this will get back to Jabba for his action. His reaction to that realization is that he pays and apologizes to the barkeep. However, let's go back a step. What if in this beat, instead of Han seizing its action, he was still reacting to Greedo? Action: Greedo shoots at Han. Reaction