Wow this place is really starting to look dead, isn’t it? We haven’t had an article in months, and half the comments being added are by spambots. That’s…not a good sign. And I still haven’t delivered my promised sporking of Iron Druid. The draft is sitting around in one of my Google Drives somewhere.

So with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi I’ve been thinking on the nature of its storytelling and the influence of Star Wars on fiction in general. There’s been a lot of discussion on the Intersnet about whether the sequel trilogy, particularly its latest entry, is any good, but that’s not a question I want to tackle here today. However I did have some concerns about the approach Lucasfilm (among other storytellers) is taking in telling the Star Wars story now that it belongs to Disney. Specifically, in regards to some things they leave out.

Some Last Jedi spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

So in 2015’s The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams sets up several questions about the characters and plot of the new trilogy—who is Rey, really? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke, and how is he in charge of the First Order? What is Luke Skywalker really doing out there on his own? Rian Johnson’s approach in The Last Jedi unceremoniously dropped several of these plot points to move on with the characters and make some plot points. For instance, and I’m posting a MAJOR SPOILER WARNING here, Snoke is unceremoniously killed off so that Kylo Ren can become the new Supreme Leader of the First Order and the new Big Bad.

This is really odd considering how many questions this character raised for audiences in the previous film. Who is Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he form the First Order and become its cult-like leader? It doesn’t really matter to the story Rian Johnson wanted to tell, so he moved past them without worrying about them, and that’s okay, I guess. But it leaves this gaping hole in the narrative because it’s unlikely that the third movie of the trilogy is going to stop the momentum its story in order tell us all of that information about a dead character. And we shouldn’t feel as if it has to.

Though I can’t help but think that none of these questions should be unanswered this far into the narrative.

The Force Awakens drops us into this conflict between the Resistance and the First Order without telling us much about where the First Order came from. It’s made “from the remnants of the Empire,” and it’s been compared to what would have happened if surviving Nazi officers got their stuff together after World War II and tried to conquer the world again. But the First Order isn’t just some small offshoot, as you would surmise from that description. It’s got a massive standing army, the resources to have a massive fleet of battle cruisers (including a dreadnought), sustain a sizable standing army, brainwash its soldiers from a childhood, and oh yeah, turn an entire planet into a massive homing laser gun that can take out entire star systems anywhere in the galaxy.

Furthermore, if it’s an Imperial remnant that fanatically reveres the Galactic Empire as a glorious golden age, who the heck is Snoke that they all defer to him as “Supreme Leader”? For that to make any sense at all, he’d have to have been a high-ranking member of the Imperial hierarchy. And yet he’s not a character from the past films, and even the Rebels television series makes no mention or vague allusion to Snoke. He came out of nowhere. I’ve heard the argument that the Emperor didn’t have any backstory in the original films either, but that’s not a fair comparison. When Star Wars first started the conflict was fairly simple and understandable. The prequels, for all their faults, did bucket-loads of worldbuilding and gave him a backstory, though admittedly some of it is more implied than actually spoken on-screen. The sequel trilogy is working under the weight of all of that story information. Six films in, the universe has been built enough that you can’t just inject an evil mega-powerful satanic space wizard that no one has even hinted at having heard of before now and expect us to believe he’s influential enough that he’s got an entire population of fanatical space Nazis willing to do whatever he wants at the drop of a hat.

The origins of the First Order are somewhat explained in supplementary books, and that’s where everyone is expecting Snoke’s backstory to be expounded upon. It’s not uncommon for fans to be referred to a book or comic for a more detailed explanation of a plot point or character motivation. But it shouldn’t be this way. You shouldn’t have to read a spin-off book or comic in order to understand what’s going on in the main story. You shouldn’t expect that important information about the story you’re watching will be relegated to a book. Snoke and the First Order’s rise to power are pretty much gaping Plot Holes at this point, and telling fans they just have to read the spin-offs to comprehend basic worldbuilding ideas is a lazy way to avoid admitting they just didn’t do the work to construct a story that made sense in a pre-established universe.

What’s frustrating is that this is becoming more and more common with media. In my essay on Hellboy I mentioned1 that the Hellboy stories do this as well, with the actual ending of the Plot. The story of the end of the world and the attack of the Ogdru Jahad, the main antagonists of Hellboy’s story arc, is carried over into the spin-off B.P.R.D., so if you want to know how the world is saved, well screw you, you’ve got to catch up years’ worth of issues in a whole ‘nother long-running comic series with its own cast of characters and subplots.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed also had this problem. Since Assassin’s Creed III 2012, there’s been an ongoing modern-day story tying everything together about how the ancient entity Juno is trying to take over the world. Last we saw in 2015, Juno had started building up a cult of followers, and was about to gain the means to gain a physical body. This past year saw the release of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, in which…Juno was completely absent, and in fact is never alluded to by any of the characters. It’s assumed by the fanbase that the whole ‘ancient AI goddess thing gaining a body to try to take over the world’ has been relegated to the plot of the spin-off comics, Assassin’s Creed: Uprising. And that tracks, as the last comic ended with Juno’s followers seemingly about to secure a body for her. This is all a bit frustrating because Ubisoft essentially decided that it’s better to take care of the series’s actual Plot and Big Bad in a spin-off.

I get that when there’s a massive story going on, you don’t have time for every detail to be in the story. Things will get pushed aside to make way for important story points. That’s fine. And if you’ve got the ability to make spin-off comics and books and whatnot, you can use those to expand on side characters or do worldbuilding that the main entries in the series won’t have the time to develop. That’s also fine. All of these series do that, and I have no complaints. But then they also relegate important information to the spin-offs that the audience needs if they want any sort of resolution to a major storyline or a clue as to what the hell is going on and why people are fighting in the first place.

And you know what? I also understand that a lot of times companies have talented writers and artists working on these spin-offs, and they want to make sure they get recognition by pointing fans in that direction to make sure they get their due. But that can be done by making those spin-offs actually really good, capable of standing on their own merits, instead of shoving necessary material to them out of laziness.

I shouldn’t be asking myself where I can find out howthe First Order and Snoke came from while watching Star Wars, or what happened to Juno’s plot to take over the world in Assassin’s Creed, or whether or not Hellboy’s enemies are going to succeed in destroying the world. I should have a completed story within the series itself, without having to commit to supplementary material without feeling totally lost. This isn’t rocket science. If you write a story, tell a complete story.

If a bit of information is important to understanding the story or the characters therein, you should put it in the story. I’m not suggesting that you have to spell out everything in a story. Stuff is going to get cut, there are things that really aren’t important enough to dedicate story time to. But you can’t cut out anything that make sense of the story, and you can’t cut out the actual ending of the Plot.

Let’s stop excusing lazy writing with spin-offs.

1 I do not miss the irony of linking to outside articles for building my argument on why relying on supplementary material for important points is lazy writing. But I’m at least summarizing my earlier relevant points in this article so you don’t have to go to those other articles for the information, so THERE!

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Comment

  1. Dragonstorm on 3 February 2018, 22:34 said:

    That’s a really good point. And I don’t think it’s hypocritical to link to another article since this one made perfect since even without reading the link.

  2. The Smith of Lie on 4 February 2018, 02:47 said:

    Hah! I had exactly the same argument in conversation with a friend. While I consider the scene when Kylo offs Snoke a great one in terms of execution, I was complaninig about Snoke being a wasted character and his death leaving the origin of First Order unlikely to be resolved. Which he countered with Palpatine coming out of nowhere in the original trilogy.

    And hey if Star Wars started with Force Awakens and we never had any previous films? Sure, I’d buy Snoke coming out of nowhere, never having his story explained. But this is not the case. Last time we saw the characters (going by the universe chronlogy, not by movie releases) they’ve just triumphed over the Evil, the Republic is reborn and all is good in the universe. No Supreme Leaders in sight. There’s established context and Snoke does not fit with it.

    I blame J. J. Abrams more than Rian Johnson though. I must say that it is a ballsy move to just deny some of those Mystery Boxes. And I despise the idea of setting up “twists” just for the sake of setting them up, without the answer to the mystery being set up in advance. That’s how you end up with a series that just adds more and more questions and mysteries and falls apart when it has to somehow resolve them (I’m led to believe that’s why people hate ending of the Lost so much).

    Still, unceremoniously killing Snoke is a waste and creates a large plot hole, given how suddenly the situation at the start of Force Awakens is worse that in was at the start of New Hope, despite how Return of the Jedi ended…

  3. Akkakieron on 5 February 2018, 12:09 said:

    “Read the books to get the backstory.” But why? Why do I have to read supplementary material (which could be crap) in order to get critical information? This isn’t limited to the movies either. The new (awful) Star Wars Battlefront 2 has more ties to the books and comics than the new trilogy so if you want to know about that compass Luke got in the Emperor’s vault on the bug planet, then read the books. Lazy.

    If anyone’s interested in a critique of The Last Jedi, I recommend MauLer’s videos on it. They’re very, very long but they’re good at breaking down the storytelling problems of the film.

  4. Apep on 5 February 2018, 17:49 said:

    While I understand not being satisfied with the use of Snoke in Last Jedi (I certainly agree that he’s kind of wasted as a character), I do feel compelled to note one critical point:

    All the questions about the origins of Snoke and the First Order? Those are questions asked by the audience, not the movies. At no point in either TFA of TLJ do any of the characters ask who Snoke is, or where the First Order came from. And I do feel that comparing Snoke to Palpatine in this regard is warranted: in the original trilogy, no one ever wondered who Emperor Palpatine was, or how he came to power. And those questions weren’t answered for the same reason they aren’t answered for Snoke – because they’re not relevant to the story at hand.

    I can’t help but feel that this kind of response (not necessarily yours, Juracan, but certainly in this area) comes from a sense of entitlement in the geek community – we’ve become accustomed to having appendices and wikis and other sources that will provide answers to any question we might have, rather than having to simply live with not knowing.

    Also, given that I know of and like some of the authors getting paid to write the books answering these questions, I can’t complain about them getting work, let alone stuff as high-profile as working on Star Wars.

    (And before anyone asks, I have started work on the City of Glass sporking. I’ll probably post the intro this week; I’ve only held off because I was waiting for a response from the other site I’d planned on cross-posting on, but I think I’ve waited long enough.)

  5. The Smith of Lie on 5 February 2018, 18:33 said:

    All the questions about the origins of Snoke and the First Order? Those are questions asked by the audience, not the movies. At no point in either TFA of TLJ do any of the characters ask who Snoke is, or where the First Order came from. And I do feel that comparing Snoke to Palpatine in this regard is warranted: in the original trilogy, no one ever wondered who Emperor Palpatine was, or how he came to power. And those questions weren’t answered for the same reason they aren’t answered for Snoke – because they’re not relevant to the story at hand.

    I disagree. Lets take a different example. Say we have a trio of main characters in a story. And in a sequel one of them is just not there, despite being alive at the end of previous movie and planning on continuing the adventure with his friends. And his absence is never adressed, he just disappeared out of the story between the movies. Wanting to know what happened to him wouldn’t be brushed off as “not relevant to the story at hand”.

    New Hope gets away without explaining the origins of its villains, because it is the movie that sets everything up. “There is an Evil Emperor in this universe” is a set up in and of itself. “This super powerful, evil force user with a private army that heroes never heard about appeared out of thin air after all the trials and tribulations they went through to defeat The Evil Emperor” is smashing the previous set up.

  6. Akkakieron on 5 February 2018, 19:11 said:

    I don’t think it’s entitlement to want answers to questions the pervious film set up. In a film that’s almost three hours (which some of that could’ve been shaved off if there was tighter writing) they couldn’t set up one scene where Luke is talking to Rey about how he met Snoke and how he started corrupting Ben? Honestly, I couldn’t care less about Snoke (I wanted them to fix Rey) but I get why some would get annoyed about killing Snoke off, especially since it came off as a joke.

  7. Apep on 5 February 2018, 22:33 said:

    @Lie-Smith:

    Let me put it this way: would your experience of the movie be improved, in any way whatsoever, if the characters actually sat down and explained who Snoke was and where he came from? Because mine certainly wouldn’t.

    As for Snoke “appearing out of thin air,” that’s crap. Remember, we only ever got a bare glimpse at the Imperial hierarchy. We know there’s Palpatine, Vader, but that’s about it as far as named leaders go by the end of the original trilogy. There had to be countless admirals, governors, and moffs out there. Heck, who were those two guys hanging out in the throne room on Death Star II? As far as the movies are concerned, they’re just two random guys. Who’s to say Snoke wasn’t one of them, or someone similar?

    And remember, we’re not picking up immediately after the end of RotJ. We’re not even picking up a few years later. It’s been decades. Do you really need some character to explain how the First Order managed to build this up, when the text crawl in TFA basically lays out that the Republic doesn’t consider them a threat (hence Leia leading the Resistance)?

    Let’s take a different example: in the manga/anime Hellsing, the big bad – Millennium – is revealed to consist of Nazis who fled to South America and became vampires. Now, given everything they pull off – particularly invading England and bombing London – do you need someone to explain how they managed to get together the resources needed to pull that off, or can you fill in the blanks yourself? And does not knowing in any way have any impact on your enjoyment of the story?

    I will acknowledge that there is a problem with Snoke, but it wasn’t that his background wasn’t explained – it was that he got killed off so quickly and so unceremoniously.

  8. The Smith of Lie on 6 February 2018, 06:46 said:

    @Apep I concede you do have a point and I agree that bigger problem with Snoke rather than lack of backstory is that they introduced him and then killed him off without doing anything interesting with him.

    Still I’d like them to at least reveal something about how everything went to hell in those decades between RotJ and FA, because even back when FA came out it all seemed a little bit Diabolus Ex Machina. And like I said, I blame J. J. Abrams, who made it known himself that he views setting up mysteries without pre-planned explanation just for the sake of building a sense of mystique a narrative tool, even a core of narrative – up to calling a movie Mystery Box. Using FA to be such a mystery box sort of sentenced Last Jedi to be an object of ire once someone who does not share this view took over.

  9. Apep on 6 February 2018, 14:46 said:

    Yeah, Abrams has pretty much one trick in his bag, and it’s the Mystery Box. I understand why it works, and could possibly be done well, but it requires a certain amount of payoff that I’m not certain he’s capable of.

    And honestly, I think the only reason TFA worked so well (at least for me) was that it very clearly used the same plot structure as ANH – it was basically Abrams being a fanboy and getting to play with all the Star Wars toys. It was a return to form, going back to what Star Wars used to be, rather than what the franchise became in the prequel films.

    But of the two (TFA and TLJ), I personally think the latter is the better, stronger film, because it’s willing to play with and subvert the tropes and expectations of the series, while also exploring some of the underlying ideas of the films. It’s both a deconstruction and a reconstruction of the franchise, and that’s pretty impressive to me.

  10. The Smith of Lie on 7 February 2018, 04:38 said:

    But of the two (TFA and TLJ), I personally think the latter is the better, stronger film, because it’s willing to play with and subvert the tropes and expectations of the series, while also exploring some of the underlying ideas of the films. It’s both a deconstruction and a reconstruction of the franchise, and that’s pretty impressive to me.

    I have sort of mixed feelings on TLJ. By no means do I subscribe to the hate mob it garnered and I applaud the courage of some of the choices (Rey parents for example). On the other hand there’s lot about way characters acted (no communication, decisions that should have doomed Resistance if not Deus Ex Machina)that annoys me. Well and I got spoiled when it comes to space battles by recently refreshing on Honor Harrington, which is rather harder sci-fi than Star Wars’ sci-fantasy, not to mention HH militaristic focus. This made the level of naval tactics on display in TLJ bit painful to watch…

    But there is no doubt in my mind that TLJ is way more ambitious movie than TFA. TFA is a fun, action romp but the way it rehashes TNH structer beat for beat is little ridiculous.

    If I had to choose for episode IX to be more like TFA or more like TLJ I’d still definitely choose TLJ. It is more “meaty” movie.

  11. Juracan on 7 February 2018, 18:39 said:

    I think my point got muddled in there with the example of Snoke’s lack of backstory. The main point I was getting with him as the prime example at was this: six films into Star Wars it’s frustrating that the franchise decides that explaining where the First Order really came from isn’t something the audience needs to know, despite the conflict with it being a central part of the Plot. To me, it reeked more of The Force Awakens setting up a situation similar to the Original Trilogy, having an evil empire with Stormtroopers for the good guys to fight, despite it not really making much sense from a worldbuilding perspective.

    Snoke in particular stood out to me because logically what we have so far of his story doesn’t add up. Apep is quite right to point out that we don’t know all of the Imperial hierarchy, but for Snoke to be so fanatically revered by the First Order, a group that slavishly worships the Empire, it doesn’t make sense for him to be just some guy who came out of nowhere. If he was a villain who was not associated with the Empire at all, I’d buy it as a “After the Empire fell he filled in the vacuum” type of situation, but it doesn’t seem to be what happened here at all.

    Even if we accept Snoke as a presence in the story though, there are still really gaping holes in all of this, as I pointed out. The First Order is not some fringe group; it’s a massive presence that controls large swaths of space, is able to sustain a massive standing army and fearsome navy, and, I cannot repeat this enough, has the engineering knowledge and resources to turn an entire planet into a MASSIVE SEEKER LASER GUN. Why the New Republic doesn’t see this as worth their time to actually deal with themselves instead of funding the Resistance to do it for them, as the opening crawl says, isn’t clear either.

    I don’t blame Rian Johnson or The Last Jedi for deciding to move forward instead of explaining all of this backstory (although as the longest film in the series, it would have had the time to do so). As has been mentioned, it isn’t particularly interesting compared to the story that he wanted to tell. I tend to put more of the blame of that on J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens for coming up with several open questions without actually knowing the answers to them. It’s the “Mystery Box” he’s so fond of—he thinks what’s important is to have mysteries, but audiences don’t just want mysteries, they want answers to those mysteries that pay off.

    No, the movie doesn’t have anyone actually ask where Snoke came from, the audience does, this is correct; but it does invite the audience to the question with everything in his presentation—the massive hologram, the fact that Leia seems to know him, and the talk of finishing Kylo’s training. We are led to expect that we will see more of him and that there’s much more to him, even if no one in the film explicitly asks what his deal is. It didn’t have to be a full backstory; it could very well have been a throwaway line, or a scene that implies some of it such as the opera scene in Revenge of the Sith. We don’t need to know everything about every character, after all. But with Snoke there’s absolutely nothing, and so he’s kind of a pointless character that clutters up the narrative. So okay, fine, let’s say Snoke’s background isn’t important for the sake of it.

    But the First Order’s isn’t. The First Order is a huge part of the story and yet we’re still being told that its full formation and leadership will be probably explained in a spin-off. I think that’s pretty egregious considering that it’s the actual main antagonistic force of the story. As I said in the article, I understand wanting to have talented artists and creators working on the expanded universe, but a better way to exhibit them would be to simply get them to write good stories that stand on their own merits rather than something fans feel like they have to read if they want to get important information that the main story should have on its own.

    And what’s really frustrating me is that this attitude is becoming much more popular, as I mentioned with the Assassin’s Creed and Hellboy examples. I don’t think I’d say Star Wars even started this. Thinking about it gives me flashbacks to my BIONICLE days, in which you’d have to read the comics, books and online serials to keep up with what the heck was going on, and that was back in 2008. Star Wars is just the biggest profile example I could think of that I knew most people had seen.

    As a sort of ironic side note, Marvel, which is a massive interconnected universe based on comics, actually doesn’t seem to fall as much into this trap. Yeah, the movies are all connected, and there are comics references that will help you out, but it’s not as if Marvel makes you read spin-off comics to figure out who Thanos is or what the Infinity Stones are.

  12. lilyWhite on 8 February 2018, 22:15 said:

    I haven’t read the new extended-universe stuff, but apparently the reason why the Resistance is just a bunch of rebels with lacking resources is because the new Republic figured that having weapons made them like the Empire and was thus bad.

    Aside from being an utterly stupid way of thinking, that pretty much summarizes the entire problem with the Sequel Trilogy: rather than building from the conclusion of the Original Trilogy, they’re simply rehashing the entire plotline and inventing excuses afterwards as to why everything’s back to “Rebels + plucky youth from a desert planet vs. Empire + servant of the Emperor”.

    would your experience of the movie be improved, in any way whatsoever, if the characters actually sat down and explained who Snoke was and where he came from? Because mine certainly wouldn’t.

    I certainly think, as someone who cared about the characters and their achievements in the Original Trilogy, that there would be some attempt to explain what happened in the interim that invalidated everything done in the OT.

    It was a return to form, going back to what Star Wars used to be, rather than what the franchise became in the prequel films.

    I think all creators should be disheartened by the knowledge that audiences want nothing but shallow rehashes of the thing they like and react with utter sociopathy towards creators when they do anything slightly different.

  13. Juracan on 9 February 2018, 21:01 said:

    I haven’t read the new extended-universe stuff, but apparently the reason why the Resistance is just a bunch of rebels with lacking resources is because the new Republic figured that having weapons made them like the Empire and was thus bad.

    While I agree with you that this is stupid, it’s not an unprecedented idea and is indicative of how revolutions often work—the new government making stupid decisions in order to avoid even remotely resembling the old regime. In the years after the American Revolution, for instance, the newly-formed United States tried to not have taxes or even a strong central government, by virtue of all of those things being too similar to the British government they’d just cast out of their country. Unsurprisingly, this meant that the government had no money and wasn’t able to accomplish anything because the states were all doing their own thing.

    I see the New Republic as working similarly. In their attempts to avoid being like the recently-overthrown Empire, they discard many of its trappings that also happened to make it effective in the first place. In the novel Bloodline, for instance, it’s shown that many in the New Republic point out that the Empire ran efficiently for all its problems, and that appeals to people upset by an idealistic government that ultimately doesn’t have much power or authority over the systems in its jurisdiction.

    That doesn’t explain everything, but it gives some hints other than “The surviving Imperials went into the unknown regions and built a giant homing death laser out of a planet.”

    Like I said, I understand the argument of “The movies can’t stop and make an infodump of everything that happened in the last thirty years,” but I also think it should give us clues and implications rather than just dumping us in a conflict and not telling us how we got there in the first place. The Star Wars case is particularly galling to me because A) it’s high profile enough and B) Star Wars gives full names and backstories to minor characters with a few seconds of screen time, but can’t be bothered to tell us the underlying causes of the conflict other than, “Hey the Space Nazis are still around and they want the galaxy back.”