The Last Jedi and a failure of plotting

Here be spoilers.

I’d been trying to avoid spoilers about the new Star Wars film, but I couldn’t help seeing some murmurings about it online and I went in there expecting disappointment. Overall, it was entertaining enough but suffered a major problem with plot.

In story telling, a plot is more than just a sequence of actions happening one after the other. It is a sequence of actions that has direction and payoff, that has impact on the story as a whole, that has purpose.

Let’s look at Finn’s plotline for the bulk of this movie. He attempts to run away (completely undermining his character development from The Force Awakens, but that’s a separate rant), meets Rose, they come up with a plan, they go to the casino, get arrested, make a deal with a codebreaker, break onto the ship, get captured, and then manage to escape when the ship is destroyed. Lots of events happen, but to what end? They achieve nothing and end up with the resistance, exactly where they would be if they’d done nothing. There are only two events in their whole plotline that could loosely be considered significant: spreading the story of the resistance, and killing Phasma.

I quite liked the ending with the kids telling the story of the resistance – it was a nice little closing piece about hope being still alive and the resistance message going on – but it’s hardly a major event in the plot of the film overall. Maybe something significant will come of it in the next instalment and make it feel like there was purpose to this little dangling plot thread, but if you look at this film on its own, it was too minor to feel like a proper payoff for their plot.

The killing of Phasma likewise didn’t feel significant enough. She was a non-entity in this film, who only showed up to be killed. I was seeing this film with my parents, both of whom had only seen The Force Awakens once, when it first came out. Neither of them remembered Phasma. If seen in the context of the previous film, this moment might have been worth something, but again, treating this movie as an entity in its own right, she wasn’t a significant enough player for this to be important. If she had been seen earlier on, ordering Stormtroopers to board resistance ships, commanding parts of the battle, playing a role in the conflict with Hux and Kylo Ren, her death might have had more meaning.

As it was, you could have cut that entire plotline and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the story as a whole.

The same applies to Poe’s failed mutiny. What does that achieve? He gets worried that their leader is just running with no real plan, stages a mutiny, gets shot, and then learns that she’d had a plan all along. All it would have taken was her saying, “I do have a plan,” for none of that to have happened. She wouldn’t have even had to reveal what her plan was (although there was absolutely no reason to conceal it), just reassure the resistance fighters that there was a plan at all. Poe only acted because he thought she was just running until they ran out of fuel. This whole conflict was pointless, and it ended exactly the same way it would have done if he’d done absolutely nothing.

These were cul-de-sac plots – they feel like they’re heading somewhere but to end up going nowhere. It felt like Finn and Poe were being given busy work to keep them occupied while the main plot happened with Rey and Kylo Ren.

There needed to be payoff to the plotlines for the story to work as a whole. This payoff needn’t have been the characters’ intended goals but it should have impacted on the rest of the story as a whole. If we take the original Star Wars film as an example, Luke and co’s goal was to deliver R2 to Alderaan. Instead, they found Alderaan destroyed and were utterly unable to complete the mission they were intent on. But that inability to complete the mission led to the rescue of Leia. The Last Jedi needed the Finn and Poe plotlines to result in something.

Rey and Kylo Ren were on one ship on the fleet while Rose and Finn were breaking in to try and shut down the tracker. I was never clear whether they were on the same ship or not, but if they were, the plotlines could have intersected. Kylo Ren was knocked unconscious after the fight with Rey, so why not have the same happen to Rey? Finn and Rose could have escaped from the Stormtroopers, found Rey, and the three of them escape together. Or they could have sabotaged the weapons allowing more transports to escape. They could have achieved something on that ship to give a purpose to everything that came before.

The same goes for Poe after the first five minutes of the movie are over. His conflict with the admiral was entirely pointless, both because it could have been avoided with a single line of dialogue and because it achieved nothing. He needed a purpose to his plotline. Maybe the admiral was being secretive because she was afraid a First Order spy was sending their ship location and that was how they were being tracked. Poe could have been uncovering a spy and saving the ship that way while everything else was going on.

The film was enjoyable enough to watch while it was going on, but incredibly frustrating to think about afterwards. It still outshone the prequels in a big way, but I think it missed being what it could have been because of failures in plotting.

Queer Reading List Search

I am in the process of updating my queer reading list. The old list is just that – a list. I list science fiction and fantasy books that contain significant queer representation and which I have enjoyed reading.

The new version, I’m hoping will be more useful for people looking for SF&F books that contain queer representation. It’s a bit more visual, with a list of books and their cover images on the left.

Reading list screenshot

Through the use of filters, people can search the list for specific types of representation – e.g. a book with an intersex protagonist, or an asexual major character. The main page shows broad categories for representation.

Reading list screenshot 2

But there are arrows underneath the list that let you scroll through different pages. The other pages focus in on a specific group of representation and let you narrow down the search in more detail.

Reading list screenshot 3

You can find the new version here: http://www.plot-twister.co.uk/queer-reading-list-search/.

It is currently a work in progress, so I would be interested in hearing feedback or ideas for improvement.

I’m also interested in finding contributors to the list. The old list was put together solely by myself, which means new books could get added only at the rate at which I could read them. If I can find more people interested in adding books to the list, then this can becoming something much longer and more useful. If you are interested in adding books to the list, please let me know.

May Contain Dragons

Dragon BridgeI recently had a short trip to Slovenia and while I was in Ljubljana, I went on a walking tour of the city. I usually like walking tours because you get some background and some nice anecdotes and see some things that you might not notice walking around on your own. This was a particularly good one. It lasted over two hours but it never felt slow because the guy doing the tour (our tour guide was Peter) was extremely entertaining. He was very cheerful and made it fun while telling his various stories.

One such story involved dragons. If you ever go to Ljubljana, you will see an awful lot of dragons. Not live ones, unfortunately, but as statues on the aptly named Dragon Bridge, in the gift shops, in carvings, and so on. Apparently there is also a cave with salamanders that the locals once thought were dragon hatchlings, at least until they laid eggs and had babies of their own.

There is a story in Ljubljana that the Greek hero Jason, when he was sailing back with the golden fleece, sailed through the area and came face to face with a dragon. Of course Jason, being a Greek hero, fought the dragon, defeated it, and went sailing on his way. Dragon TrainThe dragon, which was supposed to be the protector of the region, holed up inside a mountain to sulk about being defeated. Peter speculated that this might explain why Ljubljana spent so many centuries under foreign rule.

The dragon is supposedly still there.

Cover Art Cross Stitch

Child of the Hive cover cross stitch 1Child of the Hive cover cross stitch 2My efforts to transform my book covers into cross stitch continues. My latest piece is for Child of the Hive, the first novel I ever had published (UK link, US link). This piece of embroidery is nearly complete and should hopefully be finished by this time next week.

 

At this rate though, it’s taking me longer to sew the covers than it is to write the books.

Wheelchair martial arts

In my Eastercon highlights post, I mentioned that I would be doing a separate video on the wheelchair martial arts demonstration performed by Al Davison. It just took me a few weeks to pull together the videos. This session started with a couple of choreographed fights and then went into general advice for fights, specific self-defence tips for wheelchair users, and discussions of how fights are done in martial arts films. The videos I have are just a few snippets from the demonstration.

If you have an opportunity to watch Al demonstrate in future, I highly recommend it.

As well as being a martial artist, Al Davison is a comic book artist. He is crowdfunding an autobiographical graphic novel and you can support his art on Patreon. You can also follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.

Queer Reading List

I have just added a new page to this website, called Queer Reading List. This is an on-going list of sci-fi and fantasy books that I’ve read and enjoyed that feature queer characters in a significant way. I’m using the umbrella term ‘queer’ because so far these books include characters who are agender, intersex, bisexual, gay, asexual, demi-sexual and more. I hope to include more aspects of the LGBT+ identities as time goes on.

I’m only including books on this list if I’ve read and enjoyed them, but I’m always open to recommendations. If you’ve read (or written) a book that you think deserves a place on this list, leave a comment or contact me with that book recommendation. I can’t promise how quickly I’ll get to it, because my to be read pile is constantly growing, but if I enjoy it, I will add it to the list.

Check back periodically because I do intend for this list to grow over time.

A well-executed plot twist

If you follow me over on Tumblr, you may have noticed me getting quite excited recently about an anime show called Yuri!!! On Ice. I thought this show deserved a mention on this blog because it includes what is probably the best-executed plot twist I’ve seen on a TV show. I will explore this here while attempting not to give major spoilers (which is going to be tricky, since I am discussing a plot twist).

Yuri on Ice credits As a bit of background, Yuri!!! On Ice is a show about figure skaters and the main character is a Japanese skater called Yuri Katsuki. There are two other characters main enough to get featured on the show’s opening credits and one of those is a Russian skater called Victor Nikiforov. As the story opens, Yuri has just suffered a humiliating loss and is considering quitting the spots, while Victor is at his peak performance, setting world records, and winning gold medal after gold medal. In the first episode, Victor decides to quit skating, flies to Japan, and announces that he is now Yuri’s coach – much to everyone’s astonishment, especially Yuri. Yuri has idolised Victor for years, so their early interactions are filled with awkwardness, but gradually they open up to each other.

Yuri On Ice - YuriGiven that the show has Yuri’s name on it, it’s unsurprising that as the audience, we see all this from Yuri’s perspective. We see him discussing the situation with friends, we hear his thoughts in inner monologues, and he acts as a narrator speaking directly to the audience at times. This means that a lot around Victor, specially his reasons for coming to Japan, are concealed from those watching the show. This led to some speculation among the fans about his motivations.

Yuri on Ice VictorThen we reach episode 10 of this 12 episode show. After having seen 9 episodes narrated by Yuri, we get an episode with Victor as the narrator. During this episode, a key piece of information is revealed that changes the interpretation of everything that came before it. Not that I said “changes the interpretation”. This information doesn’t create plot holes or raise questions in the way plot twists sometimes do. The revelation instead answers questions – only some of which the audience knew to ask.

The key answer it provides is, of course, why Victor chose to become Yuri’s coach, but it allows their early interactions to be seen in a completely new light. On top of that, behaviour and dialogue from the minor characters, that had previously been dismissed as that character just being like that, now slotted into place. An insult from one character, an angry statement from another, an overly touchy-feeling greeting from a third, all make more sense in the wake of the revelation. It also allows the audience to go back and watch the early episodes again and see Victor’s side of the story. Nothing about the episodes had to change, but the intepretation of so many interactions is completely flipped.

As a writer, I think it’s worth highlighting what this show does well because these are lessons we can take to our own writing.

First, the plot twist doesn’t create any plot holes. I’ve read books and seen shows before where a plot twist leaves the audience wondering, “But if this is the case, then why did that thing happen?” You don’t want a plot twist to raise more questions than it answers.

Which brings me to point two, the plot twist should answer questions. A well-written plot twist will leave readers/viewers thinking, “Oh! So that’s why that thing happened. It all makes sense now.”

Finally, the plot twist should be surprising. I don’t think anyone saw this revelation coming. I watched the show with a friend who’d been seeing discussions on Tumblr about Yuri!!! On Ice and knew that there was a major plot twist coming in this episode, but she was still surprised by the nature of it. If a plot twist can surprise you even when you know it’s coming, the writers have definitely done something right.

So if you want a lesson in how to get a plot twist right, I recommend watching this show. Plus it’s fun, which is always a bonus.

A Dark Chapter

Today feels like the prologue to a dystopian novel. America has just elected a man who wants to torture terrorists and shoot their families; who wants to round Muslims up and put them in concentration camps; who wants to built a wall across the borders of his country; who thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese; who is going on trial accused of raping a child; who is accused of sexually harassing multiple women; who is going on trial for fraud; and who stirs up mobs with hate speech and vitriol.

I still don’t quite believe it. I’m worried what this means for the future, not just of the US but of the rest of the world too, because America has global influence. I can’t understand how anyone could vote for such a vile, racist, mysoginistic, ablist, homophobic, Islamophobic, monster.

I follow people on social media who live in the US and who are terrified or distraught or both over the results. There are people who are afraid for their lives because of this result.

If you are among those people, you have my sympathy. You are not alone. This may be dark right now, but you a lot of people are feeling what you’re feeling. Let’s survive this together.

Wicked Girls

I wanted to share this beautiful video that I’ve found. The song talks about various girls in fiction who end up in fantasy worlds, and the video expands with some more “girls who save themselves” from movies.

The song is actually be Seanan McGuire, author of Every Heart Is a Doorway which I’ve reviewed in a previous blog post. The book is about people who’ve ended up in magical worlds and it’s clear that the story and song fit well together.

Advice that needs to stop: Write Every Day

Over the years, I’ve come across a lot of writing advice from a whole range of sources. Some of the advice I think is good, some I think has merit under some circumstances, and some I think needs to stop being repeated. One piece of advice I’ve seen so many times is this: to be a real writer you must write every day.

This just isn’t feasible for a lot of people. Many writers, even professional authors, have another job that takes up a lot of time. There are days when I have to go into the London office and this involves getting up early, catching a bus, train and tube, for a tedious commute. By the time I get home, it’s half-seven in the evening and I still need to get dinner. Once in a while, I get some writing done on the train but there are days when I spend the commute standing so whipping out my laptop and typing up a chapter just wouldn’t work.

Writers who have full time jobs to do, kids to look after, elderly family members to take care of, chores to do, or simply lives to live, see this sort of advice and feel guilty, or feel like they’re not really writers after all. So I say: scrap this advice.

Instead, figure out what works for you. There is definitely something to be said for a regular writing routine, for having a pattern to stick to, but the pattern can be something more forgiving. For me, Saturday and Sunday mornings are good writing times. I get a lot done then, but if I have family commitments or something else going on, I know that the world isn’t going to end if I don’t get my weekend writing done. Once in a while, I have an overnight stay somewhere for work and there’s not much to do in hotel rooms on my own, so I get lots of writing done then.

I have a lot going on with work and other commitments, but I know I can fit writing around them. So don’t worry about writing every day, but have a think about your usual week and figure out if there are any gaps that can be your regular writing time.

Above all, remember that if you write, you’re a real writer, even if you only get the time to write once a month or less.