The Last Jedi and the 7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama


Star Wars: The Last Jedi is good and occasionally triumphant. And I know half of you already disagree with me vehemently but all I’m asking before we start is that you consider the possibility that a movie you loathe, still has some strengths we can learn from. Okay? maybe??? (sigh) Well, let’s try this anyway. Star Wars; The wonderful characters of the Last Jedi The focus of the controversy around this film has to do with how it challenges the legacy of its own franchise. But today I want to look at the dramatic bedrock on which all of these themes are built on rather than the themes themselves. You can still hate what the film chooses to say but at least we can agree that it says what it wants to say in an effective manner. There’s a critic I deeply admire who goes by the pseudonym Film Crit Hulk, who in a practically novel length essay on Man of Steel proposed what he called the 7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama. These are questions that he argues that Man of Steel failed to answer clearly and I encourage you to check that essay out for why (link in the description). The 7 questions are a good way to diagnose whether or not you have a story and they force you to be very clear with what the conflict is and why it matters. I think it’s useful to talk about this in regards to the
Last Jedi specifically because this film has three distinct plot lines and each of them answer all seven questions. So, let’s begin with Part One: Wants vs Needs. So, questions 1 to 3 are: What does this character want? What does this character need? And how do those wants and needs conflict with each other within the character? Wants and needs are pretty well established ideas in storytelling. Both of these books lean heavily on these ideas, though Truby calls wants the desire, but it’s the same thing. Basically, a character is an explosive mixture of conflicting wants and needs. You just can’t be too obvious with them or you’ll end up like the bad screenwriter in Rick & Morty. Blaine: Maybe I don’t need a new friend.
JC: Maybe you’re the only friend I need.
Blaine: Need or want?
JC: I’ve never been much for wanting.
Blaine: Spoken like someone with needs.
Oh, jeez So what’s the difference between a want and a need? Wants are primal. They are animal instincts, things everyone relates to like power, money, status. A character will usually start a story relentlessly pursuing their desire. But this will lead them into trouble because their want is in some way immoral or misguided. It’s not the thing they actually need to solve their problems. Needs are, according to Truby, what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. When a character does what they need to do, we can see what the moral of the story is. Let’s start with Poe since his arc is the most overt. Poe wants to win the war no matter the cost. He’s reckless and he doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions. It’s all dramatized very clearly in the opening action scene. “Now get your squad back here so we can get out of this place.” “No, General, we can do this! We have a chance to take out a dreadnought! What he needs is to become a more responsible leader and to learn when to retreat. “There are things you cannot solve by jumping in your X- Wing and blowing something up! I need you to learn that.” He has less internal conflict than the other protagonists but all that’s required here is a few moments where he second guesses his instincts before acting. “It’ll save the fleet and it’ll save Rey.” “If I must be the solo voice of reason, Admiral Holdo will never agree to this plan.” “Yeah, you’re right 3PO. It’s a need-to-know plan and she doesn’t.” It’s subtle and unspoken but the sense he is conflicted about doing something that he knows Leia would disapprove of is palpable. Now Rey is much more complex. She’s got a lot of plot oriented goals, things like getting Luke to help her or getting Kylo to switch sides. But what she actually wants on a character level is external validation. She wants to hear that her parents are important and therefore so is she. “Rey’s parents’ reveal is stupid.”
Hey, hey, we’re not getting into that! Stay focused! But actually since we’re here, I think the reveal that her parents are nobodies is pretty brilliant. But anyway, moving on! Onscreen the characters are constantly saying that she can’t stop herself from meeting her parents but for our purposes this is her want, because wants are things you have trouble resisting. “That place was trying to show me something.” “It offered something you needed and you didn’t even try to stop yourself!” “Your parents threw you away like garbage.” “They didn’t!” “They did! But you can’t stop needing them.” What she needs is to become emotionally independent and to carve out her own identity. But Finn seems to be the character who’s arc is least appreciated. And I think it’s because we sort of expected him to start the movie as the person he only transforms into at the end of the movie. That sounds a little confusing but consider this: Finn and Han feel like completely different characters personality-wise but in each of their first films they have similar arcs. Neither of them care about the politics of the galaxy at all and just want to look after themselves. Only later do they do something selfless. Han saves Luke, Finn tries to save Rey. At the beginning of the Empire Strikes Back Han is now not just a good friend, but a loyal soldier in the fight against the Empire. So I think we sort of expected that Finn would be one too. But Rian Johnson’s insight into the character is in acknowledging that Finn hadn’t yet made that step and that he could tell a whole story about Finn’s radicalization into the ideological battle of the resistance. At the end of The Force Awakens, Finn acted to save a friend. So, at the beginning of this movie that is now his want, to save Rey. “Sorry but this fleet is doomed if my friend comes back to what she’s doomed to. I’ve got to get this… got get this beacon far away from here. Then she’ll find me and be safe.” His need is to become concerned not just with the safety of his friends, but of the galaxy as a whole. He needs to become a rebel. That’s what Rose calls him out for not being at the beginning of… “We hate Rose!” I know, I know you do but she’s an integral part of the story because of… Part Two: Conflict. The next 2 questions are how do the characters wants and needs conflict with the outside world? How do they conflict with other characters? The outside world one is pretty easy right, they all conflict with the First Order and Finn conflicts with the upper classes of Canto Bight. But as to the second question, each of the main characters is opposed by two others. One who represents or enables their wants and one which forces them to realize what they need. The protagonist is sort of caught in a tug of war between these 2 opponents. Poe is in conflict with Leia because of his recklessness but she doesn’t force him to change his ways. She scolds him but enables him as well. “Permission to jump in an X-wing and blow something up?” “Permission granted.” On the other hand, Holdo freezes him out of a leadership position entirely and shows zero tolerance for his attitude. “Stupid Holdo, why doesn’t she just tell him the plan?” I mean, she’s pretty clear about why she doesn’t trust Poe. “I’ve dealt with plenty of trigger-happy fly boys like you. You’re impulsive, dangerous and the last thing we need right now.” She doesn’t trust how reckless he is. As for Finn, Rose keeps impressing on him that he has a moral responsibility to help those in need. “You’re a selfish traitor!” “There’s only one business in the galaxy that’ll get you this rich…” “War.” “Selling weapons to the First Order.” While DJ argues that there is no objective morality and that Finn would be wise to be more selfish. “At least you’re stealing from the bad guys and helping the good.”
“Good guys, bad guys, made-up words. Let me learn you something big… It’s all a machine partner. Live free. Don’t join.” The detour through Canto Bight which hey, hey, I know it admittedly has some pacing issues is perfect on a thematic level. It’s the splash of water in the face that wakes Finn up to what he needs to do. And finally there is Rey. Who though she is briefly in conflict with Snoke and I am NOT going down that rabbit hole spends most of the film in opposition to Luke and Kylo Ren. One of whom warns her about the dangers of following her selfish desires and seeking for her parents and the other who tries to use that to manipulate her into joining him.
“You have no place in this story, you come from nothing. You’re nothing.” “But not to me.” So by the way, if you’re wondering why Phasma or Chewbacca or Ackbar or whoever wasn’t in this movie more? This is why. These ten characters encompass the entirety of the moral framework of the story. Everyone else is a prop, a plot device, or a meme.
Part Three: Change Our final questions are essentially how does this character change and what impact does that change have on everyone else? Well, they all do what they need to do. Poe becomes a wiser leader, Rey becomes an emotionally stable Jedi. And Finn joins a team. In his fight against Phasma, Finn affirms that he has joined a side after seeing the damage a man like DJ, a man he was once like, can do. “You were always scum.” “Rebel scum.” Poe grows through his conflict with Holdo and his actions provide an opportunity for Finn to prove that he really is self-sacrificing. Kylo’s descent into villainy pushes Rey into heroism allowing her to save the remaining rebels. So each character isn’t isolated, each plotline affects the others especially when the characters fail. In answering all seven questions for each character the last Jedi tells complete stories and not just for these three characters, but for Luke and Kylo as well. That’s more dynamic characters as in characters who undergo a change than any other Star Wars film. But nothing I said so far is an argument for this film being great. Even though I personally think it is or at least one of its three plot lines is great. They are arguments for it being competent, for it having a rock-solid dramatic foundation that I think you have to acknowledge even if the movie made you angry. The Last Jedi should be applauded for resisting the temptation to indulge its audience with fanservice callbacks and references, for telling a real story that questions the themes and ideas of the previous films instead of just pandering to us. The Last Jedi may not be the film you wanted but it is the movie this franchise and its audience needed. This video is sponsored by VRV. If you haven’t heard of it VRV is a great streaming service that packages together a bunch of other channels that you may have heard of. And if you click the link in the description you’ll get a 30-day free trial. So check it out especially if you like anime because they’ve got channels like Crunchyroll and Funimation that are filled with excellent animes. Shows like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia. I’m also glad that they’ve added Mubi to their roster of channels since it’s filled with Indie movies that you might not otherwise get a chance to see. So it’s a great deal for cinephiles like me. For a limited time you can go to vrv.co/justwrite or click on the link in the description to get a 30-day free trial of VRV premium. Oh yeah, they’ve got the new season of HarmonQuest on there too if you need another reason. Thanks for watching everyone! I’ll see you soon and keep writing!

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