Thursday, November 5, 2015

Managing Story Knowledge With Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

With Star Wars Episode VII just around the corner (cue Ewokish cheer), I return to a galaxy far far away for a new installment in Story Geek's Star Wars Countdown. Today's movie: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

While the film is disliked by many fans for its slower paced story and cliffhanger conclusion (what some call second book/movie/game syndrome, and others call the Two Part Trilogy), Empire has all the fun, magic, and scoundrelicious flirting of the first Star Wars. It still features a number of techniques us storytelling aficionados can study, like, for instance, the screenplay's excellent management and manipulation of knowledge to deliver one of the most iconic plot twists of all time.

Careful management of knowledge - delivering it at the right time, by the right character, after the appropriate amount of buildup - can make any piece of fiction pop, and Empire is certainly no exception.

In my mind, there are three types of knowledge in a story:
  1. Author Knowledge
  2. Character Knowledge
  3. Reader (Viewer/Audience) Knowledge
Author Knowledge
Author knowledge is all-seeing. God-like, even, because the author of the work knows everything about that work. They know what makes their characters tick, all the specifics behind why the protagonist's city is under a trade embargo, the future of the plot, the intricacies of the present plot, and all the backstory any skillful writer can show on the page with subtlety while keeping the bulk of their tome of untold character origins in the desk drawer.

With such great power comes great responsibility, of course. An author must convey knowledge in not only the most interesting way - and the way that best fits the story and its narrator - but also in a way the reader can clearly understand. The author has to master the placement of knowledge. Which characters have that knowledge? Should the knowledge be included at all? When should the knowledge be revealed? Where should it be revealed? Who should reveal it?

Character Knowledge

If author knowledge is the knowledge authors have, then - ding! ding! you got it! - character knowledge is the knowledge characters have. Each individual character, that is. Like real live people, characters aren't omniscient beings (well, most of them, anyway). Senator Palpatine might know right at the story's start that he's an evil Sith lord conspiring against the Jedi, but Anakin doesn't know that. Anakin might know he's having a saucy affair against the Jedi with Padme, but no one figures that out (apparently) until Obi-Wan has to hunt him down in Episode III.

The careful manipulation of character knowledge can create webs of depth in a story. It can create lies and betrayals and tragedies a la Romeo and Juliet (possibly the perfect example of the drama well manipulated character knowledge - or the lack thereof - can deliver). BUT, well executed character know-how isn't enough on its own to make a story tick, because stories have one last participant: its audience.

Reader Knowledge

This one is pretty simple. Reader knowledge is the information the author decides to give the reader throughout the story, timed and structured to elicit a certain effect. This covers everything from the basics like describing the story's world in an interesting way, to the more complex, like crafting a plot twist. If an author showed the reader everything, there would never be a plot twist, but if an author withholds everything, the reader might become confused and lose interest.

The careful peppering of knowledge throughout a tale is what can truly pull someone along for the ride. It's why cliffhanger endings are so popular; the author reveals just enough at the right moment to get an investment, but doesn't reveal so much it leaves the reader entirely satisfied. They have to find out what happens next.

The cliffhanger is only one example. Several pieces of fiction create long lasting drama without having to rely solely on what many would call a gimmick (sorry, cliffy). Breaking Bad is a great example of this, and if I have to explain why, you simply need to go watch the show. Like yesterday. Seriously. Stop reading my blog. It's mediocre anyway. Go watch Breaking Bad.

Aren't We Talking about Star Wars?

Right. Sorry. Star Wars.

Pew Pew

Empire's plot twist magic rests in its use of multiple POVs, notably the two sets of protagonists: Luke and Yoda, and Han, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca. Knowledge is strategically divided between these two groups to build maximum tension - one of the essential building blocks of a great twist.

We know from Vader's POV scenes that not only is he looking for Leia - a rebel leader he intends to use to eliminate the cause - but also for Luke, in hopes he can capture and bring him to the emperor. So while story circumstances build tension on their own when Leia and co. are mousetrapped in Cloud City, Vader's plan to use Luke's captured friends as bait rises tension due to the distribution of knowledge.

Leia knows Vader's plan, but the person who the plan would most greatly affect (Luke), hasn't a clue. On it's own, this imbalance of knowledge wouldn't be enough to generate much impact. It's when Luke has a vision through the Force on Dagobah that his lack of knowledge increases tension, stakes, and therefore, viewer investment.

He senses Han and Leia are in danger, and when Yoda insinuates they'll perish without Luke's intervention, Luke plans to go on a rescue. Vader and Leia know the bait plan, we know the bait plan, but Luke's lack of knowledge and therefore his eagerness to step into what is a trap racks up the tension and our fear for the protagonist. Add to this Yoda's warning that Luke will be in great danger if he faces Vader to soon (all while we know Vader waits in Cloud City), and the stakes have been properly risen for an awesome climax. Luke has no idea what he's about to step into, but we do.

This is what makes his fight with Vader in the next segment so tense. We know it's a trap, we know Master Yoda's warning about Luke not being strong enough to face a Sith, and so when Vader comes out of the smoke to ascertain him, its a high impact moment to say the least.

All this tension makes the story ripe for a plot twist.

The audience thinks they know everything at this point, and all that could possibly go wrong has already gone wrong. Time to sit back, bite our nails, and wait for Luke's fate.

When the audience thinks they know everything, it's time to teach them something new. With the tension as high as it is, with the audience as invested as it can be in Luke's predicament, Lucas decided to drop knowledge only he and his villain had: that dear old Darth is actually Luke's father. Our lack of knowledge matches Luke's in this circumstance, and so as hard as it hits him, it hits us. We get to learn something new together.

Sometimes knowledge really is power.


If you're in the audience, you gain knowledge as the story goes, and if the story is any good, you're probably hungering for more. That's why we read books, watch movies, play games - it's to find out what happens next in the stories we care about.

If you're a storyteller...
  • Don't just throw all the information out there. Make a trail, give the reader opportunities to figure twisting plot points out for themselves. Hold some things back. 
  • But don't hold ALL things back. Nothing kills a good twist better than a lack of clarity. An author has to give us just enough without spoiling the surprise. A good twist isn't necessarily something that just comes out of nowhere - out of the blue. A good twist is not synonymous with "Random". Build it up, just enough that when the reveal happens, we believe it, understand it, and are shocked by it.
  • All good plot twists stun the reader at the same time as the character. Empire. Sixth Sense. Knights of the Old Republic. Bioshock. It isn't enough to fool the reader. The story has to trick the key character too, in a meaningful, non-contrived way.

If you liked this, consider coming back next time for a look at Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, where I'll examine the importance of agency in every character - from the mains to the secondaries.

May the force be with you!

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