It is obvious, right? Everyone knows what the story is! And everyone knows what good story-telling is, right? That why we are all so darn good at telling stories … except we’re not all good at it. So what’s the story about “stories” and about Star Wars?
In a previous post I argued that a living myth like Star Wars is authored by its readers / viewers as they are the ones who give meaning to the stories produced and created by people like Lucas, Johnson, Abrams, etc. Critics who fail to appreciate this as a result come up with loads of criticisms that simply entirely miss the point and do not apply. Typically all criticism that misattributes authorship never gets beyond either stating a preference (“wooden acting” / “bad dialogue”), repeating their failed identification of the author (“Lucas / Johnson is a bad writer”) or simply making meaningless statements (“the cinematography is bad”). Having an appropriate author theory is crucial for being able to male sensible criticisms.
Narrative theory and the quest for plot-holes
Here I want to delve into a second important element that gets to little attention from Star Wars fans and critics alike: narrative theory. A narrative theory is an answer to the question: what is or makes a story a story? Every time you read a criticism like “this is just bad writing” about a film or a text your immediate thought should be: wait a minute … what definition of narrative are you using? Because what you call good or bad writing will depend very much on how you define what a story is. So let us look at four basic examples of such answers: A ‘story’ is a report of
- a sequence of causally related events;
- a sequence of correlated events;
- a chronological sequence of events;
- any combination of events;
Let’s start with the bottom one as it is the one most of us would directly ignore. How on Earth could some random combination of events tell a story? Well, if you read the previous post on author-theory that might shine a light on it but it is irrelevant here. So lets just assume  is uninteresting for us.
The top one, , is the one most people think about. When they hear a story they not only expect it to report on a sequence of events but they also expect some kind of causal connection between all these event, i.e. they are expecting a plot. When two events occur that seem to lack that causal connection people following theory  will cry out “Plot Hole!!“. Similarly if they see a causal connection they find unbelievable then they will assume this is bad writing. Another phrase people following theory  often use is stating that certain character actions need to be earned. So for some Luke’s redemption in The Last Jedi wasn’t earned because we had not had enough exposure to his failings first. In other words, they saw a lack of causally connected events leading up to the moment of redemption on Crait. Such critics tend to identify this with bad writing and often remain unaware that this completely relies on their adoption of theory .
Life stories and narrative theory
In real life we humans rarely experience our life’s story as an example of . Humans continuously experience things of which it is hard to identify what the causal relationships are with our own actions and choices. Some war movies, for example, have the courage to show the randomness of death on the battle field. Rogue One is a decent example of that. This motive is playfully used in the tragic circumstances surrounding Jyn’s father’s death by friendly fire. Cassian makes the conscious decision not so kill Jyn’s father, yet he is unintentionally killed by Rebel action only for Jyn to blame this on Cassian as it could have been him just as well. This is a subtle play with our feelings concerning causality, blame and guilt.
Life stories are rarely causal sequences of events. More often are they correlated sequences of events from which we as the readers of our own life stories extract meaning (or the lack thereof). When I was a young boy my father once told me: “life is not what others say has happened to you, it is the meaning you read in the things you experience“. By ascribing meaning to the events that have occurred you are discovering the story of your life, rather than following it or writing it. Again Star Wars stories, like The Last Jedi, play with this when they show us characters struggling with the meaning of the events they experience. Luke struggles in The Last Jedi with the story of his father and his nephew and his role in all of this. Was Luke the cause of Anakin Skywalker’s redemption and Ben Solo’s fall? Yoda’s call on Luke to pass on what he has learned is directly a call on Luke to extract meaning from his experiences and pass that story on.
The way The Last Jedi recounts Ben’s departure from Luke’s training temple and Luke’s response to his urge to kill Ben is a great example of telling a story by correlating events without explicitly implying causality. Evidently those who start from theory  can only see it as causally connected and thus don’t recognise the freedom Rian Johnson leaves us here. The whole point of the story is however that both Luke and Kylo must somehow give meaning to what has happened. They are the authors of their life’s stories as the events in which they interacted are only correlated and what the events mean is theirs to decide. This is also a key theme in Rey’s journey. She seeks causality but only finds correlation and only slowly faces up to the challenge that she is the one who must decide what is meaningful and what isn’t. Luke isn’t going to show her her place in all of this and neither can Kylo … it is up to her. Kylo himself struggles with exactly this. His desire to let the past die is a desire to let causation die … but he has not yet recognised that there is only correlation there and the meaning of it all is something he can choose.
Where does this take us?
Once you realise that there is not one single choice of narrative theory that is “good” and all others “bad” it means that you become much more open to exploring which kind of narrative a film or book is actually trying to convey. In my view, films like Rogue One and The Last Jedi explicitly play with this ambiguity and even make it themes that drive their stories forward. Jyn Erso finds a new way of seeing her own life’s story during Rogue One. Luke finds a new way of seeing his own life’s story which he then expresses by intervening in the battle of Crait without being actually there. With the new-found meaning of his life his arc as a living person finishes. At the end of The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker has found the story of his life and we as an audience witness the fact without knowing exactly what Luke knows. The film leaves it to us to find our meaning in that.
Now some will argue that I am terribly over-complicating things. But becoming aware of the assumptions we make, sometimes without thinking about them, about what is a story is not over-complicating things. It is actually liberating a story we have been following for much of our lives from the artificial shackles of our age and time. Yes, nowadays media propagate that there is just one definition of story, of course , and that all that matters is the author’s intent and skill. But this is just one very narrow interpretation of what stories and what authors are. The author theory I discussed in the earlier post and the narrative theory I discuss here are way to open up our discussions of Star Wars to the vast universe of human myths, legends and stories none of which necessarily fall into the artificial theories our media have chosen to deploy. Star Wars is far greater than a ranting basement-brain from Red Letter Media who cannot see beyond their own limitations. Thinking about authorship and narratives is a first step in a larger universe.