ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
What’s Your Structural Focus?
This week we’ll be looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Which is about as far as we can go from last installment’s Oscar Winner Manchester By The Sea.
Rogue One is a silly joyride of a script, built with half-drawn characters, nonsensical plot twists, and a hundred other flaws. And yet, while clearly feeling a bit trifling in scope compared to the other Star Wars films, it nevertheless delivers in a big way what its audience is seeking.
What’s also particularly interesting about Rogue One for screenwriters is the way it dives into a moment that is literally just a blip on the radar in Star Wars: Episode 4, and discovers there an entire backstory, worthy of a film itself.
The ability to dive deep into any moment and find drama is one of the most exciting things about screenwriting (and one of the most important skills you can develop as a screenwriter). It means that truly anything– even just a little question like “how did they find those Death Star plans anyway?” can become a movie, if you’re willing to look closely enough.
But it’s also a reminder of how easy it is to get waylaid by backstory and exposition as we write and rewrite our scripts. Because as successful as Rogue One might be as a stand alone film, just imagine the effect it would have had if George Lucas had tried to squeeze all that exciting backstory into Star Wars: Episode 4, rather than just allowing the rebels to already have the plans.
He would have been 100 pages into the script, and Darth Vader wouldn’t even have boarded that first starship. We wouldn’t have met Luke Skywalker. We wouldn’t know the real story we were following.
So, we’re going to talk about what makes Rogue One work, and more importantly, we’re going to explore a concept called Structural Focus and how you can use it, both in writing and rewriting a script, to keep you focused on what really matters, whether that’s diving deep to find the drama in a specific moment, or keeping yourself above at a bird’s eye view, to keep your focus on the big picture of the story you’re telling.
So what makes Rogue One work?
If you’ve listened to my podcast on Star Wars: The Force Awakens then you know that these movies are being built more like a TV Series than like traditional Feature Films– replicating the same Structural Engine over and over again to create a genre experience for the audience that feels the same as the one they got from previous episodes, but just different enough to make them feel like they got value for their money.
The elements that compose this Engine are always the same.
For the Star Wars franchise, it’s always some version of a Death Star, a McGuffin (usually plans) that everyone is trying to get their hands on, gorgeous space chase and fight sequences with super bad-ass technology, a juxtaposition of jaded “Hans Solo” and innocent “Luke Skywalker” characters working on the same team, a neurotic Droid, a complicated father/child relationship, and most importantly, a spiritual journey in relation to the Force.
As Episodes 1, 2 & 3 proved, Star Wars movies abandon these elements at their peril. Successful episodes can shake up these elements and approach them in different ways, but if they ignore them, the films stop feeling like Star Wars and start feeling like something else.
Rogue One is just another reconstitution of these same elements– some, in a vague way, and some in a very specific way.
At the core of the film are the characters we care about most. We don’t care about them because we haven’t seen them before. We care about them because we haven’t seen them this way before.
The most compelling of the bunch is Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior, who is the character in this film who will go on the biggest spiritual journey in relation to The Force. His journey is an interesting reshuffling of The Force element of the Engine, for two reasons.
The first is because we expect from previous films that the main character, Jyn Erso, is going to be the “Luke Skywalker” character who goes through this spiritual journey. As a child, she’s even given a special pendant by her mother to remind her of the Force. And it’s easy to start anticipating her spiritual awakening, especially given the many character traits she shares with Rey of The Force Awakens (She’s another bad-ass, scrappy “orphan” girl straight out of Central Casting).
So, even though we’ve seen the idea of “the Force awakening” in the least likely person in the The Force Awakens, we still feel like we’re seeing something new, since we’re served the same meal on a different plate.
The other reason Chirrut Imwe is so compelling is that his journey in relation to The Force is slightly different than the ones of the characters who preceded him. Though he seems to have some ability to tap into The Force (like “seeing” Jyn’s pendant under her clothes, even with his blind eyes, and communicating telepathically with her), he doesn’t seem to understand the Force in the way that we do, having seen the previous movies. For him, it’s more of a Mantra– something he has faith in, than something he totally understands.
And spoilers ahead…
Even though his use of The Force does save the mission, it doesn’t save him, or any of his friends. We are not looking at the “Luke Skywalker” type awakening of a new Jedi like we saw in Episodes 4, 5, 6 and The Force Awakens.
Rather, we’re watching a character go on a journey in relation to his faith. And tapping into something that he will never fully be able to harness.
Chirrut Imwe’s journey gives Rogue One the spiritual thread the Star Wars engine demands, while still departing enough from the formula to take us to a place that feels at once surprising and inevitable.
More importantly, the clarity of Chirrut Imwe’s want, to become a Jedi Warrior, gives structure to his journey, and makes him a character we can care about and root for.
And the new take on his understanding of the Force, and the ironic end of his journey in relation to our expectations from the other movies, allows him to feel specific and new, even though on the surface he’s just another recycled “blind sage” stereotype we’ve seen in a thousand action movies– all the way down to his magical fighting moves that seem to defy his blindness (or at least suggest that the blind in our galaxy are dramatically underperforming).
Similarly, the neurotic droid role (C-3PO in the original Star Wars movies) in Rogue One is inhabited by a reprogrammed Imperial Droid named K-2SO.
But unlike C-3PO’s neurotic anxiety, K-2SO’s dominant trait is his delightfully funny, passive-aggressive shade throwing. While all C-3PO wants is to stay safe, all K-2SO wants is to fight in the rebellion. Specifically, he desperately wants his own blaster. His shade, in this way, isn’t just a personality trait. It’s structural– growing specifically out of his most desperate want, and his unique how of trying to get it.
For this reason, it’s easy to fall in love with K-2SO, to root for him, care about him, laugh with him. Even though he’s also just another permutation of the same ol’ formula, it’s his specific want, and his specific how that make him feel… well… human.
Contrast these characters with the ones that work much less successfully, starting most notably with Jyn Erso.
No matter how ridiculous the plot of their story and the familiarity of their character traits, you probably found yourself caring about K-2SO and Chirrut Imwe. But if your experience was anything like mine, you probably found it hard to really feel anything for Jyn.
This despite a gorgeous opening scene, in which Jyn, as a small child, is violently separated from her loving father–
This despite the complicated relationship with both her birth father and her adoptive “father” figure, and the structural similarity of her “hero’s journey” from “scrappy orphan who only cares about her own survival” to “rebel leader and savior of the galaxy”–
Unlike her structural twin Rey in The Force Awakens, and unlike K-2SO and Chirrut Imwe, the adult Jyn just doesn’t feel like a real character, despite a good performance from the actor. She feels only half drawn.
There are many reasons for this.
The biggest challenge is that unlike these other characters, until the very end, Jyn’s want is not active.
She’s not moving toward something–she’s moving away from it.
She doesn’t want to be in jail, she doesn’t want to be captured, she doesn’t want to join the rebels (she’s forced to do it), she doesn’t want to see her “adoptive” father, she doesn’t even really want to see her real father.
She’s forced to do all these things, reacting to others, rather than pursuing her own wants– until after her father’s death, when she decides for unclear reasons that she desperately wants to join the rebels and carry out her father’s plan.
Because her want is not clear, the how that grows from it– her dominant trait as a character, lacks the specificity of the other characters we’ve discussed. We know that she’s a Luke-Skywalker/Rey-Type. But we can’t feel the specific drive that makes her this way.
It’s hard for us to root for her, because she’s batted around like a pinball, rather than actively pursuing the things she most wants.
And all this relates to the concept of Structural Focus.
If Jyn is going to be our main character, and her primary structural issue is going to be her relationship with her birth and adoptive fathers, then that relationship needs to play out on screen. It needs to become the structural focus of the story. The main thing we’re watching. And ideally, it would developed over several scenes between these characters, driven by twists and turns in that emotional relationship…
But in this film, that doesn’t really happen. Jyn essentially gets one scene with her adoptive father, Saw Gerrera, during which he shows her a hologram of her father, which he still doesn’t believe despite having used a magical creature to read the pilot’s mind. He makes some confusing excuses about abandoning her to protect her– only to suicidally stay behind to die in the Imperial attack, rather than escaping with and protecting the “daughter” he loves.
Similarly, rather than allowing the worst thing to happen– which would be to for the rebels to trick Jyn into unwittingly betraying her adoptive father, Saw, and her own father, Galen Erso, as they plan to do– and using that structure to put pressure on the father-daughter relationship, the writers take their focus off of this structural thread.
Cassian Endor comes to his own decision to spare Jyn’s father’s life, allowing Galen’s death to happen without relation to any decision, good or bad, that Jyn could make.
Her entire relationship with her father gets boiled down to one cheesy death scene, in which the plot of her father’s plan is the main thing that is being served, rather than the emotional struggle and mutual betrayal of father and daughter, which would have been the real emotional thread their story needed.
Not to mention the fact that none of this makes any sense.
For a quick rundown of this crazy plot.
At the beginning of the movie, Orson Krennic, the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star, comes to Galen’s planet to kidnap Galen– the one scientist talented enough to help him complete his Death Star plans.
As a good man, Galen would rather die than help create a Death Star… but years later it turns out that he’s helped anyway. He explains later that he realized they would build the Death Star without him if he refused– which begs the question– why did they go through all that trouble to track him down, kill his wife and search for his child in the first place?
Anyway– realizing that they didn’t really need him, he figured it was better to join ‘em then beat ‘em, so he secretly installed a flaw into their plans that the rebels could exploit.
Then, after working for the last 15 years on this plan, instead of just sending the blueprints he designed to the Rebels, he instead dispatched an Imperial pilot without the plans to go find Saw, and tell him about the flaw, which can be found in the plans, which of course are incredibly hard to find, and which only his daughter, who he doesn’t even know is alive, can identify.
Saw, of course, doesn’t trust the pilot, even though his best friend sent him, and wants to kill him. Meanwhile, the Rebel Alliance finds out, and they don’t trust the pilot either, but they think they can use Saw to find Galen and kill him before he finishes the Death Star– if only they can dupe his daughter, Jyn, into helping out, by convincing Saw, who has abandoned her for unclear reasons, to disclose the knowledge he may or may not have about Galen’s whereabouts.
Why they haven’t thought of this years before, we don’t know. How they even know about Jyn and her relationship with Saw, given the lengths everyone has gone to keep this secret, we don’t know. But regardless, they send their version of the “Hans Solo” character, Cassian Endor, to spring Jyn, who has been arrested for– well we don’t know exactly since she doesn’t seem to have much of a life outside of this movie– from the armored transport cell in which she’s held.
Jyn, fearing an even worse fate than jail, tries to escape her rescuers, only to find herself held hostage by the Rebels. Cassian convinces her that all they want is for her to get Saw to help them to find and extract Galen to find out why he sent the pilot and which side he’s really on… which makes sense… but secretly just plan to execute Galen… which does not.
Promised that this is just a one stop trip to Saw and then she’s free, Jyn reluctantly agrees– even though she doesn’t care about any of this– she doesn’t believe in the rebellion, she hates Saw, and she hates her father. But she doesn’t want to die… so off she goes.
She goes through a change of heart after Saw shows her (and only her) the Hologram of her father, at which point the Death Star blows up the city, Saw stays behind to die, and Cassian suddenly announces that he knows where Galen is…
Which makes one wonder–why did they need this girl in the first place– since the whole point was to try to get her to trick Saw into giving up Galen’s location– which apparently Cassian already knew?
They return to the Rebel camp, where suddenly this girl who was treated like a captive and forced into service when last they saw her, is elevated to leadership status– allowed to make speeches about her Father’s intentions before the entire Rebel Alliance– even though they don’t even believe her story.
Despite all the work they went through to get this information, and the pretty clear proof that the Death Star is already operational, these idiot Rebels decide that rather than extracting the man who may hold the only key to stopping the Death Star, that it’s a better idea to assassinate Galen first and ask questions later– and decide to launch a strike against Scarif, the rebel data storage facility where both Galen and the data that he’s failed to send are housed.
Fortunately, this untrusted captive’s speech resonates with many of the Rebels– leading to a “Rogue One” mission in which a small group of rebel fighters take advantage of the Empire’s total failure to update their planet-shield password after a the defection of one of their pilots, to land at the Data Facility, take out the most incompetent fighting force ever assembled, the Storm Troopers, and their useless armada of star destroyers, and use the pilot’s advanced IT knowledge to beam the data up to the same rebels who didn’t believe it existed, but have shown up anyway.
Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous stuff.
And guess what. It doesn’t matter.
As nice as it would be to have a plot that makes sense, the Structural Focus of the piece has nothing to do with the machinations of the plot.
The Structural Focus of the piece has to do with a suicide mission to save the rebellion, the politically relevant thematic question captured in Cassian’s journey of what it means to follow orders we know are wrong for a cause we know is right– whether that makes us heroes, or just like Storm Troopers. And the way this weaves in with the spiritual question of The Force — and what it means to trust our own instincts for what is right, even at the risk of our own lives.
In these areas of structural focus, Rogue One delivers in a big way. And in Jyn Erso’s story, and her complicated relationship with her two “fathers,” it delivers in an “early draft” way. The bones are there, but the hard choices have not yet been made to make room for the story to be fully developed. The story is implied, but it’s hard to fully feel it. Because the story hasn’t been fully built structurally.
To serve this story right and allow enough scenes for these relationships to develop and breathe, some aspects of the plot would have to be changed. The writers would need to find a way to let Jyn’s betrayal of her father actually happen, and to implicate Jyn in her father’s death, so that we could feel the emotional change in Jyn as she took up the mantle of the father she had come to hate.
That story would need to dovetail with the theme of “what does it mean to do the wrong thing for the right cause?” And to breathe full life into that theme, and into Jyn as a character, they’d need to figure out what she really wanted, not just what she didn’t want, and find a way for her to pursue that want in her own unique way from the very beginning of the movie. They’d need to find a way to get Jyn into scenes with her father earlier, so the relationship had time to develop and change.
To make room for this, major subplots– a likely candidate would be the internal politics and betrayals between the Imperial high-ups involved with the Death Star– would need to be cut or streamlined. Plot twists would need to be simplified, and cool moments that don’t serve the plot (like the creature that reads the pilot’s mind) would need to be cut.
How exactly this happens doesn’t need to make perfect sense, (as nice as it would be if it did)– just as the story of Rogue One doesn’t have to make perfect sense in its current form.
Because what really matters, what we’re really serving, is not the plot but the theme, the emotional development of these characters’ stories, and the evolution of who they are in relation to one another, and in relation to what they want.
These are the hard decisions we make as we write and rewrite– which all grow from this simple concept of Structural Focus.
In early drafts, our focus is generally broader than it needs to be. We find ourselves digging in many places, discovering what the movie can be, on the way to discovering what it really needs to be.
But as we revise, we want to dig more deeply in one place, the heart of the story, narrowing our focus away from the many cool places we’ve been digging and focusing our efforts to take that one area of focus as deep as possible.
If we’re writing Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, we need to resist the urge to get waylaid by the drama of Rogue One. We need to focus on our main characters, keep our eye on the ball of what they want, and exactly how they’re trying to get it, and develop their stories as deeply as possible.
And if we wanted to take Rogue One to the next level, we would need to resist the urge to get sidetracked by cool Imperial political backstory and interesting historical Star Wars details, and keep our focus on fully developing the journey of the main character, Jyn, in relation to the two father figures in her life.
As screenwriters, we often feel the need to do everything perfectly. And we should. But that gold standard of structure is something we very rarely reach. There are flaws and plot holes and compromises even in great movies like The Empire Strikes Back. And though we want to close those holes, we can survive them, and deliver a fully satisfying story, so long as we are serving the right G-d. So long as we fully develop our main area of Structural Focus, that most important thing, thematically and structurally, to us as writers.