Tags: narrative

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The Force Awakens

You can listen to an audio version of The Force Awakens.

I’d like to talk about The Force Awakens (I mean, really, how can I not?) so there will be inevitable spoilers. Bail now if you haven’t seen the film.

Star Wars was a big part of my childhood. By extension—and because I’ve never really grown up—Star Wars has always been part of my identity, at least in the shallow sense of what I’d list under “hobbies and interests” on a theoretical form. Still, I could relate to Michael’s feelings in the run-up to the new film’s release:

Despite much evidence to the contrary, I don’t hang too many of my wants and needs on Star Wars or its continuing life as a franchise. I’m the fan-equivalent of a deep history archeologist, not a pundit or an evangelist.

While I’ve always been a big fan of Star Wars: The Films, I’ve never cared much about Star Wars: The Franchise. When my local pub quiz for nerds—The Geekest Link—has a Star Wars night, I enter with a prayer of “please no ‘Expanded Universe’, please no ‘Expanded Universe’.”

When I heard that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney, I was intrigued—this could get interesting! When I heard that J.J. Abrams would be directing Episode VII, I was pretty happy—I like his work, and he’s a safe pair of hands. But I didn’t want to get too excited. Partly that’s because I’ve been burnt before—although I’m something of a prequels apologist in comparison to the hatred they inspired in most people. Mostly though, it’s because I’m aware that when it comes to something that doesn’t yet exist—whether it’s a Star Wars film, a forthcoming album, or an upcoming project at work—the more hope you place on its shoulders, the more unlikely it is to be able to fulfil those over-inflated expectations.

But as The Force Awakens drew closer and closer, despite my best intentions, I couldn’t help but get excited. Jessica and I watched and re-watched the trailers. The day that tickets went on sale, the website for my cinema of choice crashed, so I picked up the phone and waited in a queue to secure seats for the minute-past-midnight first showing (if you know how much I dislike telephonic communication, you’ll appreciate how unusual that action was for me).

I began to literally count down the days. In the final week, Jessica and I re-watched the Star Wars films in Machete Order, which I can highly recommend. That culminated on the evening of December 16th with a gathering ‘round at Andy’s to eat some food, watch Return Of The Jedi, and then head to the cinema before midnight. By the time I was sitting in my seat surrounded by equally enthusiastic fans, I was positively aquiver with excitement.

When the fanfare blasted and the Star Wars logo appeared, I was grinning from ear to ear. Then I experienced something really wonderful: I had no idea what was going to happen next. Going into this film with no knowledge of plot details or twists was the best possible way to experience it.

I didn’t know what the words of the opening crawl would be. I didn’t know who any of the characters were. I didn’t know what anybody was going to say. I know that sounds like a weird thing to fixate on—after all, didn’t we get that with the prequel films too? Well, not really. Because they were all backstory, there were clearly-delineated constraints on what could and couldn’t happen in those films. But with these new films, anything is possible.

I really, really, really enjoyed watching The Force Awakens. But in order to truly evaluate the film on its own merits, I knew I’d have to see it again in more normal circumstances (and who am I kidding? I didn’t need much of an excuse to see it again).

I’ve seen it three times now. I loved it every time. If anything, the things that slightly bothered me on first seeing the film have diminished with subsequent viewings. It stands up to repeat watching, something that isn’t necessarily true of other J.J. Abrams films—I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness when I first saw it, but with every time I see it again, it grows a little weaker.

As I said, there were things that slightly bothered me and I’ll get to those, but my overwhelming feelings about this film are very, very positive. I think the world-building is really good. I think the film itself is superbly crafted, as described in this excellent point-by-point analysis by Chris Dickinson. But above all, what I love the most about The Force Awakens are the characters.

Rey. What can I say? She is quite simply a wonderfully-written character brought to life by an astonishingly good performance. And of course I’m going to join in the chorus of people who are glad that we finally get a lead role for a woman in this galaxy. Granted, Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t exactly Mad Max: Fury Road, but still, how great is it that 2015 has given us both Rey and Furiousa?

(You know what it is? It’s a good start.)

Likewise with Finn: great character; great performance. Throw in Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and even BB8 …I’m sold. I’m invested in their stories now. I want to know what happens next. I want to spend time with them.

But The Force Awakens wasn’t just about new heroes and villains. As audacious as it would be to start from an entirely clean slate, it also needed to tie in to the beloved original films. On the whole, I think this film did a good job of balancing the past and the future.

Paul came along to that midnight viewing; a ticket became available at the last minute. But he was prepared not to enjoy it, or even understand it, given that he’s never really watched Star Wars.

“Actually”, I said, “I’d be really interested to find out what you think of it.”

I’m too close to the source material; I can’t objectively judge whether the new film could stand on its own, as opposed to be being the latest episode in an existing saga.

As it turned out, Paul really enjoyed it. Sure, there was stuff he was aware he was missing out on, but interestingly, there was even more stuff that we were all missing out on: the script is filled with references to events that happened in the intervening decades between the old films and the new. I liked that a lot. It helped solidify this as being simultaneously a brand new chapter and also just one sliver of a larger ongoing narrative.

The Force Awakens is very much a bridging piece between the old and the new. The torch was passed on with dignity, and surprisingly, it was Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that made it a convincing handover.

I say “surprisingly” because remember, we had just watched Return Of The Jedi before The Force Awakens and it is so clear that Harrison Ford really didn’t want to be in that film. I know Han Solo is supposed to be somewhat sarcastic, but it was dialled up to 11 for Jedi, and I’m pretty sure it was a very, shall we say, “naturalistic” performance. But here he is over thirty years later, really breathing life into the character.

Through the stewardship of Harrison Ford, we were lovingly taken from the original films that we know so well into a new story. Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.

In many ways, Han Solo in The Force Awakens is Ben Kenobi in Star Wars …but with a much more fleshed-out history and a more interesting personal journey. Now he’s the one saying that the Force is real (and he does it in the very spot where he originally ridiculed Kenobi). It’s as if Scully were to slowly come around to Mulder’s worldview and finally intone “I want to believe.”

The biggest gripe that other people have with The Force Awakens is how much the plot resembles that of the original Star Wars. It’s undeniable. The question is how much that matters, and a result, how much it bothers you. It really bothered Khoi. It somewhat bothered Andy. It didn’t bother me much, but it was definitely an aspect that prevented the film from being a complete triumph. But it’s also one of those issues that diminishes with repeated viewing.

Those bothered by the echoes between Star Wars and The Force Awakens are going to be really pissed off when they find out about World War One and World War Two. “Britain and America fight Germany again? Really!?” (Probably best not to even mention any of the Gulf wars).

I get the feeling though that the people who are bothered by the plot are perhaps overplaying the similarities and underplaying the differences.

So yes, in one sense Rey in The Force Awakens is like Luke in Star Wars—a young person on a desert planet far from the action. But then there are the differences: where Luke was whining about his situation, Rey is mastering hers. And of course there’s the fact that he in 1977 is now she in 2015. “That doesn’t make any difference!” you may cry, and you’d be exactly right: it shouldn’t make any difference …so why has it taken us four decades to get to this?

The casting of Rey and Finn is simultaneously unimportant and monumental. It’s unimportant in that it makes no difference to the story whether Rey is a woman or Finn is black. It’s monumental in that they are the main characters in what everyone knew would be the biggest film of the century so far.

One of the other complaints that people have with The Force Awakens is the unclear political background. Here’s Michael again:

The rebels killed the Emperor and won, but now they’re ‘the resistance’? Why? They’re backed by the republic, so why aren’t they just the armed forces of the republic? The First Order strikes against the republic (looked like Coruscant, but apparently wasn’t). How big is the First Order? Big enough to build Starkiller Base, but what does that mean? Do they control systems? Do they have support inside the republic? Is this like a separatists thing? How long have they been around? How are they funded?

This certainly bugged me. It was the kind of issue that could have been fixed with one explanatory scene. Sure enough, it turns out that such a scene was shot but then cut from the film. Mostly that was to keep the film’s running time down, but I suspect that after the dull talkiness of the prequels, there may also have been some overcompensating course-correction away from anything with even a whiff of politics. Alas, that phobia of trade routes and senators resulted in an unclear backstory. It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realised that Hux’s speech is the closest thing to a blackboard scene for the galactic geopolitics: there’s a proxy war between wannabe extremists looking to set up a caliphate (think ISIS) and a resistance (think the Kurds) being funded by the dominant power (think America) …up until The First Order carry out a 9-11/Pearl Harbour/Vulcan scale attack, leaving the balance of power wide open—the next film could take it in any direction.

One of the most impressive achievements of The Force Awakens is that after seeing it, I didn’t want to think about how it tied back to the original films, as I expected I would want to do. Instead, I was entirely preoccupied with questions of what’s going to happen next.

Everyone is talking about Rey. Where is she from? What is her parentage? The most popular theories are currently:

  1. She is Luke Skywalker’s daughter.
  2. She is Han and Leia’s daughter, the secret sister of Kylo Ren.
  3. She is Ben Kenobi’s granddaughter.

Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.

But there are too many hints at Rey’s origins for her parentage to go unexplained. All the signs point to her having some kind of connection to existing bloodlines. Unless…

Lawrence Kasdan has been dropping hints about how odd Episode VIII is going to be, mostly because it has Rian Johnson at the helm. He gave us the terrific Looper. One of the most unsettling aspects of that film was the presence of a child with buried potential for destruction through telekinetic powers. For everyone’s safety, the child is kept far from civilisation.

Okay, I know it’s a stretch but what if Rey is on Jakku for similar reasons? Her parents aren’t Skywalkers or Kenobis, they’re just scared by the destructive episodes they’ve experienced with their Force-sensitive infant. With enormous reluctance—but for the greater good—they deposit her on a faraway world.

No?

Okay, well, if you don’t like that theory, you’re going to hate this one:

What if Rey is the daughter of Luke and Leia?

Eww! I know, I know. But, hey, you can’t say the signs weren’t there all along. And the shame of an incestuous union could be the reason for the child’s secret exile.

It’s preposterous of course. Even in a post-Game Of Thrones landscape, that would be going too far, even for Rian Johnson …or would it?

Now I’ve planted the idea in your head. Sorry about that.

Still, how great is it that we we’re all talking about what’s going to happen next?

Some people have asked me where I think The Force Awakens ranks in comparison to the other Star Wars films, and I wasn’t prepared for the question. I honestly haven’t been thinking about it in the context of the original films. Instead I’ve been thinking about the new characters and the new storyline. As Maz Kanata would say:

The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.

Storyforming

It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.

Workshopping

The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.

Flashback

Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”

Dialogue

Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).

Backstory

Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.

Mindcraft

As something of a science geek, I’m a big fan of the work of the Wellcome Trust:

We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.

I was very excited when Clearleft had the opportunity to work with them—we redesigned the Wellcome Library a while back. That was a fun responsive project, and an early use of a pattern portfolio as the deliverable.

We’ve been working with them on some other projects since then. We helped out with Mosaic, their terrific magazine site. I really enjoyed popping in to their fantastic building to chat with their talented designers.

The most recent Clearleft/Wellcome collaboration is something called Mindcraft. This started as a completely open-ended project—no one was quite sure what form the finished result would take. Over time it developed into a narrative-based series of historical events brought to life with browser technologies.

I didn’t work on this project but I loved watching it come together. The source material made for an interesting work environment.

Crazy wall Maps and legends.

Graham and Danielle did the front-end development, bringing Mikey’s designs to life, once Rich and Ben figured out the flow (all overseen by Jess).

The press release for Mindcraft describes it as “immersive” which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in expectation of big, scrolljacking pages …and to be honest, Mindcraft does have elements of that. It’s primarily intended to be visited on a large screen with a fast connection (although it’ll work on any sized-screen). But I think it manages to strike a pretty healthy balance of performance and “richness.” It certainly doesn’t feel gratuitous. The use of sound, imagery, and interaction is all in service to the story.

And boy, what a story!

Mindcraft explores a century of madness, murder and mental healing, from the arrival in Paris of Franz Anton Mesmer with his theories of ‘animal magnetism’ to the therapeutic power of hypnotism used by Freud.

I suggest you put on some headphones, make your browser window fullscreen, and start your journey.

It’s creepy, atmospheric, entertaining, and educational, all at the same time. I really like it. And I’m not just saying that because of Clearleft’s involvement. Like I said, I’m a science geek.

Skillful stories

After spending almost a month on the other side of the Atlantic, it was nice to return to Brighton to find it in the first bloom of Spring. Just a day or two after I returned, I was able to enjoy a nice wander around the Spring Harvest food festival sampling the culinary delights and randomly bumping into fellow geeks like Aral, Steve and Mark.

Such is the scenius of Brighton. There’s always plenty of smart folk around to gather together with, as evidenced by the multitude of geek gatherings like Build Brighton, dotBrighton and UX Brighton. Last night it was the turn of Skillswap, expertly organised by James.

Skillswap hasn’t been about swapping skills for quite a while. Instead it has morphed into a curated evening of related short snappy presentations sometimes followed by an ensemble Q and A. Last night’s theme was Skillswap Seeking Stories and it was a humdinger.

Phil Gyford expounded on his wonderful Pepys’ Diary project and how it has been nurtured over time. Gavin O’Carroll spoke about Spacelogone of my favourite sites—and the structure of narratives, games and websites. The marvellous Matthew Sheret, who really impressed me at History Hackday, wrapped it up with a demonstration of the power that each of us has to use the internet to tell stories with our data. “You are Time Lords!” he exclaimed, and illustrated his points with some lovely artwork he commissioned from Tom Humberstone.

It was very generous of Phil, Gavin and Matt to give up their time and travel down from London to deliver such a fantastic evening of thought-provoking entertainment. Seriously, it was better than some paid conferences I’ve been to. And—thanks to the sponsorship from Madgex—there was free beer (“free” as in “free beer” …as in “beer!” …as in “free beer!!”).

Anna was working her podcasting magic, recording the talks. You can subscribe to the Skillswap Huffduffer account if you want to hear them once they’re ready.