Star Wars Deconstruction

If you’ve visited here before, you’ve probably picked up that I’m obsessed with learning story structure. My “bible” of choice for this mission are the Save the Cat! books. (You can find an overview of what these books have to offer here and here.)

I’ve been watching movies, trying to get a handle on what the story beats look like in different kinds of stories. Sometimes I can nail the movie, sometimes I get lost trying to figure out if a scene fits this beat or that beat (my short-coming undoubtedly—this ain’t always as easy as Blake made it look.)

I’ve had some successes that make me feel like maybe I’m getting it figured out, so I thought I’d share one or two.

Star Wars TrilogyI decided to deconstruct Star Wars because it has such a classic theme of good and evil and because I’ve seen it so many times that I can track the high points without even watching the movie.

For instance, the first plot point (aka Break into 2) clearly happens after Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead. This is the moment the story changes direction with Luke stepping out of the world he’s always known to something new—the antithesis world. And when they reach the Alderan system to find the world destroyed and they’re caught in the death star’s tractor beam the stakes are raised and the story changes direction again—that’s the midpoint. The whiff of death at the All is Lost Moment is hard to miss, especially since I’ve seen it flat-out stated that this is where the mentor dies. (Can’t get any more obvious than that, can you?) And the moment they head for the rebel base is clearly the beginning of the Finale. So yes, I knew I’d have checkpoints for the entire movie that would keep me on track.

The numbers before the beats indicate the order they’re normally found in. The number after in parenthesis indicates how many minutes into the movie the beat is usually found at. The version I have is the "enhanced" version with added scenes, so the times noted are slightly different that what they'd be in the theatrical version.

So let’s deconstruct 

1. Opening Image (1): 
As their space ship is being boarded by storm troopers, two droids, surrounded by fighting, seek a safe place. Momentarily separated, C3PO glimpses Princess Leia with the R2D2. Princess Leia is captured, and the droids escape in an escape pod. R2 is already talking about his "mission" which C3PO discounts. We get our first glimpse of Darth Vader who wants the plans the ship intercepted. And so the audience has some dramatic clues about what's at stake.

3. Set-up (1-10):  
On the planet's surface, the droids split up. C3PO flags down a transport; R2 is attacked and bought by the same transport that now has C3PO and a collection of other droids.

Not having found what they were looking for on the ship, storm troopers track the escape pod to the planet and start looking for the droids.

At minute 17, Luke’s uncle buys the two droids for the farm. The set-up is supposed to only take the first ten minutes with the catalyst coming at minute 12 (assuming a 2 hour movie) so we’re running a bit late here, but there’s just no other way to distill this and we run late through the entire first half of the movie.

The first act runs longer than is ideal, but an extended setup may be expected in Science Fiction, or indeed, in any movie where the world is unfamiliar to the audience.

4. Catalyst (12) aka Inciting Incident:
5. Debate (12-25):

I’ll happily admit that I had help defining the Catalyst here because in one of the STC! books, Blake Snyder uses Star Wars to illustrate that a Catalyst can have a double beat—a setup and payoff. In Star Wars, the setup beat comes at minute 20, when Luke triggers a partial message from Princess Leia to Obi Wan Kenobi, and so we step into the Inciting Incident several minutes late.

Because of the double beat, the Catalyst and the Debate beats are heavily intertwined. Each Call to Action (as the Catalyst is sometimes called) is followed with Luke either declining or accepting the Call. Each time he declines, it’s marked by a Debate beat.

The setup beat with the debate (refusal to answer the call):
The setup beat comes when Luke stumbles across the video message in the R2 unit. Intrigued by the droid’s claim that he belongs to Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke mentions the name to his aunt and uncle, only to be brushed off with what we all know is their attempts to avoid the issue. The debate scene also includes Luke expressing his desire to transfer to university this year instead of next with his uncle’s statement that he needs Luke on the farm which sends Luke outside to contemplate the future that appears to be going nowhere in the impatient eyes of youth (more debate.) This also sets up Luke’s second refusal to Answer the Call.

The second Call to Action?
At minute 26, Luke discovers the R2 unit has gone, forcing him into action he doesn’t want to take. In the morning, Luke and C3PO go after R2. When sand people attack, the hermit Old Ben saves them. Luke asks him if he knows Obi Wan. Ben admits that Obi Wan is a name he used to go by. He also tells Luke that his father was a Jedi and him his father's light saber. They see Princess Leia's full message, which gives them the mission to Alderan. This actually looks like another Call to Action to me, which would mean-I think—that there’s a triple Catalyst beat here, but since Blake Snyder didn’t define it as such and I’m not confident enough to challenge the Master, I’m merely going to point out that this is how I see it. But . . . It follows the same call-refusal pattern when Luke declines to answer this call (min 36), using his Uncle’s need for him on the farm as his excuse. (Ironic, since he argued against this need when he wanted to transfer to the university with his friends.)

The payoff Catalyst beat:
This time, when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he answers the call, which leads them to step into the Unknown World (aka Act 2)

6. Break into 2 (25)

In Los Eisley (at minute 43), they hire a ship (minute 48) and pilot, Han Solo, to take them to Alderan. Han has complications, since he has a price on his head (minute 50).

7. B Story (30):

Sometimes there’s more than one B story (Blake Snyder makes this point in STC! Goes to the Movies with his analysis of Titanic.) The B story carries the theme. Since the theme of Star Wars is good vs. evil, I believe any scene with Darth Vader is the B story. Vader is, of course, the personification of the evil Empire. All through the first act, there have been scenes that focus on the B story.

(minute 37) on board the Death Star, Vader demonstrates the power of the dark side. The information that the stolen plans may reveal a weakness in the death star. 

(minute 41) when Vader tries to get the location of the rebel base from Princess Leia with a mind probe.

(min 51) The commander of the death star decides to use the station to convince Leia to tell them where the rebel base is. They set course for Alderan.

8. Fun and Games (30-55):

(min 55) They blast out of Mos Eisley with storm troopers on their tail. Han jumps to light speed and into hyperspace.

(min 57) On the Death Star, under threat of the destruction of her home world, Leia revels that the rebel base is on a moon at Dantooine. They still destroy Alderan.

(min 59) On the Milineum Falcon, Obi Wan senses the destruction of the planet. Luke practices with the light saber. R2 plays "chess" with Chewbacca (the Wookie is Han's second.) Han denies any belief in the force. Obi gets Luke to fight blind, relying on the force. This scene is where Obi Wan describes what the force is which leads to:

(min 1:03) Vader discovers that the princess lied. There's nothing at Dantooine.

9. Midpoint (55): (1:03) The A & B story cross at the midpoint, just as they’re supposed to, when Luke and company arrive where Alderan used to be. They get caught in the Death Star's tractor beam and jettison escape pods, hiding in the bins Han uses for smuggling.

Vader orders the ship scanned. They take out a couple of storm troopers and dress in their uniforms. With Chewie's help, the take over the port HQ, Plugged into the computer, R2 ID's the tractor beam control. Obi Wan goes to fix them. 2. Theme Stated (5): (minute 1:09) May the force be with you. (Theme = Good vs. evil) The movie is so obvious in its theme that the “bad guys” (Vader) wears black and through most of the movie, Luke (the hero) wears white. This is really basic stuff.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75):

(1:11) R2 also finds the princess on the detention level, scheduled to be terminated. Luke bribes Han into going with him to rescue Leia. (1:14) In the detention ward, the rescue doesn't go well and they end up in the garbage chute. The droids who've had their own problems have to rescue them. Obi Wan shuts down the tractor. Storm troopers, aware of their presence, pursue Luke and the others through the station. They’re definitely worse off than they were before.

11. All Is Lost (75):

Obi Wan faces Darth Vader (1:30) which draws off the ship's guards. Luke and company head for the Falcon. Obi Wan is defeated (the whiff of death where the mentor dies—right on cue.)

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85):

Luke is miserable over Obi Wan's death, but this is a George Lucas movie, so to cheer him up Han invites him to play video games where they shoot down the Empires fighter ships. (Boys and their toys. No, that’s not a beat. That’s a snide observation.)

Darth Vader has placed a homing beacon on their ship. Leia figures it out. Han makes it clear that he's in it for the money. To jerk Luke's chain, Han expresses interest in Leia.

13. Break into 3 (85): At 1:38, They reach the rebel base with the Death Star approaching behind them.

14. Finale (85-110):

The Five Point Finale (Storming the Castle): 
Gathering the Team: After identifying a weakness, the rebel leaders brief their pilots.
Executing the plan: In spite of Han's defection, the pilots easily reach the approach to the target because the Death Star’s designers didn't see small fighters as a threat; the target is small, but Luke has targeted womp rats back home which aren’t much bigger.
The High Tower Surprise: Enemy fighters (including Vader) come out to fight them. The rebels start to lose pilots, taking heavy losses. The death star is coming into range of the rebel base.
"Dig Deep Down": On their first pass, in spite of a computer-guided targeting," it doesn't work. It's Luke's turn. Vader takes out his wingmen. He senses that the force is strong with this one, but he's got him in his sights.
The execution of the new plan:  Hearing Obi Wan's voice in his head, Luke turns off his computer. R2 takes a hit. Vader has Luke in his sights, but Han comes up behind him and bounces Vader's fighter away. Letting the force guide him, Luke hits his target, setting of the chair reaction that destroys the Death Star. 

15. Final Image (110):  
(2:00) In front of the gathered rebel forces, Princess Leia awards medals to Han and Luke are awarded medals (Princess Leia officiating.) Emotionally this scene is very different from the opening scene. We started with a battle in progress, now we have victory celebration. 

I hope this give everyone some food for thought. I know I'll be looking at other movies as I hone my eye for story structure. Maybe I'll share some of those as well.

1 comment:

  1. This was so fun, and also got me thinking about several stories I'm writing. Maybe I'm very uneducated, but what is a beat?