Epics and Movies Don't Mix

Our modern storytellers are trying to tell ever larger and more complicated stories in movies, but the genre isn't up to the task.

published: February 7, 2016 - last updated: February 26, 2019

There are so many points of confusion in the new Star Wars (opens new window), and they mostly revolve around details of how the universe works or characters' abilities. Most of them revolve around Kylo Ren and Rey, and their confusing and inconsistent levels of power. Here's my favorite (opens new window), whose title is simply "Is Kylo Ren talented with the force or not?" Classic. We aren't even sure if our main villain is competent.

And you're probably wondering why I even care. Sure it's a touch confusing, but people are figuring it out see? Forums and discussion are buzzing and people are getting it all put together, so isn't it all fine?

No. It isn't fine. And the very simple reason? I enjoyed the movie much less because of questions like that. Rather than simply being ushered into the magic circle (opens new window) and enjoying the story outside of reality for a while, I was caught up thinking about why a non-force using former Stormtrooper was able to not kill himself using a lightsaber (and what that would mean for further stories). Or how a completely untrained scavenger girl could beat a powerful Dark Jedi with training from both Luke Skywalker and the potato headed giant, who then spent years casually murdering people in active warzones. I'm fine with those scenes occurring, but if they occur they'd better be set up first. Those types of questions have to be answered before they matter, before the stakes of the story have gotten so high that you can't stop to answer them without breaking the emotional momentum.

§ Whatever, it's just a movie! Stop analyzing it so much!

Okay, it's true that too much analysis can ruin some stories. But guess what else? It isn't my job to turn off my brain, it's the writer's.

Fiction is akin to the world of dreams. For those of you still unfamiliar with the film making metaphor that is Inception (opens new window), please familiarize yourself with it now. If you are familiar, then you know that a poorly crafted story causes the audience's subconscious to go into "attack" mode, revolting against the story by asking it probing questions. A well crafted story doesn't allow you to ask these questions during the work, because you've slipped into the magic circle and are simply along for the ride. The probing questions will only come after you've "woken up" and are back in your rational mind.

Now, masterfully crafted stories can withstand even that post-dream scrutiny, they even reveal more and more layers and more and more for us to enjoy and break apart and analyze. Masterfully crafted stories prompt us to question their meaning, not their internal rules. But the baseline of fiction is to simply maintain the suspension of disbelief and not prompt that scrutiny during the experience. If a story irritates the audience or causes them to fall out of their emotional engagement, to lose the suspension of disbelief, then that is a failure of the creators. It's true that if you choose to pull a flawed story apart in great detail, you can reconcile these things (as those forum posters I mentioned earlier were), but that isn't the point of fiction. It's supposed to not prompt that scrutiny in the first place. The Force Awakens caused me to ask those types of "wait wut" questions several times during the experience, which pulled me away from it and broke its power.

Expecting every story to be perfect is stupid and unrealistic. But the magic circle baseline is fair to expect every time. Most stories won't pull that off, since most art is garbage (opens new window), but that's okay, both we and the creators have to wade through some of that garbage to get to the good stuff.

§ But it's a movie, it's only like two hours, only geniuses can pack that all in.

Well, that's what I'm getting at. I don't think stories like this should be told in movies. Movies just aren't up to the task. Why you ask? Because they just aren't long enough.

Movies are only useful for stories that would be typically told as "short stories" or a single short novel. The character and plot arcs have to have few enough important points that we can convey them visually within roughly two hours.

What's the answer to this problem? What format is appropriate for longer stories?

§ The Series!

Series are the only format suited to tell an Epic story. An Epic has many characters, or a world with a very involved backstory or rules (usually because the world is highly invented and we can't rely on our understanding of reality to lend us context), or involves many shorter plot arcs all coming together to form one large story. Basically an epic has a lot of information to convey. A short story usually has only a few important characters, locations, and plot points. An epic has many.

Game of Thrones is to me the perfect example. That story is incredibly vast, has a huge cast of characters, many locations, a world with history/rules/customs that the audience has to be extensively filled in on, and has had many twists and turns and surprises and new directions.

And the awful Last Airbender movie is a perfect example of the opposite. The series' first season (book) was 21 episodes each with a runtime of about 22 minutes. This gave us about 7 hours and 42 minutes of time to understand that world, its characters, and the story. Then M. Night Shyamalan compressed all of that down to 1 hour and 43 minutes. Even if that compression had been executed flawlessly, that's six hours of story just chopped out. SIX HOURS. Many people are quick to say that many of those episodes (especially in the first season) were unnecessary filler, but there's no such thing as completely pointless time when telling a story, only less effective time. Even if it is filler that could have hit harder and been better, that's all still time spent emotionally investing in the people, the places, growing to understand everyone's abilities and relationships, and generally earning the payoff. You can't tell an eight hour story in two hours, you just can't.

Sometimes Series even make this mistake by rushing themselves. Good stories are like slow-cooking meat, you have to let it all have time to marinate and soak up all the goodness, but if you overdo it people will lose interest. The Legend of Korra rushed itself, introducing four completely unrelated antagonists and conflicts in four separate seasons. Avatar The Last Airbender had a runtime of about 22 hours 43 minutes, all to tell one cohesive story about defeating the Fire Lord and ending the 100 Years War. Korra by contrast had a runtime of about 19 hours to tell four unrelated stories, less than a quarter the amount of time telling each one. And despite the fact that Korra should have been much more successful, with an established fanbase and universe, a more experienced creative team, and a bigger budget bringing better production values, its per episode ratings slowly trailed off towards only about 1 million per episode eventually leading to it being shifted to only digital, while the original series hovered between 3 and 5 million during its entire run. I don't believe that better ratings equal better art, but they do say that more people were enjoying themselves and cared. Korra didn't give us a chance to care, so we didn't.

§ Star Wars is the first modern Epic.

A completely invented Universe, futuristic (non-realistic) rules, extensive history, a large cast of characters and many interlocking plot arcs. Star Wars is the epitome of an epic, but let's look at its runtime so far.

  • Original Trilogy - 6 hrs 19 mins
  • Prequel Triology - 6 hrs 58 mins
  • The Force Awakens - 2 hrs 18 mins

After this next trilogy finishes we'll be hovering at around 20 hours. And remember, three separate conflicts and overall casts are dividing those 20 hours. This is just like Korra.

For comparison:

  • Game of Thrones - currently about 50 hours, will be about 70 once complete.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood - about 25 hours.
  • Breaking Bad - about 46 hours.
  • Mad Men - about 118 hours.

The Extended Universe is immense proof that the Star Wars Universe can support and even desperately cries out for more room. It needs volumes to describe it and make it all make sense.

But please don't think I'm saying that stories should intentionally elongate themselves or waste time dithering around. Stories should always seek to deliver awesome per second (opens new window), but they should be allowed to alternate between different types of awesome as the story demands, and to take the time needed to set up all those types of awesome.

My favorite example of a stretched story is Les Miserables. My copy runs to a whopping 1463 pages (a shocking 655,478 words (opens new window)), and frankly, the musical version does a great job getting all the emotionally important stuff across. Back then authors were paid by the word, so Victor Hugo had a lot of impetus to stretch things a little (a lot). He spent an entire 58 pages talking about just the battle of Waterloo, and only in the last two of those pages does he tie it into the main story. Les Miserables is a perfect example of a story with unnecessary plot arcs and characters that can be aggressively cut.

§ Let the (story) beat breathe.

The result of telling an epic story over the course of many episodes rather than one to three movies is that the audience gets a few things:

  • A chance for us to understand the world, the characters, and the rules. An Epic Series has some time to work with, and can ask for more time if it needs it. It can pit characters against whatever inconsequential enemies we need to dream up to put their abilities in context rather than simply push an emotion. Kylo Ren's abilities are so inconsistent because the movie only has time for a handful of villains, and Kylo is the only one we have time to actually emotionally connect to. So he has to do improbably amazing things like stop a blaster bolt in mid-air in order to fill the role of intimidating badass, but then he has to have his mind read by the improbably powerful Rey and get his ass kicked in a lightsaber duel with two novices simply because he's sad. An Epic Series would have had the time to have other characters in those battles, so things could have been consistent and still allowed plenty of time for us to see Kylo and understand his motivations. Epic Series are more realistic, because the real world has more people and things happen slowly.
  • Emotional weight to both victories and defeats. A sense of having "earned" it. It's simple human nature that people care more about something when they've had to work for it.
  • A chance to breathe. Sometimes story moments need a chance to goddamn sink in, and if we're rushed off to the next thing too quickly we don't even end up caring in the long run. Oftentimes, the longer a moment is allowed to sit without plot relief, the harder it will hit the audience. The Force Awakens does something pretty extreme by killing Han Solo, but we're off to the races for the lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren and Rey's improbable mastery of the Force too quickly for anyone to even feel that completely.
  • A chance for consequences to actually matter to us. Eddard Stark's execution is still lingering in the Game of Thrones story, effecting the realities of every character. The Movie version of Robb Stark's story would have ended with him and his bride being tragically killed, and we all would have left the movie sad but moved on with our lives. The Epic Series version makes us continually stare that reality in the face as Arya and Sanza struggle to survive and the Lannister family continues in their crapulence.
  • A chance for twists, turns, failure, surprise. If we're about 80 minutes into a movie, we know they've got to start wrapping it up. A series that hides its production intelligently can fool us. I was honestly shocked when Zuko betrayed the protagonists in the second season of Avatar, a movie can't have pulled that off.

The ultimate point of this is that each story will take exactly as much time as it will take. If it's about a huge cast of characters having a grand quest across many locations in a complex and unknown world, then damnit it had better take its time. If it's about a small cast having a mostly emotional conflict in a handful of locations, you can probably get it done pretty quick. The point is, you can't jam every story into whatever format you want. Some stories need more or less.

§ Now is the time.

Traditional media are dying. Literary stories only need a free blog to be published to the world. Patronage models and crowdfunding now give creators unprecedented freedom, so they can choose the genre that's appropriate for their story without suits getting in the way (opens new window). Now we can simply ditch a lot of the old ways and start giving our stories some breathing room, and telling them the way they should be told, and I think most stories should be told like the Epics they are.

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