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Why The Force Awakens’ story worked, and Rogue One’s didn’t

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Simple storytelling obligations have to be met

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Rogue One may have been blockbusters in the moneymaking sense but they were, rightly, critiqued either for plot holes or leaving too much on the table with their characters. Yet if you were wondering why The Force Awakens just ... worked, where Rogue One didn't, here is an excellent deconstruction by YouTube’s Lessons from the Screenplay, which highlights the storytelling flaws in both films and why Rogue One's were worse.

It's not because of period, setting, action or casting. Rogue One got all of that right, in spades, especially in the visual support of all four. It's simply that Rogue One forgets a fundamental obligation of storytelling, whether that's Smokey and the Bandit or My Dinner With André: The main characters must act, they must not be acted upon. In every scene. Every time.

As recycled as The Force Awakens' story was, Rey was relatable through the hard work and the trudgery of the film's first quarter. It builds to her critical judgment not to sell BB-8. Her character is not without flaws — did you miss or forget that she feels some need to return to Jakku? The "lie the character believes" is weak and inconsequential in Rey’s case. But overall, viewers warm to her story because they see Rey making choices and imposing her will, or reconciling it with larger forces.

Rogue One worked it backward. Almost nothing in the first half to two-thirds of the film carried any consequence — consequence that could change the emergence of the final battle, or the Death Star's means of shaping it. Lessons from the Screenplay points out that we don't see Jyn, or her compatriots, making any meaningful choices until the final assault on Scarif. While noble, their sacrifice ends up robbed of the meaning the filmmakers intended because of the casual and inconsequential nature of events leading to it.

This video is excellent advice for anyone who fancies themself a screenwriter. And, frankly, all of us feel that license, whether we enjoy prestige television or consume video games or play FIFA 17 and invent our superstars' backstories on the fly in the morning shower (raises hand). A diamond-hard focus on character action, however, is what separates a real screenplay from fan fiction.

The main characters must act. They make the choices that move the story, no one else. They pay freight for those choices. That's why something so familiar as The Force Awakens was still a critical success, where something as new as Rogue One landed with a thud.