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Subraction by Addition

May 6, 2009

My Algebra classes just took an important (but not difficult) state test, so we are taking a couple days for a culturally significant experience.  We’re watching Star Wars (A New Hope).  I was shocked by how few of my students had seen it: less than a third, perhaps a dozen overall.  It’s a movie all educated people should see.  I tried this once with Casablanca with less than stellar results.  This title seems more successful.

Alas, the only version I had access to was my Special Edition.  Greedo shoots first, there are lots of CGI dinosaurs on Tatooine, and Han steps on Jabba’s tail.  And all the stereotypes about bad storytelling due to insufficient cutting are brought to the big screen.

I went through the first 80 minutes three times today, so that much is fresh in my head.  Most of us already know the parts that suck in the special edition, so I’ll use them to illustrate my points about writing, particularly short stories.  They are all sins I commit regularly.  It’s just peculiar to see Lucas get it right the first time and mess it up later.

  • Greedo shooting first. It’s hard to prove this point to some people because the original cut has become so hard to find, but Greedo originally never shot at Han Solo.  So why the change?  Han is billed throughout the franchise as a good guy so cold blooded murder doesn’t fit the stereotype.  But shooting the guy whose gun is in your face is hardly murder.  And Han is not a good guy at the beginning of the story.  Paul (Saul) is not a good guy when he first appears in the Bible.  Bad boys (usually selfish boys) that find a cause worth believing in make endearing characters.  Attempts to soften them, make them more “likeable” really rob an interesting character of his identity.  Don’t be temptted to soften a character’s actions because they aren’t likeable enough or someone says a hero shouldn’t do this or that.  Everyone has a preference, even editors.  Bending to one preference can alienate your character or even your story.  Soften with extreme caution.  Interesting is more important than nice.
  • The Jabba Scene: There are a lot of flaws in that scene, likely the reason it hit the cuttingroom floor originally.  The biggest flaw for me is the redindancy.  Han repeats half his conversation with Greedo and Jabba says a lot of Greedo’s lines.  “Even I get boarded sometimes.”  “…drops a shipment at the first sign of an imperial…”  If the information is already there, don’t give it to me again just to get a new character introduced.  Do something different with it or don’t do it at all.
  • Extra scenery: Lucas just had to add things to the movie.  Irrelevant things.  Who cares if a storm trooper is riding a dinosaur to look for droids?  If things are there just to be looked at without extending plot or character or anything (people could argue some additions as part of the setting, but setting can often be overdone by trying too hard), cut it.  If your story requires a description of the bar’s clientelle, include it.  But you don’t have to describe every client.  A cross section will do.  And little beats thrown in for comic effect may be cute, but they are usually distracting.  A taste is usually enough.

The next time you’re resisting cuts to a story, or worse, feeling the temptation to embellish a story, watch any of the Star Wars Special Editions.  Those odd moments of “why” might just inspire you to do the right thing.  Sometimes more is less.

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