Plot. Simple concept, right? Central conflict, central objective, point A to point B.
Let’s look at the plot of A New Hope:
The central conflict is the threat the Empire poses to the galaxy. The central conflict expresses itself in a central objective: to destroy the Death Star.
Luke is a farm boy who dreams of becoming like the father he never knew. His father was a pilot and a Jedi Knight. Luke aspires to embody both of these in joining the Rebellion in the fight against the Empire.
Inciting incident – Luke, who wants to fight the Empire, finds a droid with crucial blueprints of the Death Star.
Rising action – Luke suffers personal losses from the Empire. He and Obi Wan leave on their journey to aid the Rebellion in their fight against the Empire: Luke to become a fighter pilot, and Obi Wan to deliver the Death Star plans to Leia’s father.
Midpoint reversal – Obi Wan is killed, representing the loss of Luke’s path to become like his father, aka the loss of potential to capably fight the Empire.
Climax – Luke is part of the fleet to destroy the Death Star. He must fend off Darth Vader, representative of all the loss the Empire has caused him personally and the threat posed by the Empire to the galaxy as a whole. Finally, with the aid of the Force and the Rebellion’s stolen plans, he singlehandedly destroys the Death Star.
Note the FOCUS: all of this is centered around Luke, it is driven by his actions and his motivations, every step forward is a step forward for Luke’s objective, and every obstacle is an obstacle for Luke personally.
To the untrained (or blinded eye), the plot of The Force Awakens looks awfully similar to A New Hope. Evil Empire, runaway droid with Rebel secrets, wide eyed protagonists with Jedi potential, Death Star, Vader character, mentor death scene, “Use the Force!” scene, Death Star goes boom.
Allow me to point out the key difference from which you can observe the unraveling of the entire plot:
In A New Hope, the central conflict is the threat of the Empire, which makes the central objective the destruction of the Death Star.
In The Force Awakens, the central conflict is the same: the threat of the First Order. The central objective, however, is finding Luke Skywalker.
It is never fully explained WHY we want to find Luke Skywalker. It’s just implied that he will somehow help fight the First Order.
There also happens to be a Death Star, but this has nothing to do with Luke Skywalker. There are no expectations that he will help to destroy the Death Star. If you saw the original trilogy, you have a sense that Jedi are important somehow. Nothing too specific. Luke’s importance remains unexplored throughout the entire movie.
Thus we have our two main problems:
1 | There is a disconnect between the central conflict and the central objective.
2 | The central objective itself is left vague.
What results from this is a horribly disjointed plotline. Half of the events are directed at finding Luke and half are directed towards an imminent battle with the First Order.
Rey and Finn’s journey begins with finding BB-8, which is relevant to finding Luke. Halfway through the movie, we learn about the new Death Star and THAT becomes the objective. Finn and Han sneak into the base to knock out the shields on the Death Star, temporarily forgetting about the search for Luke. Finn, in fact, is there for neither Luke nor the Resistance–he’s there to rescue Rey, a character objective that becomes his personal plot objective.
Han Solo’s part in the story is at first relevant to finding Luke, then it is relevant to verifying the myths Rey and Finn heard growing up, then it’s back to the Death Star, and finally back to his own character goals of turning his son back to the Light Side.
His guidance of Rey and Finn isn’t for the purposes of helping them becoming Jedi or pilots or anything that will aide them either in finding Luke or stopping the First Order. The loss of him isn’t at all a hindrance in their journey. He’s an important historical figure for them, but personally, he means nothing to them.
Look again at the focus in A New Hope:
Finding R2 is relevant to destroying the Death Star, aka fighting the Empire.
Meeting Obi Wan is relevant to becoming a Jedi Knight which will help him fight the Empire.
Obi Wan is called upon to deliver the Death Star plans in order to fight the Empire.
Losing Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen provides motivation for Luke to fight the Empire.
Losing Obi Wan’s guidance is a direct hindrance to Luke being capable in the fight against the Empire.
The movie ends with Luke using both the Death Star plans (plot objective) and Obi Wan’s guidance (character objective) to destroy the Death Star, winning the fight against the Empire.
Everything is directed towards a single, clear purpose. Luke’s goals are crystal clear and intimately tied to the plot objective.
Look back at The Force Awakens:
Rey and Finn’s character motivations are much more obscure and general. We know Rey likes adventure, we know she admires the heroes of the past. But she expresses no clear desire to become a Jedi or a pilot. What she ends up becoming is a mix of both. For Finn, all we know is that he doesn’t want to be a stormtrooper. He, too, doesn’t specifically want to become anything. He doesn’t even want to help the Resistance at first. He pretends he does to get off his base, and then to get Rey to trust him. We know he likes Rey, but the motivation for this remains somewhat vague.
What do any of the main characters’ arcs have to do with our central conflict and objective?
Rey and Finn’s murky motivations drive them to get the map to Luke to the Resistance, but that objective is achieved halfway through the movie. Now what? Rey is captured and pitted against Kylo Ren–what her success or failure means to her arc or the plot remaining unstated. Finn wants to rescue Rey–no longer concerned with finding Luke and only accidentally concerned with the Death Star. Han’s newly uncovered objective to turn his son puts him roughly in the same position as Finn.
In the end of A New Hope, Luke becomes the Jedi Knight he’s always yearned to be and single-handedly destroys the Death Star.
In the end of The Force Awakens, Rey uses the Force, she and Finn engage in a futile fight against Kylo Ren, and a side character destroys the Death Star.
We find Luke, thanks not to the main characters, but to R2D2, who wakes up at the end of the movie for no reason at all.
Our third and fourth problems:
3 | The protagonists’ goals and arcs remain vague.
4 | The protagonists’ actions and decisions are, at best, only secondarily responsible for achieving the plot’s main objective and solving its main conflict.
In conclusion, we have:
A disjointed plotline. An unclear plot goal. Characters with weak arcs. Plot points that are irrelevant to both plot and character. A resolution not brought about by the protagonists.
This is a textbook definition of sloppy storytelling.