Wardscrawl: Raising the Stakes

Everyone loves a good battle to conclude a great story, right? This is where so many stories reach a blazing climax, and so many fall apart. Honestly, it’s my favourite bit of any movie, and no movie does it better than Return of the Jedi.

You know the story. The Empire’s built a second Death Star. A team of Rebels is on Endor, working to deactivate the shield so the Rebel fleet can destroy it. And Luke Skywalker’s determined to turn Vader from the Dark Side.

Problem is…

A Dark Day for the Rebel Alliance

Increasing the stakes are the presence of the Emperor himself aboard Death Star II, and the set up makes it clear that the coming battle will change the fate of the galaxy (let’s ignore the sequel trilogy for now – it was true at the time).

This is already a strong scenario. Our heroes are all on Endor, the Death Star or the vanguard of the Rebel fleet. Personal & galactic stakes are high. And Return of the Jedi builds on them wonderfully. What unfolds is a near-flawless sequence of twist & reversal.

Turns out what should have been a surprise attack really isn’t: the Rebel team are captured; the fleet is trapped between the still-active shield and an Imperial armada. Luke’s fear for his friends drags him towards the Dark Side.

These reveals fall like dominos. The stakes, already steep, become an overhanging cliff. Victory seems impossible … And then, little by little, the tide turns as our heroes lean into the traits that make them heroes in the first place.

When Ackbar wants to retreat, Lando’s gambler’s grit (& desire for redemption?) keeps the Rebel Fleet fighting. On Endor, the ewoks intervene. Leia & Chewie remind us of their bad-assery, Han of his smarts. The shield comes down.

Luke – always the heart of the story – overcomes his fear, and through sacrifice exhorts Vader to do the same. The Emperor dies (I know, I know…). The Death Star is destroyed. Everyone lives forever on the planet of the teddy bears.

Seems simple, right? Deceptively so. But that’s the thing about storytelling. A simple story well told is always powerful. It’s also *hard*. To set up impossible odds & overcome them without out-of-nowhere reveals or breaking character…?

The climax even undermines established magic bullets (R2-D2 can hack any door…) to rachet up the stakes even higher. Even the Force is present only as a philosophical point, rather than the Space Magic it’s been shown as before.

A Masterpiece of Pacing

It’s a masterpiece of pacing. No reversal feels rushed or outstays its welcome. No character feels disserved (even Wedge Antilles gets more to do in Jedi than the other two movies).

More than that, the three locations in the battle are intrinsically bound. Three distinct arenas (ground, space and the soul) weave together into a single, powerful narrative. And you have John Williams’ best work tying them together.

It’s an incredible payoff to a well-loved trilogy, & I’ve rarely seen it done so well since. The place where Star Wars tries to & fails the hardest is in Rise of Skywalker.

You have a battle in space (Lando’s fleet), on the ground (Finn’s assault on General Pryde’s Star Destroyer) and of the soul (Rey & Kylo vs Palpatine). Should be great, right? Well …

Among their other flaws, these battles never really connect. Worse, they invent their rules as they go. The stakes are never clear because there’s little foreshadowing; solutions come out of nowhere. Victory feels unearned.

(I don’t want to go into too much detail, because it’s recent enough that some of you might not have seen Rise of Skywalker yet … and the point isn’t really to knock its failings, but to celebrate Jedi’s strength).

Dark Force Rising

By contrast, the closest that #StarWars ever comes to repeating Return of the Jedi’s triumps is in #DarkForceRising, the second part of #TimothyZahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy.

In a homage to Jedi, Zahn spends the book putting pieces in place for his climax. Here, the battle on the ground is Luke, Han, Lando & Chewie seizing control of disabled dreadnought cruiser while under attack from superior numbers.

The battle in space is a desperately outgunned Rebel task force facing up to the might of two Imperial Star Destroyers. And the battle of the soul is Leia versus a self-serving politician who’s going to get everyone killed.

Make ‘Em Wait for It

Zahn not only paces this battle and its many (oh so many) reversals perfectly, he repeats something else that Return of the Jedi does so well: he gives the reader what they want … but he makes you wait just long enough to get it.

Return of the Jedi never cheats. Everything from the ewok attack to Vader changing sides is foreshadowed. Our heroes lean on skills & traits we’ve always known they possess. It’s character and choices that win out.

In Jedi you want the ewoks to rescue Han, Leia and Chewie. You want Vader to turn on the Emperor. And Dark Force Rising delivers this over and over. (I’m being coy as to how, because if you’ve not read the book, you should).

This, for me, is what makes a heroic epic truly epic. You look back on a battle that’s left you breathless & ask: why didn’t I see it coming? How could it have gone any other way? More, you want to dive back in and live it again.

It’s something I’ve always loved, and something I hope readers of Legacy of Steel get to experience. Have I succeeded? Well, only you can tell me. Come November, you’ll have your chance.

Until Death!

LEGACY OF ASH (available now)

A shadow has fallen over the Tressian Republic.

Ruling families plot against one another with sharp words and sharper knives, heedless of the threat posed by the invading armies of the Hadari Empire.

The Republic faces its darkest hour. Yet as Tressia falls, heroes rise.

‘A hugely entertaining debut’ John Gwynne

LEGACY OF STEEL (pre-order)

A year has passed since an unlikely alliance saved the Tressian Republic from fire and darkness – at great cost. Thousands perished, and Viktor Akadra – the Republic’s champion – has disappeared.

While the ruling council struggles to mend old wounds, other factions sense opportunity. The insidious Parliament of Crows schemes in the shadows, while to the east the Hadari Emperor gathers his armies. As turmoil spreads across the Republic, its ripples are felt in the realms of the divine.

War is coming… and this time the gods themselves will take sides

Posted in Featured Blogs, Recent Ramblings, Thoughts from the Tower, Wardscrawl and tagged , , , , , , .

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