Fair warning: some Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers within.
and some more
and a little more
If you don’t want spoilers you should have clicked away by now.
I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice now, and let me start by saying this: I loved it. It was all kinds of fun, full of stellar characters and action and banter and and and *lightsaber noises.* I loved how they let Finn and Rey revel in being fucking awesome. Finn’s whoops when he’s in the gunner seat on the TIE fighter, and Poe being all “Fuck yeah, buddy!*” Finn and Rey escaping in the Millennium Falcon and rushing up to each other going “You were awesome!” at each other for a good gushing minute.
You can expect a couple more Star Wars-ish posts, but I wanted to state up front how much I dug the movie before I poked at a thing that needled at me. It in no way negates my overall enjoyment! But I think it’s useful for writers to take note of, and to be aware of in their own work. Ready? Here goes.
By the time Han and General Leia are reunited, we are fairly – possibly even 100% – certain that Kylo Ren is their kid. I’d need another rewatch (oh poor me) to know if it’s confirmed at that point, or if there’s still the possibility that he’s Luke’s son instead. We’ve seen him talking to Darth Grandpa’s melted helmet by this point, so we know he’s either Luke’s or Leia’s for sure. And Supreme Leader Snoke has given him shit about not having confronted his dad yet, which again, could refer to either Luke or Han. We also have a moment, when Han’s telling Rey and Finn about an apprentice turning on Luke, where you can infer that said apprentice is Han’s son – I’m not sure if it’s implied in the dialogue there, if it’s the way that Harrison Ford delivers the line, or if my storyteller radar was simply pinging and telling me this “apprentice” wasn’t some rando mini-Jedi.
Anyway. By the time Han and General Leia get to talking about their son, it becomes very quickly clear that Kylo Ren = the son in question. If we weren’t sure before that point, we are now.
What stuck in my craw was this: from that point on, they refer to him only as “our son.” I know there’s a whole taking on a new name thing when he becomes a Sith apprentice. I do get that. And that Han yelling “BEN!” when they’re on the catwalk is supposed to be a Big Significant Moment. So the reveal here is less about “SURPRISE! OUR KID IS KYLO REN, THE VILLAIN OF THIS FILM” and more “We named him after Obi-Wan.”
But…the dialogue didn’t work. It became one of the few points in the movie where you could see the writers’ hands on the keyboard.
Think about this – when you talk to a friend about a person you both know well, do you refer to that person as “our friend,” or do you call them by their name? I might refer to someone by their relationship to me if the person I’m talking to doesn’t know the third party – and even then, it’s probably going to be “my husband Greg” the first time he’s invoked, and “Greg” thereafter. But when we all know each other? It’s first names all the way.
So watching Han and Leia twist themselves into knots to avoid saying “Ben” got frustrating fast.
Maybe – maybe – you could argue that it’s too painful for them to say his name, but I’m not going to buy it. If a few of those “our sons” had been “he/him” instead, it would have flowed better, and not sounded like the writers were trying to avoid a reveal. I also can’t believe they’re trying to keep other people from overhearing the conversation. Han and Leia are iconic figures to the Resistance. Their people sure as hell know they had a kid thirty some-odd years ago. Most of the people around that table probably remember little Ben running around the base. They ruffled his hair. They let him, I dunno, climb into the X-wings and pretend to fly them. Even if Luke’s new Jedi training program meant he was trained from the time he was little, like the kids Grandpa Anakin wiped out, you can’t tell me the news of Han and Leia’s Impending Sprogling didn’t get the same kind of attention Will and Kate’s did. The first child of the heroes who toppled the Empire? They would’ve had enough baby shower gifts to keep the Falcon from leaving orbit.
Which means the only people they’re really hiding his name from is the audience.
It’s a narrative trick that can be super-effective if done right, but once your readers (or viewers, or listeners) spot it, often becomes a blinking light that says “AUTHOR SECRETS HERE.” Sometimes it’s a thing that becomes more obvious on re-read. Once we know that Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, Ben Kenobi’s lines to Luke in A New Hope take on a different meaning. Likewise, when you’re reading A Game of Thrones, discussions of Jon Snow’s parents become revealing in what they don’t say.
I don’t know all the secrets of hiding – concealing? Withholding? – key information from your audience. But if you’re working on a story that requires you to do so, some things I can think of that might help you avoid getting caught palming the coin:
- Have beta readers who are good at Figuring Shit Out. These might be your friends who read George RR Martin or the Wheel of Time books (damned Aes Sedai…). If you’ve got gamers among your beta readers, also a good potential pool. We never believe that NPC’s dead until we see the body.** Ask them to mark down the point in the story where they saw what you were doing, and how they knew. How close is it to your reveal in the text?
- Read your dialogue out loud. If you can hear the tap-dancing, it’s time to take another look.
- Figure out the earliest point you want the reveal to happen. Does the story still work if somebody figures it out before then?
- Read and watch media where you didn’t see the twist coming. Where are the clues, now that you know to look for them? How are they presented?
- Likewise, read and watch media where you totally saw the twist coming. What tipped you off?
You’re probably always going to have some readers who see where you’re going before you want them to. That’s okay! We can’t outsmart everyone, every time. And being tricksy is haaaard. See: why I don’t write mysteries.***
What are some of your favorite methods for misdirection? Which ones do you regularly spot? What stories have genuinely surprised you? (Warning: there may be spoilers in the comments.)
*not a direct quote
**And even then, we question.
***Technically, I wrote one for a creative writing class in high school. I cringe to this day.