Every Story Is The Same by Will Schroder

So I just watched this video essay which I’ve linked. I’d recommend watching it first. In it, the speaker applies Dan Harmon’s story circle to the plot of Star Wars, and pulls a few sly maneuvers in order to do so. For example he lets the first twenty minutes or so follow Threepio and Artoo even though his claim is that the main character is Luke Skywalker. But these characters are very different from Luke. He does mention that we have to follow them as Luke isn’t there yet, but one could just as easily say that if we can’t follow one character through the entire circle, maybe the idea that this circle fits this story perfectly is flawed, or that maybe if the character is what the circle applies to, then we should follow that character the whole time. Now more importantly, I left a comment, which I have tweaked majorly for the sake of this discussion below, but here’s the entire comment plus better phraseology, extra points, and minus all the F-words. The thesis:

Stories live and breathe beyond any formula, or ubiquity of structure. Subversion is what keeps stories alive, what keeps us coming back to them. It’s also what keeps people trying to apply the Hero’s Journey, and more recently, Dan Harmon’s story circle in places it doesn’t belong. Star Wars doesn’t fit the circle, and the circle doesn’t fit it. To get them to fit, you must either warp the circle or the film. The movie doesn’t fit the Monomyth either, and Dan Harmon and Joseph Campbell both say as much. That’s not why these ideas came about or what they meant.

The Monomyth is an idea surrounding myths and legends, religions and creation stories, not movies or books. It’s a hypothesis of a memetic common ancestor that exists or starts in the human mind, and it’s one of comparative religion or comparative psychology. Similarly, Dan’s circle applies to his work when and how he applies it, or to other people’s work who have adapted its structure. His formula of a cycle always returning the characters to where they began is designed specifically for television. It’s artificial, quite unlike the Monomyth.

So the idea that it would fit any given movie is already one step removed from the original idea, that it might fit any given episode of a show (of a sitcom in particular, Dan Harmon’s wheelhouse). It doesn’t fit other people’s tales, especially not tales that existed before the idea of the circle existed. The Hero’s Journey and (Dan’s circle for that matter) is one of transformation, but Luke knows exactly who he is from the start. He just needs a chance to prove it. He suffers losses, and ultimately if you want to say his arc is he learns to trust his instincts and turn off his targeting systems, you can.

But that was mentioned only once, maybe twice, before. His innate flying ability is more often demonstrated or mentioned and much more useful to him and his allies. I think it’s fair enough to talk about what the theme is in terms of what we the audience gets to see. In that way it’s fair enough to call Death Note a movie about a detective looking for a serial killer, and not a kid who kills people with a magic book. That magic book and everything surrounding it is just the set dressing for a much more normal idea, and while the presentation and the gimmick hook us and flavor things nicely, we stay for the character interaction.

For this reason I think that John Steinbeck gets it much more right in his far soupier description of “only one story”: I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

This is the heart of the matter. A story is not about saving the Princess, or training in martial arts, especially if the princess is practically a MacGuffin or the martial arts is a stand-in for inner power or self worth. Story is just character relationships. These relationships might be called the meta-plot, as they don’t strictly supersede whatever the traditional idea of a movie’s narrative is (although later examples may act like the opposite is true for the sake of clarity), but they go hand in hand.

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Luke’s decision to trust Han (meta-plot) and get on the ship (plot) facilitates the first step in their relationship (meta-plot) and the continuation of the pre-existent quest (plot). Another way to put it might be that the relationships are the whys, while the plot is the hows. But enough of that. The truth is that there is one consistent theme, story, and character element for the extent of the entire film that is repeated enough to be considered what it’s actually about in my estimation.

Star Wars is first and foremost a story about Luke and Han bonding over their experiences, particularly on the Death Star, Luke learning to take risks, and Han learning to support his friends. The two becoming more like each other. We watch all that through Luke’s eyes, but “save Leia” or “become a Jedi”, ideas that are introduced before we ever meet Han are specific to Luke, but have almost nothing to do with his journey as a person. He doesn’t struggle with the lightsaber or force nearly as much as he does in connecting with Han. They are important, but they aren’t the plot.

The force and Leia play two second fiddles to the conflict between Luke and Han from the moment they meet to the moment Han says he’s going to leave, followed shortly thereafter by Han’s redemption. Han’s arc is that redemption. One might still insist that Luke’s is the final run, because it relates specifically to him. But I’d say instead that his arc is proving to Han that the force, which is to say, Luke’s virtue is real. Hence Han’s goodbye “may the force be with you.” He doesn’t mean it yet, but he will. Han is necessarily present at Luke’s heroic feat in order to witness it for himself.

Tension and mistrust caused by different ideals, goals and actions between the two main characters who spend the most time together out of anybody (besides the robots, who almost never leave each other’s sight). That’s why the movie ends with the two of them walking down the same path to be awarded a pair of matching trophies. They are connected, they are our heroes. They’ve discovered something special within themselves through one another. That’s why Chewie famously gets no medal. Because he had no actual arc of self discovery or self improvement.

That’s the real journey of Luke Skywalker in the first film, learning to trust Han by discovering he is not the man he thinks he is. It’s the only thread in the film that is seen that much during the runtime. That may seem arbitrary, but in my view it works substantially better that way than as a cycle.

Let’s move on to Empire Strikes Back, which does not start with our character in a zone of comfort, step 1 of Dan Harmon’s criteria. And they don’t wind up in a zone of comfort at the end either, the final step in the circle. I think any movie reviewer or critic worth their salt should understand this, but it might just be me. Empire Strikes Back is a very similar story but it’s about Leia and Han falling in love this time.

And as much as I’d like to say that this is also a formula with Return of the Jedi being about Leia and Luke discovering they are brother and sister, I’m not so sure about that one. See I’m not confident enough to say it’s a triangle of movies about pairs of characters in all their possible combinations. While I think that’s a brilliant idea, and that’s definitely how I see it personally, Return of the Jedi has a lot more going on in it than the other two, for example Luke leaves at the end rather than Han.

Of course legend has it that Han would have died, presumably at the hands of the emperor, so there may be some truth to that. However, if I doubled down and stuck to that formula, I might be in danger of blinding myself to some of the nuances there, and I might even be blind now to some of the ones in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, which is one of the reasons I’m posting this here. But the larger point is that the fact I can make the case for the films being about something completely different from the character’s involvement in the plot like the story circle states means that the story circle isn’t perfect. It doesn’t account for all of the possibilities.

We all remember Vader being Luke’s father as the big revelation in Empire Strikes Back, but let’s go back to the allegory of the thing. Vader is barely a character. Largely he’s Luke’s negative aspects. And Ben is largely Luke’s positive aspects. When Ben dies, it transitions right into a space chase where Luke cheers “I got one!” when he explodes the model airplanes. Vader and Ben don’t matter to anybody else but Luke, especially not in the first film.

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Vader being Luke's father is a way to say "all the things you hate about yourself are real and they are powerful and here they are conveniently packaged in one place for you to destroy." Ben being Leia’s only hope and an old friend of Luke’s dad is a way of saying “this is the power that lies within, and you simply need to master the dark parts of yourself and focus on the light parts.” That's why Yoda says Luke's training will be complete when he defeats his father even though there's no formal training involved. His negative aspects, like his impatience and complaints are holding him back even in training, because the movie isn’t about a training montage. It’s about the drama.

Remember Han and Vader’s great relationship while Vader is on Bespin? No? Because it’s not about Vader suddenly being there. It’s about Lando betraying them. Big moment, Han is being taken, and what do they say to each other? Nothing. Remember all their witty banter? No. Because the movie isn’t about Han and Vader. Its not about Vader freezing Han. It’s about “I love you,” and “I know.” It’s about romance during hardship. And finally, it’s not about becoming a Jedi. It’s about “I am your father.”

These character interactions are what muddy attempts at applying the Monomyth, because any character can do anything to ruin that hero’s journey by interacting with the hero and redirecting that journey. But of course it can still be good despite not fitting. But this is probably the crux of it. Not that I think Will Schroder is saying this, but it worries me that people seem to think the hero’s journey or some other formula will cover everything ever made. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. Even the Steinbeck quote I’ve favored probably gets it wrong in cases like El Topo, although I definitely think it’s more right than the Hero’s Journey or the story circle.

Just in looking up things like the one true story, I found Steinbeck, one that says either a normal person goes to a strange place or a strange person comes to a normal place, and there’s always been that one from the end of the Amazing Spider-Man, “who am I?” And I think the fact this disagreement exists shows that there is probably not a clear answer.

People need to accept that conventional writing like checklists, dos and don'ts, and so on aren't natural ways for stories to come about, and that's what ruins storytelling. These types of constraints are self-impaled, burdensome and artificial, even my claim that all films need character interaction. Koyaanisqatsi has no characters, nor does Microcosmos. Psychological thrillers in which the character has been crazy all along are movies that tell us the entire movie was a lie and the plot was inconsequential. These things aren’t black and white even under my umbrella.

When everyone becomes convinced that all stories are the same they'll start making excuses for themselves, like I tried to avoid doing with Return of the Jedi and like I might have done with Empire Strikes Back. Excuses like “Well even though this guy did it I can still do it, because nobody cares. All stories are the same.” Not so. Stories change, what we want out of them changes, and so does how we see them.

Source: reddit post


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