Why Theme Matters in Writing

This past summer, I went to the movie theater and watched Ant-Man and the Wasp. I remember thinking that it was a fun way to pass two hours. It came out in July – only three months ago – yet ask me to remember anything else about it and I’d have to think for a minute. I know there was action and cool scenes of things changing sizes…but as to what actually happened – it’s a bit of a blank. Again, it’s only been three months. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a terrific example of what happens when stories lacking theme, or execute that theme in a really superficial way.

Continue reading Why Theme Matters in Writing

The Importance of Constructive Editing

Here’s a fun fact about me that some of you may not know: Every year I run a 10-lesson course over at the Abington Public Library (currently in the process of expanding to the Thomas Crane Library as well). This course, dubbed The South Shore Writing Initiative, gives me the opportunity to connect with and hopefully improve the lives of other local writers, published and aspiring. This year, our focus will be on constructive editing.

What’s constructive editing, you ask?

I define it as “the process of critiquing written work with the goal of identifying and improving writing technique.”Essentially, constructive editing is an advanced form of reviewing a written document with the sole purpose of making it better.

Now, you may ask: What makes this different from normal editing? After all, the point of all editing is to improve. I would say it all comes down to the layers.

Anyone can Edit

If you’ve ever read a book, watched a movie, or played a video game, odds are that you had an opinion about it. Believe it or not, this is the first step of editing. Before you’re ready to change anything, you must know how you feel about the original. Sometimes, the flaws are obvious, such as:

“Man, that story would have been great if every other word wasn’t a typo!” or “I was loving the film until the projector short-circuited and I couldn’t see the ending!”

These are easy problems to identify and most will spot them right away. So let’s go deeper. Here is another criticism that most people can do:

“I hated the character.”

This is actually a little bit deeper. It’s a very definite criticism that required some thought and understanding of the work in question. Here is where most people end, at least in their ability to really articulate what they think. We all feel our opinions but not all of us have the tools to really dissect what we saw and identify what was good/bad about it.

If you ask the average person why they hated said character, you may get a response like “he/she/they were so dumb” or “I thought they were lame.” There is nothing wrong with this response, it’s just vague. You’re no longer sure what the person really thought, you just know they didn’t like it.

For most people, this is enough. Not for writers.

Constructive editing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
And please remember, art is subjective. This is why some people can love something while others hate it.

Writers Need Better Feedback

My least favorite form of criticism is “it was good!” Look at those three words. They are useless. While I guess I’m happy that the person liked it, it gives me little to go on. Again, this isn’t so bad for a finished product, but it is a nightmare when drafting.

Stories go through many stages and forms on their way to publication. This process is essential (for every form except self-publishing) as it often separates which ideas are finally put to paper from those that are shelved for reuse in later stories.

To be a writer, you only need to read and write. To be an author, you must know how to read, write, and edit. Writing is a wonderful, freeing process – I love every opportunity I get to do it. Editing is…less glamorous. While there is still freedom, it must be refined and logical. As someone once said, you write with your heart and edit with your head.

What many people may not realize is that editing is actually the more important part. Not even Stephen King publishes a first draft. No matter how brilliant your initial manuscript is, odds are there are mistakes – especially if you didn’t do much planning before you started writing.

Constructive editing is an advanced form of editing designed to help you identify the bigger problems. Anyone can spot a typo but not everyone is going to tell you that your protagonist has a weak character arc, the stakes are too low, and your rapid switching of perspectives is confusing. All are needed critiques when it comes to shaping a draft into a polished product.


How to Edit Constructively

There are a couple of guidelines to follow when you’re trying to edit constructively. First off – throw the personal stuff out the window, for both others and yourself. This is especially important when editing work from someone you don’t know very well. Never assume motivation as it can lead to problematic interpretations and unrealistic expectations.

When it comes to you, ascribing personal meaning to something may make you hesitant to cut it, even if it isn’t working. For instance, if one character symbolizes a lost loved one, you may consider it a personal insult if your editor says “they do nothing and aren’t interesting.”

It is no reflection of the dearly departed but rather an observation on the storytelling – this is what constructive editing is all about. When you strip a story down to its bones, certain issues become clear. You’re not asking if a character works as a metaphor for modern struggles with homosexuality – you’re just asking if the character works. If they do – great, ask the second part. If not, the latter becomes irrelevant.

Focus on the storytelling, be as negative or positive as you feel you have to be – but stick to what is on the page.

I have told my class that every editor should follow at least three criteria:

  1. Did I enjoy that?
  2. Could I understand it?
  3. Can I improve it?

These are the basic questions that begin the editing journey. Obviously, you can look at more complicated issues like character development, plot arcs, and consistent tone but #1 remains paramount. People rarely read what they don’t enjoy.

Check back in the following weeks for more of my thoughts on editing. I hope they can help you out!

What Writers can learn from Star Wars Rebels

Last night, I finished watching Star Wars Rebels. The adventures of Ezra Bridger and company came to a close and, overall, I think I will look back on the series with a general thought of “It was all right, but I felt like it could have been so much more.”

The season 4 finale in particular had me scratching my head and sighing, feeling like a letdown after the superior writing of the mid-season finale. The sad part is, after the season 3 finale, I wasn’t surprised.

Star Wars Rebels hopes to teach its audience many lessons about life, morality, and consequences. However, I think it best serves as a message to writers and, unfortunately, I believe it will go down as a cautionary tale more than anything else. Let’s focus on the writing of Rebels and break down exactly what I’m talking about (warning: spoilers to follow).

The Importance of Payoff

When I think of Rebels, I label it as a show that raises many good questions and ideas. Ezra is a jedi trainee outside of the temple – at a time when temptations to the dark side should be at their peak. After all, he’s relatively powerless against overwhelming odds, and his chief drive is to protect his new family. On top of that, he’s a young kid in the middle of a war. Sound familiar?

Ezra Anakin Rebels Writing
The parallels between Anakin and Ezra aren’t hard to spot.

And the show seems to be aware of this. We see Ezra tempted by the dark side. In pervades all of season 2 and is the dominant theme. Kanan is worried, stormtroopers are mind tricked into murder/suicide – it seems like Ezra’s “soul” is in real danger.

Then he meets Maul and Kanan gets blinded and…that’s it? The temptation of the dark side effectively vanishes for the remainder of the show, despite having numerous opportunities to resurface. This makes Ezra look incredibly strong-willed, which is odd because he doesn’t seem to really mature much elsewhere. He is still impetuous, he’ll still do anything for his friends, he still is placed in many life-and-death situations.

But the payoff never comes. Star Wars Rebels does this with an art form – build to events that never happen. Let’s go through the seasons. Season 1: Pretty solid – actually not much to report there. Season 2: The temptation of the dark side – payoff: Kanan gets blinded by Maul and Ezra is forever “cured.” Season 3: The rebels face Thrawn, who continually lets them go – referencing a larger plan – Payoff: Thrawn stumbles onto their base through unrelated events. Season 4: Lothal is revealed to be deeply connected to the Force, including force wolves and a portal that controls time – payoff: Ezra calls in some space worms from season 2 to save the day…?

Yeah it’s not great. Throughout its four season span, Rebels continually raises plot lines that it doesn’t pursue to conclusion. It isn’t the first show to do this, nor will it be the last. Thematically, it is more challenging to explore a theme in its entirety – but also much more rewarding. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the audience gets the feeling that the two writers really thought about war, violence, and resolving conflict. Almost every aspect is thoroughly explored, and I never once got the impression the writers were talking down to me.


If Star Wars Rebels can teach you anything about writing, it should be that plot threads should be fully developed ahead of time (or refined in editing) to erase most of the dangling story points.

Creating Characters with Arcs

All through season 4, there was one character I was wondering about: Zeb Orrelios. Namely, the thought on my mind was “What happened to him?” Zeb has no character-focused episodes in the final season, instead sitting on the sidelines. I also started thinking about his character. Throughout the series, he did have several arcs – he found his people, persuaded Agent Kallus to rebel against the Empire (really easily), and…that’s it.

And while Zeb had his character arcs – I couldn’t really figure out what he ever did for the main plot. He was always there, it’s true, but his stuff felt very superfluous. Kallus’ betrayal never amounts to much (he’s in season 4 even less than Zeb). In the greater struggles of Rebels, Zeb is a passive character, largely just along for the ride. He could have left at any point without making a noticeable impact. There is no “it” that he has that the other characters don’t.

And I feel like this is true of a lot of the main characters in Rebels. Their arcs are general or barely there. How does Sabine Wren really change from the first to the last episode? How does Hera? Most characters are very static – with only small deviations (hey remember that time Sabine left the rebels for all of three episodes?).

Even Ezra – the main character – does the bulk of his changing in the first season, going from a loner to a team player. He doesn’t really sway much past that point. Many character arcs relate to the goals of the story. Here is a chart:


Most of the characters never go through this change, in part because many don’t have serious flaws to be corrected. In much the vein of traditional Star Wars archetypes – the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad (in every sense of the word). It fits but…eh, it’s a bit dull for a series.

The Importance of an Intimidating Villain

I’ve already written about this in an earlier post on Thrawn, as well as touched upon the broader writing lessons in my ‘Beat Up Your Heroes‘ post – but it bears repeating here. The villains of Rebels were typically dull and uninteresting. Part of this was the movie armor. Darth Vader is imposing as heck but then…stops pursuing them? The rationale is never given.

Likewise, it is a joke by this point that stormtroopers can’t aim, but Rebels elevates this to laughable heights. The final episode features stormtroopers firing – and missing – a stationary target roughly five feet in front of them. It would be okay if I didn’t think the show wasn’t trying to be serious – but you can’t have serious when your standard villains are less threatening than unarmed children.

The rebels are never beat up – for an oppressed group, they seem to be doing very well for themselves. Only one of them dies, and even then it feels more like the will of The Force than the actions of the villains.

Star Wars Rebels villain writing
Whoever gave this woman control of anything more powerful than a teacup should be fired.

If you want the hero’s victory to feel incredible, they’ve got to earn it. Rebels ends with a James Cameron’s Avatar moment: The intergalactic threat is defeated and just…leaves? Never comes back? What? It’s a happy ending but it doesn’t feel like an earned ending. With everything at stake on Lothal – why would the Emperor, a dude so evil he looks like Satan, let Lothal go?

Also if that’s all it took to free Lothal then they could have done it seasons ago – just saying.

Managing Escalation

At its heart, I think the Rebels‘ writing team had a real problem managing the escalation of stakes. When it was a little show about a small group of rebels on one backwater planet, resisting whatever the Empire had time to throw at them, it was believable and fun.

Toward the end, they were blowing up star destroyers left and right and crippling whole operations like it was nothing. How did these guys not single-handedly defeat the Empire?

There is one episode in season 4 where they fight 2 trandoshan slavers (one voiced by Seth Green doing his Cobra Commander voice) and they struggle. I mean, it takes them a whole episode to capture the freighter. While I liked this hearkening back to the first season’s scale, it stuck out to me. Why were they having so much trouble with 2 non-military personnel?  After all I’d seen them do?

I could go on – and I’ll probably reference Rebels again in future articles. For now I will just say this: A lot of good stories can be ruined by laziness or sloppiness. I don’t think Rebels was ruined, but it was never great. If it wasn’t Star Wars, I don’t think people would have been as hooked.

When writing your stories, manage your payoffs – keep character arcs in mind – and write to suit escalation.