And Then Emperor Palpatine Fell Into an Explanation

The other day I went to see the movie Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fan one year before the release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I won’t say much about the movie itself except that I thought it was hilarious, but it reminded me that there’s a lot of Star Wars “lore” out there. I had borrowed a Star Wars character guide from a friend long ago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I decided to hop online and take a look at the compiled information on the universe that is Star Wars. Upon reading I began to feel this sense of dread.

One of the very important lessons then Western Art took from Eastern Art was the concept of negative space, that leaving spaces blank can be just as effective a tool as filling in every detail. Essentially, it means less can be more. When applied to storytelling, it means that not every detail has to be explained and that in many cases the more explanation that arises the less effective the storytelling becomes. This is what I saw with the information on the  Star Wars Universe. I saw unnecessary explanation after unnecessary explanation, as if making sense of the world and filling in the gaps is far more important than maintaining the feel of the story and characters.

The idea of fans filling in the gaps is not something that’s necessarily bad. In fact many times I consider it to be a good thing as I feel it’s a very important foundation of fandom, whether it’s imagining stories in between major events, inventing new characters, or even fleshing out one-dimensional characters. One can argue that having these complex technical explanations is one type of fan’s way of exploring the universe of the story, but once it reaches a point where it becomes some kind of hybrid canon/fanon that influences or restructures the original story, I can’t help but feel that it is done at the detriment of core vital elements of a story. Obi-Wan and Yoda learned how to maintain their identity in the Force. Why does this need an explanation? Obi-Wan is a magical old man, and Yoda is an even more magical and even older man. There, that’s your explanation.

I think one of the many reasons why I like anime so much is that it seems to understand this idea of effectively using the gaps in storytelling. It’s not just about fueling imagination so that we the viewer may fill in the blanks, but using that sense of ambiguity to excite and drive us forward. Gurren-Lagann is an excellent example, because the characters utilize this vague, ill-defined power to achieve victory after victory. They are literally powered by a lack of common sense that keeps them from questioning if anything they’re doing is truly possible. “Do the impossible, see the invisible,” as the saying goes. One does not need to explain what doing the impossible entails or how it works other than that it was driven by the hero’s desire and the support of his friends.

A more apt comparison might be Star Wars and Gundam especially given the way they’ve influenced each other, but for all of the detailed explanations and added material that has been placed into the Gundam Universe, I feel that Gundam has handled it far better than Star Wars. What even its most hardcore fans ultimately enjoy appears to be more the story and the characters and the way great tales are told, rather than little details.

Wasn’t Star Wars once in its own in a way similar to Gurren-Lagann? There was the Force as a vaguely defined aspect of the universe with vaguely defined skill sets available to its users. What’s the difference between a normal man and a Jedi? That one is a Jedi and one is a man.

7 thoughts on “And Then Emperor Palpatine Fell Into an Explanation

  1. Great explaination of something that plagues both sides of the Pacific.

    I think there’s nothing to argue against in your post besides to point out that what you’ve idealized in your Gundam/Star Wars comparison is just a romanticized, outsider view. Japanese fans “fill in the blank” just as much as anybody (shipping?) but the exhibition of this particular activity highlights some kind of ingrained cultural politeness that is just lacking in places outside of Japan. That probably is worth a blog post all alone.

    But I don’t think it’s particularly notable to discuss this negative space idea in the context of fan activity. It’s more disturbing to see it in the actual work. I think there were a lot of people who lamented when the word “midichlorian” first appeared in Episode 1, and it’s totally down hill from there. It’s got nothing to do with Western or Eastern views of narrative and world building. It was just a stupid thing to do.

    However, one could probably compare Star Wars with Star Trek and see why filling in the details in the latter is a better thing, from the perspective of official works.

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  2. Well I won’t deny that a lot of the problems I pointed out affect Gundam as well, but it was my feeling that it resisted it just a little better. Maybe you’re right and these glasses of mine are just a slight shade of rose.

    And yeah, I know what you mean by how Star Trek seems to be helped by this kind of thing rather than hurt, but I’ve not the equipment to quite tackle that yet.

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  3. There’s a place and time for explanations. Those that are well done can expand the fictional world and enhance narrative. Some explanations are absolutely necessary to guide an audience through what may seem paradoxical or unapparent at first. Then there are the unnecessary explanations. I can identify 3 kinds.

    The first I like to point to come from our all of our favorite Shonen Jump titles, where a hero and a villain are dueling in some grand stage, but there exists a gaggle of ancillary characters drooling at the opportunity to explain every minute detail of every simple maneuver and twist to you as you watch. The kind of over-explanation where long-winded analysis replaces showing something instead. What if every time you watched a basketball game where after every play, everyone stopped playing, the camera zipped up close to the commentators faces and you had to listen (and watch) them go on and on about this dunk or that pass ad nauseum until they were satisfied the smallest of toddlers understood the nuances of putting a rubber ball through a 10 foot hoop. Those break pacing, suspense, and the flow of action and often drags out matches much longer than needed.

    Another kind of unnecessary explanation the the kind you guys spoke about with Star Wars. The appeal of the Force was its mystery, the unknown, a power that only a few enlightened souls understood and even less could wield. We didn’t want to know why, we just knew that it was Special. Like stage performers doing magic tricks, the awe and charm are gone when they are explained.

    Finally, the third kind of unnecessary explanations are the plain bad explanations. They live in fanon and 4chan, and are the stuff trolls gain their life energy from. They don’t make much sense past the most immediate logical bounds, and are perpetrated only by sheer wishful thinking and stubborn mindsets. Think, “Lelouch is the cart driver” kinds of things.

    And yes, I realize the possible irony of making a wall of text about unnecessary explanations. tl;dr and all that.

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  4. I completely agree. That “midichlorian” thing killed me. A while back I read a Star Wars tie-in novel that mentioned it, and I had never heard of it before. I guess I wasn’t paying much attention to the movie (I was 10). Why would it be necessary to explain Jedi powers scientifically? Like, Jedi have more of a certain thing in their blood that makes them more in tune with the Force, or something? That’s even more “out there” and much less fun than leaving everything to the imagination. Half the fun of Star Wars for me as a kid was imagining that I could become a Jedi. Why confuse and distance fans from the experience?

    Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful post. I’ve always felt that it was the truth, but could never put it so gracefully.

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