Beyond the superficial differences of science fiction and science fantasy, both the original Star Wars and the 2009 version of Star Trek diverge in their approach to narrative. One explores trouble in the act of rebelling, the other in the act of revenge. Seeking the source of conflict in both films helps to delineate possible alternatives to story structure.
Once a writer masters the application of the
Four Throughlines to story, their next step lies in understanding the difference between the
Concerns of the Throughlines. Each Throughline maintains a different perspective on the story’s central inequity and therefore sees the results of that conflict in a contrasting light. Though varied, the Concerns of each Throughline share narrative common ground.
If one Throughline focuses on Concerns of the Past, then the other Throughlines will explore Concerns of Understanding, of Memories, and of Conceptualizing. A commonality exists between these Concerns that is felt more than intellectualized. If a Throughline focuses on Concerns of the Future, then the other Throughlines concentrate on Concerns of Obtaining, of Innermost Desires, and of Changing One’s Nature. Again, common Concerns different perspectives.
These common Concerns set the narrative structure in such a way that they distinguish themselves from one another. Films set in the Past, Understanding, Memories, and Conceptualizing deviate from films set in the Future, Obtaining, Innermost Desires, and Changing One’s Nature.
This is what happens with Star Trek and Star Wars.
Problems with Activities
At first it may seem that both films lie in the same position on the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. After all, they both find conflict as a result of the efforts to destroy entire worlds. It is where that conflict brews up from, however, that is key to unraveling their unique narrative structures.
True, both Star Wars and Star Trek find their
Overall Story Throughline in
Activity. In addition to the destruction of home worlds, each film explores epic space battles and honest-to-goodness hand-to-hand combat. But they deviate the the next level down on the chart, separating their Concerns into two distinct areas.
Concern of a Throughline is the focal point for conflict in that Throughline. In an Activity story, the Concern could be the struggle towards Understanding something new (Inception). It could be conflict encountered Learning something new (Contact). It could be the fight to engage in Doing whatever it takes to beat the bad guys (the original Ghostbusters). Lastly, it could be the attempt to Obtain something sought after for many years (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
You cannot describe an Activity any other way without using one of these four terms. Star Wars and Star Trek use these last two, respectively.
Finding the Concerns
When you want to find the Concern of a Throughline, you need to ask Where is the source of conflict coming from? You can’t simply look to the storytelling of a narrative for clues as to the structural elements. Star Wars spends an awful lot of time Obtaining—stealing plans, hiding plans, and getting those plans back home. But Obtaining fails to describe accurately the source of conflict in that film.
The Narrative First Podcast Episode #10: Supercharging the Conflict In Your Story discusses the need to see Dramatica’s work as indicating the source of conflict in the story, not the story itself. Dramatica looks at the structural elements of a narrative, not how those elements relay themselves to an Audience. Star Wars does spend a considerable amount of time telling a story about Obtaining, but it is in the Doing that it finds actual conflict.
If you know where the conflict is coming from, then removing that source of inequity should remove any conflict in the story. This is the thought process behind the litmus tests discussed in the article Understanding the Personal Goal of Your Main Character. Remove what you think is a source of conflict from a story and see if conflict still exists—if it does, you haven’t properly identified the source of conflict.
The Concern of Star Wars
If Obtaining, or trying to achieve something, were the source of conflict in Star Wars then that would mean if they stopped trying to obtain then every with would be OK. Is that true? If the Rebels simply returned the plans to Darth Vader and didn’t try to destroy the Death Star would everything in that story world be OK?
You would still have an overbearing Empire imposing its rule on subjugated citizens driven to rebel. You would still have an Empire feeling it necessary to blow up peaceful planets from time-to-time to insure their rule. And you would still have a Rebel faction continuation to instigate insurgencies here and there throughout the galaxy.
The problem would still exist.
The source of problems in the original Star Wars isn’t achieving or destroying something, it is the actual act of rebelling. It is the Doing, not the Obtaining.
Those numbskulls who don’t realize The MacGuffin is a Joke and claim the Death Star plans simply something to “get the story going” are right.1 Whether or not the plans are obtained is inconsequential to the actual conflict presented in the film.
Of Goals and Consequences
The conflict in Star Wars finds its source in the act of rebelling. If you remove that act, if the Rebels stopped doing all of that pesky rebelling, then there would no longer be any problems in that world. Grand Moff Tarkin and the rest of his cronies wouldn’t feel it necessary to test their super laser and the rest of the galaxy would live in relative peace.
Of course, they would be pretending that everything is hunky-dorey as one must when living under the rule of an Empire. But that acquiescence works within the narrative structure.
Playing a Role, or Pretending that Everything is OK, is the
Overall Story Consequence of Star Wars. In fact, any story with an
Overall Story Concern of
Doing will have a
Being because a narrative with an
Overall Story Concern of
Doing also has an
Overall Story Concern of
Concern of a Throughline feels like the
Goal of a Throughline because it exists on the
Type level of the Dramatica Table of Story Elements. The
Type level contains all the Signposts—or Acts—of a Throughline and therefore feels the closest to
Plot. Goals are the closest thing you can get to a plot element of structure.
Consequence also finds itself on the Type level as it determines what will happen if the Goal of a story is not achieved. It functions as a motivator for characters to move towards resolution. The Protagonist of a story moves towards the
Goal while the Antagonist works for the
Consequence. Luke and his buddies move towards rebelling (Doing) while Grand Moff and his cronies work for living life under Empire rule (Playing a Role).
Thus, the Goal of Star Wars is not to simply “blow-up the Death Star”, it is to rebel—to find a way to rebel or Do against an Evil Empire. And they do find a way once Luke turns off his targeting computer.
The Concern of Star Trek
Shifting the attention to the 2009 of Star Trek, one might ask Why then is this an Obtaining story? Using the same kind of litmus test used on Star Wars, we can determine whether the conflict is coming from Doing or Obtaining.
If the source of conflict in Star Trek came from the Doing—the attacking of ships, the time-traveling, and the battling of space-monsters—then that would mean removing those sources would end the conflict in the story. Unfortunately unlike Star Wars, if you removed the Doing from Star Trek, there would still be conflict because there would still be something left not yet achieved.
This is because Star Trek is a revenge story. Like Unforgiven, Star Trek is all about payback and making people pay for the sins they committed. Nero (Eric Bana) wants Spock to pay for letting Romulus perish in the supernova and eventually wants Earth to perish as well. Until that debt is paid, conflict will continue to exist. Only with his sense of righteousness assuaged, would the story end.
That is how you know Star Trek is an Obtaining story.
The Search for Conflict in a Story
Unraveling the pieces of narrative structure is a difficult process, not only after the fact but during the creation process as well. When stuck, this mantra for story structure saves the day: If you remove what you think is the source of conflict and there is still trouble there then you haven’t identified the source of conflict.
Both Star Trek and Star Wars may be set in space, but the narrative structural material they explore is literally from two different worlds. Star Wars explores the problems of fighting back and rebelling and testing out new weapons systems. Star Trek explore the problems of seeking revenge and destroying homeworlds as a way of getting back at someone. While on the surface they may seem similar, deep down they couldn’t be more alien.
But not in the way they think they are. They’re right because the MacGuffin is inconsequential to understanding how narrative actually works. ↩︎