The Death Star Model of Essay Structure

There’s a short scene towards the end of Star Wars which, despite being shot carelessly, as if it were just tedious but necessary exposition, is hugely important to the film. Luke, Han, Leia and the droids have just escaped from the Death Star with its plans, and have done the hyperspace thing back to the Rebel Base. Cue some handwringing about Han’s intentions to leave with his reward, and then cut to the scene in question. It’s the briefing for the Rebel pilots who’ll be attacking the approaching Death Star in their apparently-inadequate X-Wing fighters. We don’t know the character giving the briefing — it’s his only moment in the story. We don’t know most of the pilots. There’s scarcely any character information or interaction at all in the scene. It’s entirely about the exposition ostensibly given to the pilots — but in reality (and crucially) given to the audience — about the Death Star’s fatal flaw, why it’s the flaw, and how they’re going to attack it. It turns out to be an ‘exhaust port’. If a missile is launched into the port, it will inevitably find its way into the heart of the otherwise indestructable space station, and blow it to quarks.

Structurally, the scene introduces everything that’s going to follow, and enables us to understand it. In the chaos of the space battle, we know what the pilots are trying to do, we know how to assess their success and failure, and we know what the Empire’s pilots must stop them from doing. Because we know all of this, the battle never for a moment lacks clarity, and we feel every turn of the suspense screw.

There’s a functionally similar scene in Titanic, though in this case it’s towards the beginning of the film. The crew ostensibly show Old Kate Winslet — but in reality the audience — a computer graphic of the ship’s collision with the iceberg, its breaking up and sinking. The rest of the film is wonderfully prefigured. As Old Kate implies, it was just like that, but not like that at all. We know the magnitude of what we’re going to see, and can ratchet up our anticipation of its power, but at the same time we know that around that simple, tragic event will happen other events that we don’t know at all.

To show how completely George Lucas misunderstands the importance of the Death Star briefing scene in Star Wars, consider the structural mess that’s The Phantom Menace. The final land and space battles are won by accident, as cute Anakin flies a fighter haphazardly into the docking bay of the bad guys’ space-ship, which happens to also be controlling the droid army that’s kicking the crap out of Jar-Jar and friends. Shooting wildly at enemy droids in the docking bay, Anakin accidentally blows up some crucial doodad inside the ship, which promptly explodes, disabling the droids on the surface of the planet below. The fact that Anakin wins the battle single-handedly without knowing what he’s doing is structurally weak, but it’s not the fundamental problem of the scene. Far more important is that we, the audience, have no idea what he’s doing, or even what he’s done, until it’s shown to us. We have no idea what the space-ship’s strengths and weaknesses are. We have no idea what it might take to blow one up. We can only watch the good guys fly around it aimlessly, unable to assess their success and failure. Because we can’t anticipate the outcomes of their actions, we can’t feel any suspense. The victory, when it comes, is cheap and meaningless — not because it was accidental, but because we didn’t know what the rules were in advance.

Which brings me to the purpose of this little ramble — the Death Star that I’m trying to explode, if you like. It’s my Death Star Model of Essay Structure, and it’s presented in public for the first time here, entirely free of charge.

The Death Star Model of Essay Structure

  1. No matter how big and scary an essay seems, it’s not impregnable. Imagine your essay as the Death Star: enormous, monolithic. Then remember the briefing scene in Star Wars. Nothing’s so big that it doesn’t have a weak-spot.
  2. Forget about breaking down an essay into sections, subsections and such. If your essay is the Death Star, then you must find its exhaust port. It has one. The essay’s exhaust port is the place to begin.
  3. The Death Star’s exhaust port, if hit directly, not only led directly to the Death Star’s core, but led inevitably directly to the core. Likewise, if you find your essay’s exhaust port and start there, the essay will, step by step, paragraph by paragraph, lead inevitably to the heart of the argument.
  4. Once you’ve blown up your essay, you can stop.

The scary thing is that I actually think this way when I’m planning to write something. I find it works for other narratives, too — even sometimes for fiction. The exhaust port for this little piece is the Death Star briefing scene in Star Wars. It goes something like this:

There’s a short scene towards the end of Star Wars which . . .

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