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Rings and Death Stars -- by Rick Ellrod

Death StarWhy is Star Wars so fond of Death Stars?  What’s the mysterious attraction of this plot device?  (And no, it isn’t a tractor beam.)

Vast Plots and Concentrated Resolutions

The trouble with galaxy-spanning conflicts is that their resolution tends to be spread across years of time and vast regions of space, with armies of characters involved.  No single battle won World War II, though one can while away enjoyable hours debating the importance of this or that engagement.  No single hero won the American Revolution.

But in a story, we focus on certain characters, and a limited series of events.  We can’t cover every fight and everyone’s contributions (though some authors seem determined to try).  This is so even in a series of doorstopper novels; it’s even more true of a two-hour movie.  How, then, can we give readers or viewers the satisfaction of seeing the overall conflict resolved?

One answer is to give up telling the whole story of the war or conflict, and just trace the tale of a few characters through the tapestry of events.  This is the technique of Gone With the Wind or Titanic, and it works very well.  We gain an appreciation of the whole through the experiences of a few people.  But we don’t get the additional satisfaction of seeing the entire campaign come to a climax.

To show the audience that climax, we need to focus the storyline so that the campaign can get resolved in a single concentrated set of actions, ideally carried out by a few individuals.  If we can rig things so that everything turns on a single crucial event, we can enjoy the overall resolution and enhance the achievements of Our Heroes.

Turning Points

I don’t know what the best term is for this kind of crux or turning point.  I keep thinking of it as a “bottleneck,” or a gate that all the plot lines have to pass through—but “bottleneck” suggests a blockage, which isn’t the idea at all.  The military notion of a “choke point”—a narrow passage through which an armed force must pass—is closer.  Science fiction sometimes uses the term “Jonbar hinge” (named after an old SF story) for a crucial point at which the past can be changed—but that’s in a time travel context, rather than in the story’s present.

Whatever we call it, this is the action, almost always constituting the story’s climax, that solves the key conflict and lets everything wrap up neatly.  Concentrating the whole burden of the plot into one critical event has an effect similar to that of Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action.

Let’s look at some examples.

Star Wars

In three of the Star Wars movies (IV, VI, and VII), blowing up one Big Object forms the climax.  We’re given to believe that if the original Death Star is operational, the Rebellion is doomed; destroying the Death Star doesn’t give the Rebellion a permanent victory, but at least the good guys can continue fighting.  The second Death Star’s destruction (Return of the Jedi) has more far-reaching effects, because the Emperor is on board and dies as part of the same action.  Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is a similarly crucial danger.

There’s another “single point of failure” in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace.  The irresistible invading army of droids is run from a single control ship in orbit.  Once Our Heroes destroy the control ship, the droids all go dead.  In one stroke, the invasion is ended.  And we can still get home from the theatre before bedtime.

Geography and Control

Guns of Navarone, with seascapeThis kind of blow-it-up plot isn’t restricted to F&SF.  Terrestrial geography makes it even easier to position a crucial fortress or facility in a key spot.  The World War II classic The Guns of Navarone turns on just such an installation.  The whole story is about destroying that one fortress.  (Well, and about the characters involved—but that’s true of most good fiction.)

In fact, it’s much harder to create a spatial choke point in featureless three-dimensional space—which is why the original Battlestar Galactica’s rip-off of Navarone (the double episode “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) is so implausible.  The Wikipedia summary begins:  “Herded into a confined area of space by the Cylons” —but confined by what?  This is why space adventures typically turn on something other than geography.

Independence Day, crashed shipA more mobile fortress can be a plot bottleneck if it serves a critical function—say, power or control.  We saw that in The Phantom Menace.  The same device is used in Independence Day, where everything depends on the immense mother ship.  You can use its computer system to lower the force shields on the city-destroyers thousands of miles away; and when Our Heroes deliver a single A-bomb to blow it up, all the other invader craft fail as well.  Convenient.

Hive Minds

If we’re dealing with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy opponent, we can also fall back on the classic trope of the hive mind—a culture centered around a single queen or other crucial individual, as in an ant colony.  Kill the queen, and the other ants are no longer a problem.  As TV Tropes observes:  “This plot device is handy as it allows a handful of heroes to win the war without having to depict them fighting off the entire enemy force.”

Star Trek’s Borg fall into this category—at least, as depicted in the film First Contact.  The Borg Collective has a Queen; destroying the Queen apparently disposes of the Borg menace as a whole.

One can see the intrusion of the hive-queen idea in the 1994 movie version of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters.  In the novel, Earth is invaded by “slugs” from space, which attach themselves to humans and take over their minds.  To defeat the slugs, the defenders use a disease that kills the slugs without immediately killing their human hosts.  But since this is a specific infection, not the generalized bacteria of The War of the Worlds, a massive operation involving thousands of people is required to distribute the disease to the whole slug-ridden population.  Heinlein specifically notes that even after the victory, “there is no way to be sure that the slugs are all gone” (ch. 35)—adding a sobering note of realism.

The movie, along with numerous other changes, introduces the entirely un-Heinleinian notion of a hive and a “mother slug.”  The whole slug invasion is kept so confined and centralized that a single quick operation can get them all.  The resolution seems too facile, too easy, especially if you’re familiar with the book.  (A fascinating article by screenwriter Terry Rossio details how the original story for the film, which stuck close to the novel, was hijacked by the Hollywood movie-making process and turned into something quite different.)

One Ring to Rule It All

One Ring, map of Middle-earthThe ur-example of the crucial plot hinge is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien handles it well:  he builds up the Ring throughout the story to make it the one thing on which victory or defeat turns.  We learn that Sauron has placed much of his power in the Ring, which means that if it’s destroyed, much of his power will vanish.  The Tower of Barad-Dûr and other structures were made with the One Ring’s power, and fall with its destruction.  The Ringwraiths were given their power by Sauron’s control of the nine human rings through the One (“One Ring to rule them all”).  Sauron’s armies of orcs and humans are evidently held to a single purpose by Sauron’s will.  Sauron himself, and all his works, are destroyed with the Ring.  The groundwork for this crux has been laid so thoroughly that we accept the completeness of the destruction, and the victory, as the proper consummation of the epic narrative.

Tolkien, like Heinlein, adds a note of realism.  There will be orcs hiding in remote places long after the end of the War of the Ring, though they will never be the threat they were under Sauron.  And the end of Sauron is by no means the end of all evil, as depicted especially in the chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire.”  The heroes’ victory is satisfying, but it’s not absolute.

The LotR climax is only one example of the trope in which killing the final enemy causes his works to fail as well.  This is the assumption TV Tropes calls “No Ontological Inertia”:  the villain’s creations depend on the villain for their existence.  Kill the Big Bad, and his lair collapses, his minions flee, and his deeds may be undone.


We see the Death Star-like plot bottleneck especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the author can design species and mechanisms to create the dependencies that make the plot solvable in a single event.  But it can also appear in mainstream works, as The Guns of Navarone demonstrates.

The choke point is a great plot convenience.  Real life tends to be messier.  For that reason, the author has to take care to make the bottleneck believable, so the result is a concentrated climax and not an artificial, deus ex machina solution.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 10 Sep 2018 at 01:29
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Responses to this blog

Jewells64 10 Sep 2018 at 12:12  
I agree with your premise that WW II wasn't won in a single battle, but the Battle of Midway decided who was going to win the war in the Pacific Theatre and the Battle of Britain decided who would ultimately win the war in Europe. Waterloo ended Napoleon's threat. Gettysburg was pivotal in the Civil War, etc. etc. ad nauseam. But in historical novels, war is just the background and the outcome of a single battle doesn't seem to play a role in a character-based story, but what happens to a protagonist during a single battle may be crucial to his change. Loved reading your article. Lotsa good points. Lotsa luck.
Blandcorp 10 Sep 2018 at 12:38  
the Battle of Britain decided who would ultimately win the war in Europe.
Typical Western bias about WW2. The Western Front was barely a footnote compared to the East's killing fields. You don't even acknowledge the battle of Stalingrad. Tsk, tsk, tsk sir.

I won't speak for Midway. Feel free to mythologize that part of history if you will, for it's yours. But WW2 in Europe was a clash of tyrants, with some needling the beast from the west side. That's our history.


Paulpowell 10 Sep 2018 at 13:35  
WELL, I hate to agree with Blandcorp about anything —no, I'm just joshing, this is not true at all (I had to insert this, though; because this is one of the rare occasions where I am glad to agree with him and it feels quite odd).

But I feel he's in the right. The Eastern front determined the course of the war; D-Day was more like a "coup de grace". Even more than Stalingrad, it was (as I recall) more like weather and timing of the Eastern campaign itself. Shirer is my guide in this; the Third Reich wound up making the classic European military mistake. A matter of a few month's costly delay in rolling the tanks East. I believe Hans Guderian lamented this at length in his memoir. Those muddy roads!

I've even read (and I tend to go along with) opinions which state that Operation Torch was largely a cakewalk because naturally the tommies had already taken the real brunt of the battles with Rommel.

America simply arrived a little late to the fray; when the opponent was on the wane; and we brought overwhelming supply chains more than anything else. It was a mismatch of manufacturing power; and we wound up taking credit for more than we actually did.

Not belittling the blood-drenched battles in which we fought and won; Arlington Cemetery attests to that—but the war itself wasn't ours to claim for our own.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Tgreen 10 Sep 2018 at 13:54  
The Eastern front determined the course of the war;

I'm so surprised someone from the US knows this that I feel the need to mention it

I mean, everyone has so gotten used to emphasizing the Western front that the fact that the Eastern front was more than 5x larger in terms of fighting the German army gets completely forgotten (see the OKW Casualty Figures table).
Paulpowell 10 Sep 2018 at 14:10  
Aye. I should think that anyone who is well-read in historical topics should be willing to admit it. America's rampant nationalism....groan! Hollywood, plus the general public's lack of love for academia...the likely culprits...

...and (just a p.s. here) one clue which should be good enough for anyone is that Shirer's classic hardly even touches at all upon America's entry into the war.
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Blandcorp 10 Sep 2018 at 14:14  
WELL, I hate to agree with Blandcorp about anything —no, I'm just joshing, this is not true at all (I had to insert this, though; because this is one of the rare occasions where I am glad to agree with him and it feels quite odd).
A stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say. Though of course we'll disagree as to who's clock is stopped Maybe we're observers on inertial frames moving at light speed relative to each other

Rellrod 11 Sep 2018 at 02:39  
Actually, the various battles cited above simply reflect my original point in miniature. It's rare that the entire battle turns on the acts of a single hero, or group of heroes. To give a representative account of even a single battle, much less an entire war, generally requires hopping among a whole set of characters to get the big picture.

My favorite example is Ted Turner's movie Gettysburg, which focuses on no fewer than four main characters, and brings in numerous others, to give a synoptic picture of that particular "crucial" battle. (And it took four hours, plus thousands of volunteer reenactors, to do it.)

At the same time, ironically enough, the movie also gives a brilliant picture of a "single point of failure" (or success) at which one man's decision arguably did affect the course of a whole real-life battle — my favorite scene. (The fact that the hero in question was also a philosophy professor who rose valiantly to the occasion has nothing to do with my fondness for the scene, of course. )

Paulpowell 11 Sep 2018 at 14:54  
Well, of course we don't know anything for sure, according to the Post-Structuralists...

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Rellrod 11 Sep 2018 at 22:27  
Including, I assume, the dictum that we don't know anything for sure.

Multipov 19 Oct 2018 at 06:24  
I liked your blog so much, I looked you up on Amazon (and bought a couple books). Your links also had me reading up on tropes I hadn't heard named before. Anyway, the choke-point is certainly at its most dramatic in fantasy and science fiction (and, apparently, its most debatable when it comes to complex world events like wars). But the concept can also apply to other types of stories where a single character faces complex dangers. For example, a MacGuffin is a common choke-point. Getting control of that single object can shut down an entire criminal conspiracy.

I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

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