So, while I usually write about Very Serious Topics, I’ve been busy prepping for a major SCA event and working my ass off, meaning I’ve been a little behind. I have a ton to say on a lot of Very Serious Topics, but today I want to take a break from that and write about something I’m just as passionate about for different reasons and is a little more fun.
Today I’m talking about storytelling and why Willow is a great example of how it can be done brilliantly. Despite a couple of shortcuts, the film is almost universally good at telling a consistent tale and showing us through dialogue what we need to know rather than telling us.
But enough of generalities, let’s get into specifics.
First, for those who haven’t seen this film, go do that immediately. If you can’t, here’s a brief synopsis and I’ll try to link to scenes when I can: Willow Ufgood is a farmer and family man in a village of Nelwins, a race of what we would call “dwarves” or “little people” in our non-fantasy setting, that wants nothing more than to be a sorcerer. His children discover a Daikini (human) baby floating in the river near their home who is part of a prophesy that she will destroy an evil queen. Willow agrees to engage in a dangerous quest to keep the baby safe, meets people to assist him along the way including two Brownies (fairy-folk, not Girl Scouts in Training), a transformed sorceress, and the self-proclaimed Greatest Swordsman Who Every Lived, and eventually has to confront the evil queen.
I want to get the only major storytelling shortcut that was taken out of the way before I go into praising the rest of the narrative. The beginning of the film starts with narration cards to give us the backstory regarding Bavmorda and the prophesy. It’s a rather simple way to make sure that the audience has all of the information necessary to understand the setting and the stakes, so I’m willing to forgive it in this case since a drawn out scene in which we learn what was told us would have slowed down the film and not knowing this would have given us no sense of why any of this is important.
The thing that I noticed while watching the film the other day (the first time since I learned how to analyze narrative) is how tight the writing is. We are given a whole lot of information in very little time. As a result, the beginning of the film is rushed, but doesn’t feel that way. Let’s look at an example at the beginning of the film. I’ll be providing links since embedding is disabled here.
After the introduction of Queen Bavmorda, Elora Danan, and the midwife that helped the baby princess escape, we are brought to the idyllic country of the Nelwins where Willow’s children find the child floating in the river. Biblical allusion aside, the next part is crucial because it gives us a great indication of Willow’s character.
Ranon goes to find his father who drops his work to go with his son. He spends time investigating this strange find until he has to deal with Burglekutt, and then we’re brought directly into the emotional conflict.
This opening gives us information as much by what isn’t said as what is. Willow’s discussion with Burglekutt is a great example. Let’s look at some of the dialogue:
Burglekutt: “…Where did you get these seeds?”
Willow: “Well, maybe I used magic.”
Burglekutt: “You’re no sorcerer, Ufgood. You’re a clown…”
Willow: “My family’s been gathering them in the forest since last fall. There’s no law against that, Mr. Burglekutt.”
Burglekutt: “Magic? You’ll need magic if you expect to get your planting done before the rains start. I will have this land, Ufgood, and you’re going to end up working in the mines.”
Within two minutes of introducing the title character we’re given a whole not of information. Let’s list:
1. His willingness to drop his work to follow his son rather than ignoring the kid shows he prioritizes his family above all else.
2. Burglekutt’s threats show that this is not the best plan. We don’t need to know the details of agriculture nor whether working in the “mines” is a terrible thing or not. The method by which it is used as a threat shows us the stakes and the conflict that Willow faces.
3. We learn that Willow fancies himself a sorcerer. Normally “maybe I used magic” would be a sarcastic answer to an inappropriate question, but Burglekutt’s reaction (“you’re no sorcerer, you’re a clown”) indicates that Willow is very serious about his aspirations toward magic and not highly regarded for them.
All of this we learn very quickly and without a single line of dialogue that specifically tells us. Anything more than this and our narrative would have been slowed down, so instead we are given exactly what we need to connect to the character, find points of similarity, and understand the conflict.
Around the 9:05 mark we see another example of where what isn’t said is more important than what is. Willow, after being gently scolded by his wife for getting upset over nothing, reveals that his reaction is due to nerves from something that will happen tomorrow.
Willow: “Kiaya, tomorrow’s my big day.”
Kiaya: “Love, the High Aldwin hasn’t picked a new apprentice in years.”
Willow: “Tomorrow’s going to be different. I just know he’s going to pick me.”
What is Willow trying to become apprentice for? What is a High Aldwin? Why is tomorrow going to be different? You can ask all of these questions, but in regards to the story we don’t really need to. It doesn’t matter who or what the High Aldwin is or why he hasn’t chosen an apprentice in years. All we need to know here is that Willow’s behavior toward the baby is not out of callousness nor paranoia. This small bit of dialogue does more to humanize Willow than a scene with him brooding to slow music or a monologue on his dreams and ambitions. What’s not being said here demonstrates Willow’s passion, his relationship with his wife, and serves to build in our minds a clearer picture of who he is.
I really could go through the entire film scene-by-scene like this, but that would quickly get boring. Instead I’m going to focus on one more scene and briefly mention how choked up I get when Willow is leaving and Kiaya gives him her braid for luck.
The other scene I want to discuss is the one at the Daikini crossroads where Madmartigan and Eric are talking to one another.
Eric advises Willow to “find a woman” to take care of the baby and Madmartigan from his cage responds, “I thought you were a woman, Eric.”
From this one line we learn a whole lot. The first is that obviously these two know one another. The use of a name is a dead giveaway, but also the nature of the comment which is in the spirit of friendly ribbing. Eric’s laughter and recognition re-enforce the idea that not only are these two acquainted, they are or at least were close once.
Eric’s next question, “What did you do this time?” gives us a sense of who Madmartigan is as a character and also establishes a baseline by which we can judge his growth throughout the film. Willow had a family and a set of conflicts to resolve that gave us a sense of who he was, but all we know about Madmartigan at this point in the film is that he’s manipulative and imprisoned. Eric’s lack of surprise indicates that these are not new traits for Kilmer’s character but essential parts of his makeup. We know that Madmartigan is a scoundrel of some sort.
My favorite line of the exchange, though, starts at 4:28. “Madmartigan. I still serve Galladorn. You serve no one. Remember?” This tells us everything we need to know about both characters and their relationship. We know at this point that Eric is as perfect a knight as we can expect. He prioritizes honor, loyalty, and service above all other concerns, and his refusal to release Madmartigan from the cage demonstrates how lowly he sees those who don’t hold those same standards. The addition of the word “Remember” tells us that these are not Eric’s words: he’s repeating back to Madmartigan something that the scoundrel himself said. It’s mocking and it’s biting and it’s meant to rub his face in what Eric perceives to be a character flaw. It doesn’t matter what Madmartigan did to be put in that cage: Eric will leave him there to punish him for not being a true and noble warrior.
Now, reimagine that last line, but let’s pretend it went more along the lines of “Madmartigan. I still serve Galladorn. You serve no one. Remember? That’s what you said to me before deserting the Galladorn army just before Noctmar began this war.” Not nearly as effective, is it? By giving us too much information, this line makes the entire setup seem forced.
Instead, we never learn the circumstances under which Madmartigan said that to Eric. We never learn why he was in a cage. We don’t know how long Galladorn and Noctmar have been fighting. All we know is that Madmartigan committed the only crime worthy of slow death in a cage according to Eric and that was not pledging himself to the service of a noble cause.
I want to compare this scene to another scene. Yes, I know, I’m going to be picking on Episode II and that’s like clubbing a fish in a barrel with a baby seal, but I want to use this scene because the story for both Willow and Attack of the Clones was written by George Lucas, but in the former case a man named Bob Dolman, an SCTV writing alum, wrote the actual screenplay whereas Lucas himself did the screenplay for Attack of the Clones.
The scene in question is the infamous “elevator scene” in which we are reintroduced to Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. There has been a large jump between the films where, presumably, stuff has happened. The friendship between Obi-wan and Anakin has grown as well, and this is Lucas’s chance to show us that.
The first thing you’ll notice is a whole lot of lazy storytelling. It begins with Kenobi’s first line, “You seem a little tense.” We aren’t given an opportunity to find out how tense Anakin is on our own, we’re told that he’s tense. Repeatedly. Compare that to Willow and Kiaya at the beginning of Willow and we get an idea of why not saying that can be more effective than saying it.
We’re then treated to a short story about a nest of gundarks that they fell into. This little exchange is meant to serve two purposes: to establish that Anakin is a badass prodigy (“You fell into that nightmare, Master, and I rescued you. Remember?”) and to try and establish that they’re friends and have had adventures together. Being a prequel, it’s important that we believe that these two are friends since Alex Guinness has already told us that they were in A New Hope.
The problem here is that this scene fails to do that by giving us too much information. We don’t need to know that they fell into a gundark nest (we’re only told it because they were creatures that appeared briefly in Empire Strikes Back and George Lucas is nothing if not a people-pleaser), we don’t need to know that the snippy apprentice kid showed up his Master, we don’t need to see Obi-wan backing down meekly from a kid when he’s reminded of his own inadequacies. None of this tells us anything about the characters, or at least doesn’t re-enforce what we’re supposed to believe. It attempts to do the same “good-natured” ribbing that Madmartigan uses on Eric, but it falls flat since the ribbing is about an actual event rather than an obviously untrue character flaw (i.e. that Eric is somehow “womanly” in his actions).
Both scenes also use the “Remember?” construct, but again, there’s a fundamental difference in how it’s used. In the Willow scene, the addition of that one word tells us that it was Madmartigan himself that said what Eric just told him but allows us to construct the details of that exchange. It is a verbal gutpunch, a way for Eric to show his disdain for his friend and remind Madmartigan that he’s there as a result of his own actions.
When Anakin adds “Remember?” to the end of his statement, it’s to tell us as the audience that he’s just given us a story about his and Obi-wan’s adventures. Rather than let us construct the scenario in our heads, preferably one where Anakin and Obi-wan fight together out of the gundark nest rather than one where the cocky kid had to save the life of the person we’re supposed to believe in a great Jedi and then spends years rubbing the great Jedi’s nose in his failure. Too much information here has taken the same rhetorical construction and turned it from a great bit of dialogue to something that makes one of the underlying premises of the film entirely unbelievable.
Time and time again, Willow manages to put tons of information into a tiny amount of time, and the construction of the plot is such that we are moved from one place inevitably to another without feeling like we’re just following along on rails. The characters are forced to make choice after choice and continue to grow as they do, but at no point in the film is a scene or a line of dialogue wasted that could be used to push forward the plot or development of Willow as he goes from farmer with self-confidence issues to brave sorcerer willing to risk even his own life to save a baby he hardly knows.
There are many wonderful things about Willow, from the acting to the soundtrack, but what struck me this viewing was how incredible the storytelling was and how effective a film can be by carefully constructing what it doesn’t tell us.
There are probably deeper implications for this, but really today I just want to talk about this wonderful little film from my childhood and my realization of how artistically it was put together.