The Tatooine Problem
Recently, I was watching some of the old Star Wars movies when they were on TV, and I noticed that there seems to be one place in particular where the series has a problem–one that I call the Tatooine problem. The camera focuses on the main characters and the story, but then suddenly points at some random bystander with exotic looks.
I’m probably not the first person to notice this, given how famous the Star Wars franchise is. In fact, I’ve heard people complain about the addition of CGI creatures to Tatooine in the original trilogy. But I don’t think I’ve ever really heard people articulate why this is a problem.
As a writer, I pay a lot of attention to pacing and structure. Bad pacing and poor structure are hard for laypeople to communicate. They’re intuitively obvious, but the underlying theory is not clear.
In particular, the micro-level details that define the Tatooine problem are small enough to often evade detection. What they teach us in English class (if they teach stories in depth at all) is more macro-scale.
Defining the Tatooine Problem
The Tatooine problem is this:
The creator of a work focuses attention on something with no narrative significance.
There are three things that can look like the Tatooine problem but aren’t:
- Framing (relevant mostly to film)
With foreshadowing, the storyteller presents something that will be important later but is not meaningful yet. This is actually a major reason to avoid the Tatooine problem, because a storyteller wants their foreshadowing to shine. Irrelevant things just tell people to stop looking for it.
In the second case, symbolism, the storyteller is using something that applies to the motifs and themes of the story, but does not relate to the narrative. While doing this excessively can be poor form, it has its place.
In the third case, framing, the author deliberately extends the scene to give the audience some time to process their thoughts or gather information. This isn’t common in books (since the reader will always control the pace of their experience), but can have a positive effect.
A great example of framing is the sweeping overview of Arrakeen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation. It sets the stage for the bleakness of the world and the scale of events, even though they’re not advancing the plot. It’s also a time where the protagonists go from the old world to the new, so this framing serves a purpose in telling the story even though the events themselves are unimportant.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a master of framing. Her The Left Hand of Darkness uses framing scenes heavily because it’s written as letters from an emissary back to a central body, so there’s a focus on things other than the plot as it currently unfolds to give the protagonist a chance to explain context for what’s going on.
Why Does the Tatooine Problem Creep In?
Nobody wants to sabotage their own pacing. But it is often hard to distinguish between important and unimportant elements.
Star Wars is prone to the Tatooine problem because it has an exotic world. This is one of the most common sources of the issue: storytellers focus on revealing world-building elements rather than using them as story elements.
This isn’t exclusive to fantasy or science fiction, though these genres are more prone to it. A story set in a small town can spend too much time on scene dressings. This can include minor characters, who often sneak in because we don’t think of their antics as exposition.
Because the Tatooine problem comes from small interludes, it can fly under the radar. It may hurt to cut an irrelevant scene from a story. But most authors are aware when a scene is irrelevant.
But an irrelevant paragraph or sentence can destroy a connection to the central thread of the plot. The Tatooine problem involves a small snippet within a story that isn’t part of the story at all. Because it’s small, authors think it’s a minor indiscretion. In reality, it makes everything else murky.The Tatooine problem involves a small snippet within a story that isn't part of the story at all. Because it's small, authors think it's a minor indiscretion. In reality, it makes everything else murky. Click To Tweet
Storytellers can’t see this because the story itself is clear to them. That’s why the technical skill involved in writing is much greater than the technical skill involved in reading or watching stories.
There’s an expression about killing your darlings when writing fiction: you need to let certain characters and storylines go to focus on your central narrative. The Tatooine problem is when you don’t apply this to your setting.
Avoiding the Tatooine Problem
A trivial way to avoid the Tatooine problem is to assess how you’re describing things:
First, determine if a piece of description is sensory, drawing from characters’ senses, or is it encyclopedic, drawing from some knowledge about the world.
For sensory descriptions, you want to avoid anything not directly related to your scene. If the characters aren’t there, you don’t want to picture it. There are some slight exceptions on the opening and closing of a scene, but you should only do this to set the stage or clear up what happens after the characters move on, and it helps if there is symbolism.
Encyclopedic descriptions rarely have a place in fiction. Barring a narrative device that permits them, like an in-universe quote (Dune does this at the start of each chapter of the book), they’re almost always a problem. They don’t fit in dialogue, and they are too slow and bulky for the reader. Worst, an encyclopedic description is almost always extraneous if you have a good narrative buildup.
My suggestion is to show any encyclopedic description in action. Instead of explaining that a mountain valley will keep storms at bay, have a character choose to camp there because it will be better. Move things into action.
Be careful with using dialogue to convey an encyclopedic description. Make sure a character’s personality is always shown, and don’t have characters belabor known information.
The geeky scientist says: “Given the coming storm, it seems like we should keep going so we can set up camp in the valley and stay out of the worst of it.”
The weathered military captain points and says: “That’s our campsite. We’ll weather the storm there.”
In my master’s program, I saw many people do a false avoidance of the Tatooine problem. I call this the CGI Jawa approach, and you’ll see why in a minute.
The Tatooine problem is having a scene with description signifying nothing. There’s no action to keep things interesting, just a lull in the story.
You can get rid of the Tatooine problem by adding action, but it’s easy to make it irrelevant. This involves creating some minor conflict or scene that the main characters don’t have a stake in to fill up the dead space of a Tatooine interlude.
This may be entertaining, but it’s more like comic relief in a Shakespeare play than part of the central story. Shakespeare at least used his comic relief to parody or parallel his own stories, where the interludes in modern fiction rarely work well. The reasons for this are a whole different topic for discussion, but an increase in character focus means extra elements feel further afield than they did on the Elizabethan stage.
Worse, having irrelevant action can define characters in ways that you don’t intend! If the protagonists get entangled in some minor fracas, they need to respond to it. You either make them solve the problem quickly, which treads into Mary Sue territory, or you jump into and out of things quickly. This means that the characters did that too, unless you write a “they solved it and moved on” excuse that can easily disenfranchise your audience.
Maintaining Clarity of Vision
To avoid the Tatooine problem, you need to keep a focus on what the story is. It’s a symptom of wanting to tell a story without focusing on the core of the story. You have a place that is important to your story, but you exaggerate its importance. You have characters that live in your story’s world, but exaggerate their importance.
You need to adjust your scenes and push those things out. Be merciless! If it doesn’t move the story forward, it stalls the story. Squawking space aliens and bumbling androids don’t have a spot in your story unless it’s about squawking space aliens and bumbling androids. Sift the wheat from the chaff and focus on what matters.