Mentor Text Wednesday: The Last Jedi and the 7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama

Mentor Text: The Last Jedi and the 7 Basic Questions of Narrative Drama (video essay) by Sage Hyden

Techniques:

  • Using A Structure To Defend A Thesis
  • Using Subcategories to Organize Argument
  • Layering Evidence
  • Addressing Counterpoint Without Losing Focus
  • Addressing Canon While Discussing A Modern Text
  • Literary Analysis

Background – My Twitter feed actually represents my career well – interactions with colleagues, book recommendations, poetry, music and pop culture. Feed is actually a great word, as so many wonderful things found there have helped my teaching grow.

Recently, a writer who writes a lot of Star Wars material popped the following video essay, from Sage Hyden, into my feed.

Right away, I knew I had a mentor text to share with you.

I haven’t, though I am a fan, dug into the Film Crit Hulk essay referenced in the video. I do love the 7 questions about narrative pieces that it poses.

The Seven Questions:

  1. WHAT DOES THIS CHARACTER WANT?
  2. WHAT DOES THIS CHARACTER NEED?
  3. HOW DO THOSE WANTS AND NEEDS CONFLICT WITH EACH OTHER WITHIN THE CHARACTER?
  4. HOW DO THEY CONFLICT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD?
  5. HOW DO THEY CONFLICT WITH OTHER CHARACTERS?
  6. HOW DOES THE CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGH THOSE CONFLICTS AND HOW DOES THE RESOLUTION AFFECT THEM?
  7. WHAT IMPACT DOES THAT CHANGE HAVE ON EVERYONE ELSE?

These questions, as applied in this essay, are a wonderful tool with numerous applications in a classroom.

How we might use this text

Using A Structure To Defend A Thesis – The thesis that The Last Jedi is narratively sound is argued effectively by adhering to the structure provided by the 7 Questions. It, of course, helps that these particular questions serve that specific thesis explicitly, but as a mentor text, it remains valuable.

I find, when writing analysis essays that there is often a gray area when it comes to organization and crafting a thesis. Do we write the thesis statement first, and organize our arguments to serve it, or do we lay out the arguments and see what thesis they might suggest? I can’t help but wonder how this model, a series of questions that, if answered, would prove, or disprove a thesis would help many writers plan their arguments much more effectively. This could be an individual effort, or it could be a collaborative activity, brainstorming a series of appropriate questions for the specific analysis they’re writing.

As a mentor text for analyzing narrative, or as a mentor text for crafting those questions, it is undeniable that the notion of these kinds of questions would provide a strong structural core for student writing.

Using Subcategories to Organize Argument – To further apply structure to this essay, Hyden divides the 7 questions into subcategories, wants and needs, conflict and change. This serves to organize his arguments because it not only groups common questions, but it encourages a grouping of the evidence for the arguments related to those common questions.

Like many texts, The Last Jedi features multiple plots. The subcategories created within the categories allow Hyden to argue his thesis for each subcategory, using multiple arguments. As we know, using multiple arguments allows a writer to more effectively communicate their point. As we also likely know, it’s often challenging to encourage our writers to argue far past the most obvious argument.

Part of this may lie in the fact that a structure like the 7 Questions is often treated as a checklist by students. I think many students might do an analysis of The Last Jedi that would go through, say, Rey’s plot, answering question one through seven in succession, arguing each answer using her plot alone. This essay serves as a mentor text to avoid this by focusing the argument on how each plot within the film serves to answer all the questions within each subcategory.

Layering Evidence – The visual aspect of the video essay adds another piece to this, one that students could actually use in their writing. As Hyden explains the idea behind the subcategory and questions within each one, he shows examples that reinforce what he is saying.

However, he doesn’t rely solely on the Star Wars universe. From Toy Story clips underneath the discussion of wants and needs to the clip from Rick and Morty, these other pieces serve to show that this idea extends beyond the text being focused upon. When done well, this strengthens the writer’s arguments, which is a valuable thing to show our writers.

Addressing Counterpoint Without Losing Focus – If you’re even just a casual geek, you know that The Last Jedi is a contentious piece of pop culture. Hyden addresses this throughout his essay, but does so in a way that might be valuable for our writers to see. He addresses the counterpoints, either briefly responding to them, or acknowledging their existence, yet not letting them distract from the flow of his piece. It’s not a flat out denial that the criticism isn’t valid, and his essay doesn’t get bogged down in addressing or refuting the counterpoint, but stresses that this isn’t the focus of his essay.

Tonally, in a spoken essay, it is easier to address with some humour, which, accompanied by the visual of the angry mob from The Simpsons, gives the audience a good sense of his opinion of the counterpoints being offered, as well as those offering them.

Addressing Canon While Discussing A Modern Text – As English teacher we discuss the canon frequently. We use the term in pop culture as well, actually quite similarly, to describe the story elements of the pop culture being discussed that are accepted as being the undisputable truths of that piece. In something like Star Wars, with a sprawling multimedia story base, the canon is pretty damn important, like it is in some English classes.

Hyden uses connections to the canon of Star Wars to argue in favour of The Last Jedi, much as we use connections to a canonical text to bolster the literary merit of a more modern piece of writing. By comparing Finn’s arc in the new trilogy (thus far) to Han Solo’s in the original trilogy, he demonstrates that it not only belongs there, but reflects what many feel is one of the great character arcs of the canon.

Literary Analysis – Quite simply, as I was prepping this edition of Mentor Text Wednesday, rewatching the video and taking notes, I realized that I could very easily give the 7 Questions, and this video, to students when they’re preparing to do analysis of literature that they’re reading. The questions, as I’ve discussed make a good template for analysis. If a student had a chart for their book like the one at 10:18 in the video, I’d say they’d be well prepared to write an analysis essay. The visual organization of the character relationships in the three major plots would serve them well also, if they’ve mapped out the core relationships in their texts, noting who their main characters are pulled between.

It might be fun to do a practice run in which they apply the 7 Questions to a movie of their own choosing. (This isn’t just so you get the “cool teacher” badge for assigning film viewing for homework.) What they do when discussing a film should be transferable to their next bit of reading.

I’ll be honest, I love pop culture analysis on it’s own, but the classroom applications are just wonderful. I think showing students good examples of analysis that aren’t about the text they’re reading, or books at all is a good idea. Though they can use essays like this one as a mentor text, it’s going to be hard to borrow too liberally from. Also, I think the fact that this is a video essay might encourage them to engage in a different way, to note things, and to find their own voice. (Also, I think this mentor text pairs quite nicely with my last post.)

What structures do you use to scaffold analysis for students? Do you have lessons that allow them to practice, and develop, their analytical skills? Do you know of any similar essays we could use to build a mentor text set?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

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