For the record, it is much easier to act as an amateur script doctor than it is to write something original (as my paltry screenwriting efforts to date prove). It is also much easier to suggest improvements to a finished film than earlier in its development or production. In other words, this is more of an exercise for me than any reflection on how good a screenwriter I am or how bad others are.
As stated, I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens but felt it could be tightened, specifically by the following:
First, cut three new characters to free up screen time for either the main characters (Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren) or the returning characters (Han and Darth Vader).
- Cut Captain Phasma. This one’s easy, as there’s nothing she does that Kylo Ren or any stormtrooper can’t do better (threaten Finn and operate a trash compactor, respectively).
- Cut Maz Kanata. I don’t understand why orange Yoda delivers exposition that is more organic and interesting if delivered by Han. Han can easily and naturally arrange Finn’s escape, counsel Rey and Finn both together and individually, and provide Luke’s lightsaber (there’s more reason for him to have it than Maz Kanata). Why give LESS screen time to arguably the film’s most popular character?
- Cut Supreme Leader Snoke. No new bad guy will ever be scarier than Darth Vader’s melted mask. And Kylo Ren revealing his father’s identity to said mask not only echoes Vader’s reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, but presents him less as Snoke’s pawn and more as a seriously deluded young man.
Second, have a more consistent personality, more character development, and a better arc for Finn. Finn is most likable in his interactions with Rey (“I know how to run without you holding my hand!”) and Han (“Did you just call me ‘Solo?'”) – less competent but trying desperately to impress. Build his personality around these interactions.
- Finn is a janitor, not a hardened First Order stormtrooper, and Jakku is his first combat mission.
- Finn is useless in combat and is saved by a fellow stormtrooper who subsequently dies (R.I.P., “Bloody Hand”).
- Finn is traumatized by the death of his comrade and the massacre he refuses to participate in.
- Finn is terrified of Kylo Ren, whose power he witnesses on Jakku and who threatens him with punishment for refusing to fire his weapon and removing his helmet.
- Finn’s “rescue” of Poe is a disaster. He tries to persuade Poe’s guards into transferring custody, but in the confusion Poe disables them. He is about kill Finn when Finn pleads for his life and says he wants to escape.
- Finn is useless in the TIE fighter and can’t hit a thing.
- Finn immediately identifies himself to Rey as “a big deal.” Why hold off on the best running gag Finn has?
- Finn is again useless in the fight with the stormtroopers on Jakku and is saved by Rey. Finn is increasingly impressed with Rey and his attempts to impress her become more desperate (and hopefully endearing – remember, it should be obvious that Finn is a good person who’s never interacted with anyone on a personal level).
- In contrast to his earlier failure, Finn can only hit something in the Millennium Falcon when he and Rey work together. She grudgingly starts to appreciate him, and he is increasingly smitten. A bond develops between the two.
- Han implies he knows Finn is not part of the Resistance, and he counsels him to be honest with Rey. Finn in turn is honest with Han, and they bond.
- Due to their friendship, Finn confesses his past to Rey at the cantina. Rey believes him and tells him he’s a good person, thus deepening their bond.
- Finn leaves the smugglers at the cantina not when he sees the planets destroyed but when he fears Rey is in danger. He’s still useless and is saved by Han.
- Han covers for Finn with Leia, deepening his bond with Finn.
- Finn makes it clear that he’s more interested in saving Rey than saving the galaxy.
- Finn and Rey’s reunion features an awkward hug from Finn: Rey isn’t quite ready for this.
- Finn is still terrified of Kylo Ren and tries to run immediately when he sees him on the bridge with Han. Rey restrains him.
Finally, give Rey and Han more time together.
- Rey is as good a co-pilot as Chewie during their initial escape, impressing Han.
- At the cantina, Han invites Rey to join him and Chewie. When she demurs, they have a longer talk about waiting for something that might never happen. Their bond deepens.
These tweaks lead to a bigger payoff at the end. Rey and Finn are as affected by Han’s death as we are because he’s made more of an impression on them due to their increased interactions. Finn’s fight with Kylo Ren is the end of his character arc: he’s gone from a deserter just trying to escape the First Order to someone fighting for someone (and maybe something) he cares about; moreover, he’s spent the entire film terrified of Kylo Ren and only finds the bravery to face him when Rey is in danger. And Rey and Finn’s relationship arc comes into focus: wariness to mutual respect to friendship to affection.