One of the things I find myself constantly, CONSTANTLY doing when I am beta reading, editing, or judging contests is either making Star Wars references (when it’s SF/F or I have another reason to believe the author will know what I’m talking about) or fighting the urge to do so. I can’t help it, though. Between the original trilogy and the prequels, there are just SO many things—dos AND don’ts—that writers can learn from those movies when it comes to character, plot, and worldbuilding. So I thought I’d condense them here, in case it might help someone else get a different perspective on exactly why the first three movies worked so well (and, to some degree, why the prequels didn’t), and to use that in their own writing.
NOTE: This post will (obviously, I guess) contain spoilers for ALL SIX EXISTING-AS-OF-MAY-2015 STAR WARS MOVIES. I am personally NOT of the opinion that if you haven’t seen a movie made in 1977 (despite possibly not having been born at the time?) that it’s your own damn fault, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, even on things that “everyone” knows. So go watch the movies, at least the original trilogy (Episodes 4, 5, and 6, for total newbies), and then come back. Watch the prequels SECOND, if you’re interested. Even if you’ve been spoiled, I’m going to talk about a couple of individual shots and lines, so yeah. Watch first. This’ll still be here in six and a half hours.
Okay, so we’ve all seen Star Wars, right? So, let’s dive right into the things that Every Writer Can Learn.
- Start with a bang.
From the very first time I saw the very first scene of Episode 4, I knew this was going to be an awesome movie. Why? Well, take a look at that opening shot. Let’s put the logo and the main title theme and THAT CRAWL aside for now, because that’s more in the cover art-blurb-prologue category… but that first shot! GIANT SHIP JUST KEEPS ON COMING.
Now, of course, you don’t want to use “The giant ship just kept on coming” as your opening line. But we can take a couple of things out of that scene… first, that this movie is DIFFERENT. Remember that it came out in 1977. That shot was AMAZING (and was still pretty unique for me when I watched it for the first time in the mid-90s) It’s SIMPLE enough to understand… tiny ship being overtaken by big ship, sets up the general conflict of the movie (small Rebellion against huge Empire) and shows us how this movie is going to be DIFFERENT from everything else 1977 had to offer.
So start with something simple, but effective. Show me how your book is different. Give me an opening that speaks to what your book’s going to be, as a whole.
- Introducing (POV) Characters: Make Them Honorable, Flawed, Relatable
OK, cheating a bit here… Star Wars is a movie! It doesn’t have POV characters! Except yeah, it kind of does. Even a movie has characters we are designed to identify and empathise with, and characters we’re not. In Star Wars (i.e. Episode IV: A New Hope), the POV character is pretty much Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia and the droids too, to some extent, but for the most part, our protagonist is Luke.
So let’s look at how Luke gets introduced.
Right off the bat, we see something good about him (he is a dutiful nephew, helping his uncle, obviously knowledgeable about machines). We also see something not so good (he was going into Tosche Station… erm, sorry… I mean, he’s a bit impatient and whiny). Within a few minutes of that first introduction, we learn even more about Luke. He is kind to C-3PO and R2-D2 (characters who clearly fulfill a subservient role in this society). There’s a heroic quality. He’s brash and impulsive—that’s a flaw with the potential to lead to problems later… minor problems in this movie, and major ones in the two sequels. He has dreams that circumstances aren’t allowing him to realize at the moment (something that many readers—erm, viewers—can relate to).
These same things can be applied to other characters, particularly to Han and to Threepio… Han has a heroic quality (he’s brave), a flaw (impulsive as well, also a grey morality), and a relatable quality (a need to pay off his debts at any cost). Threepio, as the first character we’re introduced to, is similar. He’s loyal to a fault (heroic), but also a worrywart (a flaw, and also a relatable quality).
Leia also becomes a relatable character in Empire and beyond, but I’m not using her as an example here because I think her potential was… well, really NEVER fully realized, and definitely not in the first movie. She’s certainly heroic, and we see the chinks in her armor a bit in Empire and Jedi, but it is a bit disappointing to have to turn to fanfic for a good look at how the loss of her ENTIRE PLANET must have affected her. 😉
- A Good Reveal Should Be a Reveal for the Characters as Well
Ahhhh… the reveal. The quintessential reveal: I am your father. The whole last third of The Empire Strikes Back is, in my very humble opinion, perfection, and if I ever manage to write something that makes even a SINGLE person feel the utter fear and apprehension and “OMG NO DON’T DO THAT BUT ARGH YOU’RE GOING TO AREN’T YOU???” I felt the first time I saw it, my artistic life will have been a success. I’ll mention other parts of it later. BUT THE REVEAL.
So, I see a lot of reveals in books that end up being “So what?” just because it was SO obvious by the time it rolled around. Or maybe the character always knew, and whatever it was was just being withheld from the reader (Unreliable narrators are great, but you know what I’m talking about, right? Those reveals that just feel FALSE?)
So why does “I am your father” work so well? First, it ALMOST comes out of nowhere. Almost. It wouldn’t work if Luke’s father had never, ever been mentioned up to this point. It also wouldn’t work if it had been crammed in the viewer’s faces every other line since the start of the movie. There was JUST ENOUGH seed planting there, both in Luke’s mind and in the audience’s. His father had been mentioned. We knew that he was a Jedi. We thought Vader killed him. We knew Yoda knew him… but that wasn’t the MAIN THRUST of the plot at that point.
Second, it’s a shock to the character as well. OMG, Mark Hamill’s acting in that scene is simply amazing, whatever you think of the power converters line (and I like that one too, more on that later). It’s not something that’s been deliberately withheld from the audience. The character (with whom we identify, see above) is equally shocked. It’s plausible (although not explained one way or the other) that this is a recent revelation to Vader as well, and therefore makes sense that it was not a part of the previous movie.
Now, I personally don’t think the whole “Leia is your sister” thing works AS well. The seeds weren’t really planted. We knew that something had happened to Luke’s father, but there were no indications that Leia wasn’t HER father’s biological daughter.
Because of the end of Empire, we had the impression that she was Force-sensitive, but as of 1983, there were no midichlorians and no indication that the Force had to be genetic at all (also, possibly no such word as Force-sensitive), so it felt a BIT like trying to recapitulate on something that worked the first time… and THAT is a point to be made later as well.
- Hint at a Larger World (Without Showing All of It)
Let’s go back to that power converters line.
I actually really like that line. I actually use it as a POSITIVE example a lot, to show people how to nail their worldbuilding. Because there’s actually a lot that we get from it.
First, there’s a place called Tosche Station. Doesn’t matter where it is. Doesn’t matter WHAT it is. It’s a place in this universe. There is a world beyond this single house and this Jawa transport that are actually on the screen at the moment. These movies are FULL of things like that. Dantooine. Ord Mantell. The Kessel run. Yes, fandom and the Expanded Universe have made up stories for all of those things, but there weren’t any at the time. Those names were just there to remind us that we were in another universe. It doesn’t matter what they mean, just that they ARE. (I urge writers to use things like this in your fiction, even if it’s NOT SF/F, too! Throw out the names of neighboring towns, local politicians, whatever! Give the impression that your characters are living in a larger world that what is explicitly shown on the page).
Second, that line shows us something about Luke. Twelve year old me didn’t need to know what a power converter was to know that it was a MECHANICAL SOMETHING (Luke is good with machines, and this is an important part of his character). Also, that Luke wants A THING that his circumstances won’t let him GO GET. (Again, earning total empathy from the “I am living in suburban America and am still four years away from a driver’s license” viewer)
The reader doesn’t have to understand every reference in your book. Even if what you’re mentioning IS a real thing or a real place, make sure that it at least pulls the weight of the power converters line… let your reader know that SOMETHING else is out there, even if we’re not 100% sure what it is.
- Let Your Romance Develop Slowly
OK, let’s talk Han/Leia. I love them. Which felt kind of weird at the time, because I was/am a total Luke fangirl… and yet it didn’t bother me at all that Luke didn’t get the girl. (I vote for Luke as asexual, actually, but we’ll see what Episode VII has to say about that, I guess)
So, why did Han/Leia work? One of the biggest reasons it works for me is that, even though we’ve only got six hours or so to see them together, we get the clear image that the relationship grows over time. At first, there’s mild flirting… obvious attraction, but that may or may not go anywhere. They’re both good looking people, but that alone does not make a romance. At the end of the first movie, there’s really nothing romantic there. And since they’ve known each other for a day or so, THAT MAKES SENSE.
It’s not until Empire, when they’ve knows each other for a few years, that the sexual tension really comes out, and it seems all the more believable for the wait. Of course whirlwind romances do happen in real life, but we still need to see it happen. What makes these people attractive to one another? Han/Leia is a great example of “show, don’t tell.” We see the attraction long before THEY do, and understand completely when it happens. You can’t just have your characters declare their love out of nowhere. We need to see it building under the surface, whether it’s been building for three years or three hours!
- If You’ve Got Multiple Storylines, Make Sure We Care About Them All
More Empire love here… all three movies in the original trilogy do this, but I personally think Empire does it the best. For the first third of the movie, the Big Three (Luke, Han, and Leia) are basically together, but for the second part (when Luke is training with Yoda and Han and Leia are trying to make it to Cloud City with a broken hyperdrive) and the third part (the lightsaber dual and carbon freeze), there are TWO main storylines happening.
So, why do they work? First, there is at least one character that we genuinely care about in each storyline. If the editors were whisking us away from Han and Leia or Luke and Vader to show us what Chewie’s (retconned-out?) wife was doing back on Kashyyyk, we probably wouldn’t care. Instead, we’re going from Luke to Han and Leia and back again. We care about all three characters. Neither of the storylines feels like a disappointment to come back to.
Second, the editing works like a series of strong chapter endings. Yes, it’s a little disappointing to get a cliffhanger for one storyline, but since we’re returning to what WAS a cliffhanger for the other storyline, there’s always something there that makes us WANT to keep watching.
Finally, there’s a clear connection. Luke and Han are headed for the same place, although in different capacities. Luke and Leia meet, and are quickly divided. Han and Leia’s entire storyline is taking place because of Luke and Vader’s. These are clearly two parts of the same story, not two random stories being told at the same time.
I would argue that Return of the Jedi loses this a bit… It may be partly because I’m usually watching it at the end of a six-hour marathon, but I always get a little sleepy when ROTJ splits off into three storylines (Luke and Vader on the Death Star, Lando in the Falcon, Han and Leia on Endor). Why? Well, at least from my point of view, Luke and Vader is the only really edge-of-your-seat storyline there. The tension feels a bit lacking on Endor… yes, they’ve got to get the shield down, but a lot of the action scenes start to feel like action for the sake of action. Lando’s scenes are exciting, but we simply don’t care about him in the same way as a character, because we don’t know him as well. No offense to Lando! He’s a complicated character, and I wish he’d had more screen time, but the fact is that we just don’t know him as well as we know the Big Three. The three storylines feel unbalanced to me, because Luke and Vader’s overshadows the others in terms of stakes. So make sure that none of your multiple storylines are a disappointment to come back to!
- If You Keep Doing the Same Shocking Thing, It Ceases to Be Shocking
Warning: Not quite prequel bashing, but prequel criticism ahead.
A bit of context first. I already knew about “I am your father.” I had enough of an understanding of the three-act plot structure to GUESS that that was going to come at the end of Empire. And I was madly, madly, in love with, and simultaneously seeing myself in, Luke Skywalker.
So watching Vader cut his hand off was one of the most traumatic fictional scenes I’ve ever experienced. It was really, truly, phenomenally shocking to twelve-year-old me. That was just something that… wasn’t ever done. And in the twenty minutes or so (random guess, I’ve never counted) between when it happens and when we see his cybernetic hand, there was no indication that it meant anything other than what having your hand cut off in 1994 would mean. The hero had been maimed, when he still had a whole movie to get through. That truly, truly shocked me to the core.
Seeing it happen again, to Vader in Jedi, was fitting. Symbolic. Powerful. Of course, we have no idea at that point how Vader lost his hand, but we know that LUKE lost his through a rash act that led him perilously close to the Dark Side. We know that Vader has been consumed by the Dark Side. We know that Luke, prior to cutting off his father’s hand, was in a furious rage. When he looks at his hand and at the wires coming out of Vader’s arm, that’s a powerful image. (Show, don’t tell! No one NEEDS to say “Luke thought about how he was becoming like his father”…. We can SEE it)
So, flash forward a couple of years to the prequels. Am I a bad fan for admitting that I don’t even remember the details of how Anakin lost his (first) hand? It was Count Dooku, right? Because I remember Anakin then cutting off BOTH of HIS hands…. OK, dude, Lucas, you know I love you(r movies), but is there NO other way to end a dual?
The prequels took a shocking event and repeated it over and over and over again until it started to feel like a joke. OMG, how many limbs are going to be severed THIS time?
I’m…. not sure how I feel about that, from an ableism kind of perspective. Were the prequels making light of something that, in real life, would be a life-altering event? In a post-9/11 America when a lot of people really WERE going off to war and coming back as amputees? It’s probably reading too much into it to think about it on that level (and it’s also something I’m not really in a position to discuss, as an able-bodied person). But at the very least, from a storytelling perspective… even though that moment in Empire was not a PLEASANT one to watch, it feels a bit like ruining it, stripping it of its significance by taking that and turning it into something that happens ALL THE TIME AD NAUSEUM.
- There Are Some Things We Don’t Need to Know
This is maybe the number one lesson I take from Star Wars, as a writer. There are some things we don’t need to know. There are some things that don’t need to be canon. There are some things that are nicer to just…. Leave it to the fanfic writers to decide?
We did not need to know the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
There, I said it. We Did. Not. Need. To. Know.
It is enough to know that there was a good man, who was perhaps not a very good Jedi, who lost his way somewhere along the line and was brought back to the light through the actions of, and his love for, his son (and to some degree, his daughter). That was enough.
Let me repeat. THAT WAS ENOUGH.
Is the galaxy far, far away a better place for having known Watto? Or for being rhapsodized re:Anakin’s dislike for sand?
I do not think that the prequels were very good, but that doesn’t even really matter. Even if they WERE good, they weren’t necessary. It was more fun to say “What if?”
We don’t need to know Boba Fett’s backstory, or even the Emperor’s. It’s fun to think about those things, but it’s also nice to have… fade to blacks, I guess, whether we’re talking about sex or not. There are some things about my characters that I know, but will never tell my readers as canon, because it’s like Schrödinger’s cat. Until I tell you MY version, YOUR versions continue to exist. And I kind of like lots of versions continuing to exist.
Just imagine all of the amazing Vader origin stories we could have had if fanfiction.net had come before the prequels. 😉