Most Star Wars fans know the movies aren’t perfect—especially when the prequels are taken into consideration. The special effects were somewhat problematic (seeing how much the industry changed between the original trilogy and now), and efforts to turn the entire series into a cohesive whole just causes uproar among the fans (think of all the switching out actors that occurs in the special editions. Only one emperor, and, apparently, ghost Jedi are forever young).
Still, they give some great examples of common writing problems. I just finished How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, which details the “past, present, and future of the multibillion dollar franchise,” and it made me realize a few things that I’d never considered. So here are some writing lessons to be learned, by Star Wars fans and the rest of the world. (We won’t call you Star Wars haters. You are just unconverted fans.) 🙂
- Showing rather than explaining is ideal, especially at the beginning. Rather than explaining how big the empire was, and how awful, and how ominous, George Lucas let his first movie (Episode IV: A New Hope) show it by having the small rebel ship get caught by an enormous Star Destroyer. We saw the fear on the soldiers’ faces when they are about to be boarded. We heard the robots worrying about the situation. We experienced the disdain and pride of the Imperial Officers when they chose not to shoot the “malfunctioning” escape pod. A few minutes into the movie, we already understood exactly what was going on, thanks to what we’d seen. (The scroll-up helped, of course, but if it’d been as long as some of the earlier versions, the pace would’ve dragged.)
- Get to the action ASAP. I think one of the reasons A New Hope did so well is that we were plunged into conflict, instantly. We didn’t start with Princess Leia intercepting the data tapes. We didn’t start with the beginning of the chase between her ship and the Star Destroyer. We began with the end, when something is going to happen—when the tapes are either going to be destroyed, or reclaimed, or somehow make it off the ship. The stakes were high, and it helped make us care. (By the time we got to the rest of the trilogy, and the prequels, we already cared enough to watch…theoretically.)
This isn’t to say you can’t start slow, but you have to start with something we can care about, and something that gives us a clear idea of what the rest of the work will contain. For Star Wars, the end of a space chase/battle was the perfect beginning.
- Beware of long sections of exposition, even in dialogue form. According to Mr. Taylor, one of the earlier scripts for A New Hope had Luke (a much-older Luke) prosing on about the galaxy and the force and the empire. This would crop up in later versions, and in some novelizations of the movie, in a scene between then-young Luke and his friend, Biggs. In the end, it all got cut, and the movie seemed to be the better for it.
- Focus on your protagonist (which means you must pick one). One of the many problems plaguing the prequels was a lack of focus. You can see this most clearly in Episode I: A Phantom Menace. It’s about Obi-Wan…no, wait, this is Qui-Gon’s story. Obi-Wan stays on the ship at Tatooine. But, no, it’s about little Anakin…or Padmé? Jar Jar and the Gungans? The Galactic Republic? All of the above?
And things continued that way through the prequels. In Episode III, we’re dealing with the downfall of the Republic, the start of the Empire, Anakin’s transformation, the Jedi conspiracy against the Emperor, Obi-Wan’s fight against General Grevious, the death of Count Dooku, the destruction of the Jedi Order, and Anakin and Padmé’s marital problems and jealous love. In one movie.
You can have multiple protagonists, especially in books, but unless they’re all working towards the same goal—like a certain Fellowship trying to destroy a Ring—things are going to get complicated. If you don’t know whose story you’re telling, it’s hard to add meaningful conflict, to filter out extraneous scenes, and to know when the story’s over.
- Main characters should be complex enough to where they can be described, in adjectives, without mentioning their occupation, age, or looks. When Mr. Taylor examines the fans who don’t like the prequels, he mentions the Plinkett reviews, and in one of those reviews, the character of Plinkett points out that most of the prequel characters don’t pass this test. You can describe Princess Leia: aristocratic, regal, dedicated, sassy, independent, fond of scoundrels and short furry creatures. Her mother: Dedicated, and…confused? Heart-broken? Even when she’s on vacation, she talks politics, and it seems she spends so much time being the voice of reason that we never hear her personality.
- Watch out for overused “surprises.” In recounting the evolution of the early drafts, Mr. Taylor explains how George Lucas considered having Palpatine claim to be Anakin’s father, having manipulated his midi-chlorians at birth through the Force. Thankfully, he threw it out, recognizing that one more familial surprise might be too many for the series. (We already had Luke’s, and then Leia’s. One more might’ve stretched our suspension of disbelieve to the breaking point.)
- Treasure your beta readers. When Mr. Lucas wrote the first trilogy, he had a group of friends and fellow filmmakers who read his script, discussed his ideas, and offered honest advice (and outright changing his dialogue for him, since writing, for him, is like “bleeding on the page”). Even his actors made changes to the script, as Harrison Ford notably did in the climax of Episode V).
When he wrote the prequels, he had become such a big name that no one seemed to challenge anything he said, or did, or wrote. Criticism may sting, but if you don’t hear it before your book gets published (or your movie gets released), you’re going to hear it later (from frustrated fans, Goodreads and Amazon reviews, critics, or very slow sales).
Hopefully, the newest episode of Star Wars, due out next December, will steer clear of the writing problems of the past trilogies, giving us a story and characters we can all care about again.
May the Force be with them, and us, as we continue craft and draft our stories, in a time not so long ago, and not so far, far away. (And even though Mr. Lucas deleted the rest of the phrase before it hit movie screens, it is still “an amazing adventure” that takes place, whenever we sit down to put words to paper.)
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren