5 Things ’77 Star Wars Taught Me About Storytelling
Me in my custom Mandalorian costume posing with Mr. Aaron Douglas of Battlestar Galactica fame.
In a little over a week, fans and non-fans alike will be flocking to the local theater to gobble up the next installment, and shall I say “revamping” of the Star Wars saga.
I, for one, am looking forward to it.
I have a screen quality costume that I constructed a few years ago. It’s a custom Mandalorian suit of armor. I built the entire thing out of flat PVC, a jumpsuit, some boots, and various other plastic and metal parts. The costume is legit, to say the least, and it will look really sick as I stride proudly to the theater to join my other Star Wars brethren to entertain the fans before seeing the movie myself, dressed in full armor.
I am, however, a purist.
I went to see the original Star Wars with my dad in 1977. I was in second grade. I remember it distinctly, the feeling of the star destroyer flying overhead in pursuit of Princess Leia’s Tantive IV. Han indeed shot first. There were not any mindless digital shots. It was grainy, the special effects were state-of-the-art and ground breaking for their time, and I loved every second of it.
Back then I wasn’t really a writer. I was in 2nd grade, for crying out loud. However, I think my love of storytelling and specifically science fiction can be traced back to that afternoon matinee with my dad. I wish I could see the original film as it was in theaters, and perhaps that day is coming soon when Disney finally pulls the original films from he-who-shall-not-be-named’s clutches and commits them to bluray.
Until then I want to share five things I learned about storytelling from the original film, tips that stick with me to this day.
Let the Wookie Win – One thing about Star Wars, it broke the mold of storytelling even if it was an archetypal journey. Sometimes what writers need to do is just let the primal side of them loose. The beauty of the story of Star Wars is that it hits viewers on a level that lurks deep within them, something buried down deep that just wants to come out. Often what we do as writers is try to overthink the story so much that we lose that original spark that made us want to write the novel or short story in the first place. One reason I feel that the original film is so good is because we could tell that Lucas loved the story. There was an excitement that Lucas had that exploded onto that screen in a way that thrilled us to the soul. Don’t ever dampen or cheapen that excitement by over-thinking it.
Hokey Religions – Star Wars had a true spiritual nature that was (unfortunately) ruined by the explanation in Episode I that it was somehow caused by microscopic organisms. Don’t over-explain your story so that it becomes totally boring and implausible. People like mystery. What made the original film so awesome was that this “Force” old man Obi Wan was always talking about is a symbolic form of faith. At the heart of all good storytelling is mystery or the unknown NOT being explained. Characters simply trust in something beyond themselves whether that is God or their belief in the afterlife or whatever drives them over the next obstacle.
That’s No Moon – In your story there has to be some kind of unmovable and terrible peril out in the universe. The great thing that Star Wars taught me about storytelling is that the villain that shows up at the beginning of the story may not really be the main villain. Darth Vader was pretty scary…and cool all at the same time…but he’s really just a henchman. The Emperor, who doesn’t even show up at all in Star Wars until the second episode (and even then he’s just a hologram) is really the bad guy. Your story needs to have villains, but these villains have to be multi-layered and driven by goals that (to them) seem necessary in order to further a logical end. The Emperor wants to dominate the universe because he totally believes that he is bringing order to chaos. Big, scary tools like Death Stars are only means to that end.
You Came Here In That Thing? – Sure, Star Wars was a model film for archetypes, but one of its highest achievements as a story is that it twists those archetypes around. Han Solo is the swashbuckling smuggler, basically a space pirate, but he’s also a softy. Luke Skywalker is the coming-of-age hero kid, but he’s also filled with a purpose that is far reaching. Princess Leia is the damsel in distress, but she’s a feminist construct, a character who becomes the true leader of the group once they rescue her from her cage in cell block 1138. The best stories take these archetypes and twist them around or even flip them entirely. This makes for interesting characterization and ultimately a great story.
Over He-e-ere!! – C3PO and R2-D2 are a textbook study in comic relief. Even Shakespeare understood the need for this device, from the Porter in Macbeth to the Clown in Hamlet. The thing that makes the comic relief different in Star Wars is that R2-D2 is arguably the hero of the film. There has been much made of this, but that little droid’s role in the film is the heart of how our other heroes get out of every jam they get themselves into throughout the film. Sure C3P0 and R2-D2’s banter in the film is funny stuff, but if not for them our heroes would have been squashed to a bloody paste, attacked by a group of stormtroopers on their way to their ship, and Luke may have blown up and not destroyed the Death Star. My point is that comic relief need to be more than just a moment to laugh. They need to be integral to the story, the comical glue that holds the story together.
I hope that they release the original trilogy on bluray soon, but until then we can watch them on laser disc if we still have those things. I’m going to the premiere of Force Awakens, and I hope J.J. Abrams learned from previous films. I will be writing a spoiler-free review and talking about it on the podcast, I’m sure.
Until then, may the Force be with you.