CSFG

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Star Wars

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Star Wars is an eternal font of analogy and example. Like The Simpsons and Calvin & Hobbes, there’s a Star Wars example for everything. In particular, Star Wars has boundless wisdom to offer the budding storyteller. Some of it is the bleeding obvious stuff you could learn any old place, like The No Comedy Sidekicks Offensively Reminiscent Of Blackface Minstrelry Rule and The Don’t Let Fan Service Make Nonsense Of Your Story Rule.*

(*Star Wars Gold Bikini Caveat: unless it means dressing Carrie Fisher c.1982 in a gold slave-girl bikini.)

But there’s other aspects of storytelling for which Star Wars offers uniquely illuminating examples. We’ve covered one or two of these at CSFG before, like The For Crying Out Loud, George, He’s Strong With The Force, Who Gives A Shit About His Mango-Chlorine Count?! Rule. Here’s another nine:

I: The Machete Rule

The Machete Method is a way of watching all five movies from the first two trilogies (yes, that’s right, five) that turns them into a unified, coherent narrative, invented by Rob Hilton at Absolutely No Machete Juggling. It goes like this:

First you watch Episodes IV and V. This takes you up to the point that defines the difference between Generations X and Y (ie, who does and doesn’t remember a world before Darth Vader was Luke’s father), but leaves you not quite sure whether Vader is telling the truth or just totally messing with Luke’s head.

Then you watch Episodes II and III, and over an extended two-movie flashback you find out that holyshit Vader really is Luke’s father and how the world of IV and V came to be. Instead of undermining each other, Luke’s and Anakin’s stories reinforce each other’s growing drama and big reveals.

Then you watch Episode VI, and get the dovetailed resolution of both Anakin’s and Luke’s stories at the climax of this two-generation galactic war.

You still have to be fairly forgiving, because Episodes II and III are honestly pretty crap, but at least Mr Hilton’s not crass enough to try and rationalise The Episode Of Which None Shall Speak as any kind of required viewing. As he says: “Episodes II and III aren’t exactly Shakespeare, but standing next to the complete and utter trainwreck that is Episode I, they sure look like it.”

So the point (there is one) the actual point is: people will read or watch your stories in ways that you didn’t intend. They will read them selectively, and they will accept and reject stories that in your mind are all necessary to form a coherent whole. Their love of your old stuff may cause them to hate your new stuff so ferociously it’s burned from their personal realities, lest it bust the bubble of their love for the old stuff.

Deal with it.

II: The Star Destroyer Flyover Rule

Those of you on the senior side of the Gen-X / Y divide can probably remember watching The Movie Formerly Known As Just Plain Star Wars for the very first time, having never seen anything like it before.

I’ll go out on a limb and say one of the moments that probably stuck in your head is the Star Destroyer flyover at the start. (Aside from walking across the carpark afterwards in the dark, holding my dad’s hand, it’s the only thing I remember from seeing TMFKAJPSW for the first time.) Holy wow! When you’re five, seeing that big spaceship come chasing after the little spaceship like a shark after a baitfish blows your freaking mind.

Prologuing is to fiction writing what monologuing is to supervillains. It’s become a bad joke (especially in fantasy fiction) because so many writers do it poorly. In TMFKAJPSW, the hero, Luke, doesn’t turn up until 16 minutes into the movie. TMFKAJPSW is Luke’s story. So, everything prior to his appearance is… kinda like a prologue? And it begins with the Star Destroyer flyover.

Holy wow! Now that’s what prologues are for. Of course, the rest of your story has to live up to that promise, but if you must prologue, make it wow.

III: The Bit That Parents Have To Read To Their Kids Rule

Something you often hear as a new writer is older writers pontificating… actually I could just stop the sentence there and point to this entire article as Exhibit A. But, specifically, pontificating about the evils of infodumping.

An infodump is background information for the story, delivered in a block that pauses the forward progress of the story while you bring the reader or audience up to speed. It’s generally not considered good storytelling. Basically, as the term suggests, you’ve dropped a great big steaming turd in the middle of your own story and invited your readers or audience to wade through it.

But those yellow scrolling letters at the start of every Star Wars movie? That make certain geeks among us feel like we’ve been sitting on a warm vibrating bus seat for half an hour? Yeah. Infodumps.

But infodumps with style.

Oscar Wilde said that in matters of grave importance, style, not substance, is the vital thing. People will drink coffee made from civet poop (a civet is what you get when you make a cat have sex with a weasel, I think) because, somefuckinghow, someone has made it a thing. Someone has given poopdrink style. Because it has style, people will (literally) swallow that shit.

When you’re infodumping, you do need substance (and pertinence and concision and clarity and necessity), but style is the vital thing.

IV: The Han Shoots First Rule

“Han shot first!” (or, for the clearer thinkers, “Han shot only!”) is probably the most frequent howl of impotent rage from Star Wars geeks after “No Jar-Jar!”

Leaving aside all the silly arguments over whether the movies belong to George Lucas (sorry, Disney) or to the fans (four billion dollars says you’re wrong, suckers), revising this moment is just poor storytelling.

When Han shoots first, it shows that the character is calculating enough to kill someone in cold blood, which adds a nice undercurrent to his dealings with the purer-than-driven-snow hero types he finds himself thrown in with. With that calculating edge, he could conceivably sell them out if the price was right. Take it away, and he’s just the space cowboy equivalent of a hooker with a heart of gold. Han shooting first also makes sense of his later actions as pure self-interest. Without it, his subsequent decision to take the money and run looks like straight-up cowardice.

The point is: don’t be so afraid of giving your characters hard edges that you turn them into chickenshit.

Moreover, Han shooting second means that it’s just pure, dumb luck the character is still alive for the rest of the story, since a professional bounty hunter had to miss blasting him in the face from licking distance. Although… that does give more weight to Obi-Wan’s comment about blasters being “clumsy” and “random”. And it would explain why Stormtroopers can’t hit the side of a space freighter at twenty paces. Hell, Han’s lucky he didn’t just shoot his own foot off when he fired back under the table.

V: The That Kiss Rule

George Lucas used to wax lyrical about how he always had this grand vision for six – nay, nine or hell even twelve – movies in the Star Wars saga. Various people have called bullshit on this for a number of reasons – here, for example, and including Lucas himself (ever the revisionist, George). Not least of these reasons is the budding incestuous relationship between Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia over the course of the first one-and-a-half movies, including That Kiss in The Empire Strikes Back.

Seriously, George? You always meant for two of your heroes to unwittingly break such a dire social taboo? In a kids’ movie? That’s dark, man.

So, no. The Star Wars saga was made up as it went along. Ideas were chopped and changed from movie to movie. And that’s fine. When you’re writing a story, it’s perfectly fine to make shit up as you go. Some writers are planners, others are (seat-of-the-)pantsers. Either way can result in a good story (or half-good in the case of Star Wars, or five-sixths good, depending on how forgiving you are and whether you ascribe to the Machete Method).

VI: The Jabba the Hutt Rule #1
The Mysterious Jabba the Hutt

In the original version of the original trilogy, Jabba the Hutt doesn’t appear on screen until the first half of Return of the Jedi. But he’s present throughout the first two movies. Avoiding the threat of his retribution is Han Solo’s primary motivator, and Jabba has legions of ruthless (albeit farcically incompetent) bounty hunters working for him.

When Jabba is finally revealed as this morbidly obese, immobile slug monster lurking in the shadows, all that build up makes him seem like the baddest motherfucker ever. Kinda like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now… Actually, very much like Brando in Apocalypse Now. By the time C-3PO and R2-D2 stumble into his palace, Jabba could’ve been the Easter Bunny and he still would’ve been scary.

In the revised version(s) of Star Wars, though, Lucas has inserted a deleted scene with a CGI Jabba who looks and acts like a comic-relief buffoon. Han even steps casually on his tail, that’s how little he’s scared of him. So, later on, when Han’s still banging on about having to repay Jabba, the viewer thinks “Dude, why?” And when Jabba turns up again two movies later, when the viewer thinks “Oh, man, it’s just like Brando in Apocalypse Now!”, it’s only because they’re also thinking “Dude, you really let yourself go!”

VII: The Jabba the Hutt Rule #2
Why Jabba Wouldn’t Be A Legs Man

So, Jabba the Hutt is this giant fat slug monster. Slug. Monster. With no legs. He’s not an amputee. He’s not meant to have legs. Sooo… why would he have an evidently sexual interest in leggy, nubile young women in gold slave girl bikinis?

Jabba chaining Princess Leia to his bed is right up there with the farmer who wears gumboots so he can put the sheep’s hind legs down the front to stop them from getting away. When the other Hutts get together and conversation turns to Jabba, it’s like being in a bar in Seattle a few years ago when someone mentioned Enumclaw, and all the other locals would go, “Oh, Enumclaw.”

Jabba might look alien, but inside he’s an entirely human Hollywood mob boss stereotype. Jabba’s no more alien than the folks with wrinkly foreheads and funny ears on Star Trek. (Yah! Take that, Trekkies!)

Admittedly, in the specific case of Jabba the Hutt, this rule is overridden by the Gold Bikini Caveat, but if you want your aliens to seem alien, how they think and behave is at least as important as how they look. (Alternatively, if you must put Klingons in the new Star Trek movie, at least dress them in gold slave-girl bikinis).

Go read a book (another sentence that can just stop right there). But specifically, go read a book by someone like C.J. Cherryh (for example), who does forehead aliens who are alien, to see what I mean.

VIII: The Asteroid Field Rule

The asteroid field sequence in The Empire Strikes Back is arguably the best sequence of indisputably the best Star Wars movie of them all. (No, really. Indisputably.)

Trouble is, it’s complete crap – and not just the space slug. In reality, when NASA wants to send a space probe to the outer planets, through 180 million kilometres of asteroid belt, the asteroids are so far apart and the chances of hitting one so remote that the space probes can just do the space probe equivalent of tying the steering wheel to the gearstick and going to sleep.

I’ve talked about this before in the context of the importance of getting the details right for buying your reader’s trust (and yes I’ve just recycled that steering wheel and gearstick gag), and I’m about to argue against myself, but screw it. I’m both right.

Getting the details right matters more in books than in movies because, in books, it’s less easy to michaelbay your audience until they’re drooling pulp. But, either way, sometimes you can just throw credibility out the door and do something because it’s cool. An asteroid field couldn’t possibly be like that? Fuck off. It’s cool. There’s reasons why tanks aren’t built on stilts? Fuck off. AT-ATs are cool.

Surely, in the modern world, even a school for magicians wouldn’t put students into gladiatorial death matches with dragons? Fuck off. Gladiatorial death matches with dragons are cool.

The problem with seasons of variable length is that– Fuck off.

An evil wizard would have to be a complete cretin to put all of his power into a–

Fuck.

Off.

IX: The Death Star Conspiracy Rule

Some of you may have come across Graham Putnam‘s glorious spoof of the 9/11 conspiracy theory, Luke’s Change – that the destruction of the original Death Star was actually a Skywalker family conspiracy, because they owned the construction company with the contract for building Death Stars, or somesuch. Or Belated Media‘s effort of going through The Episode of Which None Shall Speak and laying out how it could have been good. If you haven’t seen these, you really should.

These guys put hours (days?) of their lives into developing their theories and sharing them with the world. And they’re hardly isolated cases. (Exhibit A, this article, right here.)

How many fan years have been put into bemoaning Lucas’s constant tinkering with his own (sorry, Disney’s) intellectual property? Or tearing down The Episode Of Which None Shall Speak and (ironically) speaking lots about how it should have been done better? (Four billion dollars says you’re wrong.) At the same time, fans will happily dress up like their favourite Star Wars characters and go out in public like that.

When people are dressing up as characters from our stories (let alone making giant balloons out of their heads), or spending even a tiny fraction of the time hanging shit on our IP that they spend hanging shit on George Lucas’s (sorry, Disney’s), then we’ll know we’ve made it.

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