CSFG

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned From Star Wars

Guest post by the CSFG Hive Mind (written by Ian McHugh)

Star Wars being the endless font of storytelling wisdom and etceteras that it is, and after some lively discussion at our monthly CSFG members’ meeting, Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Star Wars has spawned a not-very-long-awaited sequel.

Here’s our next ten everythings:

X: The Easy Medal Rule

At the end of The Movie Formerly Known As Just Plain Star Wars, Luke and Han both get medals. (Yay!) Luke gets his medal for joining in the Rebel’s crazy-brave attack on the Death Star – he was in the thick of the dogfight around the Death Star and he took the shot that destroyed it. He’s a bona fide, newly minted Rebel hero. Han, on the other hand, got an attack of the guilts after running off with a ship full of money, snuck back after the worst of the fighting was done and took one shot, which missed Darth Vader’s TIE fighter. Not exactly heavy-lifting.

But he timed his run to perfection. As soon as Han takes his shot, allowing Luke to take his shot, you forget all about the squadrons of brave Rebel pilots who fronted up for the worst of the battle and sacrificed their lives for the cause – let alone the two others who survived. (Wedge who? Some other guy in a Y-Wing? What?) There’s no further mention of them in the movie and you don’t care. The only one you feel sorry for is Chewbacca (more on that below).

In storytelling, as in stealing credit for the hard work of others, timing is everything.

XI: The Everybody Loves a Scoundrel Rule

Sooo, what exactly does Han Solo do in the Star Wars movies? Seriously, let’s look at his contribution to the victory of the Rebel Alliance: he takes that one shot during the battle of the first Death Star. That’s it.

Aside from that, over the course of three movies, he gets his ship and passengers trapped in the Death Star, cocks up Luke’s plan to rescue Leia, fails to get Leia to safety after the Empire attacks Hoth, gets frozen in carbonite and cocks up the secret mission to destroy the shield generator on Endor.

(Well, ok, he does shove Luke inside that dead Tauntaun to keep him alive. Oh, and he accidentally sets off Boba Fett’s jetpack. But that’s it.)

Obi-Wan shuts down the tractor beam. Leia rescues her own rescue. Luke blows up the first Death Star. Luke takes down an AT-AT with a lightsabre and a hand grenade. Leia, Chewbacca and Lando rescue themselves from Cloud City – along with Luke and very nearly Han. R2-D2 fixes the hyperdrive. Luke defeats Jabba the Hutt’s henchaliens. Leia kills Jabba. Leia makes the alliance with the Ewoks. Chewbacca turns the tide of the Battle of Endor. Luke defeats Vader destroys the Emperor. Lando blows up the second Death Star after some space fish guys take out the Super Star Destroyer.

(Alright, you could point out that Han lends his spaceship to Lando. But that’s really it.)

But who gets the girl? Who do all the little boys want to be like? Han. Because he’s the scoundrel, the rogue, the bad boy. It’s the same reason everyone loves Boba Fett, even though the only things he does in the movies are (a) strike tough-guy poses like he’s Jason Statham disguised as The Stig and (b) get fired embarrassingly into a gigantic vagina dentata.

But everybody loves a scoundrel.

Of the all the significant characters in the Original Trilogy, who does the least to affect the story? Well, C-3PO, obviously, but Han and Boba are right behind. And who are the coolest characters in Star Wars? Han Solo and Boba Fett.

Everybody loves a scoundrel.

XII: The Massassi Temple Rule

The whawhosethat? What?

Exactly.

The Massassi Temple was that ginormous lost-city-of-the-ancients place where the Rebels were hiding out at the end of TMFKAJPSW. Who knew it even had a name? (Yes, yes. Other than you Extended Universe geeks.) Who even knows what a Massassi was when it was at home? (Yes, EU people. Be quiet now.) The point is, while neither the Massassi nor their temple are named in TMFKAJPSW or its sequels, that temple building gives the strong impression that someone other than its contemporary occupants built it. The very fact that the building remains unexplained lends to the illusion that, rather than this imagined world ending at the edge of the story, a-la The Truman Show, there’s more of it over the horizon and that what you’re seeing is just one story among many.

Often, it’s what you don’t say that makes your story seem real. Let your readers’ or audience’s imaginations do the heavy lifting wherever you can.

XIII: The Warrior Teddy Bear Rule

If Star Wars geeks have a complaint about the Original Trilogy, it’s generally about Ewoks. “They should have been Wookiees!” Etc. Yawn. Get over it, guys.

Admittedly, an army of Wookiees sounds awesome (at least until you see it realised in the prequels). But these are kids movies and, when you’re five, warrior teddy bears are awesome, too. Kids love Ewoks for the same reason they love seeing Yoda bounce around like demented flubber fighting Count Poopoo and that annoying mouse thing from the Narnia movies and the lost boys from Peter Pan: because they’re kid-sized heroes (or heroes who are kids), holding their own in a world full of grown-ups.

Know your audience, is the primary lesson here, and judge a story by the audience it’s targeting.

The secondary lesson is that little guys fighting big guys are automatically more sympathetic. When those two Ewoks get blown up in Return of the Jedi and one of them stays down, even though you can see the zipper on the back of the guy’s suit, it still chokes you up.

The tertiary lesson is that you can generally buy two Ewoks for the price of one Wookiee, and they cost a lot less to feed, too.

XIV: The Burn The Homestead Rule

This one’s pretty straightforward. The end of the first act of a story is the moment when the hero’s normal life is ended and they’re forced into the adventure that the story has in store for them. The easiest way to convince the reader or audience of the hero’s commitment to the story is to destroy their normal life – to burn the homestead.

In TMFKAJPSW, this moment in the story shows George Lucas at his most literal-minded. He burns the Skywalker homestead with Luke’s aunt and uncle inside it (killing the hero’s loved ones is an important part of The Burn the Homestead Rule. See: any Western, ever). The only way Lucas could have more definitively trashed Luke’s life would have been if he’d given him a pet space dog and had the Stormtroopers shoot it as well.

XV: The Star Destroyer Flyover Rule #2
Show, Or Show Not, There Is No Tell.

We talked previously about the Star Destroyer flyover at the beginning of TMFKAJPSW.

This scene is also a great example of the storyteller’s commandment to show rather than tell. The small Rebel ship, still gamely fighting back even while it runs away, hopelessly overmatched by the pursuing Imperial dreadnought, shows you everything you need to know about the relationship between the Rebels and the Empire at the beginning of this story. Those few seconds of dialogue-free, telling-free visuals set the scene for the story that follows, even without the opening crawl infodump that preceded it. (Which is why, parents, you really don’t need to read the opening crawls to your kids).

In the words of Yoda, as channelled by Simon Petrie: “Show, or show not. There is no tell.”

XVI: The Chewbacca is Steven Seagal is Tonto is Lassie Rule

As is so often the case with sequels, about three-quarters of the way through was where the Hive Mind started trying a bit too hard to michaelbay the climax and things got a little confused. Let’s see if we can untangle this one:

When Steven Seagal was young and thin and fit, he used to spend a lot of time in his movies showing what a badass fighter he was. Once he got fat and old and slow, he spent much more time standing immobile while the actors around him acted terrified at the mere sight of him squinting like Mr Magoo trying to read the blackboard menu.

For much of the OT, Chewbacca is like old, fat, slow Steven Seagal (or big, clumsy guy who can’t see for shit inside his Wookiee suit). There’s a lot of talk about “ripping people’s arms off” and “the mighty Chewbacca”, but not a whole helluva lot of action from the big walking shagpile himself. You buy it because one of the best ways to create an impression of a character in the readers’ / audience’s minds is through the reactions of the other characters around them. It’s a big part of why skinny little dudes like Dr Rush and Gandhi can be terrifying (see Trainspotting and Sexy Beast, respectively).

Following on from The Easy Medal Rule: Tonto never gets a medal, and neither does Chewbacca. Tonto and Chewbacca are both sidekicks.* Tonto and Chewbacca are both brown.* Therefore, this is either (a) because sidekicks never get medals, or (b) because brown people don’t. Take your pick. Given that in Hollywood movies brown people are, as often than not, sidekicks when in the presence of white heroes, option (c) – both – is also a valid choice.

(*Except when Tonto is played by Johnny Depp.)

Finally, Chewbacca is also man’s (Han’s) best friend. Specifically: he’s an anthropomorphised long-haired dog breed (eg, a collie) with a laser crossbow that can fly spaceships, because the only pet more awesome than that is a flying tyrannosaurus rex with machine-gun arms and that wouldn’t make any sense at all in Star Wars. Like Lassie, Chewie communicates in undifferentiated growls and barks that are nonetheless readily understood by his owner/best friend. (What’s that, boy? Little Ani’s fallen in the lava pit?)

In the words of Andy Rooney, “If dogs could talk, it would take a lot of the fun out of owning one.” (In this respect, R2-D2 is Lassie, too.)

XVII: The Kessel Run Bullshit Rule

In TMFKAJPSW, Han boasts to Luke and Obi-Wan that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs”. Given that a parsec is a unit of distance, rather than time, various attempts have been made to explain this apparent error, including (from Lucas) that Han was lying to test out the yokels and (from the Expanded Universe) that what Han meant was that he had been able to shorten the normally-18 parsec Kessel Run to 12 parsecs by flying dangerously close to some black holes along the way. Given that the EU has to conform to Lucasfilm canon, these mutually contradictory explanations smack of revisionism.

Not that it really matters. If you tell a ripping enough yarn, (most of) your readers or audience will generally forgive you a couple of clangers along the way. And if not, see Rule IX.

XVIII: The Service Multiple Climaxes Rule

Ahem. Well yes, this should always be an aspirational goal, in life as it is in storytelling.

One of the great things about all three OT movies is that all of the disparate, criss-crossing character and story threads come together to be resolved interdependently in the climax of the story – they all climax simultaneously and the main climax is the sum of all the others. And then everyone feels sleepy and someone has to lie in the wet patch. We’ve all been there.

In TMFKAJPSW, the plot arc to destroy the Empire’s Biggest & Bestest New Toy hinges on the resolution of both Luke’s and Han’s separate zero-to-hero character journeys. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s wrongheaded quest to save his friends and the revelation of his true parentage, Jabba’s hunt for Han, and Leia’s, Lando’s and Chewie’s efforts to escape from Vader all combine to abort the Empire’s plot to turn Luke to the dark side. In Return of the Jedi, the space battle around B&BNT 2.0, warrior teddy-bears vs Stormtroopers and Luke’s salvation of his father all combine to deliver the final victory. While Luke’s story seems kind of separate from the other threads – off in a back room with a creepy old dude and a guy in a gimp suit, as it were, while everybody else has a key party out front – it’s critical to the outcome both because it takes the Emperor and Vader out of the contest, and because the Emperor’s death has to be assured for the Rebels to win.

If not distracted by Luke (and thrown into a reactor core by Vader), might the Emperor not have escaped? And imagine the Battle of Endor if Vader had been on the ground force-strangling Ewoks and dismembering them with his lightsabre. Aside from creating a generation of traumatised five year olds, Vader would have undoubtedly handed the Rebels their arses (neatly cauterised after he chopped them off with his lightsabre).

The point is, most of the best stories manage this (servicing multiple climaxes, that is, rather than handing around cauterised arses). You can almost hear Zorba’s Dance picking up pace while it happens.

IXX: The Jabba the Hutt Rule #3
The Secret to a Fulfilled Life

And lastly, from Carrie Fisher: “Make your life one in which you get to kill a giant slug. It’s great.

Words to live by.

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