5 Storytelling Lessons from the Original Star Wars Trilogy
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is upon us, and if you’re like me, everywhere you look you see Star Wars—merchandise, promotions, screenings. It’s reminiscent of my childhood. It remains to be seen if the new movie will live up to expectations, but one thing it’s done is bring attention back to the original trilogy which is beloved for many, many reasons. In looking back on those films, there’s a lot to love there, particularly in the storytelling. And no, I’m not talking about the oft-mentioned Joseph Campbell mythological cycle structure. I’m talking about specific storytelling choices that helped make those films memorable. Here are a handful of them.*
1. A Lived-in World
Worldbuilding is important to secondary world stories (which Star Wars is) but it has to be handled deftly. One way to communicate worldbuilding is through exposition. Science fiction and fantasy are rife with bad examples of this, where long sections of text are used to explain elements of the world, or characters pause in the middle of action to deliver long-winded speeches explaining the particulars of a custom or culture or science.
George Lucas, on the other hand, drops us into a fully formed world at the beginning of A New Hope. There's a history to this world, and the costumes and the environments and the equipment show that. Things look appropriately lived in. Dirty. Aged. It’s clear from the beginning of A New Hope that the gloss of the Old Republic has faded, and that life on the Rim, under the Empire, is hard.
What’s more, the movies don’t explain every little thing that is mentioned. The Clone Wars, for example, are mentioned without explanation. We’re introduced to creatures like the Sand People without an in-depth examination of who they are or where they came from. We don't need to know how Han and Chewie met. So Lucas doesn't show us. The end result is that the world is given a sense of depth, but the plot is allowed to move on at a brisk pace and only the elements that truly matter to the story are kept in focus. It's a good lesson to remember that when it comes to worldbuilding, less is often more.
When talking about writing we talk a lot about plot and character and dialogue and pacing, but one way a lot of those things come together is through character relationships. Relationships can illustrate character, help advance the plot and illustrate themes in fiction. Star Wars uses relationships between characters to great effect. Take, for example, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Chewbacca doesn’t speak (at least not in a way that we understand), but his relationship with Han helps to humanize the smuggler. Even in A New Hope, when Han is his most prickly self, his affection for, and devotion to Chewie, shows that there’s another side to him.
Take any of the relationships in the films — C-3P0’s false outrage with R2, Han’s condescending older brother to Luke, Leia’s response to Han’s advances, the old buddies without trust bond between Lando and Han — all of these help add dimensions to our main characters while also maintaining tension. Few people just love each other in these movies; no one’s about to sing Kumbayah. Even Yoda and Luke, master and apprentice, don’t get along all that well. That helps to keep things realistic while also keeping us guessing.
And of course these relationships change over time. Han and Luke become fast friends by Jedi. Leia and Han admit their true feelings for one another. Han learns to trust Lando again. It’s something the films do really well. And it helps to stress that characters can always redeem themselves. From Han, to Lando, to Vader**, there's always a chance to change for the better.
3. Reuse of Characters
With the exception of some important secondary characters, the original trilogy focuses on the same main group of people — Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C-3P0, R2-D2, Obi-Wan Kenobi and, starting from Empire, Lando Calrissian. These individuals, along with Darth Vader, the perennial adversary, form our core group and they’re the people that stay at the center of attention. Even secondary characters like Wedge Antilles, Jabba, Boba Fett, and of course Yoda recur throughout the series appearing in at least 2, if not 3, of the films. This is a great lesson in economy. Why introduce new characters to take on roles that current characters can assume?
Can this backfire? Of course. Originally, according to old versions of the Empire script, Luke’s sister was going to be someone we hadn’t met yet. Introducing a new character in Jedi would have likely been a mistake — some new interloper that we didn’t care about but that the movie insisted was important wouldn’t have resonated with viewers. Making Leia the hidden twin was a great use of economy by keeping it “in the family”, although perhaps that went a bit too far. Luke’s earlier romantic interest suddenly becomes (famously) incestuous. It’s one of my least favorite parts of the trilogy But the lesson remains that using characters that already exist strengthens the story. It keeps your readers invested in the characters and lets you leverage what’s already in play.
4. I Love You. (I Know.)
One of the most memorable lines in the trilogy was a deviation from the original Empire script. But that line is a classic example of how dialogue can be used (and should be honed) to help define character and illustrate relationships. That one line is significant because it not only highlights Han’s cocky nature (of course she loves him, he’s Han Solo) but it’s a moment of subtext as well. He’s about to be frozen in carbonite — this is the full circle. All along he’s been telling her how he feels about her and she’s been denying any feelings of her own. Now, here, as he’s facing possible death, Leia admits her feelings and Han confirms how sure he is about this. He will repeat her words in Return of the Jedi, but just imagine if he had said, “I love you, too” in Empire, the way it was originally written. Imagine how trite and expected that would have been. It’s an example of how you should always reach beyond the obvious choice, and tailor your dialogue to your character.
5. I Am Your Father
Let’s get down to it: Darth Vader being Luke’s father was probably the single, most-significant storytelling choice in the original trilogy for multiple reasons. By most accounts, the original version of the script didn’t have this development. In fact, Anakin Skywalker was supposed to appear to Luke (as a force ghost) on Dagobah to help train him to be a Jedi. So in that original version Vader is just what Obi-Wan said he was — a fellow pupil of Anakin’s who betrayed and killed him. That makes Luke’s trajectory toward Vader a simple revenge tale. It’s a powerful archetype, but leaves Vader as a simple villain who needs to be defeated and gives Luke a purely violent solution to provide closure.
By making Vader Luke’s father, a whole host of other elements are added to the mix. The person Luke hates, the person he has saved all this venom for, is now shown to be his own flesh and blood. This adds a sense of guilt and shame, but also opens up the option for redemption, with Luke having a reason to want that for Vader.
For Vader, it gives him an actual arc. He becomes, through this one choice, a truly tragic figure, someone who failed and gave in to his basest desires, becoming a monster in the process. In the other version, he’s simply the villain. Arguably the original trilogy becomes his story as much as it is Luke’s.
Also, think of what we had for Vader before Empire. He was cool, and had badass Force powers, but that was it. We didn’t know much about him or what he wanted except that he served the Empire (primarily Grand Moff Tarkin). Discovering that he was Anakin Skywalker suddenly gives him a lot more depth, and by the time we reach Jedi, we learn how trapped he is by his choices. At least until Luke gives him a way out. It’s orders of magnitude in terms of how much deeper he becomes.
The revelation also helps create conflict between Luke and Obi-Wan, and conflict helps maintain tension. Even though Lucas never really delved into it***, there is subtext in A New Hope that Obi-Wan failed in training Vader. This is strengthened by the knowledge that Vader was really Anakin. Obi-Wan really failed and on top of that he lied to Luke about it, implying that he was ashamed. This puts Luke, at the end of Empire, in a position where he doesn’t know who to trust.
As for the redemption arc, what makes Luke truly heroic is that he saves Vader’s soul. That while Vader tries so hard to corrupt Luke, it’s Luke who redeems his father and ultimately recovers Anakin Skywalker. This is so much stronger than Luke just killing Vader or the Emperor. And it pays off what we know about the Jedi and the Force and proves that Luke is ready, truly ready at the end, to be the first of the new Jedi.
Those are my storytelling lessons. Please share any others you've learned (or argue with mine) in the comments. I'd love to hear from you. And may the Force be with you.
* Because we're talking about good writing lessons, we'll be strictly looking at the original trilogy (Episodes 4-6).
** More on that in a bit.
*** At least not to my satisfaction.
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