How Backstory Almost Totally Fucked Up the Star Wars Franchise: A Lesson for Writers

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time. The opening crawl, reminding us of events we hadn’t yet witnessed. The cheeky addition of Episode 4 to the title, as though we had managed to somehow miss parts 1 through 3. The subtitle A New Hope, hinting at decades of past desperation. The insertion of that now iconic phrase, right at the beginning of the film.

 In Star Wars, Lucas used every trick he could think of to make us as an audience feel as though the Universe he had invented had a life of its own, a history of its own and that we, as bystanders, were just happening to see one particular chapter in a struggle between Good and Evil which had begun long before our planet were any more than a twinkle in a gas giant’s eye. It was a strategy that paid off brilliantly. Primed from the outset for something different, to its millions of young besotted viewers Star Wars felt realer than real. Out there somewhere, we mused, faces turned to the night sky, Jedis had once battled Imperial Forces. Out there they probably still ran Academies where you could learn to cut people to shreds with lightsabers. Out there twirled mysterious solar systems, stuffed full of planets inhabited by teddy bears.

Star Wars episodes one to three reverse that process. Instead of taking out the boring bits, these movies are the boring bits.

But it was a strategy with a double edge. The insane popularity of Star Wars left an audience with an unslaked thirst for more. If any of the first three films had tanked, Lucasfilms could have quietly walked away from that teaser of an opening and left the hinted at first three chapters of the saga unwritten. That didn’t happen. It took ten years and vociferous pestering, but in 1993, Lucas committed to producing the trio of films now refered to as the Star Wars prequels. The world sat back and waited. The first film of the three hit the screens six years later in 1999.

And it was only then that it started to become clear that what had made the franchise so successful back in 1977, might just possibly be the same thing that killed it dead.

The Problem with Backstory

Backstory is to plot what the verb ‘to be’ is to prose. You can use it, but with caution and only if you can’t find a better alternative. Backstory, in small doses, forms an essential part of the writer’s tool kit. Characters need motivation to do what they do and some of what motivates them might well have happened in the way back when. We as readers need to know about that stuff, if we are to properly empathize with the people on the page.

Backstory also allows us to start our narrative at the best point: when all the exciting shit happens. Saving Private Ryan starts with D Day on the beaches of Normandy and not when the eponymous Ryan’s brother is making out with the ugly girl in the barn (although that story did make me a little less sad that the Ryan clan was now three members fewer), thus sparing us having to sit through all of the story between then and the good bit, though not the sight of Tom Hanks overacting like a boss in his death scene.

Backstory, correctly handled, fills in the spaces in a story. A piece of dialogue or a reminiscence can lift the veil on previous pain, or explain why a relationship is precious. A story can shift between time periods, drawing parallels between then and now, illuminating the path from there to here and, in expert hands can result in greatness. In a book like Atwood’s Moral Disorder, episodes are recounted with no reference to time frame, forcing you the reader to piece together the sequence of events. Here, backstory becomes story and vice versa, giving you a sense that the past is never really over.

But we’re not all Margaret Atwood, and the use of backstory contains many perils for the unwary writer. Get it wrong with backstory and the fucking up which ensues can be on a truly epic scale.

Only the Boring Bits

The point of using backstory is to tell your audience what they need to know about the things that happened before the narrative begins. Put more simply, its purpose is to spare your audience the boring bits.

Star Wars episodes one to three reverse that process. Instead of condensing the most salient moments of prior action and dropping them into a climactic narrative, these movies take the salient bits and expand them. Instead of taking out the boring bits, these movies are the boring bits.

Instead of being treated to fire fights and saber play, in episodes 1-3 we get Trade Federations, Galactic Senates, separatist movements and emergency powers. It’s all about as exciting as a G8 summit, Okay, let’s be honest it is the G8 summit, only with a couple of remote desert planets and a clone army thrown in. You sense that Lucas, faced with the insurmountable task of topping his original genius, resorted in despair to stealing the minutes of the UN debate on the deployment of peacekeeping forces and delivered those as a script, with the names changed.

None of this was designed to appeal to our inner nine year olds, let alone actual nine year olds. Even the sight of Yoda zipping about the head of Count Dooku, brandishing a lightsaber twice his size could rescue the plots of these films from the deadly grip of having to explain What Happened Before.

Destroying Characters

But if the curse of backstory mired down the plot, its effect on the characters was even more deadly. The prequels had two important questions to answer: how Darth Vader became the biggest and most evil baddie in the Whole Universe and yet also managed to convince a woman to stay with him long enough to start a family AND why he wears that helmet.

We got answers to those questions, but possibly not the right ones. While dropping the ‘I am your father ‘ bombshell formed an indelible part of cinema history, unspooling the story of Anakin from wooden-faced child actor to wooden-faced adult actor added nothing to our enjoyment of the Star Wars Universe. Putting aside the terrible acting (there’s plenty of it in all the movies), this is a case in point about how too much backstory destroys intrigue. It’s interesting to delve into the life history of monsters, but we rarely find satisfactory answers about why someone turns evil, even in real life. Darth Vader works when he’s remote, mysterious and power-crazed. Nothing that happens to him in the first three films truly motivates his transformation, any more than Ted Bundy’s relationship with his mother explains why he turned serial killer. Anakin’s reaction to the tragedies in his life make him seem petulant rather than grief stricken and petulant isn’t really what you want in a supervillain. But we do find out that the mask-wearing isn’t the result of some terrible industrial accident involving an improperly secured landing weeble, although the true story, which involves yet more lightsaber, is possibly slightly less climactic.

The same goes for all the other characters whose backstory unfolds in the prequels. Obiwan Kenobi comes across as a joyless pedant, who fails to connect on any level with his young charge. Emperor Palpatine comes across as prune in a cloak. The only character it’s good to see more of in the prequel is Yoda, who spectacularly kicks ass. If the three episodes had been solely composed of Yoda kicking ass, I would have walked away happy.

The Lesson for Writers

The standard advice about backstory is good advice: avoid it, but if you feel you need it, here’s some tips which might help.

Remember the why

Backstory works when the why questions about character or plot become too loud to ignore. If you sense your reader won’t understand why a piece of action happens or why a character acts as they do and the answer lies at a point before the story begins, then pull in some backstory. But don’t overwhelm the reader with blocks of history or interrupt exciting stuff with anecdotes about the past. Weave the backstory in as much as you can, using lulls in the action as points to regress.

Save backstory for major characters

Don’t make the Darth Vader mistake and waste time explaining what we as an audience can take for granted. Like it or not, Vader is a minor character in Star Wars IV to VI. He’s antagonist, not protagonist, which means he exists to motivate the actions of the main characters (the ones we identify with). This means his own motivation is secondary to the plot. Villains who want to conquer the known Universe and enslave all its peoples rarely need much explanation. We as an audience can take it as read that such characters exist, without delving into what shaped them. Devoting three films to explaining how Anakin became Vader is, in story-telling terms, an exercise we can nimbly file under PWOT.

Keep it short

If you think about it, the important backstory elements in the entire Star Wars prequels could have been delivered to the audience via a couple of conversations between Yoda (who witnessed everything) and the Skywalker twins.

Instead, we got three movies. And Jar Jar Binks

A New Hope

But that was then and this is now. Against all expectations, the franchise survived the kicking it got from just about everyone when the prequels came out. Bloody but unbowed, the next episode is about to hit the screens. And this time the story finally moves forward. This time we know exactly what happened before. Let’s hope no one involved in making it had a brainwave and thought let’s just give everyone a little recap.

And although it’s become fashionable in the last few weeks to write articles claiming the prequels weren’t really all that bad, anyone who needs convincing that they sucked should take a look at this.

I rest my case.

Image of Moral Disorder and Other Stories
Author: Margaret Atwood
Price: $14.34
Publisher: Anchor (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Image of Star Wars Trilogy Episodes I-III (Blu-ray + DVD)
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Hayden Christiansen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Rating: NR - Not Rated

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Comments

Zach Jansen's picture
Zach Jansen from United States is reading the newspaper over some guy's shoulder on the bus. December 11, 2015 - 10:45am

The "A New Hope" subtitle wasn't added until 1981, so those seeing the movie for the first time in 1977 just has the crawl to go by (a technique that'd been used since the beginning of narrative filmmaking) and no idea of the eventual backstory.

 

Simpler times, I guess.

Gerd Duerner's picture
Gerd Duerner from Germany is reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm December 11, 2015 - 10:50am

Proves at least that everything has value, even it is only to act as a bad example... like the second trilogy. :D

Lloyd Woodall's picture
Lloyd Woodall December 11, 2015 - 11:07am

As Zach Jensen states, the subtitle and the "Episode IV"  weren't added until the re-release after "Empire" showed up with the curious and confusing "Episode V" before it. 

The article should be edited to address this error, so as not to further spread the misinformation. 

Lucas Mellone's picture
Lucas Mellone December 11, 2015 - 12:02pm

 

The "A New Hope" subtitle wasn't added until 1981, so those seeing the movie for the first time in 1977 just has the crawl to go by (a technique that'd been used since the beginning of narrative filmmaking) and no idea of the eventual backstory.

Simpler times, I guess.

Neither "Episode IV" subtitle was added. They later added it, if I remember right, as "Episode I" for a few releases.
Also, gotta hate those flaming comments on the prequels. Makes the text even more pointless.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King December 11, 2015 - 12:23pm

I think the biggest problem with the prequels is that they were all treated as backstory.

The whole thing should have been it's own full story. We don't need to learn where R2 or 3PO came from or how Boba Fett was really a little clone. The only limit they should have had was that at the end, everything lined up to go into Star Wars. (I still can't bring myself to call it A New Hope.)

 

I'm pretty confident with JJ doing this new one. The biggest problem I had with the guy was that I don't think he knows how to really end a story right. But with this one he really doesn't have to end the story, it's going to go on for two more films.

Maciej Szymański's picture
Maciej Szymański December 11, 2015 - 1:44pm

Also, in my opinion, Yoda sould not fight, ever. He was small creature, but big in Force, one of wisest Jedi ever. Not a fighter, also he lost two duels because of his size handicap.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life December 11, 2015 - 2:57pm

Prequels are objectively terrible on all fronts, end of story.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman December 11, 2015 - 4:49pm

Maybe they just picked the wrong characters. I wouldn't mind learning more about Salacious Crumb. Or Lobot. Lobot has an extensive backstory on Wookiepedia, but I don't think anything replaces the live action version of a man with a horseshoe computer head.

Andrei Sibisan's picture
Andrei Sibisan December 12, 2015 - 3:15am

You got it all wrong...Star Wars is about Vader. Ep 6 is 'Return of the Jedi' meaning Vader redeeming himself

Ahti Ahde's picture
Ahti Ahde from Helsinki, Finland is reading Horns by Joe Hill December 12, 2015 - 7:50am

Sorry Cath, and everyone else, I have to disagree with you.

This column makes a huge professional mistake; it compares apples to oranges. You can't write novels like you write short stories, everyone of us knows that. When you are building a fictional ecosystem, it has to expand towards new audiences without sacrificing the most hardcore fans.

Star Wars has never been the best piece of fiction, the story lines and characters are terribly blunt and simpletonish in every Star Wars. The greatness of Star Wars is based upon the craftmanship of movie props, which otiginally enabled to build a never before seen level of authencity to a sci-fi movie.

What the prequels have done, and what they really needed to do in order for the Start Wars universe to survive, was to bridge the generation gap. The Star Wars has become a whole family franchise, which makes a lot of business sense.

Besides making a lot of business sense, the depth of the Star Wars universe has grown in depth through games, literature and mini-series immensively.

When you consider all the plans George Lucas had for the Start Wars universe, the movies were very well written, they introduced the right amount of the important side stories, without causing "bugs" to the original story line.

Star Wars has never been quality work of fiction writing and should not be treated as such. Also comparing the story line to novel writing theory instead of book serie theory, you will immediately miss the mark.

While the first trilogy had symbols like Death Star (nuclear weapons), much of second world war themes (storm troopers and SS), rogue states that oppose the rule of the empire... the prequel trilogy gives more depth to these themes and updates the them to the 21st century: the battle between Jedi and Sith of the dark side resembles the battle between investigative journalism and horror entertainment mass media news agencies (hate, fear, anger), there is the theme of artificial intelligence and genetical engineering, it fairly portrays the problemacy modern democracies face through corruption.

Sorry Cath, but I can't see the prequels as failures, because they clearly managed to update the Star Wars universe to the 21st century. I expected more from this column.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast December 13, 2015 - 2:59am

Star Wars has never been the best piece of fiction

We can at least agree about that @Ahti

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman December 14, 2015 - 12:37pm

I'm with Cath.

I guess if you want to say that the goal of the prequels was purely economic, and they fulfilled that goal, then sure, they worked. But that premise presupposes that you couldn't bring something to a new audience AND tell a good story. 

And I think Cath's column makes a good point about backstory. Star Wars makes for a really  great example because of the order the Star Wars movies were released demonstrated that we did not need the backstory to understand what was going on. Throwing the backstory on screen was superflous and an exercise in checking boxes. "Okay, that's how the Force works. Anakin falls in the lava. Check and check."

I think, as a younger viewer, I didn't realize how much of the appeal of Star Wars was wrapped up in the mystery. The lack of backstory. I'm with this 100%, and I think that regardless of your storytelling medium, it's a good idea to keep an eye on your backstory and whether it's necessary.

As a last thing, I think the column was about good storytelling, not how to make dollars. Which, again, don't have to be mutually exclusive, but by the logic that a piece succeeds so long as it works in what it set out to do in the first place, total success in my eyes. 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast December 15, 2015 - 6:48am

Right. Thanks you Nathan. Several people have commented here and elsewhere along the lines of 'the prequels made money so even if they did suck, they succeeded.'

Bollocks to that. The point of movies and books is to tell stories in the best way possible, not to cash in on the expectations of millions. If we can't keep that distinction clear in our heads we don't deserve to call ourselves storytellers.

catullus's picture
catullus December 15, 2015 - 12:28pm

is this right?
 

Even the sight of Yoda zipping about the head of Count Dooku, brandishing a lightsaber twice his size could rescue the plots of these films from the deadly grip of having to explain What Happened Before.

 

or should it be COULDN'T rescue....

Mark E's picture
Mark E from North Carolina is reading Blessing of a Skinned Knee December 17, 2015 - 6:50pm

Twas the Night Before Star Wars


'Twas the night before Star Wars and all through the ship
Not a creature was stirring, not Jawa, not Jiip


Lightsabers they hung from their belts with great care
In hopes that Rey 'No One' and Finn would be there


The fans they all nestled all snug in their seats
To see legendary Jedi, amazing in feats


And I in my dark mask, and she with her blaster
Just settled into lightspeed, to meet our new master


When all through galaxy arose such clatter,
He, Kylo Ren, his Knights and dark matter


Away through the stars the Falcon flew like a flash
To save our new friends, to save them from ash


The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
Wait. That’s no moon. Says the great pilot Poe


When what on my wondering eyes should appear
But a transport with eight troopers bearing dark wrenching fear


At the helm, a little droid so old and so lively
I knew in a moment, he must be from Mos Eisley


More rapid than eagles in Tie Fighters they came
To hunt down the Rebels in Darth Vader’s dark name


He whistled and shouted and called them by name
Kylo Ren their new master with force and red flame


Black Leader, Red Leader, Red Five, and Red One
The Rebels responded with Vader’s true son


To the top of the sky, and all though the night
We fight for true freedom, we fight for the light


New heroes to cheer, new heroes to mourn
The mystery resides in Leia’s first born


In the end to his ship, I heard him call out
May the force be with you, his power no doubt.


‪#‎TheForceAwakens‬ ‪#‎NightBeforeStarWars‬


Mark Wear

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast December 28, 2015 - 3:58am

Mark E - you win the comments.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel January 15, 2016 - 2:15pm

Thank you for this advice. It has completely changed the landscape of a story I've been fighting with for a year now. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And if you're wondering, yes, I just had that A-HA! moment. It's refreshing.

 

THANK YOU!