Let's watch it again:
Confession time: I adore film trailers. When they're done properly, they can be works of art in their own right. And the trailer for The Force Awakens is one of the best I've ever seen. I'd go so far as to say it's a perfect example of how to make a film trailer.
But we're not here to look at how to make a trailer; we're here to learn how to improve our writing, taking lessons from one. So sit back, class is in session.
There are three lessons we can take from the trailer:
- How to evoke feeling without spelling things out.
- How to make something old feel fresh and new.
- Showing respect for your readers.
Lesson 1: Evoke feeling
The one thing everyone's saying about this trailer is how emotional it makes them feel. And I get it. From 01:22 when the Force Theme comes in (one of my favourite pieces of music of all time), I get tears in my eyes. On repeat viewings, we can see more points where we're drawn to care for these characters.
Early in the trailer, we see Rey, the scavenger who declares she is "no one." Her portrayal echoes Luke Skywalker's desperate wish to leave his home and make something of his life. Something every one of us can relate to. The sense of being a forgettable nobody is a universal fear. So immediately, the trailer connects with a deep, primal feeling, particularly in young children.
Next up is Finn, the turncoat Stormtrooper. "I have nothing to fight for" he says. A lost sense of purpose is a common problem faced as we grow older, especially during our teenage years and early twenties. So here's an emotional hook for a slightly older audience.
Of course, no story is complete without its villains, and so we are next shown the First Order forces. Kylo Ren gives a threatening promise of finishing what Darth Vader started, and we see that the First Order looks every bit as well-equipped and well-organised as the Empire. With the way the trailer is structured, despite not being told anything specific about the plot, we get the distinct impression that the Resistance forces are in trouble.
Let's take a step back from the trailer itself and consider the naming conventions. The villains are the First Order, a name that evokes strength and authority, but is also deeply sinister, suggestive of ingrained propaganda and tyranny. Finn's words, that he was "raised for one thing" support this.
Meanwhile, the heroes fight for the Resistance. The idea of a resistance suggests a very weak force, compared to their opponents. Even the Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy had a more structured-sounding name. An alliance means command hierarchy, even political leaders. But a resistance is a rag-tag group who have banded together to fight back. The last hope against a superior, despotic government.
I'll finish up this section with Han's lines.
"It's true. All of it. The Dark Side. The Jedi. They're real."
This is the final part of the age progression. Remember that there are multiple generations who'll be seeing this movie. The very young, experiencing it for the first time. The ones Rey is there to reach. Then there are the teens and younger adults, who may have had their first Star Wars experience by seeing The Phantom Menace. The ones Finn is there for, who might be a little bit doubtful as to what they should expect.
Han is the oldest. And he is there to connect with the older viewers. The ones who grew up on Star Wars, the ones who may have even seen the original trilogy in theatres. When he responds to Rey, he's literally telling old and new audiences "This story is here, and it's for you." It's reassurance for those who might still have doubts that the Star Wars movie franchise can come back from the disappointing prequel trilogy. More to the point, his words also hint that the Jedi have become even more of a myth, that the guardians of peace and justice have not been restored, and that now is the time for them to return.
Lesson 2: Bring old and new together
I've often said that pursuing true originality in fiction is a bad move. Strive to write the best story you can, and don't worry so much about whether or not it's been done before. Few places can show this like Star Wars. A 40 year-old franchise with countless stories across all forms of media, there is pretty much no way to be sure of telling a Star Wars story that doesn't resemble an older one.
So how to make the story feel new and fresh, while still paying respect to what's gone before? Well, look at the trailer again. We first get Rey, a new character, then we see Stormtroopers, a familiar sight. This leads to Finn, another new character, and a hurtling TIE Fighter which mirrors the escape pod sequence from A New Hope that brought Artoo and Threepio to Tatooine. Subtle suggestions remind us that we're in an established world with a long legacy, but never let us forget that this is a new story about new characters.
Look at how Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon are used. Han is the primary original trilogy character used throughout the trailers. He doesn't dominate, he supports. His presence reinforces the new elements. We see the new characters on board the Falcon, ready to set off on their adventure. But unlike the prequel trilogies, what we see is not dominated by callbacks to the older movies. This is Passing the Torch 101. Old and new coming together.
In a sense, we've seen this all before. Stormtroopers, lightsabers, heroes scrambling to repel an attack while TIE Fighters fill the air. It all harkens to the original trilogy, the desert planet, the ice planet, the forest planet, but in a way that acknowledges the relevance of the past stories but stands on its own, rather than trying to coast along, hoping the reminders of the original trilogy will be enough to carry the audience through.
Also worth noting is the title of the movie. This isn't Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It's The Force Awakens. The previous trilogies are done, they're over. This is not something trying to shove its way into that saga. This is a new saga, one that anyone can enjoy. There are things which are familiar, and all new characters and events to discover.
Lesson 3: Respect your audience
Han's lines are important in more ways than one. On the surface, he's establishing a major aspect of the setting. The ongoing absence of the Jedi and the passing of his adventures into myth. But on another level, he's giving a very important message to us, the audience.
Everyone's made fun of George Lucas for how he changes things, seemingly on a whim. He's been accused of having no respect for fans of the franchise time and again. From the racist stereotypes to Greedo shooting first, the "Nooooo!" scene, Anakin's virgin birth and 'midichlorians,' it's safe to say nothing was sacred back when the prequels were being made. If Lucas wanted to change something to make more money, he did it.
But that isn't happening here.
It would mean nothing if JJ Abrams came along and said "I promise you guys I'm going to do a good job!" If anything, it would come off as desperate, and a sure sign that the movie was going to be poorly-received.
No, here, Han Solo himself tells us that the stories are true. Star Wars. Our stories, the ones we've grown up watching and loving, are all true. We're being assured that the people behind this movie care about those stories as much as we, the audience, do. They matter.