Dec 4, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: A New Hope

We're on to the final countdown now. It's December. In just a couple of weeks, we will finally get to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Ba da-da daa, daa. Ba da da daa-daa. Ba da da daa- daa...
I cannot hope to contain my excitement. We have a diverse cast of new characters. We have the return of on-location shooting and practical effects. We have Han and Chewie, the Millenium Falcon blasting across the screen, Leia as the leader of the Resistance, and everything looks amazing.

So I want to indulge my reborn passion for Star Wars here, and devote the last of this year's Watch & Learn posts entirely to Star Wars. Since I have little to no love for the prequels, we'll be focusing on the original trilogy. And more to the point, I will not be including reference to any of the changes Lucas has made over the years. No young Anakin at the end of Jedi, no extra Jabba scene, no freaking Big No from Vader when he turns on the Emperor. Han didn't just shoot first in this classroom: Han shot, and then Greedo died. End of story.

With that out of the way, let's get stuck into Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

There is NO WAY Lucas always planned for Leia to be Luke's sister...

Lock your s-foils in attack position, class is in session.

When it was first released in 1977, simply titled Star Wars, with no episode number or subtitle, A New Hope was just meant to be a silly science fiction movie. Something for kids to enjoy. Though Lucas was innovative in his film-making approach at the time, and canny enough to realise the value of merchandising, no-one really thought it would become the global phenomenon it did. So what can we learn from a movie that was supposed to be nothing but simple fun?

As it turns out, a whole damn lot.

Lesson 1: Make it feel real
Lesson 2: Keep your reader tied to personal stakes and emotions.
Lesson 3: Use different senses to tell your story.
Lesson 4: Use character conflict, but don't let it derail things.
Lesson 5: Show character development through actions and dialogue, not statements.
Lesson 6: Use themes to guide your story.

I'm going to try out a new format for these posts. Instead of summarising the movie and pointing to my examples, I'm sorting everything by each individual lesson.

Lesson 1: Make it feel real

A big risk, particularly if you write genres such as Urban Fantasy or Space Opera, is that you get swept up in the action and grandeur of your story. Giant spaceships, or detailed secret societies, can be engrossing to write about, but can lose your reader if you're not careful. While impressive set pieces certainly have their place (A New Hope's opening crawl and the massive star destroyer dominating the screen are rightly considered one of the greatest cinematic openings ever), they're best used as a way to grab attention. A reader's attention is best retained by bringing the focus down to the smaller scale, where you can connect the reader with things that feel familiar.

Basically, keep your work grounded in things that feel real, even when writing something utterly fantastic.

Look at the way A New Hope shows this "galaxy far, far away." The first characters shown are robots. But note the subtle personality touches. Artoo and Threepio aren't shiny and pristine. Artoo is grimy and worn. Threepio's lower leg is silver, despite the rest of his body being gold. These small touches make the characters feel alive, and hint at past adventures. Note that no-one says anything about their condition at this point. They've been on screen for mere seconds and already we get the impression these are machines that have seen use.

This style carries on throughout the movie, especially on Tatooine. Everything is battered and dirty. The Millenium Falcon is referred to as a "hunk of junk." This was an intentional design choice. Lucas wanted to move away from traditional, sterile sci-fi settings where nothing looked like it had ever been used. He wanted everything to feel real. And that's something you want to get across in your work.

Keep things real and dirty, not shiny and new.

Lesson 2: Keep your reader tied to personal stakes and emotions.

Another benefit of keeping your reader connected to familiar details is that you can tag on personal stakes more easily. While the opening crawl and blockade runner pursuit provide a grand spectacle and a sense of urgency, the audience still needs characters to care about. Watch the way the Rebel soldiers prepare for the Stormtroopers to board their ship. We hear the star destroyer secure the blockade runner, and see the looks on their faces. We've already been shown how much the Imperial ship dwarfs the Rebel one. Now we get to feel the fear these soldier face.

Note the use of close-ups during the space battles. This was likely partly a budgeting and effects issue. There simply wasn't the technology available to pull off the kinds of dizzying battle sequences we can see in modern movies. But it had the effect of keeping the audience rooted in the personal stakes. It's not just a few random Rebel fighters who die during the Battle of Yavin, it's Porkins, it's Biggs. We saw the look in their eyes as their ships blew apart around them. Each death hits us, as it is made ever more clear that the targeting computers cannot hit the exhaust port. The situation grows desperate, and the audience gradually realises, and more importantly, believes, that Luke is the Rebellion's only hope. Not because anyone tells us this, but because the story shows us that nobody else can make the shot. The audience is in the Death Star trench with him, willing him to succeed, and the moment he does, the audience cheers inside.

Tear at your readers' emotions. Don't let them write off character deaths as faceless nobodies. Make them care, and then make them hurt, and then reward them with an emotional payoff at the end.

Lesson 3: Use different senses to tell your story

This is going to seem a difficult lesson to give from a movie, which is primarily visual. But stick with me. I've already talked about how the use of sound effects helped build the tension of the blockade runner boarding scene. But what I really want to get into here is the music. Granted, books don't typically come with a soundtrack, but film scores offer a stunning look at how the audience's experience can be affected in less obvious ways.

Consider the scene where Luke looks off into the binary sunset. There are no lines, and no other characters. The double-exposure effect that created the two suns beautifully cements Tatooine as a very alien world, but it's John Williams' sweeping music which overtakes us. Without any words, we feel  how alone and trapped Luke feels.

John Williams' score is so important to Star Wars, it should really be regarded as a character in its own right. His use of leitmotifs for major characters and settings is so powerful, it's impossible not to feel the emotion of each scene. That's what you should aim for when you consider the senses in your writing. How many ways can you use the senses to bring a scene to life?

Take the trash compactor scene as another example. Because this is a movie, Han has to remark "What an incredible smell you've discovered." In a book, you can describe the smell. The creeping cold of the effluent they're wading in. Is Stormtrooper armour watertight? The sensation of cold liquid trickling into your character's shoes, soaking their socks, is something your reader can relate to. Use it.

Lesson 4: Use character conflict, but don't let it derail things.

When you have characters meeting for the first time, it can be tempting to have them get along from the start and carry on with the plot. If your characters can't stand each other, and you let that out, it can be difficult to get back on track, and you risk pushing the limits of your readers' disbelief. If people really don't get along, they won't associate unless they're forced to.

Note how most conversations in A New Hope are filled with conflict. Luke arguing with his uncle. Han complaining about how a simple charter flight has become a fight for their lives and wanting more money for it. But the story is never held up. The characters' immediate stakes are always more pressing than their disagreement, so there's a reason for them to press on and keep the story moving, and it makes sense to the audience. But remember, there has to be a reason for the conflict. You can't have characters arguing with each other over something for no reason. It has to show something of their personality. Even if it seems like a trivial disagreement, you're really showing your reader a sign of the character they wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise.

Lesson 5: Show character development through actions and dialogue, not statements.

One of the most important things a writer needs to learn is that character development is more than having a character say "I was scared, now I am brave." If a character doesn't behave in a way that suits their personality and traits, and isn't put into situations where their abilities can be displayed, then the reader can't be expected to accept them as the character you intend. It doesn't matter how many times you state that Ted is a skilled surgeon; if he doesn't perform a difficult procedure, or we don't meet someone he's helped, it's irrelevant, and a lost character trait.

The classic example of character development in Star Wars has, and will probably always be, Han Solo. He goes from "I'm in it for the money" to screaming out of the stars at the last minute to save Luke from the TIE fighters bearing down  on him. He doesn't tag along during the adventure, stick around for the last battle, and at the end say "Yeah, I'm with you guys now." His inner conflict is shown. We know he owes a large debt to Jabba the Hutt (and we saw his killer instinct when he shot Greedo before the bounty hunter could shoot him! Ahem...), and that he needs the money he was paid to save his own neck. But when it mattered most, he made the right choice.

Of course, don't discount well-placed dialogue. A character's words can show their personality as well as their actions. Consider Luke, who is often derided for being whiny, but who goes through a powerful transformation over the course of the movie.

When Obi-Wan asks Luke to come with him to Alderaan and become a Jedi, Luke's response is to say he can't get involved. He hates the Empire but "there's nothing I can do about it right now."

Compare this to the preparations for the attack on the Death Star. When the pilots are told that they must hit a precise 2-meter target with their torpedoes, they balk at the idea. Wedge, sitting next to Luke, claims even a computer can't hit such a small target.

Luke's response is to say "It's not impossible."

Lesson 6: Use themes and symbols to guide your story.

Themes are very important in your work. I haven't yet touched on them in the Watch & Learn series, but I wanted to bring them up for the Star Wars movies, since they play an important role here.

Themes help us give structure to a story, one that transcends story planning and character arcs. Themes are broad and adaptable. You can change almost everything in a book, and still keep the themes consistent.

Major themes can be pretty much anything you like, and add new dimension and depth to your readers' experience. For A New Hope, we see the obvious theme of Authority vs Freedom, present in the Rebellion's struggle against the Empire, as well as Mysticism and Nature vs Technology, first raised when Darth Vader insists that the Death Star's power is nothing compared to the Force.

The moment Luke turns off his computer, for example, he's already won. His personal theme comes in, the first time it appears in the Battle of Yavin, and we know he's going to succeed. This is is aristeia; a scene where the hero dominates and displays their excellence. Luke transcends technology. Because he trusts in something greater than himself, he can succeed.

Other themes and symbols include the use of colour, and specific objects. Luke and Leia wear white, typically associated with good. Han wears a white shirt under a black waistcoat, symbolising his good nature covered by his ruthless exterior. Darth Vader, of course, dominates the screen in his black armour. But note the shape of his mask. It resembles a skull, hinting at his true nature; that he would be dead if not for the machinery that has replaced so much of his body. This ties into the mythological roots of Star Wars, and ties well to the Stormtroopers, whose white armour and eerily face-like masks recall ghosts or skeletons; an army of soldiers who were once human, but are now twisted into evil.

And of course, the lightsaber remains one of the most iconic symbols of the franchise. Just as the Jedi are drawn from knight errants, wizards, and wandering monks, the lightsaber is the archetypal magic sword, a gift passed down to the hero, to provide him with the power and agency to oppose the dark forces.

We've looked at quite a broad spread of topics here. There's still a lot you could unpick, taking different scenes and analyzing them more closely. I encourage you to do the same. It's easy to dismiss blockbuster movies like this as commercial cash-grabs, but it is always the story that's at the heart of any franchise's success. There's a lot to learn here, and more to come as we get closer to the release of The Force Awakens.

I'll see you next time. For now, class dismissed, and may the Force be with you.

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