Dec 9, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits cinemas next week. I can't remember the last time I was so excited for a movie.

Continuing on from last week's post, today we'll look at The Empire Strikes Back.

Class is in session.

It was with The Empire Strikes Back that George Lucas decided A New Hope would actually be "Episode IV." So Empire was the first Star Wars movie to feature a subtitle in is opening crawl for its theatrical release. This was also the movie where many of the series' most important plot, setting, and character points were established. It's a much busier movie than A New Hope, but we can still take clear lessons from it, particularly with regard to writing a sequel.

Lesson 1: Build naturally from previous installments
Lesson 2: Character development does not mean character improvement
Lesson 3: Changing your original idea for a better one
Lesson 4: Stack the odds against your heroes
Lesson 5: Let the villains win
Lesson 6: Continuing our look at themes

Lesson 1: Build naturally from previous installments

There are two primary concerns when writing a sequel. The first is that the story stands complete on its own, with a complete story arc. The second is that it fits as a continuation of the first installment. If the new story has no connection to the first one, then why is it a sequel?

When Empire opens up, we are quickly given several important facts. (A) The Rebels have moved to a new base, since the Empire attacked their last one. And (B), Darth Vader is on a mission to capture the young pilot who destroyed the Death Star. Both of these bits of information are delivered quickly. There is no need to dwell on the specifics of how they came about; we just get to the interesting stuff of the Empire closing in on the Rebellion. Note how each of these points are also directly related to the events of A New Hope. The story we're about to see isn't just a continuation of the first one; it would not happen but for the events we've seen so far.

There's more to build with than plot events, of course. Character arcs and subplots should also progress. We see this most notably in Han's need to leave the Rebellion and pay off Jabba the Hutt. That plot point follows us here from A New Hope, and while it's easy to read this as a selfish desire, the way Leia does, it's important to consider what else is going on. Han mentions having run into a bounty hunter on a previous mission. He's not just leaving because Leia won't admit she has feelings for him, or because he cares more about his own skin. He knows that by staying, he endangers the Rebellion. It's subtle, and not something ever explicitly stated, but it makes sense as a reading of the character's development. This theme, of making sacrifices for the greater good, will come up again.

Lesson 2: Character development does not mean character improvement

This follows on from the first lesson. It doesn't come up often in writing advice, but what you typically see in a character arc is that the character begins with some flaw or problem, and by the end of the arc they have overcome it. This is fine for standalone stories, but when writing any kind of series, you are always wise to leave room for your character to grow further.

Now, that being said, there's no need to reign in a positive change in your character. By all means, have them purge that character flaw from themselves. We saw this with Luke. In A New Hope he started off helpless and scared, afraid to even try to fight the Empire. Now, he's a hero of the Rebellion, giving a knowing smile as his gunner, Dak, comments about feeling like he can take on the whole Empire himself.

The next step of his character development, naturally, is to deal with the pride his success has granted him. His initial encounter with Yoda is framed by this pride and impatience. He feels he's ready for anything. But, as his lessons show, he is not. In fact, his pride seems to mask an underlying fear of failure and inadequacy.

Remember how in A New Hope, Luke said "It's not impossible" when discussing the chances of hitting the Death Star's exhaust port? Those words are called back in the swamps of Dagobah, when Luke insists his X-Wing is too heavy to lift. "You want the impossible," he says. Before achieving success, Luke believed anything was possible. Now that he's seen first hand the hero he can be, and the power he wields, he has begun to place limits on what he can accomplish. That's an interesting internal conflict.

Even as Luke's training continues, and he grows stronger, he never really overcomes this fear of failure. He can bring bravado, all right, as seen when he faces Darth Vader, but there's a desperation in his voice. The fight between them is one of Luke trying to survive and escape. He knows he can't defeat Vader. And in the end, when he learns the truth of who he is and what Vader wants of him, the only act he can take is to rob Vader of his victory. Luke has gone from the only person who could save the Rebellion, as he was in A New Hope, to a broken man, a pawn in the schemes of others.

Lesson 3: Changing your original idea for a better one

George Lucas has maintained that everything we currently see in the Star Wars trilogy, and prequels, was meant to be that way from the very beginning. It's a popular myth, one that romanticizes the artist for their talent and genius. But the truth is, as with so many creative endeavors, that the original ideas where changed and worked on to make them better.

Most people have heard that the script for Empire originally called for Han to respond to Leia's declaration of "I love you," with "I love you, too." But when it came to shooting, the line wasn't working. Harrison Ford, and others, felt the line didn't suit Han's character, and it was changed to the iconic "I know."

A small change, but immensely powerful in the end. A two-line exchange that speaks volumes about who the characters are and their relationship with one another.

And then there's the most famous scene, one of the biggest plot twists in cinema history.

"No, I am your father."

Despite George Lucas' insistence, this was not the original plan.

Leaving aside the history on what really happened, consider how drastically this changed the whole series. How different would Star Wars be today if Vader had simply been a standard evil villain out to rule the universe? This is why authors are told to "kill their darlings." You can never know what ideas will work better until you let go of what you've written and allow it to change. Good editing is as important as good writing, and it cannot happen if you're not open to accepting changes.

Lesson 4: Stack the odds against your heroes

We all know a hero is only worth as much as the villain they fight. So it's important to show just how dangerous the villains are. And The Empire Strikes Back is centered entirely around how powerful the Empire really is. But it's likewise necessary to balance this. If you depict the villain as too powerful, the reader won't be able to buy into the idea that the hero can defeat them. You need to allow the villain's weaknesses to show, as well as their strength.

Unlike the more personal impact of the deaths in A New Hope, during the Battle of Hoth we only see one named character die, Dak. The rest of that battle is primarily wide shots of the Imperial walkers in an inexorable march over the Rebel defences. Everything about this battle shows the Empire as powerful, indomitable, and yet, reminds us of their arrogance, with the star destroyer captain quipping "Good, our first catch of the day" when the first Rebel transport tries to run the blockade.

This is expressed further as the Millenium Falcon flees the system. One tiny ship, insignificant against the size of the Imperial forces. But their size and numbers become a severe disadvantage when Han flies into the asteroid field. The TIE fighter pilots aren't as skilled as he is, and the bulky star destroyers wind up colliding and taking heavy damage from floating rocks, while the Millenium Falcon is able to slip away.

It's not just sheer numbers that can be pit against the heroes, either. Situations can be just as threatening. Look at how Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids behave following the Battle of Hoth. They are perpetually on the run and hiding, playing a deadly cat and mouse game. They never get to come off the defensive. It creates a persistent tension in all of their scenes.

Lesson 5: Let the villains win

I remember, vaguely, the first time I saw The Empire Strikes Back. Or at least, the first time I saw it and was able to remember the plot. I always had a good handle on how stories go. I knew that in a Saturday-morning cartoon, the good guys would always lose at first, then beat the bad guys at the end.

The Empire Strikes Back blew my mind. Not because of the revelation that Vader is Luke's father, but because it did something no other movie or tv show I'd seen had done.

It let the bad guys win.

Sure, the heroes escaped, but Han was a prisoner of Jabba the Hutt, and Luke's hand had been cut off. The Rebels were on the run, wandering in their ships with no base to return to. This was dark stuff. And I couldn't wait to see how the story would finally end.

These days, the idea of the cliffhanger ending before the final part of a series is ubiquitous. It's so accepted, we even have book adaptations where the last book in the series is split into two movies, and always done right at the darkest moment. But Star Wars was the first to do it like this. The first to end a part of a movie series on the note "Yeah, the bad guys won. Now what?"

Sometimes, you need to let the villain win. A villain who is always soundly defeated has no teeth, and a villain without teeth is no villain worthy of the name. If you want your readers to feel tension and fear for the heroes, then you have to let the heroes bleed once in a while.

Lesson 6: Continuing our look at themes

In the first installment of this Star Wars-focused series, I looked at the themes and symbols used in A New Hope. Since these are important parts of storytelling in general, and Star Wars in particular, I'll continue this as a lesson across the series.

The themes and symbols of Star Wars remain largely consistent, or at least vary only in their application or depth. This makes for a useful study of how you can keep your own themes consistent, and still make each application feel fresh and new.

The theme of Authority vs Freedom makes a clear and bold return, with the authority of the Empire stamping out everything in its path. By the end, not only is the Rebellion on the run, but the planet Bespin has been seized by Imperial forces following Lando's attempts to make a deal to keep the planet free from the Empire's control.

We see Mysticism and Nature vs Technology again, contrasting Darth Vader's sleek, black, sanctuary and holographic communication with the Emperor to Yoda's seclusion on the swamp world of Dagobah. It's also reflected in the Rebel base on Hoth. Where the Empire has built moon-sized space stations out of metal, and starships the size of cities that dominate the screen, the Rebels work with the environment. Their base is build into the ice, and walls are carved, not covered in metal. They make themselves a part of nature, whereas the Empire replaces nature with itself.

Last time I mentioned Luke and Leia wearing white as symbols of their goodness. Notice how in Empire, while Leia's uniform is still mostly white, Luke's clothing for his training and confrontation with Vader are grey. This reflects his shifting attitude and the conflict as he becomes tempted by the Dark Side.

Symbolism abounds during Luke's encounter in the tree on Dagobah. He's told by Yoda that he will not need his weapons, and will only face whatever he brings in with him. He ignores the Jedi Master, and his vision of Darth Vader nearly overpowers him. Though he defeats the vision, the face under the mask is his own. This is symbolic of his own risk of falling to the Dark Side, and a foreshadowing of the revelation that Vader is his father.

The duality of Cloud City is worthy of mention, here. While on the upper levels, the city appears almost heavenly, the lower sections, where we see the carbonite freezing chamber, are downright hellish, with deep shadows, red and orange lighting, and thick clouds of smoke. The style and shift of setting mirrors the revelation that Cloud City is not the safe haven Han had hoped it would be, but is, beneath the surface, the most dangerous place they could be.

Naturally, the lightsaber remains significant. When Luke has failed against Vader, the Sith Lord cuts off his hand. It, and the lightsaber gripped in it, fall to the depths below. Because Luke has fallen, he is no longer worthy of his father's weapon. He literally cannot wield it anymore. But, when he attempts to sacrifice himself to stop Vader turning him to the Dark Side, he falls, through the hellish depths of the city, and finds himself saved. He is back in the clouds, and has a chance at redemption.

There is more you can learn from watching The Empire Strikes Back. It is regarded by many as the best of all the Star Wars movies. We only have one more movie to look at in this series, so I hope you'll all come back next week for Return of the Jedi.

Class dismissed for now. And remember: Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.


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