Dec 16, 2015

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Lessons From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

It's finally here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has premiered. It is a new world, a new story. I won't get to see it until the 23rd, so you can rest easy and read this article without fear of spoilers.

We started this special Watch & Learn series with A New Hope, learning about making your world feel real, keeping the reader focused on character emotions, and an introduction to themes and symbols.

Next we looked at The Empire Strikes Back, and saw how to address character development, letting the reader see the villain's strength, and the continuing development of themes.

Today we reach the final chapter of the original trilogy.

The Force is strong in my family...

Class is in session, let's see what we can learn.

Return of the Jedi has long been my favourite of the Star Wars movies. I love endings, in particular endings to a successful series. They're among the most important parts of a story, and they're also frequently the most prone to causing disappointment.

This movie was originally going to be called Revenge of the Jedi. The title stuck for so long that early marketing material and even action figure packs were published with that title. However, initial feedback showed people felt revenge was something a Jedi wouldn't pursue, so the title was changed.

The movie often comes under fire for the inclusion of the Ewoks. Initially it was planned that the final act would take place on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. Whether George Lucas decided to change it to better fit with his intention of depicting a technologically inferior race defeating the Imperial troops (the Star Wars Holiday Special had established that Wookies are technologically advanced), or because they were better merchandise fodder, really depends on your level of cynicism. Despite this, and the probable lack of emotional depth caused by deciding not to go with the original plan of killing off Han Solo, Return of the Jedi still stands as a classic, and an important part of the Star Wars mythos. As with the previous movies, it can offer writers several useful lessons:

Lesson 1: Bring the story full circle
Lesson 2: Wrap up loose ends
Lesson 3: Prepare the reader for the climax
Lesson 4: Keep raising the stakes until the very end
Lesson 5: Make the hero's victory surprising
Lesson 6: Our last look at themes

Lesson 1: Bring the story full circle

A strong series is more than just the sum of its parts. Particularly if you've planned your books as a series of a specific length, you need to go a step beyond simply telling a story with each book. Each book must be an act in the grander storyline. Each must flow into the next. As I said before, about how the events of The Empire Strikes Back flow naturally from A New Hope, the story of Return of the Jedi carries on and touches the previous two installments.

Where A New Hope opened with Rebels fleeing from the Empire, carrying the stolen Death Star plans, Return of the Jedi opens with an intimidating view of the new Death Star, still under construction. This mirrors the first movie and also shows that the Empire will continue trying to dominate the galaxy no matter how many times its plans are foiled. The only way to stop it is to defeat it completely.

When we last saw Luke and Leia, they were watching the Millenium Falcon speed away to search for Han. This search leads the heroes to Tatooine, the planet were Luke grew up. We are revisiting the past of the series, and seeing it from the eyes of characters who have grown and developed. Their attitudes have changed. Before, Luke hated Tatooine and was desperate to leave, covering up his frustrations with bravado. Now he is calm and controlled. That this is his old home, a place he hated, is unimportant now. What matters is that he has to save his friend.

Lesson 2: Wrap up loose ends

Of course, this leads us to the second lesson. Having a major character captured is a pretty big loose end. And Han's sub-plot of being on the run from Jabba the Hutt has cast a constant shadow over things. So we need to see a satisfying resolution. Interestingly, we also get to see Han's development, here. This touches on our lesson on themes, below, but Han's last name is Solo. He's a rogue, someone who can get by on his own and doesn't need help from anyone. Until now.

While it's a risky narrative choice, notice how Han does very little to aid in his own rescue. Compared to Leia taking charge during her escape from the Death Star, Han is pretty much a damsel in distress. The self-sufficient pirate has come to depend on his friends to help him.

I'm not crying, you're crying!

We should also take time to look at Luke's return to Dagobah. This scene almost didn't make it into the movie, but it was rightly decided that Luke needed to visit his master one last time. The reader will often need closure on certain emotional revelations, and we see here that Yoda provides Luke with a chance to come to terms with the fact that Darth Vader really is his father, and Luke is able to confront Obi-Wan for keeping the truth from him. A hero needs to accept the pain they've experienced in order to grow stronger from it. A character who hides from the truth of who they are can never be victorious.

Lesson 3: Prepare the reader for the climax

One of the worst things a writer can do is treat the climax of their book like it's simply one more scene. The climax must provide resolution to the most pressing issues of the story, and the reader has to be built up to prepare for that. If you drop the climactic scene in too soon, it will jar the reader's experience and they'll feel cheated. If you drag things out, the reader will become bored. You must balance the needs of the narrative and getting the reader into the right mindset for the big finish.

Remember what I said in my review of Empire, about the scale and awe of the Empire's power? Well in Jedi, we see the opposite. We're back to the close up, personal stakes we saw in the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope. The dead Ewok, the close-up camera shots on fighter pilots sacrificing their lives. This is important, because despite the sheer scope of the battle, we need to be kept focused on the personal element so we're primed for Luke's showdown with Vader.

We are constantly shown large-scale battle shots, then pulled back to emotional moments. Even major events in the Battle of Endor, such as the Death Star's primary weapon firing for the first time, or the destruction of the Super Star Destroyer, Executor, are punctuated by shots of characters' faces, and their expressions of fear and triumph.

Because the final victory in the story is not physical, but internalised, the audience needs to feel emotion throughout the final act.

Lesson 4: Keep raising the stakes until the very end

This is the final instalment of the series. It is absolutely the worst time to drop the ball when it comes to building tension. When writing the end of a series, you want your readers to feel that every moment matters. They've been waiting for this. Some will have been following you since your very first book was released. This needs to be all the things that your readers have loved about your series so far.

Note Vader's words when he admonishes Moff Jerjerrod over the delays to the Death Star's construction: "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am." We've seen before how 'forgiving' Vader is, happily killing officers who displease him. Thanks to the established nature of his character, we know that the Emperor is someone to be truly feared.

When the Emperor does arrive, he's something very different to what we've seen so far. I'll discuss this in more detail in the lesson on themes, below, but take note of the way he speaks. He doesn't whisper or hide his plans. He cackles his way past Stormtroopers, explaining that he has foreseen everything that is happening. His confidence is monumental, to the point where he doesn't even try to seem likeable or hide his true nature. This is a man so assured of his own victory that he will literally dare a Jedi to strike him down. That kind of dark, driven personality is immensely intimidating.

The stakes are also raised by the sight of the Rebel fleet. We've never seen the Rebels amass such a force before now. It's an impressive sight, and seeing all those ships blast into hyperspace is exhilarating. But when the Emperor's trap is revealed, and the ground troops on Endor capture Han and Leia's team, preventing the shield from being lowered, we see that an even larger fleet of Imperial star destroyers is waiting for the Rebels, led by the Executor.

Then, while the Rebels try to hold off the Imperial fighters, the Emperor reveals the truth, that the Death Star is already fully-operational, and will soon obliterate the Rebel fleet.

The resulting battle shows the Rebels, and Ewoks, being gradually overwhelmed by the Imperial forces. Despite hard-won victories, such as the destruction of the Executor, the Rebels still struggle to hold out against the superior forces.

Lesson 5: Make the hero's victory surprising

Right. So the villains are revealed in all their strength, the heroes are backed into a corner, and the audience is wondering how this is all going to end. This is what's known as the lowest point/darkest hour, when things are at their worst for the heroes. It's time to turn the tide.

Luke defeats Vader in single combat, but he only manages to do so by giving in to his anger. His rage allows him to overpower his father, and here it threatens to take hold and bring him fully to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile on the forest moon of Endor, Han and Leia are cornered at the entrance to the shield generator. Leia has been wounded, Artoo has been disabled by an electrical discharge, and Han isn't able to get the blast doors open.

Two events change everything.

Chewie arrives with a captured AT-ST walker, which allows Han to send a message to trick the Imperials into opening the doors to the generator. And Luke refuses to kill his father.

Now, Han and the others managing to destroy the shield generator isn't surprising. It's what we expected, and what we were rooting for.

However, this whole series has been built around the idea that Luke will have to confront, and defeat, Darth Vader. We assumed Luke would kill him. Even Yoda and Obi-Wan believed Luke would have to kill Vader and the Emperor. Instead, Luke's victory over the Emperor is not physical. He defeats the Emperor by resisting the Dark Side, proving he's stronger than his father was.

And we get our stakes raised a little more, when the Emperor blasts Luke with Force lightning. At this point in the trilogy, we've never seen anyone display power like this. The audience watches as Luke is helpless, pleading for his father to help him. We would expect that the hero would find the strength to resist this attack, and strike down the Emperor.

Instead, the music rises, and Darth Vader turns on his old master. The Emperor screams in anger at this betrayal, and is thrown down a chasm, where his body bursts into energy.

Rather than see the hero kill the villain, we've seen the villain redeem himself and become a hero.

I normally counsel against trying to be too original, and attempting to surprise readers with plot twists. But when properly done, surprising your readers like this can have a powerful impact. You don't want your readers to merely enjoy the ending, you want them to be blown away. Think of the most exciting, head-turning way to let your hero achieve victory, and go for it. But make sure it makes sense within the context of the story. If you come out of left field with a plot twist that doesn't fit the tone and continuity of the story so far, you'll only end up breaking your readers' suspension of disbelief, and spoiling all of your hard work.

Lesson 6: Our last look at themes

Previously I've discussed how themes and symbolism have evolved over the course of the series. Our theme of Authority vs Freedom naturally draws to a close in Jedi, with the death of the Emperor, and the destruction of the Death Star and the Imperial flagship, the Empire's military might and center of government have been dealt a critical blow. While there's naturally going to be more fighting ahead, freedom is the clear winner here.

The Ewoks' battle against the Imperial ground forces was inspired by the way the Viet Cong forces fought against the US military during the Vietnam War. It's intended to call up the theme of Mysticism and Nature vs Technology. We see this again as the immense super star destroyer is taken out by a single A-Wing whose pilot steers his doomed fighter into the ship's command bridge, causing it to plunge into the surface of the Death Star.

More subtly, note how Vader's last request is for Luke to remove his helmet. He wants to see him "with [his] own eyes." Nature transcends technology.

Moving on to our use of character descriptions, look at the Emperor when he arrives. Most characters in Star Wars, and movies in general, are brought into the light and displayed fully. They have a presence. The Emperor, on the other hand, is a shadow. He's more an absence, than a presence. A total absence of light. Completely one with the Dark Side.

His throne on the Death Star sits before a spindled window, forming an abstract spider web pattern. It frames the Emperor as being at the centre of the Imperial web, the master of everything. It highlights how important it is that he be defeated, and how fragile the Empire will be once he falls.

But, despite his shadowy, manipulative nature, the Emperor's personality is intensely direct. This is a villain who no longer needs to lie and hide his true nature. He is so assured of his superiority and eventual victory that he can express his evil with sinister glee.

Luke's colour progression has moved on. He's gone from wearing white, to grey, and now to solid black. Much like the internal conflict we looked at in Empire, where Luke's triumphs have resulted in him limiting his own abilities, the use of black in his clothing represents a dual-meaning.

On the one hand, it brings him closer to Darth Vader. Coupled with his cybernetic hand, covered in a sheer black glove to hide the damage sustained on Jabba's sail barge, it reflects the growing darkness he's struggling with. Note that Luke also uses the Force to choke the two guards at Jabba's palace, something we've only seen Vader do up to now. Luke's appearance helps to underscore the struggle he will endure.

Conversely, black is a colour also symbolic of peace and security. Asian culture regards black as a safe, protective colour, and white as a symbol of danger. While Luke is on a path of inner conflict, for much of the movie he is at peace with the decision he must make, if not at peace with who he is. He is calm, centered. Every choice is made with complete confidence and acceptance of his fate.

Finally, I'll discuss the lightsaber one last time. Not in terms of colour (it was decided that Luke's new lightsaber would be green purely so the blade would stand out better during the sail barge scene), but the fact that this is a weapon of Luke's construction.

Luke was given his father's lightsaber by Obi-Wan. Symbolically, he is being given his father's duty and destiny. Other people steer Luke's journey throughout the series, even up to Obi-Wan insisting that Darth Vader cannot be saved. He has been lied to, kept in hiding to become a weapon against the Emperor, and pushed into situations against his will.

In losing his father's lightsaber, Luke also loses his final ties to his father's legacy. He is forced to construct a lightsaber of his own, effectively forging his own path, and choosing his own destiny. In the end, Luke becomes a Jedi, not because Obi-Wan told him to, or because of his father, but by his own choice. And in the end, the only power we really have in life is the power to make our own choices.

I hope you've all enjoyed this series of posts. I've certainly enjoyed writing them. It's been suggested that I continue my Star Wars focus with lessons on the prequels, which I may do in the new year, though I think it would have to be Writing Mistakes to Avoid ;-)

Class dismissed, and may the Force be with you.

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