As the newest Star Wars trilogy begins with The Force Awakens, I am reflecting once more on the last trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III), from a writer’s perspective.
As I had mentioned in an earlier post: “Elements of Good Storytelling and Their Absence in The Phantom Menace,” Red Letter Media details the innumerable shortcomings of these movies. Their critiques should be required viewing for new filmmakers.
The Star Wars prequels have useful lessons for writers too.
I admit that it has been over ten years since I last saw the prequel trilogy when they were initially released in theaters. So I’m going off of memory and clips available in reviews.
Editors as Personal Trainers
Every writer needs an editor. You, me, and even billionaires. No one is perfect and as a writer it is difficult to read your own work in a fresh way. You can’t not know what you already know, you know?
A good editor is going to challenge you. He or she will make you defend every character, every scene, every word. Opposition can bring out the best in people if they are willing to face it. Just as personal trainers help condition your body, editors help tone your craft. They will push you to do better rather than shirk. “One more push-up!” “More show, less tell!”
Without them, you risk remaining flabby.
Prior to 1977, there had never been a movie like Star Wars. The unknown makes people nervous, people like producers and studio executives, and this anxiety put a lot of pressure on George Lucas. In this new territory, Lucas was more open to (or perhaps had no choice but to listen to) the input of others who were involved with the production. Accordingly, he cut, changed, and added to his material.
Compare that product with the prequels where he had complete control and no one to say ‘no.’
Find someone to make you accountable for your work. Your readers will appreciate it.
Essentially, tension is something…
At the end of each page, you want your reader to read on. If only subconsciously, the reader has questions that need answering. How will the character get out of this? Who poisoned the cat? How will it all end?
Tension requires the reader to care about your characters: To care if he gets the girl; to care if she reconciles with her daughter; to care if they defeat the zombie horde.
For me, the prequels were without tension. So much of the movies’ action scenes pitted robots against clones. Fodder does not a tear jerk. Occasionally there were Jedi and other humanoids, but the cuts were so quick and the screen packed with so much distraction, I didn’t care.
Let’s look a one specific moment in the third movie, Revenge of the Sith. By now Anakin Skywalker had turned to the Dark Side and Palpatine gave Order 66. The order commanded the clones to kill all the Jedi. What followed was scene after scene of Jedi getting ambushed and struck down. (They each died rather quickly, despite all the previous hours of screen time where these same creatures held their own against greater odds.) Anyway, I’m uninterested. In three movies’ time, Lucas did not give me even a few minutes to learn their names, recall their faces, to develop any sympathy for them. So when they were killed off, it was boring.
How about this instead: Focus on one Jedi whom we would get to know and care about over the course of the trilogy. Maybe he is an old friend to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Perhaps he gets a distress signal from a Jedi under attack, then the communication breaks up. Alarm shows in his face and his actions. Then a signal comes from another Jedi. And another signal. And another. Together the audience and this Jedi learn that underway is a conspiracy to kill all the Jedi. He must inform the Jedi Council. But suddenly he’s surrounded. The assassins draw their blasters. He draws his lightsaber. Will he survive and get out that communication?
Your stories need tension and tension needs engaging characters.
Echoes of Greater Things
George Lucas made an almost uncountable number of references in the new trilogy to the original.
“It’s like poetry, so that they rhyme,” he had said.
Whether in setting, or with a character’s actions, or in a line of dialogue, allusions in your writing can be very effective. They can strengthen your story and deepen a theme.
In Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker duels Darth Vader, losing both the battle and his hand. This is mirrored in the next movie, Return of the Jedi, where Luke cuts off his father’s hand and defeats Vader. It works because there’s emotional weight and thematic power to these moments.
But don’t put them in every damn scene. Especially when they are both obvious and contrived. Which is what Lucas had done in the prequels. For example, hands were hacked off left and right: The hand of Zam Wesell, the would-be assassin of Senator Padmé Amidala (in a weak allusion to the cantina scene in A New Hope); the hand of Anakin; the hand of Mace Windu, the hand of Count Dooku, the hand of Anakin again (and his legs). It’s silly, not poetic. By doing this you dilute the power of the device. You risk taking your audience out of the story. You also are reminding your audience of better movies they could be watching.
Put another way, are you writing your own story, or are you simply reiterating a better one?
Show Don’t Tell
“That’s all these movies are – explanations and backstories of things that would have been awesome to see but we only hear about.” – Cinema Sins
For me, the reason to tell less and show more is audience engagement. By telling, either in the narrative or through dialogue, you put distance between the story and your reader. You render the reader as a passive observer. Perhaps think of it as reading a synopsis of the story, rather than the story itself. In contrast, by showing you are inviting the reader to participate in the story. The right details allow the reader to inhabit the characters and their world.
In the prequels, more than once, Obi-Wan and Anakin remarked on past adventures that sounded a lot more interesting than what we were actually watching. We were told, literally, that the Clone War had begun, but never shown its effects on the galaxy’s many worlds and the inhabitants of those worlds. And a big tell in Episodes II and III was the love between Anakin and Padmé. We had to be told because their chemistry was inert.
So don’t gloss over pertinent moments in your character’s story; rather, invite your reader to experience them.
Characters Should be People, not Puppets
When writing, be sure you understand your characters’ motivations, their personalities, their idiosyncrasies. When a reader comes across a passage that shows a character doing something out of left field, especially when it’s done to move the plot forward, you risk breaking trust with your reader. Whether your characters are heroes, or villains, straight-laced or eccentric, they need to feel grounded in the reality you establish. The characters should be consistent; or when they do something unexpected, the reader should understand the break in behavior.
Perhaps what most frustrated me about those movies was that everything, everything, was screwed tightly to the arbitrary plot that Lucas designed. The characters were flat and without agency. It was as though each time a character stated a desire, a Jedi hand swept in front of them saying, “Do the opposite,” and so they did. The entire cast was under an unknown Sith Lord’s thrall.
Some top-of-my-head examples:
- For reasons not explained in any of the movies, Jedis were not permitted to love. So why, why, why, did Yoda assign Anakin to protect Padmé? If Senators were not permitted to love, then why, why, why, did she spend so much time alone with Anakin, while she wore backless dresses as they frolicked in romantic vistas?
- Why did Jango Fett subcontract to Zam the hit on Padmé; then Zam, a creature that can look like anyone, subcontract to a droid which then released a couple of slugs? Why didn’t Jango finish the job himself when he knew both Jedis had left Padmé to chase after Zam?
- If it was urgent to discover who was behind the machinations that concerned the Jedi Council, then why were only two Jedi (one of whom was an undisciplined, horny apprentice) assigned to this important task?
- “We’re peace keepers, not soldiers,” said a couple of the Jedi. Then why did they pull out their lightsabers whenever someone so much as sneezed wrong? And why were they fighting in battles alongside the infantry or acting as generals directing units in the field?
- Why did the Jedi bring the young Anakin to a planet at war, only to tell him to hide?
- Why could Yoda sense the Dark Side in Count Dooku, but not in Palpatine, each standing the same distance from Yoda? One needn’t use the Force or rely on other extra sensory perception to at least suspect Palpatine has some role in the plot.
- Obi-Wan said of Anakin, “He will not let me down. He never has.” All we had seen of Anakin was his chafing under Obi-Wan’s tutelege, talking back at Obi-Wan, defying his mentor’s instructions, boasting of his mastery of the Force, and being reckless in his duties. That’s a thin case for dependability.
Rejoice! Writing Matters, Even in Movies
Perhaps in a strange way, the prequels should reassure writers how essential our craft is for the finished product. These movies had much going for them: a lavish budget, talented performers, and a professional crew. But all of that was built atop the unsound foundation of first-draft writing.
For a movie, when the writing is good, much can still go wrong; but when the writing is bad, not much can save it. Actors can’t cover for unconvincing dialogue; triumphant music scores can’t transform static characters; special effects can’t distract from incoherent structure.
There is no accounting for personal taste, but if you do your best in getting the essentials of your story right, then at least you have done your job well.
So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my interpretations?