Lessons Learned from the Original Star Wars Trilogy to Up Your Writing Game

strike a match“It’s called picking up the game, people. So from now on, every. Single. Story that we do is gonna have to be sensational. We’re gonna me more aggressive. We’re gonna work harder. And we’re gonna do it right now.”

When Rachel McAdams’ character said the above quote in Morning Glory, her crew behind the scenes of Daybreak were in a desperate situation. They had two choices–either pick up their game or the morning show would be canceled.

As a new author in today’s era of publishing, I feel like I’m in the same desperate situation. To make any kind of headway in your career, or even just stay afloat, every story you submit for publication has to be sensational. And whether or not you are published yet, it’s time to pick up your game right now. Light a fire under your own ass.

So, as any professional author would, I put on my R2-D2 panties and watched every episode of the original Star Wars trilogy back to back to back, drowning my writerly insecurities in buckets of popcorn, until somewhere between Tatooine and Endor, the answers hit me.

Lesson #1 from Episode IV — Start in the middle.

The advice to “start as late as possible” in your story is nothing new, and it is sound advice. But that wasn’t good enough for Star Wars. The saga starts in the middle with episode four, not one. Even the title itself–A New Hope–makes it clear we missed something significantly tragic. Did this hinder the audience of 1977 from being fully engaged in the story? Not at all.

When we are dropped into something in progress, the automatic response is to start questioning. If the opening has forward movement despite the unknown, this questioning leads to intrigue. And instead of trudging through a swamp of setup, we are immediately immersed in a fleshed-out world with fleshed-out characters, each opposing side already in pursuit of something vitally important to them.

The result? We want to know what happens next AND we want to know how things came to be this way, so we continue on to find out.

Lesson #2 from Episode V — Destroy everything.

There is no easier, more effective way to raise stakes than to destroy something important to the protagonist. In episode five we see destruction of property (multiple times), destruction of life (multiple times), destruction of confidence, destruction of trust, destruction of plans, destruction of ignorance and innocence, destruction of agreements, even destruction of everyone’s favorite protocol droid (C3PO in a box? for shame!). And Luke had a double destruction at the end, one on the outside and one on the inside, when Vader revealed he is Luke’s father just after cutting off his arm. Not the best timing, Dad. I mean Darth. I mean NOOOOOooooooo!

Then there was that whole electro-shock torture and getting frozen in carbonite thing, which I’m sure destroyed more than a few of Han’s brain cells.

This magnanimous path of destruction is effective, especially in the middle story of a trilogy, because it gives the characters an opportunity to rise up again, and that in turn gives the audience a reason to stick with them and cheer them on. If your book is a stand-alone, the time to “destroy everything” is between the midpoint and your protagonist’s decision to rise above the rubble and press on toward the climax.

Lesson #3 from Episode VI — Expect the unexpected.

The revelation of Vader being Luke’s father was huge. If you are privileged enough to have people call your book good, let alone huge, how do you continue to top yourself?

Don’t give anyone a reason to believe they know what’s coming.

That’s not a bounty hunter, it’s Princess Leia!
That’s not Princess Leia, it’s your sister!
How is the unfinished Death Star operational?!
IT’S A TRAP!
That’s not James Earl Jones, it’s Sebastian Shaw!

When your audience knows to expect the unexpected from you, they will keep coming back for more.

Bonus Lesson! from the entire trilogy — Every story needs a Han Solo.

Flavor it with humor. Adding wit to a central character can greatly improve a story’s overall delivery. Even stories that are dark or serious can do with a sprinkling of laughter here and there.

So please, humor me in the comments. I’d love to know your favorite solo lines from Solo. Punch it!

_____

Image courtesy of Idea Go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Lydia Sharp

Lydia Sharp (@lydia_sharp) is a YA novelist and an Assistant Editor with Entangled Publishing. She has been a contributor to Writer Unboxed since 2010. For all the places you can connect with Lydia, and find her books, please visit her website.

Comments

  1. says

    Start as late as possible is a dangerous thing to say. I’ve had to learn to back the story up and back it up some more to figure out where the beginning is. Otherwise, I end up starting where the middle should be. Not every writer starts the story too early.

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  2. says

    Great post Lydia. I think the great thing of Star Wars #1 is that it starts with Luke’s normal life in a way that propels him to his new one very quickly. That’s a common theme in great fantasy stories too.

    I loved all you said about Star Wars 2 & 3. They are great examples of how to propel a trilogy forward. In fact I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Thanks so much for getting my brain going.

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  3. says

    Favorite Solo line: “Who’s scruffy-lookin’?”

    I love this, and since I did write a trilogy, and my next task is revision work on book two, perfect timing. *Furiously scribbles ideas for things that can be more thoroughly destroyed*

    I like start in the middle, too. The longest of my four manuscripts is my ‘prequel.’ Just had to look back to see how the tragic figure that launched my story ‘got that way.’ I blame G. Lucas. :-)

    Great job, Lydia-wan. I am your humble padawan this day.

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    • says

      Yes! The scruffy-lookin’ comment is one of my faves, too. In fact, I think most of my favorite favorites are from Episode V.

      I really don’t deserve the title “Lydia-wan”, but thanks for the chuckle, Vaughn!

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  4. says

    Interesting thoughts. I’m impressed you were table to take so many craft points from those movies!

    And I think every book/movie needs a Harrison Ford, period. ;)

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  5. Denise Willson says

    You’ve got the reluctant hotty (Luke), the female sex lead (how many pimple faced boys drooled over Leah and those halter tops and side buns?), the comic sidekick (Hans and his furry friend), and the ultimate bad guy (Vader, father figure and all). Every character had a story, a specific role, and each walked the fine line between good and bad, leaving the audience on the edge of their seat.

    Lots to learn, people, lots to learn….

    Great post, Lydia.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  6. says

    Solo quote: Never tell me the odds.

    There is so much that can be learned fro these three movies. It has been a while, I should spend some time with them again.

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  7. says

    Love, love, LOVE this! I began writing because of Star Wars in 1997, when it was “enhanced” and brought back to theatres. I wrote tons of awful Star Wars fiction, but learned a lot. Luke was my favorite character because his journey resonated with me… but Han was the most fun to write – his sarcasm, his way of putting things so bluntly. Years later i am now embarking on what looks to be a trilogy of sorts – about to destroy everything for novel no. 2, and “Empire” is my automatic reference.

    I say “Don’t get cocky!” to myself when I’m writing sometimes… because in a way I feel like I am Luke, wide-eyed and green and getting slapped in the cockpit for touching things he shouldn’t.

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  8. Carmel says

    The unexpected!! What I love most about a story (after falling in love with the characters) and what I need to take away from here today. Thanks!

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    • says

      Funny, the Hubby and I were just talking about that exchange, Therese. It’s such a simple bit of dialogue, but it’s a pivotal point in the Han/Leia relationship arc. We like to analyze movies together. This was our conclusion:

      On the surface it seems cold of him to not say “I love you” back to Leia. But that wasn’t the point of *her* saying “I love you” to him at that moment, a moment when she thought this might be the last time she would see ever him. She already knew he loved her (he never hid his feelings), it was Leia who had refused to acknowledge *her* feelings up until that point, all while Han had been trying his darnedest to get her to admit she loved him. So for her to say “I love you” at that moment was like she was saying, “You were right, and I’m sorry I never told you.” And she didn’t need him to tell her what they both knew all along, that he loved her. His response of “I know”, was more like his way of saying, “No matter what happens, everything is okay between us.”

      But I tend to over-analyze these things…

      I would love to know why this is your favorite line. It’s one of my favorites, too. :-)

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      • says

        Lydia, I loved the story behind that line–how Harrison Ford understood his character so well. Here’s a snip from another site for the story:

        THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: Han solo’s farewell line.

        Here’s another clever ad-lib by Harrison Ford. In ‘EMPIRE’ as Han Solo is about to be frozen in Carbonite, Princess Leia tells him she loves him. In the original script, Han was supposed to reply, “I’ll be back”. Ford didn’t think that was an appropriate parting line for Han (Especially since Ford had not yet agreed to appear in the third film, so it was possible that this would be Han’s last-ever line.) It was Ford who came up with the more appropriate reply, “I know.”

        More from yet another site:

        According to Ford, that off the cuff line led to an interesting debate between himself and Lucas.

        “It was such a contest between George and I about whether that was appropriate or whether the audience would enjoy that line or not, to the point where he made me go to a test screening to sit next to him to prove it was going to get a bad laugh,” Ford apparently recalled with a smile. “And it didn’t. It got a good laugh. So it stayed in.”

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    • says

      hahaha! I pulled that from a childhood memory. My sisters had Barbie and Daisy Duke – I had R2-D2 and C3PO. Guess which one of us became the SF/F author? ~points at self~

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  9. says

    The original trilogy has a lot of great lessons for storytelling and film making. I especially agree about beginning with ample backstory to immerse the audience in an enriched world from the get go. Unfortunately, the prequel trilogy only had examples of what you shouldn’t do.

    Episode 1: Keep the story going. Don’t devote a quarter of the movie/book to repetitive, cliched car races. Also, comedic sidekicks are only comedic if they have likable qualities. Han Solo had the hot rebel vibe, Chewbaca was fuzzy and dependable, C-3PO was witty and reluctantly helpful, but Jar Jar Binks, well….

    Episode 2: In emotional scenes, dialogue is crucial, and less is more. “I love you”; “I know” is heart-breakingly romantic. On the other hand, “I hate sand. It’s so coarse. Not like here. Everything here is soft, and smooth….” [finger drawn down the arm] is just creepy.

    Episode 3: Protags protag. Anakin doesn’t really choose the dark side; Palpatine leads him dumbly by the nose. He even massacres a group of kids just because he was told to. And thanks to pregnancy hormones, Padme turns from a driven politician into a passive princess. The story would’ve had a lot stronger impact if the characters had acted, instead of meekly falling into their inevitable roles.

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    • says

      Those are all really good points! Knowing what NOT to do is just as important as knowing what you should do.

      It’s interesting you brought this up, too, because my original idea for the post was to go through all 6 episodes. But I didn’t find as much useful advice out of the prequel trilogy as I did the original.

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  10. says

    Nice post, Lydia. It really pays to study the things that have worked.

    Gary Kurtz, who was instrumental in the first two films of the original trilogy, said: “I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down. ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right.”

    That’s at the end of an interesting interview in which he says the films came to be driven by the toy possibilities. You can read about that here:

    http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2010/08/12/star-wars-was-born-a-long-time-ago-but-not-all-that-far-far-away-in-1972-filmmakers-george-lucas-and-gary-kurtz-wer/

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  11. says

    I liked their argument in the hallway on Hoth. “You could use a good kiss.” What a great response to Leia’s insult. I wish I could come up with retorts like that.

    Great post, all around. And one point fixed something I’m working on right now. Thanks!

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  12. Judith says

    This is from the reader’s perspective. Two years ago, I bought a novel by Fern Michaels. I had already read 2-3 by her, so was interested in more. This time I bought a new paperback and read it with interest because the setting was very familiar to me, however, I was quite puzzled! I needed to know who the characters were. So I went on line only to discover that the book was #19 in her Sisterhood series.

    Talk about a groan! But I was hooked and eventually read all previous 18. By the time I finished them #20, the last one in the series, was published. Did I help her sales, no; got them from a library. However, I have introduced her books to many other non-writers since then.

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  13. says

    One thing I learned from the first trilogy was to give victory a cost. In IV, Luke loses his aunt and uncle, his mentor, and his old friend Bigs, Lea loses her homeworld, etc. In V the losses mount with Yoda gone, Han captured/dead, and Luke’s image of his father destroyed. In VI, Luke loses his father again. Showing the readers/viewers that the main characters can lose everything brings a depth and tension to the story that merely “threatening” a loss does not.

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  14. says

    I’m old enough that Hans was the hottie for me at that time. Speaking of the toy possibilities, my kids had dozens of SW toys. Lydia, I love this post and will refer back to it – currently writing book #2 in what appears to be destined to be a trilogy. Not what I had in mind in the beginning, but what my readers are asking me to do. Thanks so much!

    I still think H. Ford is hot – he’s like Sam Elliott and Clint Eastwood. We grow older right along with them….

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  15. says

    My favorite compliment ever on my upcoming book was when someone called my main character “the female Han Solo.” I’m a total Star Wars nerd, so I don’t think any compliment could make me happier. Great points here!

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  16. Charlotte Hunter says

    Employing humor, even in the darkest of stories, not only keeps readers engaged when they might otherwise go elsewhere for something less grim, but also reflects real life. We humans tend to make jokes even during the most awful times–some, granted, not always in the best of taste, which should be kept out of our stories–in an attempt to retain our sanity. Thanks for emphasizing humor’s place in stories.

    My favorite Han Solo line: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” The Force talk, in Episodes 4-6, could get a little heavy at times, and Han’s remark provided a nice bit of levity . . . and seems now to foretell Ford’s iconic scene in “Raiders,” when Indie is faced by the threatening, saber-wielding, would-be assassin.

    Excellent post.

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  17. says

    Terrific hints! Just one comment: back in 1977, we did not have a “chapter 4″ notification at the beginning of the movie. I still recall the “huh?”s from the theater crowd when Empire came out and it was labelled Chapter 5. Only serious SW freaks knew that #1 was actually #4.

    So lesson learned: don’t confuse your readers.
    Lesson: Don’t backpedal on your basic concepts. (midi-chlorians???)
    Lesson: Don’t give your reader awful stuff, no matter how big your britches are. (Eps. 1-3)
    Lesson: Women make up about 50% of the world. Don’t forget ’em or treat them like pretty cardboard characters. (Do you hear me, Padmé?)

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    • says

      Good tips!

      (Unfortunately I was too young back then to remember the title change between movies. To me it has always been IV, V, and VI. Sorry for confusing people here!)

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  18. says

    OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS POST! Besides appealing to my Star Wars obsession, you captured the exact thing that makes me love the stories I love — being plunged into the middle of a rich world with lots of problems that have been going on for some time, and then have everything ripped to shreds before my eyes so all I’m left with are the characters. What better way to make readers fully engage? They’re hanging on to those characters for their dear lives!

    Lydia, you’ve totally made my day. Thank you!!!

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  19. says

    I missed this post somehow, Lydia. Funny and helpful. I particularly loved the R2D2 panties.

    Favorite Hans Solo line? When Leia says, “I love you,” and he responds with, “I know.” Slays me.

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