“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!