Studying Storytelling: Star Wars
This is Volume 10 in an ongoing series called Studying Storytelling where I look at HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. For more on the inspiration for this series, start here. For an index of previous entries, go here. I wasn't gonna do it. I swear. The post on Monday was meant to be my only reference to Star Wars this week, but I couldn't help myself. Because the new movie opens widely tomorrow and because it seems like the whole world is caught in the inertia of this beloved franchise, I found myself thinking about the previous six movies in the context of my Studying Storytelling series.
Writing this is almost certainly a bad idea. For one, I'm going to try to keep it brief despite the fact that world of storytelling in Star Wars is enormous–six (now seven!) feature films, animated shows, books, comics, games and more. I can't do it all justice in a single blog post, and I don't intend to try.* It is its own sort of cottage industry within the larger media landscape at this point. There's even a highly rated, 200 page book just about what you'd need to know to be ready for The Force Awakens. The stories in the movies have already been analyzed so much it's hard to know whether there's anything worth saying about them, and I'm not nearly as well versed in the fandom as so many others out there.
Why Write About Star Wars? Simple.
So why write this piece given how much has already been written? Cuz it's still Star Wars, man, and Star Wars is cool.
My scope is limited to the six previous movies and, as always with Studying Storytelling, I'm looking at three big motifs, methods or other characteristics that stand out to me in terms of how the stories are told rather than what the stories are about. Roughly 16% of the internet is already devoted to bashing the prequels in relation to the original trilogy, and this post is not intended to be yet another such exercise. I'm not dealing with the plots of the movies themselves much, but I will address one aspect of the relationship between the original trilogy and the prequels that I think teaches us an important lesson.
Alright...let's see if we can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs...er, or make this post less than 2,000 words.
But in Space!
There are no new stories to tell, right? We've all heard that idea before, that there are only a few kinds of stories and all storytellers can do is reassemble their attendant parts in ways we hope feel a bit different from what came before. Whether this is true or not, it's clear old ideas get recycled and one way it happens is to take familiar story and stick it in outer space. It's common enough that "in SPACE" has become a shorthand joke, a trope that's easy to mock for how transparent it is that the only idea was to add spaceships and lasers.
"It's like Jaws–but in space!"
Star Wars may not be the origin of this trope, but it's a demonstration that tropes are not necessarily bad. They become tropes because someone somewhere demonstrated how well they can work and then others follow those footsteps, often with less success. The Star Wars films mash up ideas and plot elements from a staggering number of other films, literature, history, and even opera and placed them in a world of incredible scope.
George Lucas wore his influences proudly, but he combined them with a deft touch and avoided giving us the feeling that we had seen it all before. Being "in space" is an important part of that. The galaxy feels about as real as it could, like a lived-in place with history. One thing that can ruin science fiction stories, for me at least, is when everything seems pristine and shiny in an attempt to drive home how advanced the technology is. In Star Wars, the technology is far beyond our own, but it's used and beat up, grimy and not always reliable.
If there's a lesson here, it's that there's little reason to run from the things that inspire your story, but be mindful of how you assemble them. The trope "but in SPACE!" generally applies when someone simply transposes the setting of a story we already know with little else added. Star Wars did much more than that, drawing on a huge range of stories that were part of our cultural lexicon to create something that felt new. Setting it in space just took that feeling to another level.
Baaah Bum! Bopbopbop Baaah Bum! Bopbopbop Baaah Bum! Bopbopbop Bum!
It might take you a minute, but you know exactly what that heading is if you've seen Star Wars. Still stuck? Here ya go.
The music in the Star Wars series is singular and identifiable in a way that most films could only dream of. Kids all over the world run around their houses making noises similar to the heading above as the soundtrack for their own adventure saving the galaxy.
As audience members, I'm not sure we realize just how important the soundtrack can be for how we enjoy a story. Star Wars without great music is a counterfactual we can't experience, but, I'm confident that we remember the music on its own terms and not simply because Star Wars itself was great. The influence of the soundtrack to Star Wars is profound enough that the Imperial March is synonymous with totalitarian evil. We hear it, and we know reflexively what we're supposed to feel about whatever's happening, which is why sports teams use it for their opponents.
All of this is thanks to composer John Williams. Don't recognize the name? Think you've never heard of him? You are very, very wrong. Maybe you haven't seen Star Wars (in which case welcome to Earth, and we hope you like it here), but have you seen E.T. or the Indiana Jones movies or Jaws or Superman or Jurassic Park or Harry Potter or Schindler's List or Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
Even if by some chance you've avoided all of those, you've undoubtedly heard some of their music. John Williams is responsible for some of the most memorable themes in movie history, and essentially wrote the score to my childhood make-believe adventures. As a storytelling element, the impact of great music may not help me much with writing fiction, but it's part of what makes film such a great medium.** In print, we allow our imaginations to build the world for us based on what's on the page, and that's part of what makes reading great. But even if film takes some of the imagination out of it, it brings our other senses into the fray and the best films use them all in a complete package.
Never Meet Your Heroes, or Starting the Story in the Right Place
Here's where the Star Wars love fest meets a bit of a snag, but I think it does so with an important lesson to learn. The original trilogy is pretty universally beloved. The prequel trilogy is...less so. The reasons for why many people don't like Episodes I-III are myriad, and I have plenty of my own thoughts on how it could be improved. But the main takeaway I have from the shortcomings of the prequels is this–they were just backstory for Episodes IV-VI, and we rarely need all the backstory.
There is a principle in storytelling that your story should not begin any earlier than absolutely must for the audience to understand it. In his eight rules for writing fiction, Kurt Vonnegut wrote it as "start as close to the end as possible." The basics of the Star Wars prequels were backstory that George Lucas and others working on the original trilogy needed to flesh out their narrative, to give clear motivations for characters and to help them understand what was happening in that galaxy far, far away.
But did the audience need all that?
No, not really. We do just fine picking it up as we go along. The prequel trilogy has two primary purposes. It tells us how the Galactic Empire came to be and it is the origin story of Darth Vader. These things were interesting more in theory than in practice. I recently re-watched Episodes I-III, and I couldn't shake the feeling that there was just so much I didn't really need to know.***
This does not mean that a prequel trilogy was something impossible to make more interesting than what we got, just that I think George Lucas wisely chose to start in the middle with the original trilogy. I don't fault the man for wanting to tell the stories that lead up to Episode IV, but when I watch the prequels I feel like it was a part of the story he felt like he should tell more than he needed to.
Or at least, that's what I thought until I learned the REAL truth behind the prequels. It was Jar Jar all along! Seriously, if you're a Star Wars fan you should watch this. It's super interesting. May the Force be with you!
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*That said, if you want a pretty nice summary that gives you the big details of the current canon of Star Wars material but doesn't take, like, the rest of your natural life to get through, check out this piece from The Verge.
**Though I think it would be REALLY cool to score a novel. The approach would be way different, of course. You couldn't reliably sync up crescendos with key moments, for example. You'd essentially want themes that could play on repeat or go on for long periods of time to account for reading pace, but it could be a cool thing to try.
***Lots of fans have attempted reediting Star Wars movies, particularly the prequels, and I found these "anti-cheese" edits help A LOT with enjoying Episodes I, II, and III.