Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned from STAR WARS




The original Star Wars trilogy is the primary cultural touchstone for an entire generation. Like a billion other people my age, I've seen them enough that I pretty much know every frame of all three movies. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its specific brilliance, Star Wars has excellent lessons to teach those of us who like to write and draw stories.

Lesson 1: Update a Classic to Suit your Era


Star Wars is said to have many influences, from Joseph Campbell to Akira Kurosawa, but the one I'd like to focus on is Flash Gordon. Alex Raymond's space fantasy comic strip and the movie serials based on it from the 1930s and 40s were one of the first to capture that vibe of "using science like magic" that Star Wars brought to the forefront.

But by the 1970s, Flash Gordon as a hero was becoming something of an anachronism. He was designed like a lot of old depression- or war-era heroes like Doc Savage in that he was a shining paragon of humanity and essentially had no flaws (other than, perhaps, that he cared too much). Despite the fact that Star Wars was meant from the outset to be a throwback to that simpler time, audiences that were used to more serious, adult films would probably have rejected a hero that uncomplicated. So rather than trick out a Flash Gordon-like hero with conflicting emotions, the movie splits that one character into three heroes, each embodying one of the three main traits that Flash had. I call them: The Strategist, The Moral Compass, and The Instrument of Justice.

In the old Flash Gordon comic strips, Flash not only knew what to do and how to do it, he knew why, and what's more, he was the one to go out and get it done. In Star Wars, we see that it's Princess Leia (The Moral Compass) who knows what must be done and why, Han Solo (The Strategist) who can figure out how, and Luke (The Instrument of Justice) who goes out and does it. Because of that division of roles, the world of Star Wars can appear to be slightly more emotionally realistic and nuanced than that of Flash Gordon to movie audiences in the 1970s.

Other Flash Gordon cast members appear in Star Wars, of course. The wise Dr. Zarkov becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ming the Merciless becomes Darth Vader, and the beautiful but helpless Dale Arden becomes Princess Leia again, because Princess Leia still gets captured all the time--she just has more to say about it. 

R2-D2 and C-3PO are versions of characters from a different story -- Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, in this case -- and they serve as a way to ease the audience into this new style. But they themselves are an update of a very old type of character. Like Rosencranz and Guildenstern from Hamlet, they are largely observers and commenters, and their viewpoint and interplay allow us to jump into the middle of a great war, knowing that they will keep us up-to-date.

Lesson 2: Make the Fantastic Familiar


One of the things that Star Wars did that was new to viewers was that it presented fantastical ships and wondrous places and then had its characters move about and around them as if they were completely ordinary. Luke Skywalker's landspeeder, a fast, sleek hovercraft that anyone even now -- much less in the 70s -- would drool over, is sold, presumably for scrap metal, without a second thought. The Millenium Falcon, one of coolest, most iconic spaceships in all pop culture, when revealed for the first time, gets the following comment (say it with me now): "What a piece of junk!" To the characters, a landspeeder is a pickup truck, the Falcon is a rusty old 18-wheeler, and a city of robots, monsters, clone soldiers, and weirdos is no more than "a wretched hive of scum and villainy."
Beyond that sort of atmospheric dressing, what made Star Wars stand out was that these situations that the characters found themselves in, as fantastic as they were, are familiar to us. Even here, on Earth, we can sympathize with the boy on the moisture farm who has to stay another season instead of do something interesting like join the rebellion. We can recognize the type of cocksure wise guy who spends all his time fixing up his old ride, hanging out with a hirsute buddy, and thinking he's smarter than everyone else. The things we find familiar in these alien worlds allow us to think that the events that we're seeing are more than just thrilling and strange, they're important. They impact us, because they're disrupting something that we understand. We have a stake in this story.

Lesson 3: Make the Characters Distinctive, Both by Color and Shape


Perhaps no other movie in history did this as well as Star Wars. Every single important character in the Star Wars trilogy is instantly recognizable both in silhouette and in color. 

Recognize these people?

How about these?


Even the spaceships, as complicated as they are, with thousands of panels, vents, turrets, and engines, can be drawn from memory by a 5-year-old (or a 39-year-old). 



That kind of elegant simplicity meant that the characters, ships, and locations can be used in scenes in many different ways, and the story finds it very easy to keep viewers up-to-date. When something is iconic, we remember it. When we remember it, we remember what it does. When we remember what it does, we know what significance it has when it shows up. There is never one moment of confusing one character -- or one ship -- for another. We know that it seems risky for Luke to travel by himself to another system in an X-wing fighter because we know that that ship is usually used for short-range dogfights. We believe that the Millennium Falcon can hide in a bunch of space garbage because it’s constantly breaking and being repaired. We can see at a distance that it’s Chewbacca emerging from a scout walker rather than an Imperial Soldier because he’s so darn hairy. And we jump with the characters when the doors open on Cloud City to reveal Darth Vader: huge, black, iconic, and evil. We don’t even have to cut to a close-up; Han Solo can pull his gun and blast him right away because we’ve already gotten all the information we need in one second.

Much of Star Wars was filmed as if it were a silent movie; visuals do a great deal of the heavy lifting in terms of relating relationships (the Blockade Runner fleeing the Star Destroyer), character types (C-3PO’s posture and walk says as much about his personality as his words), and mood (the swamp planet in the Dagobah system is the perfect place to find out some mysterious secrets). A film or comics storyteller could learn a great deal from that.

Lesson 4: String Together Great Scenes, Each with a Definable Goal, in a 3-Act Structure


I think I was actually an adult before I really looked at the logical progression of events in the Star Wars movies, as in: who wanted what, in what order did things happen, and why. Part of it was because I had seen it as a child and didn’t care about that kind of stuff then, but the other part was that Star Wars never delivers a scene just to move the story along. There is always a definable goal that the characters have to accomplish: escape, find runaway droid, hire a pilot, rescue the princess, turn off the tractor beam, blow up the Death Star, etc. Each scene is entertaining, each scene has a sub-goal that serves the greater purpose of the plot, and each scene makes sure you know everything you need to know to enjoy it. When Luke, et al. get to the Death Star, we’re not wondering about what the rest of the rebellion is doing. We’re not worried about anything other than finding out what’s on this station and rescuing the princess. 

Similarly, the trilogy itself is a helpful reminder about 3-act structure in the broadest sense.

A New Hope

A more-or-less self-contained story that introduces the time and place, as well as all of the main characters, and gives them all an opportunity to show what they can do.

Empire Strikes Back

More of a downer, in which the heroes, despite finding some secrets to help them achieve their ultimate goal, encounter strong obstacles that put them in their darkest place, defeated and licking their wounds.

Return of the Jedi

The heroes bounce back and defeat the villains after re-strategizing.

Keeping the Star Wars trilogy in mind allows us to understand what the 3-act structure means and why it works to keep us interested. When it becomes hard to remember how a story should run, having the Star Wars movies memorized, like many of us do, helps keep it all organized. 

An analysis of A New Hope shows us the perfect way to end each act. 

  • Act 1 ends when the Millennium Falcon departs the Mos Eisley spaceport, just ahead of the Stormtroopers. By that time, we have introduced all heroes and villains and their goals, introduced all important locations, and set the protagonist on a path from which he can’t turn back.
  • Act 2 ends with the escape from the Death Star. By this time, we have accomplished several of the sub-goals, but also killed off the protagonist’s mentor, and now have the trio of heroes at loose ends, set to break up.
  • Act 3 ends with the destruction of the Death Star. There is essentially only one long scene, in which the final goal is accomplished. No new information is introduced except for Han Solo’s sudden return right at the climax of the story. The third act is all resolution; simple, straightforward, and satisfying.

Because Star Wars takes hardly any risks whatsoever with its structure, it comes across as a very familiar story to us, despite the fact that what we remember are the brand-new, never-before-seen effects, aliens, and worlds. The familiarity means that we can more easily enjoy what is new.

Conclusion


In school I was frustrated by the fact that I was continually referred to very old, very complex classic novels as having the lessons necessary to make me a good writer. Aside from the fact that I wanted to be a cartoonist and therefore incorporate visuals into my story, these novels were long, complicated, old-fashioned, and frequently not very fun to read. Generally the lessons I absorbed from this line of study was to make my stories as arcane and difficult to parse as possible. This seems a shame since at the same time, I was absorbing stories via movies and comic books at a prodigious rate. If I had turned a more critical eye toward their structure, I might have found ways to understand story and story-telling all the more quickly. 

As mentioned above, Star Wars’ ubiquity gives the lessons held within it a resonance that is seldom felt in analyses of other works. Because most aspiring comic book writers (not to stereotype, but prove me wrong if you can) know the Star Wars stories backwards and forwards, pointing out their structure allows them -- us -- to very quickly internalize it. Knowing the rhythm of a story is the key to keeping it on track, and so a structure around an example is always the best way keep it all in mind.
Star Wars is by no means the best movie that has ever been made. It is derivative, simplistic, and even clunky in places. But it is enjoyable throughout, it is very efficient in its storytelling, and everyone on Earth remembers every single thing about it: the very mark of a perfect story template.





1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I agree. I study these movies for their structures and to inform all the time. I never got into the fine literature side of things. I've always been more pulpy, comics and action/military scifi. I think education does a terrible job at getting people interested in reading for pleasure, everything you read in school is so dull out dated.

    I like studying the structure of Predator.
    -Act 1: Introduce the cast of badasses. Introduce mystery. Take out enemy base.
    -Act 2: Need to flee from the mystery. People start dying. Mystery revealed and everyone is dead.
    -Act 3: Arnold puts the mud on (new strategy) and starts building his death traps, prepping for the super sweet final battle.

    Or Aliens, a great one for character arc.
    1. Enter the damaged Ripley with a hint of forklift driving badassness (I can drive that loader).
    2. Shit hits the fan and Ripley becomes not so helpless at all. But not yet invincible.
    3. Shit REALLY hits the fan and Ripley becomes hero extraordinaire in a double climax to end all double climaxes. Going from scared and damaged to a woman capable of genociding an entire species before lunch.

    That movie is also great in how it creates likable secondary characters.

    I like Commando for this as well, as it's just a way simpler movie.

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