We’ve learnt some storytelling lessons from A New Hope. What can we learn from The Empire Strikes Back?
1. Meaningless events: boring, confusing, pace killers
The Empire Strikes Back starts with Luke being attacked by a wampa. Starting with conflict is great, especially when it prompts other characters to set goals; however, this attack serves no real purpose. When Han realises Luke has gone missing, he sets out to find him despite the stakes of the harsh environment because he’s motivated by the strong friendship they developed in the previous episode. The attention this is given suggests Luke’s disappearance will set up the plot, but this is not to be!
Luke has been restrained in the wampa’s cave and is presumed to be its next meal, until he uses the force to summon his lightsaber and gets himself out of there in the nick of time. He escapes, only to immediately succumb to the harsh cold and receive contrived instructions to find Yoda on Dagobah. Solidifying Luke and Han’s friendship and exhibiting Luke’s force sensitivity are great things to have in the first few scenes, but good storytelling is conveying things such as this through the events that advance the plot.
Obi-Wan’s instructions do give Luke something to do that ultimately influences the plot, but why did Luke need to have a near-death experience in order for Obi-Wan to appear to him? For that matter, where was Obi-Wan’s ghost for the previous three years?
I had to wait eighteen minutes for the plot to kick off. Apart from the opening shot of an Imperial probe droid touching down on Hoth, the plot isn’t set in motion until Darth Vader interprets its inane chatter as proof that the Rebellion are on Hoth, which is, rather bizzarely, not the consequence of Luke being lost in the snow. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Luke to run into the probe droid and not the wampa? But of course that means they’d need to have found a better way to bring Obi-Wan’s ghost into the story.
2. Foreshadow with strategic scene placement
Darth Vader has a meeting with the Emperor, who insists that they don’t allow Luke Skywalker, son of Anakin, become a Jedi or he’ll be a threat to the Empire. Vader suggests that if they can turn Luke to the dark side, he can become an ally, and the antagonists set one of the first concrete goals of the entire movie: turn Luke or kill him.
Immediately following this scene, Luke is struggling to make the creature he met on Dagobah take him to Yoda. During this time Luke reveals that the main reason he wants to be a Jedi is because his father was one, and swiftly becomes demanding, frustrated, and feeling as though he is wasting his time. Revealing himself to be Yoda, the creature says he cannot train Luke because he is impatient and has much anger in him, just like his father. Obi-Wan’s ghost conveniently pops up again and argues that he was the same, but Yoda still refuses to teach Luke because x, y and z reasons. It is now more likely that the antagonists will achieve their goal before Luke can achieve his, which is the entire reason narrative tension exists.
Hold that thought while another kind of tension continues to develop between Han and Leia during a sequence almost as unrelated to the plot as the first scenes.
Yoda has begrudgingly agreed to train Luke, and one of the first things he says is “Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression–the dark side of the force are they.” He explains that once one starts down the path, the dark side of the force will consume one as it did Darth Vader. Through his emotions and his lack of understanding, Luke is vulnerable to the dark side, as is proved in this scene when he enters the Cave of Evil and faces an illusion of Darth Vader, who wears Luke’s face beneath his mask.
This strategic placement of scenes tells the viewer that Luke will face the internal struggle of light verses dark and struggle to choose the right side, an internal conflict that is integral to the central conflict.
3. No clear goal = no clear plot = forgettable story
Excluding Yoda, the space slug, “No, I am your father”, and carbonite, this movie was the most forgettable of the saga (which can be said about a lot of the second instalments of trilogies). Why? Halfway through, the only clear goals are Luke’s ill-defined “train to become a Jedi”, Vader’s more specific “Find Luke and turn him to the Dark Side” and Han and Leia’s reactive (as opposed to active) “don’t get caught by Imperial forces”. There’s no plot here, just a series of events that don’t appear to be building toward a climax, and what’s the point of sitting through all of these scenes if there’s no hope for a rise in excitement?
The movie is too long, too full of unimportant parts. Luke’s journey on Dagobah is vital, but Han and Leia’s time on the asteroid is nothing more than a drawn-out complication.
It’s not until 5/8 of the way through that things start moving forward. Luke has a vision of Han and Leia in trouble and Yoda gives him an ultimatum: you could go and save them, but if you do you will almost certainly fall to the dark side. Finally, some solid stakes and the hope of a climax, but it took more than half the story to get to this point. This excitement should have started to build long before this point because, to tell you the truth, the first half of this movie is boring!
Stay tuned for storytelling lessons from Return of the Jedi!