4 Storytelling Lessons from Star Wars: A New Hope

4 Storytelling Lessons from Star Wars: A New Hope

I’ve always had a problem with criticism of the Star Wars prequel trilogy because what most people think are problems really aren’t, but after reading criticism of Rogue One, I’ve decided to break my silence.

Let me preface by saying that I was introduced to Star Wars by my parents when I was a child in the early nineties. I was seven when Episode I came out; too young to realise it was cool to hate it. As I entered the world of blogging about writing and storytelling, I realised that hate for the prequel trilogy still rages through our community for reasons like “Jar Jar Binks” and “Midichlorians”, which might be messy and tacky, but are by no means the reasons that these movies aren’t received as well as the OT.

However, these criticisms are still, in part, fair. When it comes to Rogue One, some criticism is outright baffling. There was no plot, they say. No character development. The characters were bland and boring. Everyone died, which was totally tacky. Characters were forced into the movie as fan service. It didn’t feel, look or sound like a Star Wars movie. The original trilogy were the best three movies to have ever graced our screens and they shouldn’t even try to extend the already extended universe because no other Star Wars movie could ever compare to those original three movies.

Guys, come on.

The original trilogy was not as great as you think it was. You’re holding the rest of the movies to a higher standard than they should be held.

The OT was fun and adventurous and different. That’s all. The movies didn’t have complex plots. They didn’t have complex characters. They were too long. There were no compelling stakes. By today’s storytelling standards, the movies were shallow and bland. How do you compare Rogue One with A New Hope by saying that Rogue One lacks emotional depth and complex characters?

Rogue One might have problems because every movie could be improved (even your precious OT), but I wanted to jump to Rogue‘s defence. As I’ll have to wait for the DVD, I thought I’d start by looking at A New Hope. What is it about this movie that made generations fall in love with this franchise?

1. Your audience doesn’t believe anything you say

The opening crawl of A New Hope tells the viewer that the Galactic Empire are the bad guys and the Rebel Alliance are the good guys, but have you ever heard of a plot twist? Sure, the Empire has built a weapon that could destroy an entire planet, but I could come up with a few reasons why that wouldn’t be sinister if you gave me two hours to explore that. We’re also told that the Rebels … stole the plans for the Death Star? Okay, how’s that going to help? Additionally, that was their first victory, so how exactly are they freeing the galaxy from the oppression of the Empire? I’m not saying that I need these answers right off the bat (in fact, I wouldn’t want them right off the bat), I’m saying that a storyteller saying “This person = antagonist, this person = protagonist” isn’t enough anymore. You need to Show Don’t Tell on a storytelling level because your audience is too smart these days to believe your protagonist is the good guy just because you say he is.

In the opening scenes of A New Hope we’re told who the good guys and bad guys are on a symbolic level. The Imperial Star Destroyer is an absolute mammoth compared to the Rebel corvette. The Stormtroopers are faceless. Darth Vader is covered head to toe in black, is also faceless, makes weird creepy noises, and wears a cape. He is obviously The Big Baddie. However, this is still not enough. He could have boarded that ship then bent down to pat a dog and I’d be enamoured. Princess Leia, modestly dressed in white, could have slaughtered said dog and I’d hate her.

However, as no dogs are present, the audience needs to see the roles of these characters clarified in a different way. Darth Vader ruthlessly kills Captain Antilles when he won’t tell the space wizard what he wants to hear. Later, he even starts choking one of his own colleagues, and only stops because someone just as sinister tells him to stop (side note: the fact that he does stop makes Tarkin seem more badass). Together, the pair are willing to remorselessly destroy an entire planet and all its inhabitants to get information out of Leia. It’s these acts that make the audience believe these guys are the bad guys, and this belief connects them with the story.

2. Strong starts hook the audience

After eighty well-chosen words of backstory, A New Hope starts in media res. The string of opening scenes work together to set up the entire movie. They:

  • reinforce who the goods guys and bad guys are through their actions on board the corvette (the ruthless killing and the sass)
  • establish a goal for the bad guys that the good guys will need to thwart (get the Death Star plans back)
  • establish a goal for the good guys (R2-D2 must get the Death Star plans to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who will then get them to the Rebel Alliance)
  • create a problem for the good guys (Princess Leia is captured)
  • set the bad guys on the path of thwarting the good guys (Darth Vader deduces that the plans were on the escape pod and sends his goons after it)

All of this happened in the first eight minutes of the movie.

It’s important to note that this movie didn’t open by introducing the protagonist; however, it set the story in motion with all of the above, as well as giving us an entry point into caring just a little about what might happen by creating likeability for Leia and the droids through their characterisation.

3. Different stories have different requirements

This story lacks stakes and motivation — the whys and or whats.

What do the rebels want with the Death Star plans? In Leia’s holographic message she says the plans are “vital to the survival of the Rebellion”, but how? Quite a lot of time passes (during which these plans are super dooper important) before we find out why: the rebels might find a weakness in the Death Star and exploit it before the Empire can locate the Rebel base and destroy it.

But why does the Empire want to destroy Rebellion if the most destructive thing they’ve done so far is steal the Death Star plans? That’s hardly threatening, considering the only way the Empire appears to want to utilise the Death Star is to destroy the Rebellion, whose only accomplishment is having stolen the Death Star plans.

It’s a wonky circle at best.

Further, there’s not much at stake for any of the characters.

The Rebellion — they’ll stop themselves getting blown up if they win; they’ll get blown up if they lose. We never see how the Empire affects the citizens of the galaxy on a personal level, so we don’t know what else the Rebels are fighting for.

Luke — He lost his family at the beginning of the movie, which he didn’t take nearly as hard as he took the death of an old man he’d known for half an hour. If the rebels win, he gets to become a Jedi. If the rebels lose, so long as Obi-Wan survives, he could still potentially become a Jedi. He’s pretty difficult to root for as a protagonist.

Han — He actually has the most developed stakes. He needs the money Obi-Wan promises to pay him for passage to Alderaan. If he wins, he gets to pay Jabba back. If he fails, Jabba will put out a hit on him. That’s about as personal as this movie gets.

Leia — Leia loses her entire planet and all her people within about two seconds in the first quarter of the movie. Like Luke, she also doesn’t carry the weight of grief on her shoulders throughout the rest of the movie. Other than this, the stakes for her are the same as they are for the Rebellion. I like her because she stands up to Vader and Tarkin, but I’m still not connected with her on a personal level.

Without stakes, the audience isn’t apprehensive about a particular outcome and determined to see that outcome achieved or avoided; thus, there’s no strong emotional connection to the story. Without stakes, there is no motivation. For the most part, it’s just a movie you sit back and enjoy without needing to take your emotions on a roller coaster. In other parts, it’s flat-out boring because I’m not on the edge of my seat hoping the characters are going to make it out alive.

If there’s no strong emotional connection to A New Hope, why do we love it so much?

Because different stories have different requirements.

This is the thing that annoyed me the most about Rogue One criticism. Some said there was no character development and emotional depth; therefore, it didn’t feel like a Star Wars movie. But the original Star Wars movie lacked character development and emotional depth, so how does it not feel like a Star Wars movie? If that argument can then be thrown out, what’s the problem with lacking character development and emotional depth? When it comes to a movie like A New Hope, nothing!

The major difference between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy is the scope of the stakes. The story in the OT is about the Rebellion taking it to the Empire, and the stakes aren’t limited to single characters. The entire galaxy will suffer if the good guys don’t win. This isn’t about the characters as individuals unless they can be utilised as individuals so they have distinct roles in the story. The prequel, however, is all about the journey of a single character. Yes, this journey has wider stakes, but it’s all about how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side, not the politics.

The difference in the scope of the stakes create two completely different stories, and look which one is generally more favoured. Clearly, not every story needs intricate character arcs and complex emotional depth. Some people just like to sit back and watch a story about space wizards and laser beams.

4. Capitalise on the protagonist’s introduction

The movie wastes no time in setting up Luke Skywalker, our protagonist. When we first meet Luke, he’s plodding along in his everyday life dealing with everyday problems. We get insight into what he does and doesn’t want in life and can sympathise with his frustration over not being able to achieve his goals because his uncle won’t let him. After he’s conned by R2-D2 in my favourite exchange in this entire movie (“What message?”), R2 flees, potentially creating big problems in Luke’s non-plot life. Luke has a non-plot related reason for going after R2, and in the process gets involved with the plot. It’s a great way to force your protagonist into the story.

Louise

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