{what I learned} from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

{originally posted on The Writer’s Alley}

I had a nice, outlined blog post for you about 2016 goals. But then I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the second time today, and my post has officially been hijacked by my nerddom.

There are major, major spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it yet, 1) bookmark this post for a later time and 2) get thee to your nearest movie theater!

This was my first Star Wars movie to view with fresh eyes since I began my journey to publication, so naturally in was the first in which I paid attention to the writing. Here are the writing tips this movie affirmed…

And, I repeat, there are major, major spoilers ahead! 

1) First, it’s okay to include popular story elements as long as you do you and as long as you do it well. I read somewhere that there are really only a handful of plot lines in existence when you whittle them down to their bones. The Force Awakens “borrowed” a lot of similar themes and events from its predecessors in the series — maybe not exactly, but close — which I loved. In particular, the father vs. son theme stood out to me. Han Solo and Kilo Ren have the whole good vs. evil dynamic working for them just like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader did. Han’s death also mirrored the statement Darth Vader made in the murder of his mentor Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. Another example? The Death Star vs. the Super Star Destroyer. Same spherical weapon station, different day.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you haven’t been commissioned to pen the next installment in a beloved series, so I’m strictly speaking of story elements and structure and tropes. They can be similar in format to others you’ve read as long as you put your own original, compelling spin on it and spin it well. You have a great opportunity to draw readers in through your characters and what’s led them to this point. Many who are familiar with certain patterns and rhythms in fiction love the predictable nature — or at least seeing where the writers take it. But this also gives you the opportunity to tastefully weave the unexpected into your story to give it punch. The wow factor. Like a female-for-once protagonist with a lightsaber who kicks some serious booty.

2) I also realized that you have to put as much thought into your villain as your protagonists. I don’t write suspense or mystery, but I think this applies to any kind of antagonist. The best kind of villains in my book (the figurative one) are the ones who garner my sympathy even though, on paper, they might not deserve it. I loved the dimension they gave Kilo Ren and can’t wait to see what they do with him. His parentage, his betrayal, the devotion to Darth Vader, the fear that he doesn’t have what it takes to complete his training.

Since we don’t have the three-dimensional benefit of phenomenal acting, we have to convey our antagonists’ motivations, goals, and layers in dialogue and our heroes’ observations during their interactions. Doing this effectively creates a higher contrast between antagonist and protagonist, raises the stakes, and makes the plot all the more riveting, in my opinion. And this is all coming from an acting coach.

3) It’s important to be willing, as writer, to obliterate the path to happily-ever-after in order to maintain authenticity. 

Were you surprised that, despite their happy ending at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Han and Leia were separated decades later? I’m not, to be honest. Unfortunately, the real-life statistics are staggering for marriages after the loss of a child. In grief, the amplified self-preservation instinct can be devastating for a relationship as people deal with a loss in their own way. I’m glad the writers chose to mirror reality for many, because even though it was shell-shocking and sad, it felt real and authentic.

At the end, we want our characters to find peaceful resolution. But it doesn’t always have to look like a fairy tale to be a happy ending.

4) Readers can fall in love with your characters from the start, and you don’t even have to completely destroy their mystery in the process.

Let’s begin with Rey. The story introduced her by showing her daily life with purpose. Though wordless, it spoke of hard work with little return on investment. Hunger. The desperation in scratching the day’s tally mark into the wall of her abandoned AT-AT walker dwelling. We later learn, through her conversations, that she’s waiting for her family to return after a long absence. We learn through her actions that she’s loyal and determined to get the droid BB-8 back where he belongs.

Similarly, Finn’s first sequence reveals his internal conflict with the life of a Stormtrooper, unwilling to kill and distraught over the death that’s happening all around him. Through his actions, we learn that he has a strong moral compass And even though he doesn’t have a plan most of the time, he will do whatever it takes to do what’s right.

See the commonalities there? Without giving away the crucial mysteries of these characters that keep the audience thirsty for more, strategic portraits of characters’ lives and actions are effective ways to reveal their goals, give a glimpse into why they tick, and help readers fall in love. 

The writers had a huge challenge ahead of them with this film, the successor to one of the most beloved franchises in history. But I think they did a great job of maintaining their brand and showing that with a lot of bravery, extraordinary things can happen to broken people.

Have you seen The Force Awakens? (I sure hope so if you’ve read this far.) What did you like and dislike about the movie?

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