In 1973, filmmaker George Lucas sat down to write the script that would make him famous. It was called “The Star Wars,” and it followed heroic Luke Starkiller zipping around the 33rd century with his lazersword.
Yeah, it wasn’t quite there yet.
Retitled simply “Star Wars,” Lucas’ finished script still had problems. One of the film’s stars, Harrison Ford, famously told Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it!” More importantly, the script broke a number of classic screenwriting commandments.
Yet Lucas was nominated for the 1979 Academy Award for best original screenplay for “Star Wars”, up against the likes of playwright Neil Simon and that year’s winner, Woody Allen. More importantly, his writing introduced some of the most iconic and enduring characters and adventures in movie history. So how did “Star Wars” smash the conventions of screenwriting and still work?
“Star Wars breaks more rules than it follows,” said Carson Reeves, script consultant and founder of movie-writing site Scriptshadow.
For example, “‘Star Wars’ introduces its main character, Luke Skywalker, almost a full 15 minutes into the movie,” Reeves points out. That flouts the screenwriting precept that you should introduce the main character early so audiences can bond with the person they’re going to follow for the next two hours or so.
“It was a huge risk,” Reeves says.
Interestingly, the original draft did introduce Skywalker at the start. But the filmmakers decided to change that order to give the audience a fuller picture of the universe where the story is set.
“They decided that following a bored kid in the desert for the first 10 minutes of an action-packed space epic would’ve set the wrong tone, hence why we start with the ship hijacking,” Reeves said. “I think they made the right choice.”
Luke Skywalker’s journey follows elements of the “hero’s journey“, an archetypal narrative structure identified by writer Joseph Campbell as a basis for many myths and stories. Mythical heroes set out on a quest, facing obstacles along the way.
The quest is at the heart of the archetypal hero’s journey. That leads us to another big Hollywood screenwriting maxim: The main character has to badly want something, and everything in the story should be driven by the active pursuit of that desire. Indiana Jones wants to find the lost Ark. Rocky wants to go the distance. Marty McFly wants to get back to the future.
“Star Wars” bends the rule about presenting a single central goal for the protagonist. At first, Luke wants to get off Tatooine. R2-D2 wants to deliver the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han just wants to earn some cash. Then, their objectives change — they want to rescue Princess Leia. As the film progresses, their goals increase in scope and stakes to the final objective of destroying the Death Star.
“‘Star Wars’ made sure every character wanted something desperately, which is a big reason why all of its characters are so memorable,” Reeves said.
Meanwhile, Darth Vader wants to recapture the Death Star plans, breathlessly chasing our heroes. Reeves stresses the importance of this sense of urgency.
“The biggest success of that screenplay,” Reeves said, “is that every single scene moves the story forward. There isn’t a movie that does this better. Even the slow scenes, like Luke and Obi-Wan talking about Luke’s father, include key plot points such as Leia’s message. There’s zero wasted time.”
The 1980 sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back” bends the rules even further with a highly unconventional structure. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan based on a story by Lucas, it sends the main characters off on separate adventures and has no clear central goal. “For all intents and purposes, that movie should not have worked”, Reeves said. Yet it’s widely regarded among fans as the best of the saga, and was nominated for best adapted screenplay by no less than the Writers Guild of America.
“What holds that screenplay together is Vader,” Reeves said. “Vader is always chasing, always trying to catch up to something, just like the original film. So even though we have this wonky structure, [the writers] have the luxury of cutting back to Vader, who’s desperately trying to find Luke. I’ve seen movies that try to do what Empire does without that unifying goal to cut back to, and they’re complete messes.”
The chase element gives both films their urgency and momentum, something Reeves thinks is missing from the rest of the saga. “The prequels are probably the most un-urgent blockbusters in history,” he said. “Everyone has time to hang out and talk about sand.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and “The Force Awakens“. Director and producer J.J. Abrams recruited “Empire” screenwriter Kasdan as one of the writers for the new film, evoking the spirit of the earlier movies.
“One of the reasons audiences enjoyed ‘The Force Awakens’ is that J.J. Abrams went back to that urgent chase element,” Reeves said. “You could argue he copied the original ‘Star Wars’ structure to do that, but you could also argue that’s why the film made a billion dollars — because J.J. recognized that Star Wars movies are about the chase.”
With new movies like “The Last Jedi” and spin-offs like “Rogue One” bringing the saga back to life, there are more lessons to be learned from the ongoing Star Wars stories. For example, one important screenwriting skill is balancing tone, which essentially means the mood of the story. “Return of the Jedi“, for example, struggles to balance the comedy of the Ewoks with the more serious drama playing out between Luke and Vader. Reeves felt the first spin-off, “Rogue One”, also had a problem with tone.
“‘Rogue One’ learned a tough screenwriting lesson,” Reeves said. “A Star Wars movie needs a beacon of light, a Luke Skywalker character. When everyone is a schemer and a criminal, it casts a sad shadow over the story, leaving you feeling glum afterwards. That’s not what a Star Wars film is supposed to be.”
Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here’s your place for the lighter side of tech.
Star Wars at 40: Join us in celebrating the many ways the Force-filled sci-fi saga has impacted our lives.