I’m a few days late, but I thought I’d do a Star Wars-themed post in honor of May 4th (as in, May the Fourth be with you). Whether you’re a big-time fan of the series, or it’s just not your cup of tea, I believe that all writers of fantasy should watch and learn from Star Wars.
Yes, I said fantasy writers, not sci-fi writers. Of course, sci-fi writers can learn storytelling tips from Star Wars, but the Star Wars saga actually fits into the overall fantasy genre more than science fiction. So if you’ve never bothered much with Star Wars because you’re a sword-and-sorcery writer, then perhaps this can help you.
(Side note here – I’m drawing most of my examples from the original trilogy of movies. I’m not here to argue the pros or cons of the prequels, the books, the cartoon, or the video games. Please save your Jar-Jar Binks fan mail for a different post).
Star Wars is what I would call space opera or space fantasy. It’s an epic fantasy tale set in outer space with technology and aliens, instead of a setting of kingdoms, magical talismans, and monsters. The story would work just as well set on one planet, with all the magical trappings of standard fantasy. Here are some key elements of Star Wars that I believe any fantasy (or sci-fi) writer can use in their own work:
Archetypal characters and the hero’s journey. George Lucas followed the format of the hero’s journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. This does not necessarily make the story “better” than anyone else’s plot, but the key stages of this storytelling format are common in folktales and classic fantasy alike. Character archetypes of the hero (Luke Skywalker), the guardian (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the skeptic (Han Solo), and so on can drive many fantasy tales.
It’s okay to use traditional fantasy terms. We all want our stories and the worlds we create to be totally original, and many of us like to invent our own terms or even languages. This is a good – and expected – element of fantasy: Sith, Jedi, Dagobah, Wookie. But Star Wars also shamelessly uses “classic” fantasy terms that we’re all familiar with: Light, Dark, Knight, Lord. Using these terms helps the audience to understand a plot point or a character’s role without having to devote a lot of time to explanations.
Redemptive story and happy ending. This is certainly not a requirement for fantasy – even the non-dark “high” fantasy genre. And many readers aren’t satisfied with a tidy “and they all lived happily ever after.” But most of the main characters should grow, overcome, and be victorious in at least some way. And everyone loves a good “redemption from evil” story – another staple of fantasy. Darth Vader’s rejection of the Dark Side of the Force, the destruction of the second Death Star, Han and Leia becoming a couple – despite all the pain and loss throughout the saga, things end on a high note.
Magic or technology that is unexplained yet consistently accepted. This is one of the elements that makes Star Wars more predominantly fantasy rather than science fiction. The futuristic, high-tech world is there, but there is little explanation given from a scientific or technical side. Yes, any good geek has read the tech manuals for the Death Star and knows all the specs of X-Wings versus Y-Wings – but none of those details are part of the story itself. Within the world of Star Wars, everyone knows that Jedi Knights carry lightsabers. No one wonders about how a lightsaber works, nor do they care. Like a magic sword in a high fantasy tale, the how’s and why’s behind the magic are (usually) of minimal importance. The point is that everyone knows the sword is magic.
Good versus Evil. Yes, the old good versus evil thing is the plot of most stories, fantasy and otherwise. And often – in any genre – good and evil are not absolutes. But a well-defined “bad guy” or “force of evil” is what drives a lot of good fantasy tales. In Star Wars, there’s never any doubt as to who the enemy is: the enemy is the Dark Side of the Force. Characters come and go and switch sides, but the Darkness is always there and is always the enemy.
So now go grab some popcorn and cue up Netflix or your old DVDs, enjoy Luke and R2-D2 and the gang, and then go write some fantasy!