Writing sci-fi epics:
Lessons from Lucas.
In a galaxy far, far away…
It was a cold grey day in Edinburgh, January 1978. I had received my daily beating in the playground and was now looking forward to having my chair kicked out from under me by a psychotic female teacher or being thrashed almost to death by an equally insane headmaster with a belt and a superiority complex. Not to worry, I’d soon be at home relaxing in front of the T.V. watching the forty-five minutes of programmes aimed at children before going to build a lego house or to pick at some paint flaking from the skirting boards. Ah, yes, they were exciting times. Fun in those days was riding a bike, climbing a wall or falling in rivers from unstable rafts made of polystyrene and wooden pallets. What would become of this poor, weak waif?
Well, something else happened that day that left me a tad baffled. During lunch break, the chaps in the class were playing a game. It involved one half of the assembled throng running around with their arms outstretched. They, apparently, were the ‘X-wings’. Looked like standard playground Spitfires to me. The other group were the ‘Tie-fighters’. All very confusing and something to do with some new film most of them had seen over the weekend. Clearly, I was not ‘in the know’. Anyway, as my eighth birthday was coming up, I asked my parents whether it would be possible to see this new film. They clearly knew what I was talking about as it was hard to avoid through Q3/4 of 1977. However, it only arrived in the UK at Xmas time that year so we were a bit behind.
The big day arrived and we queued around the block for hours to get into the Odeon Cinema on Clerk Street. I’d never had to queue to get into a cinema before. This was all terribly exciting. Once inside the foyer, I bought a souvenir pamphlet (I still have it) and we filed our way in and took our seats. The lights dimmed and we were shown the film classification notice before everything went completely black. ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.... Four dots? Isn’t there only supposed to be three? Boom! STARS WARS!! The now all too familiar intro crawl. What, no list of actors? This is odd. The music is astounding! I’m already beyond hyper-excited and I’ve no idea what this is all about. As the theme’s crescendo cools down it drifts down to a planet. God, it looks like a real planet! Not the plastic Star Trek ones. What’s this? A little spaceship zooming away from us from the top of the screen. Something is shooting at it. Wow, look at those lasers! These aren’t Flash Gordon death rays! They look and sound real! Wait, what’s this? Something grey and triangular giving chase. Wow, it’s big. WOW! When will this thing end! Holy crap is the whole film going to be this thing going over our heads? Ah, there it goes. Wow, look at those lovely blue engines. They’re hypnotic.
And that was me hooked.
My life changed on that blustery day all those years ago. My love of Science Fiction went from strength to strength as I hoovered it all up. The Black Hole, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, Blakes Seven, there was a sudden surge of money going into what seemed like good Sci-Fi. Programmers were falling over themselves rerunning Star Trek and Doctor Who. A year later, even James Bond was in space (albeit dressed in a yellow jumpsuit)!
I knew I had to get pen to paper. I had a creative mind and a sketch pad (and some pens), therefore, I decided to create a crap comic book with very little story! Apollo 1,000 was born. A Battlestar-type collection of stories that basically involved humans versus a robot army called the Meteoroids. Let’s face it, I had no idea how to write a story. I wanted to draw comics and completely ignore education, which was for losers. Besides, stories were for authors.
I spent a considerable amount of time until I left school developing my illustration work. All I wanted to do was go to art school. BUT, and this is the ironic bit, I only got a D for Higher English. So that was it. Art school said 'no'. Humph! I'll show them! So I put down my drawing pen and literally never picked it up again. It's an odd trait of mine. If I'm put down in any way, unjustly, my self-righteousness kicks in and I will leave said person or institution to regret having ever questioned my integrity, ability or version of events. I literally care not one jot for those who assume to know me.
So, having flunked Higher English and given up as an illustrator, there was only one creative route open to me. Music. But we know that already. Now in my late forties, my combined knowledge would equip me to finally write my time travel adventure. It had to be EPIC! A sprawling sci-fi masterpiece. Something for EVERYONE. But what makes a GREAT story? There was only one place to look....
In trying to understand the methodology of George Lucas, one programme really stood out for me, Empire of Dreams - the making of the Star Wars trilogy. I was fascinated by how such a work of genius could have been created. Sure, I’d seen how all the effects were done but what intrigued me was the thinking behind it. What MAKES this so engaging? Basically, Star Wars in an escape from reality, yet it somehow keeps its feet firmly on the ground.
Why do we relate to it so well? For one, things break. Things get rusty. Droids just explode. The Millenium Falcon suffers from a malfunctioning hyperdrive. Creatures get into bar fights! How juicy to be able to share issues with people on the other side of the galaxy!
The real relatability comes from its influences. George Lucas, as a young cinematographer, was fascinated by legends. He extensively read Joseph Campbell’s analysis of Grail and Arthurian legend, something he later used to his advantage when creating Indiana Jones. But it was this time-immortal set of rules that gave him his greatest inspiration. We need a damsel in distress. Enter Princess Leia. We need knights. Enter the Jedi. We need a wise old man. Enter Ben Kenobi. We need our sidekicks and comic relief. Enter R2 and 3PO. Give us a cause! The Evil Galactic Empire and a world-destroying machine. Make it relatable. Give us a Naziesque Empire. Give us something to root for! We don’t see it really until Return of the Jedi, but we all wanted Darth Vader to see the light. Give us victory! We blew up the death star. In to all of that, add Lucas’s other loves and influences. Kurosawa effectively influencing the Sumari look and feel of Vader, the swords became light sabres. Mall films, his own American Graffiti leant much to his plans for Luke Skywalkers childhood, swanning around the desert in a ‘fast car’ and hanging out with his ‘idle friends’. Westerns! Enter Luke the farm-hand. Moisture farming. Bandits in the desert (Sand People and Jawas). The gunslinger. Enter Han Solo and his bullet-draped sidekick Chewbacca. War films. The whole Death Star attack is based on footage of World War Two dogfight sequences.
Warning: Some minor niggles follow, but know this: "I fucking love Star Wars more than life itself!"
This was Lucas bringing all of his loves into one place, which gave us all something totally new yet familiar. And that, it would seem, should have been the end of it. Just follow those rules and you can’t go wrong. BUT, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you know something inevitably did go wrong. The prequels and the sequels. Are they entertaining? Of course! But they fall over. Is it the reliance on computer graphics or the story? What started out as a moment of genius in Empire grew like a cancer. Vader is Luke’s father. Wow! I’m shocked, are you shocked? Yes, I’m shocked! Perhaps one of the most memorable pieces of cinema ever. Still sends a chill down my spine. And then we got to Jedi. “Leia is my sister!” Um, pardon? Lucas had this thing in his head. If he got a good reaction, he would add it to his formula. People like Chewbacca? We need more bears. They sell well in stores. Enter the Ewoks. Okay, people like this weird family thing going on? That’s it. Luke and Leia are twins. But that was a recent addition to the story. This made their snog on Hoth all the more uncomfortable. Suddenly, we started to see things being rammed in that didn’t fit the flow. Sure, it still worked, coz back then George could do no wrong. But it did not hold true for the prequels and sequels.
By the sequels, Lucas wasn’t even involved! The formula was written and any Star Wars story that dared to stray was deemed to be a disaster. So here we are back on Tatooine for the prequels, only to find out that Anakin BUILT C3PO! Are you shitting me?? Poor 3PO went from being this put-upon butler to some sort of Carry-On style quipper, much in the same way the James Bond did under Roger Moore. Jaunty one-liners that made me shrink into my seat and cover my face.
The sequels simply reverted to the old formula. Part One, big planet-destroying weapon. Family? Okay, the bad guy is Han Solo’s son, which actually worked. Part Two. A chase that has a white planet and Imperial Walkers (AT-AT). There will be Jedi training. Part Three? The Emperor is revealed and there are surreptitious plans to rule the galaxy and finish the rebel alliance. He will be thwarted. The main thing they got totally right was the redemption of Kylo Ren. It IS possible to turn from dark to light, even if we had already seen it with Vader. It was the one thing I think we were all rooting for. In hindsight, Star Wars continues to just be entertaining. For those of us who want it to be something more, those days are gone. BUT. All of this analysis, plus now being almost fifty-years-old, left me thinking. Maybe, just maybe, if Lucas had written all of the stories in the first place, the continuity and the issue of constant replay may not be angering fans right now. And fans are everything.
Getting it right
Actually, Lucas did write the first three films as one story. It was his friends Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma who intervened and combed through the story to help make it work, splitting into a trilogy. Plus he knew he had a great back story and a potential seven through nine sequel trilogy. He was just focussed on those three though. Great, because if he had spent another couple of years on the whole story, it may never have happened at all. But should we all take the chance as writers? It’s different for Lucas. He’s not an author but he IS a story-teller and THAT is the bit you need to get right. So what lesson should we learn? Should fiction authors who intend their stories to be more series/saga-epic than stand-alone get everything down before publishing. My answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ If you’re going to commit to a story, just do it. At some point, God-willing, you build up an army of loyal fans, they deserve that right to consistency and flow. Not to be disappointed by reactionary and populist renderings.
Anyway, could all this knowledge now bear fruit for me? The chance came when I was least expecting it.
Learn Michael's approach and method for writing enormous sprawling sagas...