writing

Star Wars: what storytellers can learn from George Lucas

Christmas is so close you can almost touch it, but as everything seems to be about you-know-what at the moment, I thought I’d tell you about another story.

True, it has not, up to now, been a story best-loved by girls, but maybe that will change. I first encountered it when I was eleven, and it didn’t move me then. It does now. Because I’m fascinated by stories, and this is a story about a man rediscovering a story about stories so he could tell one of the most successful stories ever told.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away …

Hero1000

Actually, it was 1975, in California. And George Lucas was about to attempt the third draft of his idea for a space movie called The Star Wars. (By the fourth draft, it had become Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Catchy title. Luckily, it changed.)

George had been working on this idea for years, and he had already shamelessly stolen from Flash Gordon, The Lord of the Rings and Akira Kurusawa’s The Hidden Fortress to create the sense of adventure, the action, the storytelling perspective from two lowly outsiders (bickering Japanese peasants became bickering droids) and the supernatural evil empire (it is no coincidence that Darth Vader’s helmet looks like Samurai armour).

‘Stolen’, or ‘been inspired by’? Every storyteller builds on he or she already knows. We listen, and we retell. We read and watch and learn and share. The stories we love shape what we know, and who we are.

George Lucas loved myth and adventure and space fantasy, but he couldn’t get backing for his idea. For a long time, he couldn’t interest a studio, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his heroes and villains, or creating their back story. He couldn’t let go.

A friend of his reintroduced him to a book he’d read before, as a student. As Wookieepedia tells the story. It hadn’t made much impact on him then, but this time it was about to change his life. It was called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, first published in 1949. Campbell looked at mythology, from Homer until the present day, and noticed what he called the ‘monomyth’, which was the same elements that kept cropping up over and over again, with some variations.

Here’s the summary from Wikipedia:

The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

George Lucas recognised the monomyth in what he was doing and used what he learned from Campbell to keep refining his draft of The Star Wars until it became the one we know. I was eleven when the first Star Wars film came out. The perfect age to see it. But I didn’t. My brother – five years younger – went instead, and his life was changed forever by it, as so many little boys’ lives were. It wasn’t so generally inspirational for little girls. Princess Leia was great, sure, but Star Wars wasn’t her story. She had to be saved a lot. (In a feisty way, but, y’know …)

Now times have changed. In Star Wars The Force Awakens the new Face of the Hero is a girl’s face: Daisy Ridley’s as Rey. The story remains the same: small-time hero travels to distant lands, learns wisdom and gains allies in the battle between good and evil, faces epic encounters and returns changed and empowered. I love that the story doesn’t need to change just because a girl is at the heart of it. It is an epic tale of adventure that has been told for thousands of years. It is the core of every fantasy story ever told. It has a structure that can be learned, as George Lucas learned it, and passed on through new stories, new heroes to delight new generations of readers, filmgoers and buyers of action figures, toy weapons and plastic dreams. Even biscuit-making kits.

Stormtroopers

(This brings me to another favourite story – which isn’t a myth, but is a true tale of how to become a billionaire. In 1973, George Lucas had just directed the amazingly successful American Graffiti and 20th Century Fox agreed to allow him to direct his other project – this weird space thing that none of them understood or liked. However, his contract said that his salary for the second film would rise from $150,000 to $500,000. Instead, he went to the studio bosses and offered them a deal: he’d stick at his old salary for American Graffiti if he was allowed to keep the merchandising rights for the new project and to direct any sequels. They happily agreed. They would save $350,000. Hooray! And they kept losing money on merchandising anyway. Who cared? And who would ever want a sequel of the weird space thing?

Today George Lucas is worth over $5 billion. More than Steven Spielberg. More than Oprah. That deal in 1973 is why.)

So if you’re a writer and you can’t decide what to write today, or if you have a story that’s burning to be told and you just can’t find a way of telling it, why not follow in George’s footsteps? See what’s out there, learn from the masters. It has been done a thousand times before, and it works. Give it your own twist, and keep the merchandising rights.

Happy Christmas! May the Force be with you.

3 thoughts on “Star Wars: what storytellers can learn from George Lucas

  1. Hi Sophia. When I first read your title, I groaned. Not STAR WARS again. Not you, not Girls Heart Books – please save me! Then I read your blog and I apologize for that groan… Well done. Now, I was one of those few girls in a million that adored Star Wars the first time I saw it – as an early teen in ’77. From that opening sequence with Leia’s ship being chased by the Star Destroyer, I was HOOKED, and hooked bad. (Sat in the theatre with my brother that day for 6 showings!) The story was classic and fun. I just loved it. In fact my life used to be measured pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars… and I think it was because of that love that I myself started to write.

    But then it happened. GREED. And the stories that I had loved were destroyed by poor sequels and so much merchandising, the original spirit was strangled. But not quite dead yet… Enter December 2015, this latest generation of Star Wars and my heart breaks. You can’t buy a soda, or see anything advertised on TV without it being attached to… STAR WARS.

    Now as a writer, I can certainly appreciate the blood sweat and tears that George Lucas put into his first films – and I can’t say I haven’t fantasized about a good lunch with the man where we talk ‘shop’. You can actually see the love and pain in every frame of the original film. It’s all there in the characters we love and the storyline we can sympathize with.

    But then Disney got involved. And from what I’ve seen, it’s looks all for the money. A story built by committee to bring in the most money with merchandising and advertising. To be honest, I haven’t seen it, and most likely won’t. But I’ve read a lot about it. Specifically the storyline…

    For me, a writer, and I hope for you, my sister and brother writers out there. We might take a lesson from this. We must watch ourselves that we never surrender our love of the craft, our ‘stories’ for the quick buck. (pound or yen). I grew up with Star Wars and am very possessive of it. But seeing what they’ve done to it, it breaks my heart.

    If anything, it does inspire me. It inspires me never to cut corners with my writing for a quick delivery to get that delivery advance. A story is a living thing. If we’re not careful, it can be killed. Just like Star Wars.

    PS: Sorry for the length of this…

  2. Love the biscuits. Loved the film in 1977 too. I find myself agreeing with Kate on the script for the most recent outing – Force Awakens – and (unlike her) I’ve seen it. Still, many millions will enjoy it and I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. Maybe the playgrounds of 2015 will find a new magic in an old story?

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