The Problem With Star Wars

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Star Wars has been a phenomenally popular movie franchise. The original Star Wars came out in 1977 and was an instant success. But when I first watched it, I was not impressed. My first impression was that it was the King Arthur legend in outer space. Even at the age of 14 I had expectations of my science fiction adventures. We all have a sense of a good story when we see one. But when I first saw Star Wars, there were things missing. Let’s look at one of the flaws of Star Wars and why the film has endured despite it.

The Elements of Good Storytelling

At Agile Writers, we follow the basic pattern of the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Hero starts out in his ordinary world
  • Something happens that upsets the hero’s world
  • And he is cast into an unfamiliar world
  • Where he makes new friends, enemies, and overcomes trials
  • After overcoming a major crisis
  • The hero returns to his ordinary world, with a lesson learned.

What Star Wars is Lacking

Star Wars follows this pattern nearly to a tee. However, one thing lacking is the lesson learned. What is it that Luke understands about the universe that he didn’t understand at the beginning?

Luke starts out with what we call a “Missing Inner Quality.” He lacks confidence. In the end, he acquires this confidence when he trusts in the Force. So we have to ask ourselves, is this the message of this film? Is this the lesson learned?

If so, then the lesson learned is that we should all trust in the Force to resolve our issues. But the Force is a fictional element of a fictional galaxy, long ago and far away. This is not a message that any of us can use.

Alternatively, you might argue that the point of Star Wars is that we should trust in some higher power. But that doesn’t really seem to be the message that George Lucas was attempting to impart. We don’t really see Luke or any other character giving praise and credit to the higher power. Using the Force in the final scenes of the film is merely the device that signifies Luke has overcome his lack of confidence and has found a new confidence in the Force.

Why Star Wars is Popular

What Star Wars does right is the use of archetypes in story telling. These are fundamental character types that all humans seem to recognize intrinsically. The archetypes Star Wars employs are:

  • The young hero (Luke)
  • The damsel in distress (Leia)
  • The comic sidekicks (R2D2 & C3PO)
  • The rascal (Han)
  • The mentor (Obi Wan)
  • The villain (Darth Vader)

When we see these elements combined in the right ways, we are instantly engrossed in the story. You can see them employed over and over again in storytelling. Look at The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and The Matrix.

When George Lucas created his story, he consulted Joseph Campbell on the use of these mythical archetypes. He got this right. He got it so right that he was able to build an empire from this one story, and overcome a critical flaw.

The Serial and Roller Coaster Rides

Lucas based the structure of Star Wars, in part, on the serial movie shorts of his youth. Serials like Flash Gordon, for example, were episodic and often began with a recap of previous episodes. So, also, does Star Wars begin with an opening scroll.

These action/adventure stories were designed to thrill and excite young movie goers. They weren’t meant to teach a deep lesson. The idea was to pull the viewer in and keep them coming  back for more in subsequent releases. As such, they are very much roller coaster rides.

At Agile Writers, I warn writers away from writing roller coaster rides. When you begin your story, you are entering into a contract with the reader. That contract is that you promise if the reader hangs in there with you, you will deliver a story with a point to it. If the reader gets to the end of the story and there is no point, they will wonder why they spent the time and money on your story.

Have a Message

Roller coaster rides are fun. They are nice once in a while. However, as a beginning writer, I advise you to have a message to impart upon your reader. You have an opinion about the world we live in. You have a unique perspective about this world. Draw upon your unique experiences to craft a story that imparts a message to your readers that will enrich and engage them. That is the ultimate point of story.

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Storyboard: Night at the Museum 3

Night_at_the_Museum_Secret_of_the_Tomb_posterThe following is a digest of a movie in the format of the Agile Writer Method. The Story Abstract gives a high-level overview of the story. The Hero Abstract gives an overview of the Hero (protagonist). The Storyboard is an 8-stage breakdown of the story along with elements of the Hero’s Journey (by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler). You can learn more about this method in my book Agile Writer: Method or at my website AgileWriters.com 

Spoilers Within!

Story Abstract

Title: A Night at the Museum 3

Author: David Guion, Michael Handelman

Audience: Young Adult

Genre: Fantasy

Message: You must let your children grow

One Line Description: A museum night watchman wants to solve the riddle of an egyptian tablet and learns to let his son grow.

Elevator Speech: It’s the story of a man who is a night watchman at a museum where all the exhibits come to life. He wants to restore a golden tablet so that the exhibits will continue to live. Along the way he learns to let his son grow in his own way.

Hero Abstract

Name: Larry

Missing Inner Quality: Need to control son’s life

Life Goal: To run the museum’s fund raising through “special effects” shows

Main Goal: To restore the Egyptian tablet and save the lives of the exhibits

Flaws: ?

Sympathetic Qualities: ?

Greatest Fear: Losing his son

Mentor: Teddy Roosevelt, Old Night Watchman CJ

Allies: Sacajawea, Teddy Roosevelt, Son Nick, Ahkmenra, Jedediah, Octavious, Attilla the Hun

Opposition: Sir Lancelot

Enemies: ?

Storyboard

Stage 0: Prologue

(The Prologue is optional and is often set in the past. It sets up Stage 2: The Special World. It may include a younger version of the hero or the hero’s ancestors.)

It’s 1930 and we meet archeologist Robert Fredericks and his son CJ who are on a dig in Egypt. The boy falls through the the ceiling of a tomb and discovers the magic tablet that eventually makes its way to the NY Museum.

Stage 1: The Hero

(The Hero is the stage where we meet the hero of the story. We encounter the hero in his Ordinary World. We learn about the hero’s Life Goal (which is usually to do well in his occupation or to go some distant place in the future). Something happens (the Inciting Incident) which puts the hero in uncharted territory (the Special World). We learn what is important to the hero and we are given insight to his Missing Inner Quality. The Missing Inner Quality is what the story is really all about. The Hero’s Journey is in fact a quest to overcome the Missing Inner Quality and it must be resolved by story’s end.)

We meet Larry who is running a fund raiser for the NY Metropolitan Museum. He is the night watchman (life goal). All the exhibits have come to life thanks to the Egyptian tablet that gives life to the exhibits every night. But something goes wrong with the tablet and the fund raiser is ruined. (Inciting Incident)

He returns home to find his son (Nick) throwing a party at their apartment. He shuts down the party and sends everyone home. His son informs him that he doesn’t want to go to college, as planned. He wants to take a year off to be a DJ. Larry doesn’t want his son to go off on his own (Missing inner quality, not able to let son grow up).

Stage 2 : Special World

(The Special World is a situation or place that is unfamiliar to the hero. The hero often travels from the Ordinary World to the Special World (crossing the first threshold). The hero will seek the advice of mentors who will guide them in the rules of the special world.  The mentor will often lay down a Call to Adventure that the hero nearly always Refuses at first. The hero may accumulate Allies or Friends and be introduced to his Opposition or Villain. The hero will replace the Life Goal with a new, tangible, Main Goal that must be resolved by the end of the story. The hero may get the Main Goal, or not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Missing Inner Quality is attained.)

Larry goes to the museum archivist (mentor) to learn more about the tablet. He learns it came from a dig from the 30s and was found by a boy named CJ Fredericks (as foreshadowed in the Prologue). Larry realizes this is Cecil Fredericks the night watchman who turned the job over to Larry over 10 years ago.

Larry goes to visit Cecil (mentor) and his friends at a retirement home. Cecil tells him that there was a curse on the tablet that it would come to an end. He tells Larry that he has to return the tablet to the King and find the secret of the tablet to reverse the corrosion (the call to adventure). Larry balks indicating that the King is in the Museum of Britain (refusal of the call).

Larry goes to the (now fired) curator of the NY Metropolitan Museum and convinces him to forge papers for him to go to Britain, find the King of Egypt, and restore the tablet (main goal).

Larry and his exhibits (Allies) fly to England to deliver the tablet to the Museum of Britain. (crossing the first threshold).

Stage 3: Discovery

(In Discovery, the hero has learned the rules of the Special World and is now discovering how he fits into that world. He will further expose his Missing Inner Quality. Discovery often ends with a Reminder of what is at stake for the hero and his Main Goal.)

Arriving in England, Larry is met with an annoying guard who keeps him out of the museum (Gatekeeper). But he gets past her.

Inside the museum, he opens the crate to find that his allies have all joined him on his quest (Sacajawea, Teddy Roosevelt, Son Nick, Ahkmenra, Jedediah, Octavious, Attilla the Hun and Laa the cave man). They make their way into the Museum to find the Egyptian exhibit where Ahkmenra’s parents are kept. But things are that easy. They meet with trials including the bones of a triceratops. They are aided by a suit of armor that turns out to be Sir Lancelot. We are reminded of the Main Goal when the NYC exhibits start to act strangely due to the corrosion on the tablet.

Stage 4: Growth

(In Growth, the hero comes to master the Special World and will face an Ordeal that will require him to choose to go forward or go back. He will make a decision with will make him so Committed that going back is no longer an option – all his bridges back to the Ordinary World are burned. From here, things will start to go badly for our hero and getting the Main Goal will get more difficult.)

Octavious and Jedediah fall into an air vent and find themselves in a re-enactment of Pompeii and are about to be engulfed in lava. Meanwhile, the group battles a hydra-like snake. The monkey saves Octavious and Jedediah and the team escapes the hydra. The monkey, Octavious and Jedediah are reunited with the rest of the team.

Stage 5: Decline

(In Decline, the hero is facing setback after setback. His attempts to get the Main Goal are thwarted at every turn. Decline end with another Reminder about the Main Goal and what is at stake.)

The team finds the Egyptian exhibit and the King and Queen who tell Larry the secret of the tablet and that the tablet needs to be exposed to moonlight. Now the heroes have a new Main Goal – to get the tablet into the moonlight by morning or all the exhibits go back to their original state forever (Note: when changing the main goal, make sure that the stakes are raised. Also notice how a “ticking clock” is started so that a sense of urgency is added on.)

Stage 6: Despair

(In Despair, the hero falls further into despair as getting the Main Goal is more and more out of reach. Despair ends with “Death or Disappointment” where someone close to the hero may die or he suffers a defeat that makes getting the Main Goal impossible.)

Sir Lancelot steals the tablet (thinking it is the grail) and rides off into the night seeking Camelot. The night guard finds Larry and Laa (the caveman) and puts them into a break room. where Larry starts pouring his heart out to Laa about his failure as a father and his concerns about Nick (reminder of the Missing Inner Quality).

Stage 7: The Gathering Storm

(In The Gathering Storm, the hero gathers his resources and his allies and makes a new plan for getting the Main Goal. This stage ends with the Climax, which is an all-out attempt to achieve the Main Goal. The hero may or may not gain the Main Goal, but the disposition of the Main Goal is resolved one way or another. The hero will attain his Missing Inner Quality and use it in attaining the Main Goal.)

Larry and Laa escape and rejoin with the other exhibits. Laa is charged with keeping the guard in the guard shack.

The team is reunited and goes in search of Lancelot.

Meanwhile the team is thwarted in their search by iron lions who have come to life.

Meanwhile Laa and the guard start to bond in a romantic way.

Lancelot goes in search of Camelot and finds a theater where the play Camelot is playing. Lancelot thinks that Hugh Jackman and Alice Eve are King Arthur and Guenevire. Realizing that everything is fake, Lancelot goes into a rage and storms off to the top of the building.

Meanwhile our heroes are on a bus trying to find Lancelot. They find the theater and find Lancelot on the top of the theater.

Lancelot’s nose melts and he comes to the realization that he is not real.

The tablet is overcome with corrosion and the other exhibits are reverting to their original states, they are dying.

The monkey reverts back to his stuffed form. Larry is overcome with grief after losing his friend.

Lancelot realizes the truth of the tablet and gives it to Larry who exposes it to the moon and all the exhibits are restored to life.

Stage 8: Resolution

(In Resolution, the hero has vanquished the Villain and now exposes the “elixir” or message of the story. The disposition of the hero and his allies and enemies is revealed. There may be an optional Epilogue which explains where the hero and others end up years after the story is over.)

Returning to the museum Larry returns Ahkmenra to the Egyptian King. The King tells Larry how it is hard to watch his son grow up so fast. Larry gains insight into his own feelings about his son, Nick’s growing up.

The other exhibits tell Larry that the Ahmenra and the tablet belong in the British Museum. They realize that they will no longer be alive, but they are happy to be giving the gift of education to museum goers. Larry gathers Laa and tells the night guard that she’s going to have the best job ever from now on. They get home before the sun rises and so Larry and the others make their tearful goodbyes. Larry and Nick come to a resolution about the DJ life and college.

(Epilogue)

Three years later, Larry has moved on to a teaching position. The night guard has returned to NYC to share the tablet exhibit with the (now reinstated) museum head. All the British and NYC exhibits come to life.

The Hero’s Journey – In a Song

BarryManilowAt Agile Writers we use the Hero’s Journey and break it down into 8 stages to tell a compelling story. But compelling stories don’t come just from novels. Here is the Agile Storyboard in a nutshell:

  1. The Hero – learning about the hero in her ordinary world
  2. The Special World – something happens to the hero and she is cast into a special world and learns the rules of the special world
  3. Discovery – the hero is discovering who she is in the special world
  4. Growth – the hero masters the special world. She commits to her main goal, and things start to go badly for our hero
  5. Decline – things start to go badly for our hero
  6. Despair – getting the main goal looks impossible and someone close to the hero may die
  7. The Gathering Storm – the hero makes a new plan for getting the main goal and in the climax either gets the goal or not
  8. The Resolution – the subplots are resolved and we learn the message of the story.

Songwriters of years gone by and today still use this classic structure to create compelling songs. Let’s look at the 1978 classic “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. This song follows this structure, albeit abbreviated.

“Copacabana (At The Copa)” Barry Manilow

(Establishing the Hero in her ordinary world)
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
(The Special World and Introducing the Romantic Interest)
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from 8 til 4
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?
[Chorus:]
At the copa (CO!) Copacabana (Copacabana)
The hottest spot north of Havana (here)
At the copa (CO!) Copacabana
Music and passion were always in fashion
(Growth and the point of Commitment)
At the copa…. they fell in love
(IDecline and Introducing the Villain)
His name was Rico
He wore a diamond
He was escorted to his chair, he saw Lola dancing there
And when she finished,he called her over
(Despair, Death, and The Climax)
But Rico went a bit to far
Tony sailed across the bar
And then the punches flew and chairs were smashed in two
There was blood and a single gun shot
But just who shot who?[Chorus]

(The Climax)

At the copa… she lost her love
(The Resolution)

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl,
But that was 30 years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola,
Still in dress she used to wear,
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined,and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind

[Chorus]

(The Delivery of the Message)
At the copa… don’t fall in love
Don’t fall in love
While not every element of the Hero’s Journey is not realized, the pattern is still apparent. Even in a 3-minute song the elements of great story telling is evident. If Barry Manilow can do it in 180 seconds, surely you can do it in 250 pages!

The Hero’s Journey

When I started on my journey to discover the secrets to great stories, my first stop was Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In it, Campbell dissects the elements of the great mythical stories from antiquity to today and from around the globe. He observes that the same patterns emerge.

A hero starts out in their ordinary world. Something happens and the hero is cast into a Special World. The hero must learn the rules of the Special World and overcome some obstacle and return to his Ordinary World having learned from his experience. Back in the Ordinary World, the hero shares the lessons learned and becomes a master of both worlds.

One of his disciples was Christopher Vogler. Vogler was an executive at Disney studios in the 1980s and read Campbell’s work. He realized that the great movies all had these elements to them. In his book “The Writer’s Journey,” he examines Campbell’s 19 stages of the hero and breaks them down into the following stages of the hero:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call To Adventure
  3. Refusal Of The Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

If you look at the movie “Star Wars: Episode IV” you see this played out very clearly. And it should be no suprise as George Lucas was a friend of Joseph Campbell’s and he considered him a mentor.

  1. The Ordinary World – We meet Luke Skywalker living on the dusty planet of Tatoine (his Ordinary World). He is an orphan living on a farm with his Aunt and Uncle. He is charged with taking care of two droids.
  2. Meeting the Mentor (note that this happens earlier than Vogler suggests) The droids escape and he goes after them when he meets his mentor “Obi-Wan Kenobi”.
  3. Call To Adventure – The droids reveal that they have been sent to as Obi-Wan for his help and to return the droids to the rebel base. Obi-Wan Kenobi realizes that Luke is the son of his former student Anikin Skywalker. He gives Luke a light saber. Obi-Wan lays down a challenge to Luke that he should come with him to Alderon and become a Jedi Knight like his father before him.
  4. Refusal Of The Call – Luke at first refuses the call to adventure indicating that he has obligations on the farm. He no sooner says this than he realizes the Empire will be searching for the droids and rushes home. He finds his aunt and uncle murdered. Now his ties to his ordinary world are severed and he can go on his adventure.
  5. Crossing the First Threshold – He rides his speeder to the nearby town where there is a cantina. He and Obi Wan “cross a threshold” from his Ordinary World into the Special World of outer space adventure. The Special World has different beings, strange music, and harsh rules.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – In the Cantina Luke meets Han Solo and Chewbacca the Wookie. Luke and friends board the Millenium Falcon and are chased by Stormtroopers. Luke learns to use the Light Saber.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave – The Falcon is pulled into the Death Star
  8. Ordeal – Luke and friends attack the Detention Bay
  9. Reward – Luke rescues Princess Leia
  10. The Road Back – Luke and friends fight the tie fighters and return to the rebel base where they create a new plan to destroy the Death Star using the plans supplied by the droids.
  11. Resurrection – Luke flies into the Death Star’s tunnel and just as he appears to be in Darth Vader’s sights, Han saves him. He uses his newfound confidence in the Force and destroys the Death Star.
  12. Return with the Elixir – Luke and Han return to the rebel base and are rewarded with medals. Luke is now a full Rebel and a new Jedi Knight.

At Agile Writers we borrow heavily from the knowledge and experience of screenwriters. People who write about novels give some very general advice about how to write a book. Screenwriters have to be very economical as they have only 120 minutes (or 120 pages of screenplay) to tell their story. I think this is why they give very specific advice on how to write stories. We believe that plot is plot and the differences between screenplays and novels is in the level of detail and the presentation. Screenplays rely on visuals and dialog whereas novels rely on narration and dialog.

The next time you go to the movies, see if the movie you’re watching follows the Hero’s Journey. I’ll bet you’ll never look at a movie, or a novel, the same way again.