Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Memories 18: What Did Star Wars Teach Me?

If you can, why not?
I’ve said throughout this series of essays that Star Wars was a part of me, an influence, etc. It’s easy to just rattle that off and not pay it any mind. It sounds good, but what am I really saying here?

Basically, Star Wars jump-started my creative process. I started drawing space ships and stormtroopers, pretty obsessively, after I saw the movie. This artistic swell turned into me creating my own characters, and giving them stories, and well, after that, it was all downhill.

Just for laughs, and in case any of you are still interested in this topic after nearly three weeks of navel-gazing, I’ll break it out and explain a little bit about what I took creatively from Star Wars. Some of these lessons revealed themselves to me as I got older, and some were pretty apparent right away. Mind you, this is not a Rosetta Stone to my creative self; I got these ideas reinforced to me in a number of other forms over the years, and so these lessons from Star Wars were just one of many voices saying the same thing, over and over, until it resonated in my sternum like a bass note. But the first note, the first thrum, came from Star Wars.

1. When telling stories, make them fast, tense, and if at all possible, clever. That snappy dialogue, the back-and-forth bickering stuck with me and became some of my favorite moments in a story moving at the speed of sound. I like that there’s just enough explanation, or exposition, to set the stage, and then after that, we’re telling the tale as we go along.

That idea set itself early on in my brain and I’ve preferred to read, as well as write, muscular prose ever since.

2. Myth-Making. Playing with existing structures and putting my spin them. This developed over time. The idea of taking a known thing and turning it around so that it’s seen from a new angle really appeals to me. Star Wars led me to the Hidden Fortress, which led me to Akira Kurasawa, which led me to The Seven Samurai, which led me to The Magnificent Seven, and then my mind was blown. You can make samurai flicks into cowboy movies, and vice versa.

3. Use what you like in your creative process. Lucas created Star Wars out of The Hidden Fortress, Flash Gordon serials, and judicious parts of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But unless you’re steeped in all of that scattered SF and Samurai lore (and at the age of 7, I knew nothing), it all had new paint on it and you couldn’t see the influences very well, mostly. At the age of 27, those influences were all well known to me, but that made Star Wars even more interesting.  Why not write about the thing you love?

4. People like rogues and bad guys more than good guys. It’s true. People like villains even more. Star Wars and Empire both had great rogues and fantastic villains. Darth Vader tortures Han and Leia for no other reason than to call out to Luke through the Force. Yikes. Characters who aren’t always squeaky clean are also unpredictable. That makes for entertaining characters.

5. Don’t be afraid to step back from what you’ve done and admit that it sucks, or that you were wrong. This was a lesson learned from watching Lucas do it the wrong way. I have been fortunate to work with some impressive and talented writers over the years, and our mutual honesty has served us well in this regard. Listening to people who like you and like your work when they tell you it’s broken is invaluable. Sometimes, you think it’s good and it’s not. Other times, you know it’s good, but want to hang on to it anyway. Learning to let it go is a good lesson.

From a post-modern perspective, Raiders of the Lost Ark picks up where Star Wars leaves off. It’s pure cliffhanger and B-western homage, only it’s not really. It’s a Republic Serial story with a reactionary wish-list of rules and demands placed on it by two men who hated it when the hero lost their hat in a fight scene and it miraculously re-appeared back on their head at the scene’s end.

For a while, I thought I was the only person digging around deeply in this stuff. I found out later that most writers, including friends that I’ve known and worked with over the years, had similar experiences and compulsions. A burning desire to see how the sausage was made, either in print or on film. Especially the thought processes behind those creative decisions.

The big action image from The Force Awakens.
As a professional and paid, if not steadily employed, author, I’ve tried to imbue my writing with that same urgency, that same sense of wonder and even that same language. Hey, you can’t go wrong there, right? It doesn’t always work, and the Star Wars approach isn’t always the right one for a story, but as a tool set, it’s not let me down yet.

That wraps this series up. I hope you enjoyed reading them. With any luck, it fired you up to see the new film, or at least got you talking about the prequels. Hopefully you’ve got ticket to the movie this weekend. Maybe you’re bringing your seven year old kid. I hope you both get what you’re looking for out of the experience.  

May the Force be With You.

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