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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Star Wars

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Star Wars

(or “Parts Do Not An Engine Make”)

When the Star Wars saga resumed, in 1991, it was with Timothy Zahn’s sleek thriller ‘Heir to the Empire’ (and with the rejoicing of a generation of grown-up Star Wars geeks.) The series picked up five years after the end of the classic trilogy, featuring a sinister, calculating general in the mold of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, with a plan to restore the glory of the Empire and defeat the hated Rebellion.

The “Thrawn trilogy” proved popular enough to unleash a torrent of spin-offs, from comic book series like ‘Dark Empire’ (featuring a reborn Emperor), to ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ (featuring a Sith Lord, Exar Kun, and Ulic Qel-Droma, the Jedi he seduced to the Dark Side) to novels like ‘The Courtship of Princess Leia’ (featuring an Emperor-like Dark Jedi named Gethzerion), to the ‘Jedi Academy’ series of novels (featuring a Dark Jedi whom Luke must help redeem), to ‘Darksaber’ (featuring an evil Hutt who is Jabba the Hutt’s successor) to the “Rogue Squadron” series of both novels and comics (featuring Ysenne Isard, another Tarkin-esque figure), to the massive ‘Shadows of the Empire’ project, which crossed over into just about every medium other than film (and centered around a Jabba-esque crimelord…)

Do you start to see the issue, here? It’s not fair to suggest that the ancillary Star Wars stories are derivative, but the villains for a lot of the spin-offs do tend to fit neatly into the mold of either being like Tarkin, Vader, the Emperor, or Jabba the Hutt…coincidentally, the four main villainous characters in the classic trilogy. The series seems to be trying endlessly to replace the villains Lucas finished off in his final movie (or, in the case of Tarkin, his first.) Some uncharitable types might say that it’s because the authors who’ve written for the Star Wars spin-offs are unimaginative, but I think it’s actually down to the nature of the universe they’re writing for.

Because Lucas didn’t intend for Star Wars to be a storytelling engine. Sure, he put in tons of detail–the series is known for the thousands of tiny little elements, in the dialogue, the costuming, the special effects, and the entire aesthetic of the series that all combine to form a galaxy that seems limitless and filled with potential. But Lucas didn’t do that to create an engine to tell lots and lots of stories–he did it to make the one story he wanted to tell seem immersive and real. The Star Wars movies aren’t open-ended; they’re the tale of Darth Vader, and his fall and redemption. Details like “the Kessel run” and Krayt Dragons and bacta tanks and tibanna gas and the temples on Yavin are there for verisimilitude. Even the title, ‘Episode IV’, was put there originally just to give you the sense that you’ve entered into a story that has a history. (Lucas, of course, claims that he had Episodes I-III planned out all along. But when you have a draft of ‘Empire’ that has Lando being a descendant of the evil clones that the Jedi fought during the Clone Wars, it does make that claim a bit suspect.)

The key sign of the lack of a deliberate, designed storytelling engine in Star Wars is the lack of villains. Lucas designed his story to have a beginning, middle, and an end, and he neatly made sure that all the major villains of the piece got their comeuppance by that ending. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Nobody has to plan for a series to come out of the story they want to tell, and nobody has to think in terms of a potentially endless series of sequels and spin-offs. Lucas told the story he wanted to tell, and in a very real sense, it was the audience who demanded more stories. One year’s fan became another year’s storyteller, filling in every detail of the universe Lucas created with meaning. But it’s much easier to fill in the background of the people, places and things that make up the Star Wars universe than it is to make entirely new stories set there. It’s not too surprising, really, that they turned to the models Lucas had created as inspiration for their stories.

25 Comments

It’s not fair to suggest that the ancillary Star Wars stories are derivative, but the villains for a lot of the spin-offs do tend to fit neatly into the mold of either being like Tarkin, Vader, the Emperor, or Jabba the Hutt…coincidentally, the four main villainous characters in the classic trilogy. The series seems to be trying endlessly to replace the villains Lucas finished off in his final movie (or, in the case of Tarkin, his first.)

Oh man, you hit it out of the park here. I NEVER looked at it this way, and this makes a ton of sense.

Of course, I’m the old school type of Star Wars fan than really stopped getting excited about any new project once I realized that they were little more than cash grabs. That was about the time the Shadows of the Empire mega-project came out.

Frankly once the fifteenth “Former Imperial Admiral” rose up to launch a major assault on the New Republic, I started to wonder if blowing up the second Death Star really did anything at all towards “defeating” the Empire.

I think another factor here is that the reader base doesn’t *want* anything new. Anytime someone tried a threat that wasn’t either Imperial, Sith, or both, fan reaction was almost uniformly negative. Which is probably why they followed up The New Jedi Order with a series that basically had one of Han and Leia’s kids do an Anakin, only with less motivation.

“I started to wonder if blowing up the second Death Star really did anything at all towards “defeating” the Empire.”

The reason I never got into the “expanded universe.” If the Empire is still going strong, it devalues the “and they all lived happily ever after” ending of Return of the Jedi. But if you have the scrappy remnants of the Empire attacking the New Republic, the good guys no longer have that dramatic underdog status — then the Imperials become the *new* Rebels.

I can think of two books with villains that don’t fit your thesis. But they still bolster it.

In “The Truce at Bakura,” the villains were the Ssi-ruuk, a race of gun-wielding dinosaurs from outside Empire space.

In “The Crystal Star,” the main villain was a Dark Jedi apprentice to Vader who wanted to recreate the Empire. Fits the established theme. The secondary antagonist was Waru, a being who eventually turns out to be from a parallel universe.

Both books attempted to create antagonists that weren’t based on movie villains, and both failed miserably, IMO. Neither feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe. Parallel universes work fine in Star Trek, but they’re a different sort of sci-fi than is found in Star Wars. And while the Star Wars universe can accommodate reptilian species, actual dinosaur people feel like a concept imported from Flash Gordon or somesuch.

The reason I never got into the “expanded universe.” If the Empire is still going strong, it devalues the “and they all lived happily ever after” ending of Return of the Jedi. But if you have the scrappy remnants of the Empire attacking the New Republic, the good guys no longer have that dramatic underdog status — then the Imperials become the *new* Rebels.

Bingo. Star Wars then becomes, as John pointed out, a storytelling engine. In fact, it took until 1999 for Lucasfilm to approve a major status quo change — (spoiler) Chewbacca’s death (spoiler) — and as far as I know, nothing close to that since. And a lot of the fanbase went ape about that.

If you want to know more, you can go to http://www.secrethistoryofstarwars.com and download “The Secret History of Star Wars” by Michael Kaminski a 4MB pdf e-book.

I can see some of these critiques on derivation and whatnot, but I think it’s also important to recognize that a lot of the seeming failure of the New Republic to ever truly establish itself, and its eventual complete failure to even continue to exist by the time of the Legacy series, is a conscious effort to show that they weren’t prepared for political triumph. Like many revolutions, they may have been able to pull off a successful coup, but they couldn’t effectively complete their change. Of course, the story isn’t over; Legacy may well end with a Republic back in power, and the Imperials finally gone forever, a final endpoint to the Star Wars story. But that doesn’t mean there are no more stories to be told.

Many of the best Star Wars stories come from not just pre-Episode IV, but pre-Episode I, territory much less charted out even before the prequels came out. Those are often the least derivative stories in the mythos, because they are allowed to be so different.

It’s also worth mentioning that even stories taking place post-Return of the Jedi weren’t all derivative. The X-Wing series of books and comics, for example, didn’t really have any of those villain archetypes. They may have had OTHER villain archetypes, but generally they focused on ground-level military stories that used a very different storytelling engine than do most Star Wars stories. Even Stackpole’s X-Wing spinoff I, Jedi had more in common with the X-Wing books and comics than it did with any traditional Jedi story, or with the Jedi Academy Trilogy, which it also tied into.

@Loren: No mention of the popular and successful New Jedi Order series?

(Lucas, of course, claims that he had Episodes I-III planned out all along. But when you have a draft of ‘Empire’ that has Lando being a descendant of the evil clones that the Jedi fought during the Clone Wars, it does make that claim a bit suspect.) . . .

. . . And the fact that Episodes I-III suck.

episode IV didn’t come into play until star wars made enough money to merit a sequel. lucas has at various times said there would be 12, then 9, then lastly six star wars movies. lucas is not consistent in his plans. he can say that the saga is about darth vader but prior to the invention of the lackluster prequels the story was mainly about luke skywalker. darth vader and luke skywalker weren’t even related until several drafts into the empire strikes back. lastly, lastly, it would be hard to have a villain in a sci-fi space opera that didn’t directly threaten the entire galaxy. the star wars stories feature a story that takes place on many different worlds hence there needs to be villains with a reach on many different worlds be it a a galactic army or organized crime. to introduce a villain that doesn’t span the galaxy limits the story.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 3, 2008 at 11:07 pm

If the Empire is still going strong, it devalues the “and they all lived happily ever after” ending of Return of the Jedi

Any more after that ending really defeats that ending.

lucas is not consistent in his plans.

He doesn’t care about Star Wars at all – it just makes him money.
He’s pretty much said that several times.
His main interests seem to be pushing film making technology, also a money maker, and experimental films – which he keeps claiming he’s going to get back into.

I’ve tried reading some of the spin-off novels and comics but none have really thrilled me or grabbed me. I keep meaning to try the Star Wars: Legacy comic, but that’s more out of my interest in the writing of John Ostrander than any actual interest in Luke & Leia’s ancestor’s story.

But your comment about how Lucas never created a storytelling engine is spot on. That explains a lot of what was wrong with Episodes 1-3. They were mostly exercises in “Let’s fill in all the random details I hinted at in episodes 4-6 but never intended to actually explain!” For example, as a kid, I loved trying to imagine what the “Clone Wars” were after they were mentioned in a couple throwaway lines of dialogue from Ben Kenobi. Now that I know, I find myself kind of disappointed and wishing i didn’t know as the explanation seemed very lacking…

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 4, 2008 at 12:04 am

For example, as a kid, I loved trying to imagine what the “Clone Wars” were after they were mentioned in a couple throwaway lines of dialogue from Ben Kenobi. Now that I know, I find myself kind of disappointed and wishing i didn’t know as the explanation seemed very lacking…

I’m in the same boat there!

I’d always pictured it as both sides were cloning Jedi’s or something, and if it was filmed, it’d be like Braveheart or Gladiator, but with Jedi’s.
Boy was I disappointed.

Damn, I’d really hoped this would be about the Marvel series from the early 80s…

There was also the “Corellian Trilogy” featuring (I kid you not) Han Solo’s evil twin brother as the big baddie…

I actually realy enjoyed Marvel’s series. Particularly how they continued post-Jedi, and around the films… Though according to Lucasfilm (probably due to other licencing issues) the Marvel stuff is no longer canon…
And there was me hoping for some Hoojibs in the expanded universe…

The Legacy of the Force novels did include a villain who first appeared in the Marvel Comics (Lumiya), so they aren’t completely out of canon.

John–

Oh, man, you really need to try John Ostrander’s writings on Star Wars: Republic and Star Wars: Legacy. Both series do have villains (Republic had a few Sith wannabes and occassionally fleshed-out Dooku, and Republic has the insane Darth Krayt), but they’re not really the focus of the series. The common thread in both series is that the hero IS the villain, metaphorically speaking–that is, the protagonist acts as his own antagonist.

Republic gave us Quinlan Vos, a jedi who lost his memory and found himself a character with immense force powers, but no Jedi morals to use them properly. Later, Vos gets his memory back, but he’s assigned to join Dooku’s forces between Episodes II and III to take Dooku down from within. He finds himself struggling between pretending to be a Sith and actually joining them.

Legacy similarly deals with Cade Skywalker, Luke’s descendant. He’s a wreck of a former Jedi who’s addicted to drugs and is more interested in being self-serving than in serving others. Still, he’s haunted by none other than Luke Skywalker’s ghost, who keeps pushing him to do the right thing.

The similarities between Republic and Legacy end there; both series have completely different casts and are set in very different eras. However, I loved the common theme that both deal more with the hero’s internal struggle than with confronting some external, villainous threat. (To some extent, this is similar to Luke Skywalker’s heroic journey in Episodes IV to VI, but you lose some of that sense beneath all the muppets.) Please do check them out.

Personally, the only Star Wars stuff I’ve liked since Zahn’s trilogy was the Rogue Squadron novels, specifically Aaron Allson’s stuff – largely because it just seemed like it was having fun with the source material. And they appealed to what I liked most about Star Wars – dogfights, X-Wings, etc. – while minimizing the stuff I never cared about (Jedi). Since you need antagonists for that type of book to work, I’ve got no issue with having someone else there filling the Tarkin role – it just always felt weird when a writer would invent someone to fill VADER’S shoes, since that story seemed really tied off. But even as a kid, I just sort of knew that blowing up Vader’s SSD and the Death Star wasn’t nearly enough to really kill off the Empire (what, did the Stormtroopers on Bespin / Hoth / Tatooine / ertc. just vanish?), so I never saw it as a “final” ending of anything but the Vader plotline. Someone has to lead all those leftovers, so the Tarkin stand-ins work well.

And the “the prequels failed to live up to fan expectations” is an interesting thing, because kids – untempered by those expectations – generally ate the prequels up with a spoon, which is why the Clone Wars CGI project was green-lit and why the Lego Star Wars games sold so well (far more than Lego Indy did). Star Wars is really a kids’ series that older fans jumped on in the genre film vacuum that was the late-70s and turned it into something other than what it was, and then were suprised when the material didn’t age with them.

I think it all comes back to “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant compared to the power of the Force”.

Once you’ve got a bunch of Jedi wielding the most powerful force in the universe, the only worthy antagonist is someone who either negates that power or someone wielding it on the other side.

The biggest clue that Lucas didn’t have it all planned was the prologue to the novelization of Star Wars (I don’t refer to it as episode 4 or A New Hope). It clearly portrayed Palpatine as something of a puppet ruler, not a scheming Sith Lord. Later, the novelization of Empire referred to Boba Fett’s armor as a remnant of what the clone enemies of the Jedi wore during the Clone Wars. Also, wars are usually named for the opponent, not the soldiers fighting on your side. It would be more likely be referred to as a Civil War or Secessionist War.

Luke’s Marriage was a major status quo change that got greenlit a couple years earlier than Chewie’s death.

One other “villian” from the movies was, of course, the Death Star itself. And, like the others, it was repeatedly replicated in the followup media with Sun Crushers and Darksabers and the giant Von Neumen mega-star-destroyer in Dark Empire, and so forth…

I’d always pictured it as both sides were cloning Jedi’s or something, and if it was filmed, it’d be like Braveheart or Gladiator, but with Jedi’s.
Boy was I disappointed.

Dude, no joke, I thought of it exactly as you did, and like you, I was sorely disappointed.

Black Jack: the Marvel stuff got brought back around the time the 3rd edition of the original RPG came out.
The Legacy comic is awash in Marvel stuff, including a visit to the Wheel and one of the main characters is a Zeltron (the pink skinned nymphomatic aliens).

Han & Leia’s marriage and children and the introduction of Mara Jade are all early major status quo changes, btw.

I argue that Thrawn is a Grand Moff Tarkin type…Tarkin in the movie doesn’t show any real genius, either as a leader of men or of military. Thrawn was written as a character who had the author’s notes.

I also think you simply things to support your premise. Evil wizards, fallen heroes, crime lords, evil military leaders. That’s pretty much going to be your types of villains. You can mix and match, and perhaps add “crazy” to any of the categories, but really no matter if it’s Star Wars or Avengers, that’s what you got. (maybe natural disasters…but in space opera, that winds up not working so well…look at Star Trek’s Nexus ribbon or Genesis Wave).

The problem isn’t so much engine failure as driver failure. Formula proved successful. Zahn’s epic novels sold…let’s have similar epics. Comic Dark Empire with the reborn Empire sold like pancakes? Let’s do 2 more!!! This is a problem with Dark Horse comics…look at what Marvel did with Star Wars…lots of differnt adventures…they just repeated movies…Look at their Terminator line…NOW did all sorts of stories, like Burning Earth featuring the future world (and Alex Ross’s earliest work, or almost). Dark Horse did mini after mini of Terminators going back in time to kill Sarah Connor (or her parents or Sara Coner or etc). 90’s era Dark Horse lived by the motto rinse and repeat.

(BTW, Dark Empire was actually a Marvel Epic book designed to relaunch Marvel’s Star Wars line after the monthly fizzed out, but it was eventually cancelled. The Star Wars renaisace caused by Zahn led to it being revived)

The final books in the pre NJO series was the Zahn’s Fist of Thrawn duology. There’s literally a scene where it’s mentioned there’s no more lost Imperial warlords or Moffs secretly building Death Stars or Giant space weapons etc. Later, Luke looks out into the distance and see’s something coming “Lookee there….what the heck is that?” ..seriously.

“I’d always pictured it as both sides were cloning Jedi’s or something, and if it was filmed, it’d be like Braveheart or Gladiator, but with Jedi’s. Boy was I disappointed.”

I thought it would be about both sides of a conflict cloning their armies to save the originals live and throwing the clones at each other in endless waves of cannon fodder. It could have raised some interesting questions about the value of life; is a clone just a copy or a living individual with their own soul: how far do you compromise your morals to win a war, etc. Coming out in ’99 to ’05 with our own country (and others as well) wrestling with some of these topics in light of the advent of animal cloning; genetic modification of food; stem cell research, etc., it could have been fascinating instead of the relatively boring republic to empire transition we did get.

Also, I agree that the most interesting Star Wars stories being told are the ones outside of the Ep. I-VI timeline/characters. With the amount of crap that been written about Luke and Han and Leia it’s like every single stinkin’ day of their lives they have to face some new galactic threat/crisis or another. They take leading busy lives to a whole new level!

in the clone wars i always thought there would be obi-wan versus 0B1.
maybe the tv show will incorporate some clones other than the troopers.

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