Star Wars: Storytelling and History

My father wasn't very good at inventing stories, but he tried very hard. He borrowed liberally from stories he'd seen before - radio plays, old novels, things he'd read as a kid and thought his children would like. We didn't have TV, movies were a rare treat, and we hadn't learned to read yet, so his stories were amazing. He could describe things very well, and he always knew how to play with tension and pacing.

One of my favorite stories he told had everything I liked in it. It had a princes and a brave hero. It had swordfights. It had space aliens and cannons and pirates and robots and danger - lots of danger - but the heroes made it out OK. I don't think he told this story more than once, but I remember it vividly. It was about a boy named Luke who came from a farm, and his friend Hans Olo, and their bear friend Chewbaka, and how they rescued the Princess from the evil Garth Vader, and how she got revenge.

Yeah, my dad told Star Wars as a story of his own (although he never claimed to have invented it), and let me tell you, the mental image I had of the story was very different than the film when I finally saw it years later. It wasn't wrong - he didn't change anything - but there were some things he couldn't describe or skipped or forgot. I think he'd seen the film once at that point.

This was before the sequels, mind you, or the prequels, or any of that. Star Wars for me, for a very long time, was a story and not a film.

Space Opera

The term "space opera" means something special. "Science fiction" is about science, about the potential future effects of things we have now, about a plausible way the world could be. 

Space opera isn't about the future. It's about the present. It's about us.

All really great operas need a few things. They need to be noisy. They need to be dramatic. They need to be beautiful. And they need to speak to the heart... and not to the mind. No physics. No science.

Nobody goes to the opera because the plot makes sense. Nobody in opera acts exactly like a real person, but everyone acts like something inside every real person. The soul, maybe. The subconscious. The bit that wants to scream into the night and set things on fire instead of eating ice cream and watching reruns on Netflix. Nobody in real life has ever sung about their morning plans and hopes and fears the way Calaf sings in Act 4, but we somehow wish we could.

And, in the words of Anna Russel, you can put your opera where you like. Set it in the Roaring '20s or in the Wild West. It's just set dressing and costumes; nice to look at but it's only one part of the experience.


Star Wars is often called a saga. Someone's rewritten it into an actual saga, if you're interested in that sort of thing. It's excellent.

Anyway, sagas are usually stories of one family, with mythological additions, later authors, and side-notes. Characters from one saga show up in others. In this case, this is the saga of the Skywalkers. The scope is galactic; the focus is one chain of people, one small set of events. You could re-write the story to take place in Feudal Japan or Iceland. Take away the laser swords and the starships and the saga doesn't change because the people in it are still people.

Mos Eisley, Claire Hummel

The Last Jedi

I liked it.

Spoilers start below.

Matthew Colville says that Star Wars is a fairy tale, and that fairy tales impart lessons. The second part would need an entirely different kind of post to discuss; the first is only sort of true. Despite having a princess and a sword and a castle and all that stuff, I don't think Star Wars is really a fairy tale at all, and I don't think the people writing the films - Lucas and co. - were drawing on fairly tale references and fairy tale logic. I think opera (and its heart-seeking cousins like westerns and samurai films and Flash Gordon and war films) were more important sources.

On the other hand, opera is just fairy tales for grown-ups. Sometimes the lesson isn't suitable for children. You think the original ending to Snow White (with the red-hot iron slippers and dancing to death) is grim? Try Eugene Onegin. The lessons adults need are more complicated than "don't go into the woods alone."

Anyway, a lot of people don't like the new films because they think the new directors and writers, "don't get it."

I think they do. I think they really do get what Star Wars is about, beyond set design, costume design, and tone. And I think they're showing it in a wonderful, subtle, and possibly miraculous way given the significant limitations they've been given.

Storytelling is Hard

Imagine being asked to write a new Star Wars film. How do you even begin? Where do you start? The saga is effectively over. Everyone's arc is neatly tied up. All the themes developed were more-or-less brought to a close.

You need to introduce enough new material to start a new saga. You need to introduce new conflicts.

And to put it mildly, there's a problem. The good guys won in the last movie. They set themselves up in a dominant position. It's very difficult - arguably impossible - to write an moralistic story (like an opera) where the good guys start off with all the power, resources, and sucess, without making the bad guy underdogs highly sympathetic or at least wryly admirable.

So as a storyteller, you need to reset the stage.

This also allows you to reset the moral stakes. If you're going to say that Good did not triumph over Evil you had better explain why.

That's the crux of the new trilogy. That's the lesson at the end of the fairy tale the first trilogy told. Little Red Riding Hood was saved by the Woodsman... but she learned nothing about being careful, and the next time she was eaten there was no one around to save her.

And sure, this lesson feels tacked on, possibly even jarring. But if you're going to write a new Star Wars story - and Disney is writing you checks with many, many zeros in them - it's necessary.

You also can't escape the past stories entirely. You could write a new story set in the Star Wars universe, but without the original characters, it's not part of the saga. We saw this with Rogue One - great film, but explicitly not part of the saga. The Skywalker story.  And the people writing your cheques won't take the risk either. Side projects, whatever. But for the continuation of the saga, there needs to be full and unquestionable continuity.

Side Note: The Artbooks

Concept art books are a fascinating look into the process of creating a story. If you haven't read the books for The Force Awakens, I really suggest you do. These people do care.  They do get it. They hashed and rehashed and cut and mangled the story over and over until it worked on paper, then tried it in person, then went back to the paper over and over. You can watch, in the art, the progression of  the story from a complete mess of themes and concepts to a final piece. It's like seeing inside the sausage factory. Every time I read a book like this it amazes me that films get made at all, let alone that they end up being coherent.

Lord Vader and his Troops, Patrick Rosander

The Metaphysics of Star Wars

There's a reason that the first movie of the new saga trilogy is called The Force Awakens. It's important.

I'm copying one of my older blog posts in full, now that the directors and official line matches my interpretation. Score one for Skerples.

The Force:

  • Is Mysterious. It doesn't allow you to lift "up to 100kg" of material or choke someone "1d10 meters away". It shouldn't be quantifiable.
  • Lets You Do Impossible Things. You can't do merely possible things with the Force. It's impossible to fire lightning from your fingers, or see the future, or close your eyes and fire a torpedo at precisely the right moment... but you can do these things through the Force.
  • Requires Faith, Not Training. This one requires some more explanation.


Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, had.... maybe a week of actual training. Obi-Wan sat with him for a few hours on the Falcon, and he spent a few days with Yoda on Dagobah. That's it.

It wasn't particularly conventional training. Obi-Wan made him wear a blindfold and block irritating lasers. Yoda made him do headstands and run around a swamp. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Surely, becoming a Jedi takes more than a few pushups. What's really going on here?

Luke is a skeptic. He doubts everything, gets frustrated, and wants to quit. He knows you can't block blaster bolts while blindfolded. He knows an X-wing is heavier than rock. He knows these things because they are true... from a certain point of view.

But as we know, that's not the truth at all. To the Force, there is no weight. There is no time. That's why Yoda says, "Do, or do not. There is no try." Your effort has nothing to do with it. It's all about faith. If you believe that the X-Wing will be lifted, it will be lifted.

Yoda isn't building Luke's muscles. He's breaking down his resistance. The constant exercise and lousy food is just like boot camp, except this is some weird Gnostic version. It's the same thing with the training on the Falcon. Obi-Wan isn't training Luke to block blaster shots. He's forcing him to confront the impossible and accept it. On the final attack run on the Death Star, Obi-Wan says to "Use the Force, Luke." But he immediately says to "Let go."

One the main criticism of Rey's character in The Force Awakens was her ability to instantly, without any training, use the Force to do "difficult" tasks. She moves objects with her mind, plants commands, senses memories, all that, and with no training at all. How?

She believes. She is a complete and utter fanatic. She closes her eyes and really trusts in the Force. Luke constantly struggles to overcome his doubt and let go, but Rey doesn't. She believes unconditionally. For her, there is no "try".

Han tells her it's all true, and she believes.

I'm Sensing A Theme Here

What is the lesson of The Force Awakens? As far as I can tell, it's that fairy tales are stupid. They don't end up happy, they don't end up together. They break up and their son is literally Hitler and he murders his father. What?
-Matthew Colville
As we mentioned earlier, you need to reset the stakes and moral ground to being a new story. But did you have to do this, Star Wars writers? Did you have to make the Princess and the Loveable Rogue just... a grumpy old dad in a garbage truck and a slightly peeved old lady? Did you have to break that dream.

Possibly not. But they did it for a reason. They had a story to tell.

In Return of the Jedi, Good triumphs over Evil. Credits.

In The Force Awakens, we find out that the triumph was less than total. The world, it seems, carried on being full of people, and people are notorious fuckups. Put a hat on someone and call them a Princess and they might feel different... but they're still a person. Blow up the evil empire and someone will still cheat on their tax returns and sell death sticks to orphans.

I think this is a story we need to be told now. The triumph over external evil is important. The triumph over the evil within ourselves is just beginning. The Cold War is over; does it feel like we won? Is this victory?

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

That's the start of the new trilogy. That's the core of it. An inversion.

Luke redeemed his father; who will redeem Luke? There was still good in Vader; was there evil in his son? Or, if not evil, human nature? Could love become a kind of pride, and pride a kind of folly?

This is the Scourging of the Shire. This is evil getting away with it for stupid petty human reasons. Not cosmological. Not epic. Just human. Just heartfelt matters.

You aren't stupid for believing in fairy tales like Love and Justice and Truth. That's not what these movies is saying at all. They're saying that if you believe only in those things and nothing else you will fail. If you believe you are Good and True,  you open yourself up to folly. If you believe you are the Law, you open yourself to unrighteous behavior. Focus on the ideals and you lose sight of yourself, until you wake up one day with a lightsaber in your hand standing over a child.

Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing. Hmm. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things.
A Hero's Tale, Lap Pun Cheung


Luke's personal arc in the original trilogy goes: skeptical, unwilling farmboy -> starting to believe -> doubting -> utterly crushed and hopeless -> starting to believe -> believing 

He slowly "gets it", but in the end, his mastery of the force allows him to save everyone. Not with a lightsaber, but by being tortured by lightning. Not by winning a duel, but by losing. An inversion. How often in movies like this does the hero win by writhing around and screaming? 

Anyway, Good triumphs over Evil.

But in the new trilogy, Luke's arc begins with doubt again. We see that he was at the height of his powers and his confidence. He was a Jedi, like his father before him.

And that ruined everything. He didn't fall to the Dark Side. He didn't become corrupted or seduced by power. He just didn't examine himself. He looked to the horizon and lost sight of his feet. When Rey finds him he's right back to drinking milk (green, not blue) and feeling sorry for himself. He's has enormous doubts. His arc slowly bends away from doubt as the movie progresses.

One of the masterful inversions in this new trilogy is that Rey does not doubt. She might be dismayed to find the savior of the galaxy is a grumpy old hermit, but she doesn't join in his despair. She is a fanatic in the Force. The island is useless to her. All the calisthenics and dark trees won't bring her closer to belief because she's already there.

In this latest movie, her arc is bending towards doubt.

That's a masterstroke of storytelling! How rare to have a character in full possession of faith in the unknowable, the invisible, and the power of themselves... and then lose it.

By the end of the movie, she doubts the future of the Rebellion, her own powers, her sense of the future, and even her sense of purpose. She went to save Kylo and it blew up in her face. She was manipulated, outclassed, and afraid. And then Kylo offered her a chance to rule the galaxy and she very nearly took it. We - the audience - weren't sure if we wanted her to take it. He didn't need to make an argument; the facts did it for him.

That's good storytelling. True temptation. Was Luke ever really tempted by Vader's offer to rule the galaxy as father and son? He didn't show it.

The Saga

This is the Skywalker saga. Still is. Rey's important, sure, but it's Kylo's story. He's got the leitmotifs to prove it.

So everything orbits around him and his arc. Matthew does an excellent job dissecting it, so I'm not going to bother, but it's good.

Side Note: Hopelessness in The Last Jedi

I don't know if Star Wars is a Christian story, but it's drawing from the same well of human experience. And there's one particular Christian event that fits this movie perfectly. The mid-point. The day when you shout "fairy tales are stupid" at an uncaring sky.

This movie is Easter Saturday. Fred Clark said it best.
This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know.

Easter Sunday? That’s tomorrow, the day after today. We’ll never get there in time. We can believe in Easter Sunday, but we can’t be sure. We can’t know for sure. We can’t know until we’re out of time.
Here, in time, there’s just this day, this dreadful Saturday of not knowing.

There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.

And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.
That last paragraph is a paraphrase from St. Paul. What he actually says there, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, is “if …” What he says, specifically, is:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …
But that’s Sunday language and Sunday certainty and it doesn’t make much sense here on Saturday. Here on Saturday, we can hope it’s true and we may even try to believe it’s true, but we can’t know “in fact” one way or another. Not now. Not on Saturday.

And to be honest, it doesn’t seem terribly likely, because Saturday, this Saturday, is all we’ve ever known. Yesterday was this same Saturday, and so was the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that.

Why should we expect that tomorrow will be any different?

Seriously, just look around. Does it look like the meek are inheriting the earth? Does it look like those who hunger and thirst for justice are being filled? Does it look like the merciful are being shown mercy?

Jesus was meek and merciful and hungry for justice and look where that got him. They killed him. We killed him. Power won.

That’s what this everyday Saturday shows us — power always wins. “If you want a picture of the future,” George Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever.”

“But in fact,” St. Paul says, everything changes on Sunday. Come Sunday power loses. Come Sunday, love wins, the meek shall inherit, the merciful will receive mercy and no one will ever go hungry for justice again. Come Sunday, everything changes.

If there ever is a Sunday.

And but so, this is why we hope for Sunday and why we live for the hope of Sunday. Even though we can’t know for sure that Sunday will ever come and even if Saturday is all we ever get to see.
That's probably a bit strong for a movie with laser swords and ewoks, but it does fit.

This is the midpoint of a dramatic arc. The low point. We know there will be an Easter Sunday - how could it be otherwise - but today, on Saturday, it doesn't feel like that day will ever come. The fact that reviewers are annoyed and bitter at the bleakness of these films is probably a great sign of their success; what would the stakes be, otherwise?

If Luke taught Rey to doubt in this move, what would be left for the third and final part of the arc?

This movie is tilting at fanaticism. That makes it a very useful modern fairy tale.

Rogue One early concept art, Alex Mann

Things I Didn't Like

The Force Awakens has pacing issues, an unnecessary side arc, and some really silly use of space, both in shots and in, you know, space.

But so it goes. Storytelling is hard. Sometimes you have to use all the characters you've introduced, even if you don't need to. Sometimes the Mouse says it's time to sell Lego sets and Halloween costumes.

Side Note: Poe's Arc

I think - I hope - that Poe's arc is a harmonic note about fanaticism and self-reflection and the nature of trust. I hope the writers made him brash and rebellious and dumb to show that sometimes... that doesn't work. Even in opera. Sometimes you ludicrous scheme fails. Poe's arc of self-reflection begins here - it takes the entire movie and several repeated attempts to get him to look at himself. He doesn't learn anything from getting demoted because he has to fail to learn.

Turning inward is a major theme of the second films in both the original trilogy and this new one.

Learning from failure is another one. Young fool, only now at the end do you understand. Obi-Wan has to fail with Vader to learn. Luke has to fail with Kylo to learn. And Poe has to fail at being a rebel to learn.

Kind of neat, but executed a little oddly.

Side Note: What If?

It's very difficult and possible misleading to ask "what if" questions about opera. Things only occur because they need to occur for the story to progress. If they didn't occur in that order, in that way, to those people... it won't be the same story.

Unlike in real life, where every decision branches off into infinity, an opera is a line from point A to B. You can't easily hop off the line. So asking, "What would have happened if Luke didn't rush to save his friends?" is a strange question because... there's no conceptual space in which that "what if" could be examined. We can't apply real-life rules because this is opera.

We could try to apply opera rules and see what the end result - the moral of the story - would be. That might be interesting, but it's very difficult to judge. Try to figure out what Act 3 would look like if Tosca refused Scarpia's bargain in Act 2. It doesn't quite work.

Side Note: Slavery

It's kind of neat how the writers have, intentionally or not, kept this theme consistent. Nobody in Star Wars questions the morality of slavery. Like Spartacus, the might not want to be slaves, but they don't object to the concept in principle. Save the horses; leave the urchins. Save the chosen one; leave his mother. And forget about the droids. Nobody goes back to save a droid.

Maybe that will finally be inverted in the last movie of this section of the saga. Maybe not. But in the meantime, it's an excellent example to use if you're talking about worldviews and internalized truths.


  1. I have some complaints about TLJ but I gotta say it's produced some of the best articles about star wars that I've read in a long time

  2. I disliked the movie as it felt like a lazy copy/paste of other Star Wars films. I did like your take however and I'll have to mull that over when I eventually re-watch the flick.

    1. I feel like a lot of the copy-paste elements are set dressing, which I'm fine with. It's just opera. Reusing bits of old sets is sensible.