In the previous installment of this series, I discussed a number of sci-fi movies from the 1970’s that have influenced and continue to influence my writing. The greatest film of that era, the one that profoundly altered the course of my career, was, of course, Star Wars.
In the summer of 1977, when the first Star Wars was released, I was 10 years old. Up until that point, I had written short stories—each perhaps as many as a dozen handwritten pages long—of various whimsical or fantastical motifs: one, for example, was about me finding a dinosaur egg and having it hatch.
None of them, so far as I recall, were actually sci-fi. I was aware of the genre, having watched quite a few other movies (as I mentioned) and TV shows like the original Star Trek, but while they eventually influenced me, they hadn’t inspired me.
Star Wars changed all that.
I was an instant hardcore fan. Like many other kids my age, I saw Star Wars several times in the theater. I read the novelization. I got the T-shirts and the posters and the toys. I pondered unanswered questions and discussed theories with my friends.
Unlike most of the other kids I knew, though, I was determined to make my own version of Star Wars. That fall, in sixth grade, I started drafting my first novel. I wrote it longhand, in pencil, on lined three-ring binder paper. I wrote at lunch, I wrote in free time in classes, I wrote after school.
Three friends—Bob, Jess, and Marc—helped with creating characters, settings, weapons, spaceships. My teacher, Mr. McQuade, found out what I was up to and exempted me from my regular English assignments, allowing me to write the book for a grade. When I was done, my school photocopied it and put it in the library (alas, the school, Grandview, is no more—and I’m sure that photocopy was tossed when they tore down the school).
The result was a 200+ page homage called Galaxy Starships, and there’s no need for you to read the original manuscript (which I still have) to know the story: idealistic hero + space pirate + princess + pair of robots battle disfigured villain in concealing armor for control of planet-destroying technology, and thus rule of the galaxy.
Yes, it was a shameless derivative, but hey, I was 11 by the time I was done, and it was a labor of love that I saw through the end—and beyond. Soon after I had finished it, I reworked it (now more like the 1978 show Battlestar Galactica than Star Wars, though I had more original elements in it this time around) and rewrote it, typing it, this time, on a new manual typewriter that my mother had given me for Christmas (I still have that typewriter, too, though I haven’t used it since college).
When discussing Star Wars (and to be clear, I mean the 1977 film, retitled as “Episode IV: A New Hope”), one could talk about its ground-breaking special effects, or about its ties to mythology and the works of Joseph Campbell, or about its sequels and their quality. Instead, I’d like to tell you, briefly, what Star Wars taught me about writing Galaxy Starships, and everything else I’ve done since.
You don’t have to start a story at the beginning. Star Wars could have begun with the birth of Luke Skywalker, the fomenting of the rebellion, or the actual theft of the Death Star plans, but instead, it just jumps right into the thick of things, with the now-iconic battle scene of a Star Destroyer chasing Princess Leia’s ship. If you’ve never seen Star Wars (yes, there are some people, like my sister-in-law Alex), you might think that starting the movie like that would require some lengthy exposition, but actually…
You don’t need to explain too much. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: there’s your “when” and “where” to set up the story (and btw, a sci-fi story set in the distant past? Mind blown!)
It is a period of civil war and Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star: there’s your “what” is going on.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home…: there’s your “who.” And notice that the famous intro billboards who the good guys and the bad guys are. All in about one minute of screen time.
Characters don’t have to look like/be what you’d expect. The soldiers of the evil Empire wear white (Vader wears black, of course, but more about him in a minute). The princess is a good shot, is assertive and tough (she doesn’t crack under torture, remember), and is the smartest of all the heroes. The towering shaggy alien isn’t a monster: Chewbacca is intelligent, good-hearted, and a critical member of the team. And so on.
The villain can be the most interesting character. Luke Skywalker was nominally the hero, but as a kid, I wanted to be Darth Vader: big, powerful, mysterious, and intimidating as all get-out. In the first movie, “badass” just drips off Vader—did anyone really think elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi had a chance against him in their duel? Nope, Obi-Wan was going down: in the film, the old guy turns off his weapon, but in the novelization, Vader outfights him and cleaves him from head to crotch. Ouch!
(Recall also that disregarding that accidental and fortuitous TIE fighter collision that spoiled his shot on Luke [and sent him tumbling away from the Death Star before it kersploded], no one lays a glove on Vader until almost the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke tags him on the shoulder during their light saber duel. Whereupon Vader stops toying with him and kicks Luke’s ass nine ways to Sunday.)
Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who thought Vader was the most interesting, as there were all those t-shirts and posters and other merchandise (my keychain has his image and his quote, “You underestimate the power of the dark side”). Lucas brought him back for two sequels and made him the subject of those dreadful prequels, where Anakin Skywalker was even more weak and whiny than Luke.
Supporting characters can also be awesome. I’ve mentioned Chewbacca and Obi-Wan, but we shall not, of course, forget Han, R2-D2, and C3PO. It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I appreciated Peter Cushing’s performance as Tarkin: that man oozed menace. And how about those aliens at the cantina? Like Greedo! Speaking of whom…
You can have dialogue in other languages. In all the other sci-fi movies I’d seen, the aliens conveniently speak English. So you can imagine my surprise when Greedo waylays Han and harangues him in his own language. I always thought it added authenticity to the character, and in my novel Dragontamer’s Daughters, I have almost all of the Diheneh characters speak in their native tongue (for which I attempted to use Navajo).
Going back to the topic of aliens, Star Wars told us that they don’t have to be from somewhere else: the Jawas and Tusken Raiders were indigenous to Tatooine. Indeed, it seemed that the humans, like Luke’s aunt and uncle, were the “aliens” to the planet.
Speaking of planets, Star Wars taught me that your story doesn’t need to include Earth. Every sci-fi story I’d seen and read up until that point was set on or near Earth. It was just unpossible to me that Star Wars wasn’t.
Star Wars also told me that you don’t need to finish the story. Recall that the movie was not initially described as part of a series: “Episode IV” wasn’t added until years after its release. Yes, the Death Star was destroyed, but Vader had survived, and the struggle against the Empire went on. The film practically screamed for a sequel…also a rarity back then.
Star Wars introduced me the joys of “sub-creation.” That is, making up new worlds, creatures, ships, weapons, etc. Think about how pretty much everything in the movie was unfamiliar to the first-time viewer. Of course, the master of sub-creation was J.R.R. Tolkien, and later on, I would learn from him how it’s really done.