Category Archives: Writing Lessons From…

Back to the Future is a masterclass in Chekov's gun.

Writing Lessons from Back to the Future

Is Back to the Future better than Star Wars? I think it might be. I mean, I’m a massive Star Wars fan. Huge. But Back to the Future has a little more heart, I think. It has a tighter story, too and, quite frankly, I think it’s better written. Which is where this post comes from; there’s plenty of tips a writer can pick up from these films.

I apologise for the spoilers in this post, I didn’t have time to build it to scale.

Put the Gun on the Mantlepiece

Chekhov’s gun is a famous principle any writer should be aware of. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” The Back to the Future films are littered with brilliant examples of this principle. A dinner table conversation outlines how Marty’s parents met, so we recognise just what he has unwittingly interrupted later on. Doc Brown mentions he loved Jules Verne as a boy, so we recognise what he shares in common with Clara (and why he suffers a setback later on). Just before Marty goes back to the future, the engine dies, so we understand why he can’t get back to the mall in time. It’s actually quite hard to think of something you see or hear on screen that doesn’t serve a narrative purpose. Or, to put it in Chekhov’s terms, there aren’t many guns in Back to the Future that don’t go off.

Stay Loyal to the History

I don’t mean historical history. I mean the history of the narrative. Back to the Future ends with Doc ushering both Marty and Jennifer into the DeLorean to save their future children. Creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis never intended to follow up on that. It was just a fun way to end the film. But, when the studio pushed for a sequel, they found themselves saddled with the debt they had created for themselves. Zemeckis admitted that, if they’d planned to make a sequel, they wouldn’t have put Jennifer in the car.

So what to do? Undo it? Have them drop Jennifer off before they go? Do some time travel chicanery? Nope. They stuck to their canon. I wish they’d made Jennifer more than just a plot device, but you have to admire a writer who enforces upon themselves the rule of “no backsies”. 

English, Doc!

You’re writing about time travel and it’s going to get complicated. Even if you ignore the science entirely, the sheer practicalities of time travel can make anyone’s head hurt. But the audience must never be confused. Not ever.

Back to the Future uses the good old uninformed protagonist. Marty is as ignorant as we are and, better yet, he doesn’t understand the jargon. He needs things spelt out in plain English, which gives the writers a perfect opportunity to inform the audience at the same time.

Avoid Unnecessary Backstory

We don’t know why Marty and Doc are friends. We never find out how they met, why Marty hangs out with him, how they forged such a close bond. And we don’t need to. It’s tempting for a writer to share all the wonderful history of the world they created. But viewers of Back to the Future only need to know that Marty and Doc are friends. You don’t need backstory to establish that; their actions and their dialogue can establish that. Don’t burden the story with more history than it can shoulder.

Now go watch Back to the Future now (because it’s brilliant), and let me know if you think it’s better than Star Wars.

Get it from: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Disney's Frozen is overhyped, but still pretty good.

Writing Lessons from Frozen

Everyone went nuts for Frozen. I was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps there was too much hype. Perhaps nothing can compare in my mind to The Lion King. But you can’t deny that Frozen struck a chord, which makes it worth a look to see if there’s any writing advice inside.

Wrap up warm, spoiler storms ahead.

Do You Really Need That Prologue?

A prologue is something of a chapter 0, part of the story that sits before the beginning proper. In the case of Frozen, I’m classing the accident, the death of the king and queen, and the Do You Wanna Build a Snowman song as a prologue. Because the story itself starts when Anna meets Hans.

Frozen is a perfect example of why prologues can often be cut: there’s usually nothing in them that can’t be told in the body of the story. Death of the parents? Their mere absence is enough. Anna’s isolation? Already clear from her ‘For the First Time in Forever’ song. The accident? Can be discussed; heck, Elsa already has a mini flashback in the film itself. The first ten minutes are dense with backstory, but they aren’t story. They drag. They’re unnecessary. Let it go.

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

Foreshadow That Twist

Frozen manages to teach this lesson by doing it right and wrong at the same time.

Hans is Anna’s Prince Charming, her soul mate, protector of her realm and her sister, until it turns out he’s evil.

Anna’s cure is said to be “an act of true love”, which both audience and characters take to mean true love’s kiss, until it turns out it’s an action spurred by love.

Both good twists. But when you see Anna’s act of true love, you look back on what the film’s been subtly telling you and think “of course!” When you see Hans turn evil, you look back on what the film’s been telling you and think “where did that come from?”

A great twist is one a reader feels like they could have seen coming. A poor twist is one no-one could have possibly foreseen.

Defy Expectations

More on the twist that worked. Disney films love a bit of romance. So when Frozen calls for an act of true love, the characters and the audience assume a kiss is needed. But the film isn’t that interested in romance. It makes fun of Anna’s rushed engagement (which is par for the Disney course), and focuses on familial love instead. Which is partly why Frozen delighted audiences everywhere.

A genre is built on its tropes. And it’s important to know them, respect them, even work with them. But subverting them can not only entertain your readers, but it can help your story stand out from the crowd.

What are your thoughts on Frozen? Are you looking forward to a sequel? Let me know in the comments.

Title card to the Netflix/Marvel series Daredevil.

Writing Lessons from Daredevil

I was burnt twice by the Daredevil film. I watched the theatrical cut and hated it. Then, a few years later, I kept hearing the director’s cut was so much better. So I bought a copy. And hated that too. So I was understandably reticent to watch the new Daredevil series on Netflix. But it’s fantastic, and a writer can’t go far wrong in studying it.

Watch out for spoilers skulking in the alleyways.

Kill the Status Quo

Not the band. Daredevil made it clear pretty early on that it had no interest in setting up a long-running status quo. It started with a secret identity, an unnamed and unseen crime kingpin, and a host of allies and foes. I fully expected the kingpin to be revealed in the series finale, with Murdock having to fight through his underlings first. I fully expected the series to spend plenty of time showing us Murdock’s efforts to keep his identity a secret before revealing to any other characters. And I fully expected the kingpin to remain in his seat of power for many series.

But, in short order, the series blew Murdock’s identity to his best friend Foggy, named Wilson Fisk and then brought him onscreen, and then started working through the allies and foes in a string of deaths. It threw me off balance and kept me wondering just what would happen next. Anyone seemed like fair game. Nothing seemed sacred. And I loved it.

Keep the Mystery

Matt Murdock is blinded as a boy, but somehow his other senses are heightened to an incredible level. He can feel air currents, taste nails from across the room, hear heartbeats. He can, in effect, see. He can do some incredible things, and Daredevil does an excellent job of explaining Matt’s abilities. It left me in awe of what he can do and wondering what his world must be like.

But one episode tried to give us a visual representation of how Matt ‘sees’; his “world on fire”. It was a pin to the balloon of mystery, proof positive that some things are best left to the reader’s imagination. It’s not that theirs is better than ours; it’s that they’ll enjoy the numerous possibilities rather than being locked into the one we decide to give them.

Don’t Let Old Ideas Hobble You

Daredevil took a slow walk from vigilante to superhero. It called Matt “the man in the mask” and “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen”. And he wore a simple, plain outfit and a mask. It’s only in the series finale that he wears a costume and gets the name “Daredevil”. But the truth is the name doesn’t fit the show. The show is a gritty, brutal, emotive thing. The name sounds like a circus act. And whilst Matt’s desire for armour made sense for a man on the receiving end of some brutal beatings, a costume isn’t something that fits with his character. He’s not trying to be a symbol like Batman. If anything, he was doing his best to work in secret.

Sometimes it’s tempting to hold onto old ideas. You might really love them. They might even be the genesis of the entire story. But if the story has evolved, don’t hang onto something that doesn’t work anymore.

Love Makes a Villain Loveable

It would have been easy to have Wilson Fisk as evil. A kingpin of crime, concerned with power and money. But Daredevil made him more than that. He has a tragic backstory, yes. He has a mission that differs from Matt Murdock’s only in the execution. And he thinks of his right-hand man as his friend.

But the real moment that makes you secretly love him? His love for a woman. It’s a normal, fierce, romantic love that makes Fisk human. Vulnerable. But it doesn’t undermine him at all. He’s still violent and ruthless. But he’s also loyal, protective, emotional. Rather than a two-dimensional villain, he’s a three-dimensional character. Fisk is one of the primary reasons Daredevil is so good.

What did you think of Daredevil? Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Big Hero 6 is a lesson in emotive writing and in three-dimensional secondary characters.

Writing Lessons from Big Hero 6

This isn’t a review, but I’ll just say this: Big Hero 6 is awesome. Seriously, if you like animation, go see it. It’s better than Frozen.

Yeah. I said it.

You should also see it because, like all these Writing Lessons posts, there be spoilers ahead, matey.

Flesh Out Secondary Characters

My one gripe about Big Hero 6 is that some of the secondary characters are paper-thin.

Naturally not every character in a story can have the depth of the protagonist. Aunt Cass, Fred and Wasabi were purely supporting cast and therefore are characterised by quirks, foibles, and small nuggets of history, all introduced naturally without slowing down the story.

But Gogo and Honey? There was nothing to them. They were so forgettable I had to look up their names when I wrote this. Disney inherited the title ‘Big Hero 6’ from a Marvel comic book and it felt like Gogo and Honey were just there to make up the numbers.

The lesson here? Build them up or knock them down. Don’t keep a character for the sake of it.

Don’t Stop Hitting Them in the Feels

By Kenobi’s beard, no film has ever had me so close to tears than Big Hero 6. When Tadashi died I thought that was going to be the big emotional gut punch. But then were was another one, and another. And each one hit harder than the last. I had to clench my jaw by the end to stop bawling like a baby.

And I loved it.

They always tell you to touch the reader (emotionally, don’t get handsy). At times it almost felt like Big Hero 6 touched me too much, but I loved it for that. If you don’t move the reader, they won’t care. Don’t be afraid to make them cry.

Don’t Preach Your Theme

Big Hero 6 is all about loss and how to cope with it. Like many who have suffered a loss, Hiro seeks an external force to blame and he wants to make that force pay. The film’s message is simple: revenge isn’t a curative for loss. But no-one says that. No wise old man or caring aunt or cute sidekick tells Hiro this. Instead the audience sees it for themselves: when Hiro abandons his quest for revenge, he solves the problem of loss, almost literally, when he saves Abigail Callaghan.

Nothing switches off a reader like a soapbox. It’s okay to have a message, but make it one readers can figure out and think about on their own. If the reader feels they have to agree with you to read the book, they might not do either.

Did I learn these lessons when I wrote my debut novel? Find out for yourself by downloading a free copy today!

The cover for The Fey Man

Writing Lessons from The Fey Man

They say that there’s no better way to learn writing than by writing. Which is certainly true. After all, you can’t find any bad habits, see any common flaws, or make any mistakes by not doing anything. And, although The Fey Man is the fourth novel I’ve written (but the only one to be published) it still had a lot to teach me.

Be Prepared to Sacrifice Everything

I cut a lot from The Fey Man. A whole character, Arvel, was scrubbed from existence. A subplot in which Tom ensured the new employment of his personal attendant before he left Cairnagan. Encounters with fay, men, even a few dwarfs.

All of these things slowed the story down at best and made it confusing at worst. Arvel had nothing to do, Tom’s attendant meant it took too long to leave Cairnagan, and the other plot elements prolonged the journey too much. I was sad to see them go, but the novel is better for it.

Made-up Places Need a Clear Geography

One of things my beta readers seemed to agree on was this: they struggled to picture the world of The Fey Man. How big it was, where one place was in relation to another, and so on. One reader thought the party was travelling north even though I’d mentioned south a dozen times.

Maps are one element that will help the reader, but I didn’t want to force her to flick back and forth. So I went through the manuscript and tweaked a lot of text to try and establish a sense of the world. I just hope I succeeded!

It’s Also About What You Don’t Write

At the beginning of this journey I had a tendency to spell everything out. Characters thoughts and feelings were shown with words, either the characters’ own or through narration. But that bogged down the narrative with constant exposition.

So I tried to cut a lot of that from The Fey Man. A lot can be said with a look, an action, even a silence. Tom often wondered what all those meant, but I tried to make those thoughts about Tom, not about exposition.

What have you learnt from your own writing? I’d love to know. Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

Battlestar Galactica has a lot to teach writers.

Writing Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica finished in 2009 so, of course, I only just finished watching it myself. It garnered plenty of criticism and praise and I myself enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was quite a brave series and quite a thoughtful one, with plenty of explosions whenever it got too thoughtful. Was it perfect? No, sometimes it meandered and got lost, and Starbuck was a constant irritant. But there’s plenty for a writer to learn from.

Warning: (major) spoilers may be masquerading as humans…

You Don’t Have to Have a Grand Plan

Ronald D. Moore, showrunner of Battlestar, has often admitted there was no master plan. Unlike the writers of Lost, for instance, he made no claim of knowing exactly where the story was going. Instead he played it by ear.

Whilst that leant itself to organic and responsive storytelling, it also meant that sometimes the story spun its wheels or took a wrong turn as writers tried to figure out what happened next. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, but it’s a sword worth considering.

Be Careful With Your Characters

Starbuck is an ace pilot, but she’s a mess at the beginning of Battlestar. She’s rash, mouthy, can’t play well with others and has little respect for authority. She either cannot or refuses to help herself and, because it’s never quite clear why, she is an irritant to both other characters and audience. I couldn’t stand Starbuck. When an episode focused on her, I wanted it over with as soon as possible.

A character can’t start perfect and stay that way until the end of the tale. They have to change. Usually they start the story flawed and overcome those flaws. But they can’t be too flawed otherwise the reader won’t be interested in them. There’s a delicate balance to be struck. Whiny, irritating, or otherwise unsympathetic characters risk alienating your readers just as much as boring, perfect ones.

A Simple Idea

Ever heard of the elevator pitch? It’s a one-sentence description of the story. “Young rebels battle against an evil empire in outer space.” “A prince suspects his uncle has murdered his father and stolen the throne.” “Survivors of a human/robot war must escape and find a safe planet to call home.” They’re so popular because they’re easy for the brain to manage. The story is clear. Evil empire. Evil uncle. Find a home.

From the end of the pilot, the goal for the survivors was clear: find Earth. That’s not enough to hang the entire narrative on; characters still need their own private goals and subplots to help keep the story fresh. But maintaining that elevator pitch creates a single vision and voice for the story. Whatever else might happen, viewers knew that finding Earth was the guiding light for the entire series. Until…

Don’t Be Scared to Mix It Up

Until they found it. And it was a barren, radioactive wasteland.

What followed was a season of Battlestar that seemed to be as lost and directionless as its characters. I’m not convinced that it particularly worked. But I’m willing to overlook the flaws of that season purely because of the twist that preceded it. And it will keep your reader’s attention too; an Earth-is-dead moment tells them that there is no sacred ground you won’t litter on, and that’s compelling stuff. What will they do next?

Fake Swear Words Aren’t Cool

Seriously, if one more character said frack this or frack you I was going to hunt down Ronald D Moore and beat the frack out of him. If you want your characters to swear, be brave enough to use real swear words.

Provide a Satisfying Resolution

Not every character made it to the end of Battlestar, but those that did got a conclusion to their arc. Not all of the conclusions made sense. Not all of them seemed fair. But all of them carried a sense of satisfaction in some way. That satisfaction will be remembered by readers; it might even smooth out any faults or umbrage they’d taken at some earlier part of the piece.

So, is Battlestar Galactica a strong contender for Best TV Show ever? It totally is, right? Agree with me in the comments.

A baked alaska causes drama in Great British Bake Off

Writing Lessons from the Great British Bake Off

The great lie of Reality TV is in the name. Yes, what happened in front of the cameras happened. But actors stood on that set and said those lines. The trick is in the narrative, and reality TV constructs that narrative with no less care and artifice than “fictional” TV. Great British Bake Off is no exception.

For the uninitiated, Great British Bake Off is a reality TV programme in which twelve contestants have to bake cake for two judges and one contestant is sent home each week. The one left standing at the end wins…well, I’m not sure what they win. But it’s a civilised as it sounds. There’s no drama, no recriminations, no back-biting. It’s what you watch when you want to see nice people with some cake.

But one episode decided to change all that. Viewers saw contestant Diana Beard remove fellow contestant Iain Watters’ ice cream from the freezer, turning it into a sludge. Understandably angry at the sabotage, Iain ditches the gloopy mess and is sent home for having nothing to present to the judges.

http://youtu.be/mpEVjbXOTuA

The Internet erupted. It was a travesty, a miscarriage of justice. Check out the hashtags #JusticeforIain, #BringBackIain and #DirtyDiana to see just how well the Bake Off narrative worked. And, when you’re done, let’s see exactly how the showrunners managed to evoke that outrage.

Prepare the Reader

The BBC showed an advert in the week leading up the episode in which one of the judges says “that’s unacceptable”. That’s a total smackdown in Bake Off land and viewers were waiting for the sponge to hit the fan. They were expecting drama. People often talk about expectations with a view to subverting them, but expectation can train a reader how to react when something does happen. If you start telling a joke, your audience is already preparing itself to laugh.

You Can Paint a Story with a Small Brush

Bake Off viewers actually saw very little. They saw Diana pointing out something in the freezer and saying it belongs to Iain. They saw Iain discovering his ice cream on a counter. And they saw Diana telling him, “you have your own freezer”. That’s it. Out of this, the audience turned Iain into a wronged party, a gentleman when he didn’t tell tales and a stoic victor in defeat when he was sent home. And they turned Diana into a wicked sabateour, a selfish old woman willing to screw the competition and act like nothing happened.

Human beings create stories all the time. We seem to excel at adding two and two and making five. It’s worth remembering that skill when we write our fiction; the reader is not a passive but an active partner. They’re painting the scene and creating the characters before you have a chance to describe them. So you can get away with feeding them very little and letting them fill in the gaps by themselves. You can also use that to build and, yes, subvert those expectations I mentioned.

Don’t Lie to the Audience

In a twist on the tale, one of the presenters took to Twitter to set the record straight: the ice cream was out of the freezer for only forty seconds.

The betrayal, the sabotage, the drama, none of it was true. The Bake Off team used creative editing to construct a narrative, revealed to be smoke and mirrors. The equivalent of Bobby Ewing turning up in the shower.

Don’t do this. Ever. This is not subverting expectations. This is a dirty trick. The reader feels betrayed and lied to. And, yes, of course you’re lying to them. But there’s an unspoken agreement that your lies will be fair. If the reader is enjoying the tale, they don’t want you to spoil it by saying it was all a dream.

What do you think we can learn from reality TV? Leave a comment and let me know. Or let’s talk about Bake Off instead; I want Richard to win!

Writing Lessons from Short Stories

Anyone who has met me or frequented this site has probably guessed that brevity is not my greatest strength. I have a habit of over-thinking things, which means I like to dig down deep into ideas and places and people, clawing beyond the foundations into the bitter, dark, twisted, glowing dirt in the underbelly of their existence…

I forget where I was going with this.

So, I prefer writing novels, where I can dig down deep. Not many of my short pieces survive. That said, being forced to write something outside of my comfort zone always improves my writing, and I suspect you could use it to improve yours too.

Try to Cut Everything

You Are Just A Guest used to weigh in at 8,000 words. A critical eye reduced that down to 5,000 by cutting redundant scenes and extraneous description that slowed down the narrative. Now I couldn’t tell you what I cut because I can’t remember it; it wasn’t pulling it’s weight.

But every character, scene, even sentence needs to have a good reason two good reasons three good reasons for being there. If it can’t, then it’s got to go.

Giving Clues to the Reader

You’ve not got a lot of room for deep and exhaustive characterisation, description or backstory. But skipping that will leave you with two faceless dialogue puppets in a white room; who cares about that? But you can do a lot with a little.

For instance, the narrator for The Homeless Hero had a falling out with her mother over something that happened in their past. Most readers probably know all about it except I never once explained it. I used a few lines scattered throughout the story and let the reader put it together. They fill in all the blanks, giving me room in my word count for the story.

It’s a Great Place to Experiment

Before writing The Homeless Hero I had never written from a female perspective before. The notion scared me a little bit. I was worried I’d end up writing a man in a woman’s body or, perhaps worse, a stereotype or a cliche; something nobody would believe in.

But a short story is a much smaller environment and so it’s ideally suited to experimentation. Trying my hand at a female perspective boosted my confidence and helped me explore places and thoughts I can use again in the future.

You can get my short stories from Amazon now, as well as all other major ebook stores.

What have you learnt from short stories?

Writing Lessons from Calvin & Hobbes

I love Calvin & Hobbes. I was introduced to it at, I believe, the age of 11. Up until that point I’d read strips like Garfield and, to a lesser extent, Peanuts. Calvin & Hobbes was a revelation. Funny and thoughtful and with a beauty that never faded over time, it stands as one of my favourite pieces of both writing and art. Where else can you be thinking about the nature of existence one moment and Tyrannosaurs in F-16s the next? Bill Watterson was a master of the page and there are so many lessons to be gleaned from the strip it’s tough to fit them all in.

Stick to Your Vision

Calvin & Hobbes has a purity I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s got one true, singular voice that never seems to deviate. That isn’t to say that it hits only one note, tells only one joke or explores only one idea. But it never deviates from its heart. There are a hundred different pressures to make changes to our art, be it pressures of marketability, pressures from fans or even pressures from ourselves. But sticking to our singular vision will produce a purer, better piece of art than trying to make something that is everything.

Dictate Your Medium

When Watterson felt constricted by his medium, he changed it. Papers could cut panels out of his Sunday strips if they so chose, forcing him to waste them on throwaway jokes. So he made changes. Papers could no longer cut up his strip. They were free to stop running his strip (and some did), but he wasn’t willing to let his art suffer because of artificial limitations.

The advent of ereaders, tablets and print-on-demand means writers have greater control over their medium than ever before. Whether the writer wants to create a very traditional work or wants something that incorporates video, audio, even toy with the nature of the page itself (perhaps in the vein of House of Leaves), we can manipulate the medium to fit the art, rather than the other way around.

Create Your Own Rules

The nature of Hobbes reality was a constant question for many readers; is he a stuffed toy that comes to life when no-one but Calvin is looking or is it all in Calvin’s head? Watterson refused to provide a solid answer. He decided the world he created had room for both a stuffed Hobbes and a “real” Hobbes.

As with any industry there are certain rules that writers have to follow. But there are plenty of “rules” that we can ignore. Many felt that the ambiguous nature of Hobbes could confuse and potentially alienate readers; as a rule, one should avoid confusing the reader. But the strip’s popularity goes to show that Watterson was right to ignore that rule.

Leave Them Wanting More

Calvin & Hobbes ran from 1985 to 1995 and when Bill Watterson finished the last strip some people thought he was mad. Calvin & Hobbes was still riding a wave of popularity and there were no signs of that wave crashing against a shore any time soon. But Watterson decided it was time. He knew that running the strip too long would leave it tired and that fans would lose interest eventually. Better to finish on a high. Better to leave the audience wanting more.

It’s always tempting to revisit characters and settings, both for our own pleasure and to satisfy reader demand. There’s a fine line to tread between exploring more creative opportunities in a creative property and milking it dry.

Contrast Your Characters

Perhaps the most important reason that Calvin & Hobbes worked was the central relationship between the two main characters. Calvin and Hobbes are different in many fundamental ways, which offers great opportunity for discussion, disagreement and dynamism. Conflict is the heart of any story, which can’t exist if all the characters think the same.

That said, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid foundation of love and trust despite their differences. Conflict creates a story, but their friendship allowed people to bring the characters into their hearts and made the strip beloved to millions of people.

And, to end, here’s my favourite Calvin & Hobbes strip. I laughed so hard I nearly passed out.

The funniest Calvin & Hobbes strip. Ever.

What’s your favourite strip?

Writing Lessons from Empire Strikes Back

I loved Empire Strikes Back as a kid so much that I wore out the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three films of the original trilogy, but ESB always had a special place in my heart. Sadly my wife is a philistine who prefers Revenge of the Sith so I don’t get many chances to watch Empire anymore. So when I wasn’t feeling well last week I pulled out my blu-ray set (and boy does it look good on blu-ray) and watched it again. And, as ever, I found a few tips that can help a writer of any stripe.

The spoilers are strong with this one…

It’s All About The Characters

I believe that Empire is the strongest of the Star Wars films for one reason: it focuses on character. Star Wars is really all about the plot and whilst Return of the Jedi has Luke’s battle with Vader, the rest of the film is pretty plot-heavy. But almost every plot thread in Empire has character at it’s core: Luke’s desire to become a Jedi; Han and Leia’s desire for each other; even Vader’s hunt for his son. The stakes aren’t as high as saving the galaxy but it’s easier for an audience to relate to more personal goals and so they care about these stories more as a result.

Give Your Villain Agency

Darth Vader gets his bad-assery kicked up a notch in Empire Strikes Back, and it’s not because he has more Force powers or anything like that. It’s because he’s got the power to do anything he likes. Unlike in Star Wars, there’s no-one giving him orders; he storms about the galaxy, killing his own men, stopping laser bolts with his hands, taking over cities and dictating the terms to everyone around him. It makes him more threatening to the heroes, because there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t or won’t do.

Stay True to the Character

When Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him, he doesn’t say “I love you too”. He was meant to; that was his line in the script. But they tried it and the director, Irvin Kershner, didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right. So they experimented with different lines until they came up with “I know.” Because that was right for the character, despite what the script said.

The Hero Does The Right Thing

When Darth Vader tortures Han, Leia and Chewbacca, Luke wants to rush to their rescue. Yoda tells him not to, that it’s a trap, that he must stay and complete his training. And when Luke says, “And sacrifice Han and Leia?”, Yoda says yes. Luke is too important. Reason dictates that he must stay.

But he goes. Because the hero has to do the right thing, even if it means doing the wrong thing.

Don’t Be Afraid To Change Anything and Everything

Despite what George Lucas would have you believe, Darth Vader wasn’t always going to be Luke’s father. That little twist didn’t appear until the second draft of the script. In the story treatment and the first draft, Anakin appears as a Force ghost and teaches Luke about the Force and about his twin sister. Changing Luke’s father into Darth Vader required some retcon work (making the Jedi out to be well-meaning liars, for a start) and completely alters the shape of the trilogy, but who can argue it wasn’t for the better?

What do you think writers can learn from Empire Strikes Back? Or are there better lessons to be learnt from one of the other films? Leave a comment and let me know.