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.

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