4 Important Considerations In Planning Your Story (What Every Author Can Learn From The Phantom Menace)

Planning Your Story: What George Lucas Can Teach You (Not) to Do

4 Important Considerations In Planning Your Story (What Every Author Can Learn From The Phantom Menace)There are great mysteries in this life. Who shot JFK? How were the pyramids built? What happened to George Lucas? And what does this have to do with you planning your story?

I admit it: I waste way too much of my life puzzling over the conundrum of George Lucas. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to the man.

He was brilliant. He was beloved. He was a visionary writer and director.

And then 1999 arrived. Hurricane Ani* hit. And George became one other thing: a cautionary tale to storytellers everywhere.

(*”Ani” is Darth Vader’s adorable nickname in case you were lucky enough to have forgotten.)

I was thirteen when Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out, too young to fully appreciate how egregious it was. But I remember the night my parents, longtime Star Wars fans, came home from seeing it in its opening week. My mom’s expression was full of disappointment as she shook her head and tactfully said it “wasn’t very good” (my dad had mimicked Jabba’s good example and fallen asleep during the pod race).

Even Jabba the Hutt fell asleep since George was so bad at planning his story.

For better or worse, these days I do appreciate how bad Episodes I-III are–to the point that every time I watch so much as a clip from Phantom Menace, I’m inspired to do a Master Class on how not to write plot, characters, and dialogue. Problem with that (other than copyright issues) is that I’d actually have to sit through all 136 excruciating minutes of it.

Where George Lucas Went Wrong in Planning His Story

I am enduringly, almost compulsively, fascinated by the question of: What went wrong?

How does a brilliant and visionary director go from creating arguably (and you can put an “in-” in front of that, for my money) the most significant and beloved movie ever–to creating what I would generously call “what you’d get if you gave the high school art department a budget of $115 mil.”

I may not be able to sit through a viewing of the original trilogy, but recently I did watch the extensive behind-the-scenes featurettes for Phantom Menace.

My chief reaction is actually one of deep compassion for George Lucas. He’s so happy in those featurettes, so full of hope for sharing his new stories, so excited to be returning to his beloved galaxy. And… his audience (quite reasonably, but still sadly) threw it back at him like a toddler who got socks for Christmas.

Where did George Lucas go wrong in planning his story?

As an artist myself, I know how much that hurts. George Lucas didn’t intend to create something as awful as he did. He didn’t want to disappoint fans. He wanted to please us, wanted to give us more of the delights of the original trilogy. When it all went wrong and people not only hated his movies, but started hating him, that had to be insanely rough.

That’s what my compassion says about George Lucas.

My story sense, however, is a little more logical. My story sense says there are four concrete reasons why George’s idealistic vision for his new movies got in his way, destroyed his credibility as a storyteller, and landed him and all his fans in this great big mess.

Fortunately, we, as writers, can learn from his mistakes to avoid ending up in the same stew. Turns out every major problem in The Phantom Menace and its sequels could have been avoided by applying a little judicious foresight in planning the story.

Let’s take a look at the four things you absolutely must consider in planning your story in order to avoid poor George’s fate.

Planning Your Story, Step 1: Understand Your Audience

Writing is a delicate balance. You should be writing, first and foremost, according to your own vision for work. But, at the same time, if you want to be successful commercially, you have to at least be aware of your audience and their expectations and desires for your work.

Where George Went Wrong:

George forgot that his primary audience was his cadre of raving fans from twenty years ago. He failed to write his prequels for those fans, then in their 40s. Instead, perhaps inspired by his own young family, he wrote a story for children. Gone were the adult characters dealing with complex adult problems. Instead, he gave us an impossibly innocent eight-year-old boy. Gone was the snarky, ironic, grown-up humor of Han Solo. In its place, he gave us the bumbling, juvenile slapstick of Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar Binks Star Wars Phantom Menace

None of these things were what the original audience loved so fanatically. None of these things were what they wanted. The inevitable result? That disappointed look on my mother’s face.

How You Can Get It Right:

Whatever your opinions of the recent (George-less) Star Wars installment The Force Awakens, you at least have to recognize that J.J. Abrams and crew deliberately did what George didn’t: they went back to the source material and gathered up every single element that they knew the audience loved and appreciated.

why-the-force-awakens-is-only-a-remake-of-a-new-hope-a-new-hope-forces-awakening-926882

You must be aware of the audience you’re writing for. Christian audiences won’t appreciate crude language. Military thriller audiences don’t want long, mushy romantic subplots. Adult audiences don’t want to be treated like children.

Audience awareness is especially important when you’re writing a sequel. Readers fell in love with your first book. Not only do they want more of the same, but they have their own ideas for how the story should progress. If those ideas are violated too violently, they will reject your vision in place of their own. This isn’t to say you should ever sacrifice your own vision, but, at the least, you need to consider how that vision is going to affect and be received by your readers.

Planning Your Story Step 2: Understand Your Source Material

It’s an interesting irony that sometimes a story’s fans end up understanding the story better than the creator. I’ve written before about how you want your readers to essentially become your “co-writer,” in the sense that they start filling in blanks with their imaginations. You want them to make the story their own. Ideally, this means they’re going to obsess about it as much (possibly even more) than you do. That’s a good thing, but it also makes your job of understanding your own story even more important.

Where George Went Wrong:

An objective comparison of the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequel trilogy reveals a shocking number of discrepancies. Fans have to work overtime to make the prequel story of Anakin Skywalker fit with the facts we were told in the original trilogy. (For example, Obi-Wan’s whole “I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong” doesn’t jive at all with his reluctance to accept Qui-Gon’s dying wish that he “train the boy.”)

Qui-Gon's Death

Never mind the fact that the two trilogies look like they’re happening in completely different galaxies. Or that Darth Vader literally had a personality transplant.

If you can think back to the old days, before you saw the prequels, then you no doubt had a very different sense for what Luke and Darth Vader’s backstory must be. We can only conclude that George either a) didn’t understand his original trilogy as well as the rabid fans who studied it inside out, or b) didn’t care about the inconsistencies he was blithely creating. Whatever the cause, the prequels suffered greatly from the general incoherence.

How You Can Get It Right:

Understand your story. This goes doubly for books within a series, where you must concentrate on creating consistent arcs and details. But it applies even to standalone books. Before you start writing your book, you should understand the causal motivations in the story’s beginning that will create its ending.

Subtext–the space between the lines in your story–is one of your most powerful weapons. But it only works if you wield it with knowledge. It’s not enough to create blank spaces in your story; you have to understand exactly what’s in those blanks, even if you never blatantly show readers.

Planning Your Story, Step 3: Understand Your Thematic Arc

In so many ways, theme is story. This is the point of your story. As Plot Whisperer Martha Alderson said in the October 2004 issue of Writer’s Digest:

The theme is the “why”—your reason for writing the story….

If you don’t understand this about your story, then you don’t understand your story.

Where George Went Wrong:

Honestly, I think if George had gotten this one right, I would have forgiven him all the other major bloopers. But he didn’t. The prequels are the story of the fall of Darth Vader. On a purely thematic level, the arc is impressive, moving, tragic. It had the potential to be powerful stuff.

What it’s not is the righteous Hero’s Journey of Luke Skywalker. It’s still a story with the potential to be every bit as influential and memorable, but it is a story of darkness. As such, to tap the power of truth at its core, it needed to be presented in a way that fearlessly maximized that darkness–so that the light of Luke’s story could shine all the brighter.

Luke Skywalker Looks at His Hand After Dueling Darth Vader

To my eternal sorrow, that isn’t what George gave us. He gave us a story about innocent children, whiny teenagers, young love, idealistic politics, cool action, gorgeous special effects, weak character motivations, and weaker humor. I keep imagining what an actor like Tom Hardy or Christian Bale could have done with the role of Anakin Skywalker–the inner darkness that could have been tapped, the wrenching pain of fallen humanity that could have been shared, the subtlety of tortured expression that could have been shown.

Instead, we get a fractured story arc that tries to be light, happy, and fun for the first three-quarters before taking an abrupt and inconsistent turn into unconvincing personal corruption. It’s a powerful story wasted–and that’s the saddest thing of all about Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.

How You Can Get It Right:

Ask yourself right now: What kind of story are you telling? What is your character’s arc? Where does he find himself at the end of the story? What fundamental thematic Truth is your story positing? Whether you’re writing a tragic corruption arc or a fun love story, you need to be aware of that decision in every word you write.

This doesn’t mean dark stories can’t have moments of humor and happy stories can’t have moments of darkness. But it does mean every single piece of the story must be chosen to support the overall thematic arc.

Whatever subject you’ve chosen, tell it fearlessly. If you’re writing a dark story, you must be willing to embrace the darkness–not laugh your way around the corners. Whatever Truth is at your theme’s heart, you must be willing to explore it to its depths.

If you don’t know your theme, then you won’t understand how to construct a plot and character arc that will support it. And, by the same token, if you don’t know how to find your theme, you can start by looking right there at the intersection of your plot and your characters.

Planning Your Story Step 4: Understand How to Execute Your Story With Finesse

Once you have finished planning you story with the three above big-picture elements in mind, you then have to focus on actually executing them within the nitty-gritty, page-by-page prose of your story. Understanding your story’s audience, intent, and theme will give you the foundation for something great. But readers won’t care unless you give them a minute-by-minute experience that masterfully unfolds the story before their imaginations.

Where George Went Wrong:

This is the one that really puzzles me. George goes from being a great filmmaker in the original trilogy to making one of the shoddiest films I’ve ever seen come out of Hollywood.

I won’t even get into the film-specific aspects such as the mind-numbing editing. But I’d be remiss not mention the flat, on-the-nose dialogue in every single scene. Or the character motivations that span the gamut from nonexistent to just plain stupid. Or, as Aaron McCausland astutely pointed out in his Story Structure Database submission for Attack of the Clones, “Anakin’s story becomes a subplot,” for the entirety of the first two movies.

Attack of the Clones Anakin Skywalker Obi-Wan Kenobi Duel Count Dooku

The lesson to be learned here? Even being a genius doesn’t give you a free pass when it comes to the basics of good storytelling. If George Lucas can’t get away with it, you and I surely can’t.

How You Can Get It Right:

You’re already on the right track. You’re reading this blog, which means you’re committed to studying the craft and improving your skill in understanding and applying the fundamental tenets of the craft:

In order to create a story that affects readers to the utmost of its ability, you must be executing all of these vital techniques with subtlety, deftness, and finesse. Some of that takes practice, but largely, it’s all a matter of understanding how they work and being aware of how you’re applying them on every page of your book.

Why George Lucas Should Continue to Inspire You

For me, George Lucas remains an inspiration.

I learn from what he did so, so right in the original trilogy, just as I learn from what he did wrong in The Phantom Menace and the other prequels.

Beyond that, he continually inspires me to remain vigilant in never resting on my past successes, never believing that just because I wrote one good story, I will automatically and effortlessly write another one.

May he inspire you, as well, in using these four all-important steps as a foundation in planning your story, so you can keep your vision for your story firmly aligned with its best interests.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! In planning your story, what are you most concerned about getting right? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. James Ross says

    Remember he wrote the whole thing. Then he decided he might only get one shot, decided that “Star Wars” was the best part of the story and went with that. He almost decided NOT to do the prequels, but “by popular demand” he brought them out.

    Maybe the moral of this story is: when you think you’ve told all there is to tell, stop. And stay stopped.

    Of course, I didn’t hate the prequels… so I may be defective. Or just not paying enough attention?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a good moral. There is definitely a point where too much of a good thing becomes too much.

  2. Kim–Thanks for an excellent blog post. I’m so old that I actually saw the original STAR WARS in the theater the week it opened, in 1977. In fact, I was in a screenwriting class (my first) that spring at USC in L.A., and STAR WARS was the first script we were given to read (as much to understand screenwriting format as the story itself). I thought it was ridiculous and never finished reading it–then I was dragged to see the film and was blown away.

    For my money, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is still the best of all, by far. And luckily, I’m not alone in that assessment.

    I’ve read that Lucas actually wasn’t in love with his universe when he wrote the original STAR WARS–he wanted to experiment with the camera AND he wanted the merchandising rights (Fox stupidly let him have them, and now we have SW everything–your fault, Fox). But he never dreamed people would fall in love with his universe as they did.

    Among other story points they messed up in the 1-3 trilogy, someone obviously forgot Leia’s speech in RETURN OF THE JEDI, where she tells Han (I think–could be Luke) that she remembers her mother as beautiful but always sad. Yet her mother dies in childbirth in REVENGE OF THE SITH, so clearly Leia could never have known or remembered her. Oops.

    It says something about the original characters that when I saw THE FORCE AWAKENS (which I thought was pretty awful–they literally recycled everything in the original STAR WARS and hoped we’d like it)–the audience in the theater with me went nuts over the Millenium Falcon and Chewie and Han and even Leia. And while I liked the actress who played the lead this time around, the character development was all but non-existent in #7. They’ll have to do way better in the next film to hold onto our interest.

    One last point, and it has nothing to do with story: It says something about the actor that 72-year-old Harrison Ford is still the sexiest thing in the Star Wars universe. Whew…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, yes, Leia’s beautiful memory in Return is forever marred, since I can’t help thinking of its nonexistence in Revenge, every time I see it.

  3. Oh the prequels – they’ve been talked about so much and yet there’s still plenty to talk about. The main lesson I’m kind of learning here is that if you want to write a series, you should at least write an outline of every entry before you finish one book, especially if there will be prequels.

    My general thoughts is that George Lucas is still a genius in some ways, but he needs other people that can say no to certain ideas. With the original movie he had a studio that limited both his budget and what he could do, and the movie turned out well. With Empire, he wrote the first draft, but hired both another writer and another director to handle everything. It’s still the best Star Wars movie in my honest opinion.

    With the prequels, he had full control and they turned out to be disasters. Even so, each movie has at least some scattered moments of brilliance. Episode 1 sometimes does a good job of blending in real environments with CGI, and while it’s way too long and a bit cartoony, the podrace is a fun way to expand on the Galaxy’s culture a bit. In episode 2, the fight between Obi Wan and Jango Fett on Kamino is actually pretty intense. Episode 3 has that opera scene that’s almost perfect.

    That said, the entire prequel trilogy completely failed to show Obi Wan and Anakin as friends. They talked about being friends, but every time they work together, they can’t seem to stop bickering. Show, don’t tell.

    A while ago I wrote a trilogy of blog posts trying to find the good movies hidden within the prequels (enforcing a rule on myself where I couldn’t remove any characters, even Jar Jar). Episode 2 was actually the biggest challenge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, imagine how tragic the final battle in Episode III would *truly* have been had we felt the weight of Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship throughout. Gah.

      • The tragic fight is something that Captain America: Civil War did right. There’s that at least.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Oh, boo yeah. 🙂 Just saw this yesterday. Very happy with it.

          • Joe Long says

            I thought the first confrontation between the two teams of Avengers was taken too lightly, with so many jokes thrown in. The mood was, “Oh man, I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t let you do that.”

            The final reveal turned that last fight very dark and personal. I very much understood WHY they where fighting so intensely (even if I figured out the foreshadowing immediately.)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I actually thought it made complete sense that they were pulling punches in the beginning. They *didn’t* want to hurt each other, which made the escalation later on all the more powerful.

  4. Personally, I’ve never seen George Lucas as a great writer. He reminds me of something John Truby said once about some people being great at concepts and premises–even great at coming up with “what ifs”–but just not very good at evolving those things into a coherent story. There’s nothing wrong with that, Truby says. Hollywood is full of those guys. They usually work with a team of people (including writers) to realize their vision. I think that’s Mr. Lucas and I think his “team” let him down (or maybe listened to him too much/blew smoke up his butt) when it comes to SW Episodes 1-3.

    Having said that, your analysis is still right on point, as always. Plus, it gives people who want to imitate Lucas something to think about. When can you analyze the pitfalls of Fifty Shades of Gray? 😉

    (You think I’m joking, but as an editor, if I had a dime for every novice writer who came to me wanting to imitate EL James…)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I haven’t read 50 Shades, and, honestly, have zero plans to. If life’s too short for the Star Wars prequels, it’s definitely too short for that!

  5. Byron Peters says

    Pleased to know that someone else found the character arc of Aniken Skywalker to be strange and unconvincing. He starts out as a bright and charming little boy; then, later on as a teen, inexplicably turn into a wishy washy and dull guy, speaking stilted dialogue, willing to have his standards compromised by weirdos from the so called “dark side”, such as Senator Palatine.
    I would have seen through Palatine in two seconds.
    Most people do not realize that a child can have a secure and strong character. Perhaps they do not self examine their own childhood enough; or, perhaps, do not take time to speak to their own children in meaningful conversation. This why the corruption of Aniken Skywalker fails to be convincing. Thank you again for your article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Palpatine was yet another element that disappointed. In the prequels, he was hardly the formidable and frightening mastermind he was portrayed as in Return of the Jedi.

  6. Hannah Killian says

    K.M, this may be completely unrelated, but what do you think of the claim Rey is a Mary Sue? For some reason, the claim irks me, as I didn’t see her as a MS at all.

  7. I’ve never seen any of the original Star Wars movies. I’ve only seen The Force Awakens. I’ve heard of George Lucas, but never saw his movies.

  8. How the prequel trilogy should have gone:
    1. Zero Spoilers- George should taken the challenge of keeping the mystery and thus should have not shown Yoda or Jabba (among many things).
    2. Setting/time- The first film should have started when Vader had already fallen to the dark side (thus no spoiler).
    3. No Padme- Queen Organa should have been the mother of Luke and Leia, and there should have been a more complex/adult relationship between Vader and Breha Organa (given she believes Anakin Skywalker is dead and has married King Money). And Vader would be suspicious that Leia is Skywalker’s daughter.
    4. We Need A Hero- There was no hero in the prequel trilogy. As with Rogue One, a new character should have been introduced (20-something mother of Mara Jade?).
    5. Practical Effects- Real sets and real characters, as shown in The Force Awakens, play a major role in bringing these movies to life.
    6. Not Focused on Galactic History- The prequels were centered around politics and… politics. In the original trilogy, the politics were in the background– there was an adventure/quest actually going on.

  9. Hannah Killian says

    So, even though there was stale dialogue in the PT, there is that one line from Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith where he tells Anakin, “Why do I have the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” At first, you think nothing of it. But then you remember what happens in A New Hope and can’t help but say well played, Lucas. Well played

  10. Glaxson D'Lima says

    What was more tragic than the poor treatment of prequels was the fact that George Lucas was surrounded by an army of Yes Men who might have never imagined that he could go wrong. That goes to show when critics don’t want to upset you and as a result give thumbs up at each and every wrong turn of your story telling journey it can cause major damage in the long run.

  11. Dearth Nadir says

    “Obi-Wan’s whole ‘I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong’ doesn’t jive at all with his reluctance to accept Qui-Gon’s dying wish that he ‘train the boy.'”

    While I agree with most of what you said, I don’t agree with the above. It could have been written better, but it doesn’t directly contradict what Obi-Wan said in ROTJ. While he disagrees with Qui-Gon about Anakin before this point, Obi-Wan immediately accepts Qui-Gon’s last wish without hesitation and tells Yoda he will train Anakin even if the Jedi Council won’t sanction it. Yoda says he senses “Qui-Gon’s defiance” in him. There is nothing to suggest that Obi-Wan doesn’t think he can train Anakin as well and Yoda at that point or that there is any reluctance about doing it.

    Obi-Wan essentially becomes Qui-Gon, which was actually an abandoned plot twist where a younger “Qui-Gon Jinn” would ritualistically take on the name of his fallen master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, thus becoming the Obi-Wan we know.

    I love your outlining articles and books, by the way. They are very helpful.

Trackbacks

  1. […] or pantsers, to trust themselves and how their minds work, while K. M. Weiland writes about planning your story: what George Lucas can teach you (not) to do and Don Calame explains how writing for films can improve your novel […]

  2. […] post about planning your story claims to show what you can learn from George […]

  3. […] is rather sensationalist in style, but it makes some good points. If you  are at the stage of  planning your story, it is certainly worth a […]

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