Star Wars released on May 25, 1977, starting what would quickly become a legendary icon. Its success spawned five feature film sequels and prequels, a massive multi-authored extended universe, and a love of science fiction for several generations. Best part? It's still going strong.
As part of my countdown to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I'm examining the current six Star Wars movies to see what - on a storytelling level - makes them tick. We begin, of course, with the masterpiece that started it all: A New Hope.
Among an absolute plethora of things done right in the film, what made Star Wars' story incredible was how its characters drove the plot through their choices. Almost every choice has a consequence, triggers an event, or jump starts another leg of the journey. Plot points in the film rarely happen at random or in an unprecedented way; events are all linked by a vast web of intertwined choices made by each of the characters. These characters are given agency - the ability to affect their world - and the choices they make have gravity because of the resulting consequences. The plot therefore feels like the characters are creating it - living it - rather than it being thrust at them in hopes they fit the mold. Because of this, Star Wars is active, vibrant, clear, and emergent - some of the best aspects any story can have.
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have explained their method for character-driven plots as replacing their theoretical "and's" with "therefores" and "buts". This is to avoid a form of void storytelling, where things happen without reason or cause: this happens and then this happens and then this happens, with little linking the procession.
What is infinitely more interesting is to say: this happens, so therefore this happens, but then this happens; a slight adjustment that, above all else, capitalizes choices and consequences in an effort to create emergent stories.
So rather than: Luke bought some droids, and then the empire killed his aunt and uncle, and then he joined Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars is written with "therefores" and "buts":
Luke bought some droids, unaware said droids were being pursued by the empire, but one of those droids ran off in the night, therefore Luke chases him down and meets Obi-Wan, who says his family may be in danger because of the empire chasing those droids, therefore Luke returns home to find the Empire has killed his aunt and uncle, who had bought the droids, but could not account for where they'd gone.
Events are connected and the story is cohesive. Choices drive action and consequences which beget more choices. Let's take a look at some other plot points in the first half of the movie.
A New Hope opens not only with action (lasers and spaceships!), but an action: Darth Vader is leading his Star Destroyer in pursuit of Princess Leia, the leader of the rebellion against the Empire. Through one movie-opening choice, the story sets up Vader's goal, his opposition, and the initial conflict. In reaction to Vader's choice of pursuit (therefore), Leia gives astromech droid, R2D2, a message to deliver to Obi-Wan Kenobi, thus jumpstarting the droid's leg of the story. The inciting incident happens as a direct result of character choice.
The droids take an escape shuttle to planet Tatooine, but imperial stormtroopers are hot on their trail. Meanwhile, a scene introduces Luke and his family, a trio of farmers in need of an equipment upgrade. A group of Jawas arrives and sells Luke and Owen R2D2 and C3PO, shortly before R2D2 runs off to find Obi-Wan Kenobi (see above to see how that played out).
While Luke and Obi-Wan go to Mos Eisley to get a ship to Alderaan, where Obi-Wan anticipates finding news of the rebellion, we return to the Star Destroyer, where Princess Leia refuses to give away the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader. Because of this (therefore), Vader blows up her homeworld, Alderaan. Therefore, when Luke and co. show up at the obliterated planet, it's the Empire's Death Star they run into, thus combining all these characters' paths through choice and consequence.
If you're in the audience, meaningful character choices which beget consequences can create an active story. It means rarely having to question why something happened, or how one thing led to the next, or even why one character's choice even mattered in the end. The result of telling stories through choices and consequences is most often a crisp, clear, cohesive story that, evidently, millions of people can enjoy.
If you're a storyteller, here are some things you can take away from A New Hope's use of character-driven plot:
- Have your characters make choices. Stories are about people, and people make decisions. Stories where the plot keeps happening to the protagonist, disallowing them from making any choices or proving their mettle, aren't often very active. It brings up questions like: does this character belong in this story? Do they have a goal and what are they really trying to do to get it?
- Have those choices mean something. Choices that have consequences - especially long-reaching ones that affect the rest of the plot - are what creates character-driven stories. Showing consequences, showing the result of those choices, gives said choices meaning because they actively shape the plot. This empowers both characters and story.