One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.
In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.
As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM Star Wars: Organic World Building
Happy Star Wars Day! The original Star Wars trilogy stands as the pinnacle of space opera and science fiction storytelling. It is a masterpiece in so many ways, has permeated pop culture like few other genre franchises, and it is, along with The Lord of The Rings, is one of my original fandoms. Today, May the Fourth, is Star Wars Day, a day to celebrate the franchise, and as it is also the day on which I post my blog. As I’ve been doing a “What I Learned From…” series recently, it is the perfect day to write about what I learned from the original Star Wars trilogy. It is difficult to pick only one thing. I could easily have written this article about adapting archetypes (monomyth, Oresteia) or how to write successful banter, but I’ve decided to write about world building, as the original trilogy does a masterful job of worldbuilding organically (unlike the prequel trilogy, but more on that later), providing the viewer with enough context and information to establish the verisimilitude of the secondary, fantasy world, without committing the all-to-common cardinal sin of over-explaining and info-dumping.
Let’s look at a few lines from the first movie, what I knew as Star Wars growing up, and you kids now call A New Hope.
In the opening scene of the movie, C3PO worries that he and R2D2 will be “sent to the spice mines of Kessel, smashed into who knows what…”
C3PO says this as if it’s a bad thing. We understand that even though we, as visitors to the movie’s secondary world, don’t know what the spice mines of Kessel are, what spice he’s talking about, why droids would get smashed there, etc. Presumably, R2D2 knows, but we do not. And yet, the line doesn’t break the action of that opening scene. C3P0 who is one of the most verbose characters in the movie, does not go into a lengthy explanation of spice trade, Kessel, etc, he just mentions it quickly, the way someone in that world would actually talk. He does, however, plant an important world building seed that’s developed later in the movie.
Later, when Luke and Obi Wan are in Mos Eisley to hire a spaceship to take them off of Tatooine, they encounter Han Solo in the cantina. Solo boasts that his ship “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.”
What is the Kessel run? Why is Solo using a unit of distance rather than time to brag about his ship’s speed? Again, we don’t know. But we recognize the word “Kessel” from a previous scene. Obviously, this is something people in world know about. Shady things seem to go on there, perhaps related to the aforementioned spice. The writers have added another layer of depth to the world building without descending into lengthy, boring expository backstory.
Despite the lack of backstory, the viewer never feels lost in secondary world. It feels strange to us, which it should as we are but visitors there, but it feels real. Why? Because that is how real people talk. The characters speak like real, in-world people, not history professors.
To explore this premise further, let’s look at Princess Leia’s plea for Ben Kenobi’s help. She says, “years ago, you served my father in the clone wars.”
What are the Clone Wars? Again, we don’t know. But as viewers, we understand that it was a major war in world, which took place in the previous generation. There is no time in this hurried plea for help to explain the backstory–and there is no need. We all understand what this means. Let’s move the dialogue int our world. In 1977, when the movie came out, it might have read, “years ago you served my father in Second World War.” No one, in this parallel situation would go into a lengthy history lesson about World War II. That type of backstory would seem out of place and superfluous. In this secondary world setting, the writers trust the viewer to contextualize this unfamiliar detail by using their own parallel, real-world experience. The result is what makes the world sound authentic. It makes the world–and the characters–seem more, rather than less because it simulates the way real people speak.
The worldbuilding strategy is consistent throughout the first trilogy. Take, for example the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han and Chewie are trying to fix the Millennium Falcon’s broken hyperdrive. Han says: “Horizontal boosters…! Alluvial dampers…! Well that’s not it. Bring me the hydrospanner!”
The audience has no idea what those things are, and yet the dialogue rings true. If a mechanic asks for a socket wrench, he can presume his assistant will know what a socket wrench is without an explanation of how it works or what it’s used for.
Similarly, Vader’s reaction to finding out that Luke had constructed a new lightsaber in Return of the Jedi follows the same world-building strategy.
The construction of a new lightsaber is, as we can glean from the context of the dialogue, a key milestone in the training of a Jedi, and yet there is no discussion of how one would construct a new lightsaber, what rank this would bestow on Luke, etc. Both Vader and Luke would know this information already and would not need to explain it to each other. All the audience needs to know is that in constructing a new lightsaber, Luke has reached a new level of Jedi skill, a level which has impressed Vader. Anything beyond that takes the audience out of the story.
When someone says, “let’s take the car to the movies,” they don’t go into a lengthy explanation of the workings of the internal combustion engine. It is, in fact, likely, that most people who drive a car have little idea how an internal combustion engine actually works. They do not go into a long polemic about the fossil fuel or climate change (They might give a throwaway line about gas mileage or a brief, glib comment about the extent to which their hybrid is or isn’t saving the earth, but that’s half a line of dialogue at most). They don’t explain the history of the car from the model T to the present time. So why would we expect characters to do similar things in a science fiction setting? The ship will “make .5 past light speed.”
How? it doesn’t matter. In a world where FTL travel is the norm, no one would need further explanation. .5 what? There is no unit of measurement. Well, that’s how people really talk. “She’ll go 0-60 in 6 seconds.” There’s no need to say miles per hour. Everyone understands the context.
Star Wars is often criticized for it’s lack of scientific explanation, especially by fans of a certain other popular sci-fi franchise. Yet, I would argue that this makes it a more authentic, more believable world. As soon as you offer an explanation of technological marvel, you both take your reader/viewer out of the world, and give then something to nitpick and start an argument which you can’t possibly win. Yet, doing the worldbuilding obliquely, allows you to drop in the necessary world building information–and even layer it richly–without breaking the spell of verisimilitude by taking your audience out of your secondary world and giving them a change to question their suspension of disbelief It is both effective and realistic.
Notice, too, that this world-building strategy is affected in normal dialogue throughout the movie. None of the lines quoted above are the most famous, most quoted, most meme-able lines in the movie, yet they serve an important, world-building purpose. By integrating the world-building in this fashion, the writers keep the audience in the fast-paced action and fun. The world-building dialogue is like an invisible force which binds the Star Wars galaxy together.
Many later entries in the Star Wars franchise show the other side of the coin. They get bogged down in exposition and explanation, explaining the spice trade, or the way to construct a lightsaber. They try to flesh out the causes of Clone Wars, and codify the method of Jedi training. The prequel trilogy, which has sometimes been criticized as CSPAN for the Imperial Senate–is especially bad in that regard. It abandons the highly effective world building strategy described above, and loses both the fun and the verisimilitude of the original. The effectiveness of the original strategy can be seen in the contrast.
Enough negativity, though. Today is a day of celebration of all things Star Wars.
As writers–especially writers of speculative fiction–verisimilitude and the willing suspension of disbelief are essential to the success of our enterprise (are we allowed to use that word on star wars day?). We should use the original Star Wars trilogy as a paradigm for effective, organic world building which allows us to create rich, secondary worlds without breaking the spell of action and story.
Happy Star Wars Day. May the fourth be with you!