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This article is also available in Lithuanian, published in Literatura ir mena arts magazine, translation by Lukas Devita
Here is a summary of what I've learned about mythic storytelling from studying Star Wars and the process Lucas went through to create it. Everything derives from the two most important lessons: work as hard as you can and quiet your ego.
1. Great art is the result of hard work over a long period of time. That sounds obvious, but nearly all television programs, movies and magazines give the impression that the people who shape the world do so almost effortlessly, and were just born lucky. This is actually A BIG LIE. As you get older, things like "talent" and good looks matter less and less, and life comes down to what you can do with your hands, how well you can figure things out, and how well you get along with other people. The people who shape the world are the ones who work the hardest, and they always seem to draw their strength from faith. "I can make the world a little better." And you can.
Joseph Campbell's most famous catchphrase was "Follow your bliss." He meant that the best way for you to become a hero and help your community is to learn to listen to the voice in your heart. That doesn't mean you should be selfish, or put yourself above other people. The heroic act involves sacrificing a piece of yourself (your self-importance) and learning to see the divine in all things. When you serve the divine and see the divine everywhere, you become the servant of the whole world.
If you want to craft a powerful story, if you want to contribute to the world in any significant way, figure out what your gift is, what you believe in, what you love, and surrender to it. You'll also need a day job.
2. Quiet your ego. In his 1947 essay "Why I Write" George Orwell listed four "great motives for writing": sheer egoism, appreciation of beauty, desire to understand how the world works, and to expand people's ideas about how we might get along better. He defines sheer egoism as:
We all want to be well-liked, to be financially comfortable. We all feel an animal impulse to outfight or at least outargue people who diminish us. The trick I think is to keep a steady eye on these animal desires, and let them fuel our storytelling without dominating it. Every selfish little pettiness, every hatred, every revenge-fantasy, must be meticulously identified and discarded. To the beginning writer this feels like the obliteration of self, but as you gather a feel for the process you realize that the piece of "self" you're scraping away is really the demons that haunt you, harmful ideas that survive by whispering in your ear that to discard them is to discard your essence. Writing is like parenting: you need to learn the names of your demons if you want to avoid passing them on to your children.
Ironically, the more we "efface our personality" from our writing, the more our truest, deepest, best self comes through. This process is essential to fulfilling the social role of the storyteller, which might be described as tickling people's capacity to feel a sense of communion with the transcendent. When the storyteller gets it just right she helps people understand how to tap that inner potential themselves, later when they're facing difficult life-choices in the real world. "What would Jesus do?" We know because the Gospels - written long after Jesus passed away - gives us hints.
3. Don't be afraid to borrow from your favorite books, movies, myths and world history, but never copy anything exactly. As far as I can tell after years of considering the question, there seem to be only two basic ways to borrow from art without stealing: the reversal (C3PO looks like the Maria robot from the Metropolis movie, but male instead of female), and the combination of two or more good ideas (R2D2 looks similar to a drone from the film Silent Running and behaves like one of the bickering peasants from the film The Hidden Fortress).
Studying Lucas, Tolkien, and Frank Herbert revealed a curious little rule-of-thumb: if there's a story which you really love but there's some little piece of it which just doesn't feel right to you, include that piece in your own story as a reversal. Why? If you're a writer, your mentors are the people who wrote your favorite stories, and myth teaches us that the student's heroic cycle doesn't end with merely absorbing the mentor's wisdom; to fully honor your teacher, you must transcend him by taking his teachings further than he could. This doesn't mean that you become superior to your teacher: there are plenty of things which you couldn't have seen without his help. The hierarchy between student and mentor is an illusion; it's more like a partnership between two people with different strengths and imperfections, both working towards a common goal. Obi-Wan couldn't have defeated Darth Vader, but neither could Luke have defeated Darth Vader without Obi-Wan's guidance. Your teacher gives you the gift of his teaching, and you give your teacher the gift of bringing his teaching forward.
For instance, in The Lord of the Rings there were nine kings who didn't understand that acquiring power for it's own sake leads to evil, so their lust for power ultimately transformed them into the Ringwraiths. I suspect that they were a reversal of the twelve kings from Le Morte D'Arthur (who also ride horses, carry swords and hide their crowns under dark cloaks). I get the impression that Tolkien considered King Arthur's story extremely powerful, but felt uneasy about how unhesitatingly Arthur and his friends would kill anyone who got in the way of their acquisition of power. These kings felt their acts were justified because they were absolutely certain that they were right (cuz they were Christians and the other guys were pagans). Tolkien consistently makes the point that everyone thinks they're the good guy, and all evil comes from the moment when we're so sure we're right that we're willing to limit, hurt or kill other people.
4. Some of the ideas in your story should seem original to your audience. But isn't "originality" the magical, divinely-inspired gift to create ideas out of nothing? No, that idea is nothing but a misunderstanding of how creativity works. All ideas come from somewhere! A story will feel original to your audience if you expose them to story ideas which are (a) mythically valid, and (b) the audience has never heard before. Lucas once described the storyteller's job as "telling the old stories in a new way." Here are some ideas about how to do that:
Be careful to avoid confusing allegory for myth. An allegory is an intentionally-obvious retelling of a story everyone knows, such as Adam and Eve, or a "story" from history, like Russian communism. This is not to say that there's anything inferior about allegory; it's a powerful tool for making political and social points, like George Orwell's brilliant Animal Farm. Just remember that allegory is really a form of logical argument, not a myth. If there's only one possibly interpretation of your story, it's an allegory.
I think of new ideas expressed well as "art," old ideas expressed well as "craft". Excellent craft and very little art creates tales like Disney's The Lion King, which are reassuring and give us a common cultural identity without trying to say anything new. Stories overstuffed with art but not much craft include works like E.E. Doc Smith's The Skylark of Space, which is full of great ideas but is probably too amateurishly-written and "out there" to reach a modern mainstream audience. The most enduring and influential works, like The Odyssey, Le Morte D'Arthur, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars always excel at both art and craft. A word of advice to young writers deciding whether to focus on art or craft: are you an alumnus of an ivy-league school or otherwise politically connected? In competitions between two works of craft the one with the larger budget has a huge advantage; money can buy high production values, but not inspiration.
6. Mythic structure is a helpful roadmap for telling a story. Joseph Campbell first proposed this idea in his famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler simplified Campbell's ideas for scriptwriters in his hugely influential memo to Disney executives A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces (which hugely influenced The Lion King). He later expanded his original memo into a book called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler's interpretation of Campbell's work has created the dominant vocabulary for analyzing scripts at all major American film studios. His book really is excellent, but be careful about falling into the typical Hollywood misassumption that following "the formula" will automatically give you a good story. The studios have broken Campbell and Vogler down even further, creating a rigid, elaborate set of rules like "The Hero must show vulnerability by page so-and-so." If this were really a magical success formula, every movie would be a hit. Mythic structure is just another basic tool, like grammar or spelling. Stories become more understandable when they follow the mythic roadmap, but they only become art when they follow the mythmap in a way the audience didn't expect.
Don't forget that Campbell described only the most typical structure, not the only structure or even the best. If Lucas slavishly followed Campbell's book point-for-point, Luke would have found the "treasure" (the Deathstar plans) in the "Belly of the Whale" (the trash compactor). Would that have made Star Wars a better story? If R2-D2 didn't carry the plans right from the beginning, how would the plot have even worked? Slavishly following the Campbell formula almost guarantees a weak story. Every storyteller must find the correct point-of-balance between following the formula, which helps people understand what's going on even within fantastical metaphors (like Star Wars), and tinkering with the formula, which enables storytellers to communicate using even the most mundane metaphors (like Ordinary People). Either way communication happens through the interaction of archetypes, but again you must exercise delicacy: The most influential stories all present the standard archetypes in ways which surprise you, and the way you're surprised is usually somehow a reflection of the story's theme.
7. 90% of your job is to entertain. Often writers will complain that "people are too dumb and unwilling to be challenged, or my work would be more popular!" I think this is a fib we tell ourselves when we feel inadequate. If you want to be a storyteller, that means it's your job to communicate with the audience, not the other way around. The "channel of communication" with an audience is the degree to which you entertain them. Entertaining someone demonstrates that you understand them and care about how they feel, and they'll reward you by opening up to your story.
The essential element which make a story entertaining is elusive, but here's the closest I've come to describing it: People are most entertained by stories which vicariously fulfill their fantasies. The world's most ancient stories are all about gods, the chosen of the gods, or superhumans who are half-divine because one of their parents is a god. In the modern world the most popular stories seem to be those which provide a kind of wish-fulfillment no one's even imagined before. For instance, Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter was three times as strong as any other guy on a planet full of beautiful, naked, forever-youthful women who really went for strong guys. E.E. "Doc" Smith invented what was arguably the first galactic empire just so his character could be the most important person not only on the Earth, but in the entire galaxy (an idea so good it was repeated in both Dune and Star Wars). Frodo is The Ringbearer, the only person who can save the world, which is doubly heroic because he's also Nobody Special. Harry Potter is a wizard by birth, the son of wizards who loved him so much they were willing to sacrifice their lives for him, rich, gets to go to a special school for special kids like him, and will no doubt prove to be the best kisser at Hogwarts. This list could go on forever, but the point is that the myths which endure play out a previously-unimagined fantasy entwined with the story of a hero coming into accord with the divine.
While studying all these old stories and how they developed I discovered to my surprise that there's a sort of "predisposition towards divinity" in the way people enjoy stories That is, even stories which begin as straight-up power fantasies are told and retold until the power fantasy aspect eventually becomes a metaphor for the spiritual power of living in accord with the divine. I believe that one of the basic human desires is that our behavior merits the approval of God (or The Light Side of the Force, The Tao, Nature, Morality, Atman, Prana, "the right thing to do" or however you think of stuff outside yourself that deserves reverence). I'm no psychologist, but this feeling of wanting the universe to be proud of us seems to me like an extension of the impulse of wanting our parents to be proud of us.
The limitation to delivering wish-fulfillment is that a story can't feel "fake." In other words the story can't violate myth by presenting an archetypal transformation which the audience knows could never happen in real life. For example: If the girl thinks the hero is a selfish jerk she can't suddenly love him in the end unless he's done something in the middle to prove he cares about other people. If you break this rule your audience may still enjoy parts of your story, but you will forgo the possibility of reaching them on a deep level.
8. A story is a big metaphor made up of lots of little metaphors. So if you want to be a storyteller, study metaphors! A good metaphor has at least two layers, and the topmost layer is always easy-to-understand. Enduring metaphors possess beauty. Those with the greatest ability to communicate are always open-ended, meaning they suggest two or more possible interpretations without contradicting either. Open-ended metaphors show respect for your audience, creating a conversation with them rather than attempting to dominate them. If you wish to tell people what to think, nonfiction is a more appropriate and effective form. A final elusive point: The more your metaphor represents aspects of the divine the more open it has to be to work.
9. Make stuff up. Have you ever noticed that the really great stories tend to feel imaginative, while the mediocre stories tend to feel derivative? Artists have observed this connection between imagination, love, compassion and the sense of communion with the transcendent for thousands of years: Percy Shelley said "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination." W. H. Auden wrote "Evil, that is, has every advantage but one - it is inferior in imagination." William Shakespeare said, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact." Ursula Le Guin wrote "As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope." Why do so many influential artists draw such similar conclusions? In the last few years neuroscientists have begun imaging the brains of people who are experiencing spiritual ecstasy or nirvana, and they've found that these states correspond with increased activity in the right frontal lobe of the brain, the same part which seems to be responsible for imagination and empathy (our ability to imagine how other people are feeling). The sensation of oneness with god/divine energy/humanity seems connected to decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for our sense of separateness from other people and the world.
Imagine if you were going to enter a boxing match and you could choose either Stephen Hawking or Arnold Schwarzenegger as your partner. You'd probably choose Arnold, because his physique is better-suited to boxing. Even if you had been raised by wolves and didn't know the words "boxing" or "muscle" you'd pick Arnold, because that kind of awareness is nonverbal. You might think of the right frontal lobe as a kind of muscle, which master storytellers like Lucas and Tolkien learn to condition over many years just like bodybuilders. I believe that we're born with an instinctive, nonverbal recognition of good stories, a sensation intimately connected to the storyteller's display of imaginative power: this story is wonderfully imaginative, so it might have something to teach me. Arnold's powerful physique suggests that he'd be a good boxer. Lucas and Tolkien's powerful imaginations suggest compassion and the ability to achieve communion with the transcendent, two of the most important qualities children need from stories.
Extremely Important Note: Some scientists say that if a certain part of our brain shows more activity when we think about God, that proves that God doesn't exist. Is this claim true? No, logic cannot prove a negative. Claiming to prove a negative is an example of the Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam (or "appeal to ignorance") fallacy, which means that it violates logic. Maybe the right frontal and parietal lobes are merely the parts of the brain which think about God, just like the left hemisphere of the neocortex is the part which thinks about writing your name in crayon. Neuroscience cannot prove or disprove the existence of God anymore than it can disprove the existence of crayons.
10. Tell the truth. The more fanciful the "facts" of your imaginary world, the more important it is that your depiction of emotional and mythic relationships and transformations be true to how these things work in real life. Truth is the tool for shaping your imagination into a form that will benefit and communicate with other people. Ursula Le Guin expressed the importance of telling the truth magnificently in her micro-essay A Few Words to a Young Writer:
Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.11. Emphasize the positive. As the old saying goes, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." George Lucas began his film career with THX 1138 (1971), a science fiction movie which dramatized that "Surrendering to The Machine is bad." It attracted some complimentary reviews, but audiences mostly found it depressing and the studio considered it a flop. 1977's Star Wars conveyed almost the same message as THX, but this time Lucas had learned to emphasize the positive instead of the negative: "Transcending The Machine is good."
12. Cut 80% of everything you write. It's easy to read a great book or watch a great movie and think "this artist has better ideas than me, so I might as well give up!" But it's truer to say that the great artists have just worked harder than you have... yet. Everyone can generate ideas just off the top of their head, and some ideas are always better than others. The trick is to come up with many more ideas than you need for a project - let's say 5 times as many ideas as you'll need. Then all you have to do is cut everything but the best 20%, and voila! Your finished work will be 5 times better than it would have been otherwise. George Lucas wrote a treatment and 4 full drafts of the script for Star Wars; A New Hope over several years, cutting, cutting, cutting all but the very best ideas, infusing his final script with enormous story power. The first draft of any project tends to be little more than a subconscious imitation of the books, movies and television programs the author has recently experienced, and the point of writing a first draft is mostly to remove all this "clutter" from your mind so you can reach past the clutter into your own imagination. If you want to write a boring, derivative 200-page novel, write 200 pages. If you want to write a brilliant 200-page novel, write 1,000 pages and cut the least-interesting 800 pages.
13. Make your fantastic world feel real by focusing on the least fantastic elements. Show things that are broken and dirty. Show people doing mundane things. Refer to people and events that happen offscreen. Teach your audience the special rules of your world and then be faithful to those rules. H.G. Wells described it this way: "In all this type of story the living interest lies in their non-fantastic elements and not in the invention itself. They are appeals for human sympathy quite as much as any "sympathetic" novel, and the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity. The invention is nothing in itself and when this kind of thing is attempted by clumsy writers who do not understand this elementary principle nothing could be conceived more silly and extravagant."
14. Make the most important things in your story characters. A character is someone or something that: (a) the audience can empathize with, (b) has a goal that relates to the main plot, and (c) the audience believes might not achieve the goal. When the Millennium Falcon just barely starts in time to escape Darth Vader, it becomes a character. If you want the audience to sympathize with a character, give that character their own heroic cycle, or even a scaled-down version. R2-D2, Darth Vader and Boba Fett all pass through nearly-complete heroic cycles.
15. Overcome the temptation to show off how clever and educated you are. Express your skill by telling a great story, not by drawing attention to the writing.
16. Write from the heart, not the head. Do all these "rules" sound depressingly formulaic? A ballerina uses her mind to condition her body, but when the time comes to dance her mind must relinquish control. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau explained it like this: "Plan methodically, execute organically." It's the same with writing: Art created by formula, art created by the conscious mind, is poop. But art without skill isn't so great either. We learn "the rules" of story the same way Bruce Lee learned "the rules" of martial arts, relentlessly training until they become muscle memory. But when it came time to spar, Bruce Lee didn't think "I shall use White Crane style now." He just moved.
They say you must learn the rules before you can break them. Why? Because breaking a rule without understanding it is a temper tantrum. Breaking a rule because you understand it backwards and forwards and see a better way to meet the rule's inner goal will give your story real power and value. Weak art breaks the rules, mediocre art follows the rules, great art expands the rules by transcending them. You must pass through to pass beyond.
17. Don't be afraid of your idiosyncrasies. What makes you different makes you special, and including that difference in your writing will make your story fresh.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.