Friday, June 1, 2007

Learning from Star Wars

This week is the thirtieth anniversary of the first Star Wars movie. Anyone who saw it the first time round will remember the opening crawl that started this epic story. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Thirty years later it still thrills with the promise of a world of adventure and the unknown. Why did Star Wars become such a cultural icon of the twentieth century, and why is its power still felt into the twenty-first? The answer is as simple as it is obvious; it is the ability to tell a great story well.

Now, it’s is well known that George Lucas drew on Joseph Campbell’s ideas about archetypes and how the same tensions and roles inspire myths across time and culture. What made George Lucas special, however, was not that he knew how to analyze and structure a story. What made him special was that he turned out to be a great storyteller – not a great theorist. I am often astonished in advertising how often the stories are muddied, complicated and even plain boring. They sound good when they are explained and fall apart when they are told. If you want a master class in storytelling I suggest you watch the Star Wars trilogy through a couple of times. Take notes, see how the characters build, watch how the visuals move the plot and listen to the studied rhythms of the dialogue. Every story has to create its own world to some extent, but Star Wars is such an extreme example of world-building that you can see the principles in action.