Star Wars and Good Stories

Caution: spoilers might lie ahead. Maybe you don’t want to read what’s coming if you’re worried about something being “spoiled,” though I can’t say that will happen nor can I say you’d actually mind if it did. If it’s something you’re keenly worried about you could stop reading. Though if you did, I think you’d be admitting something about both the story you don’t want spoiled and about yourself.

Last week, I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’ve loved Star Wars for as long as I can remember, eagerly playing with my brother’s action figures (oh how if had been left in their boxes, then used to pay for both our college educations) and watching our VHS copies of the original trilogy enough times that even the VCR cleaner fluid ran low.

They were stories that resonated with me deeply, introducing me to the interconnected world of myth-making, world-building, thematic construction and presentation, and the most basic elements of storytelling. Which is why I was disappointed when, in my lifetime, Episodes I-III appeared in theaters. Many people don’t love those movies for lots of reasons. But for me, it wasn’t bad acting (though there was that) or overly-used CGI (there was that, too), or even clumsy attempts to add to pieces of the world which already worked so well (midi-chlorians). Rather, what I disliked so much was the move away from what makes storytelling work, and what has made it work for as long as our ancestors have been telling stories: people.

What makes The Force Awakens so refreshing is its clear attempt to move the series back to a place where it can tell stories about people at their most people-y. Stories about a group of individuals; their hopes, dreams, fears, pains. Stories about lives lived. You and I can’t connect emotionally to intricately woven plots about trade negotiations and senatorial upheaval any more easily than we could emotionally connect to a newspaper. But a story about a boy, lonely, eager to do something special with his life, who finds friends and adventure, who feels the crushing disappointment over his father's identity on top of the grief he’s always felt for his absence… these experiences we can get. These are things any one of us might actually live through.

Good stories are about people. When a story isn’t about people (or at least people-like things), for better or worse we have a hard time figuring out why we should care. Good stories, as those which connect us to other people across time, culture, distance, or even reality (when we’re talking works of imagination), also connect us to our deeper selves. We love the tale because we see ourselves in it. This connection rings so deeply to who we are as humans, it pulls taut the line between us and the first storytellers, passing words around a campfire about gods, humans, and the nature of the seen and unseen world. In this way, we are also connected to the divine, inasmuch as the desire to create comes from Createdness itself.

This connectedness to Being through story and myth is also an answer to one of the more prominent critiques of the new film. Some feel that Episode VII lacks originality. While I agree that the plot follows the same structure as the first movie, A New Hope, I’m just as quick to say that this isn’t cause for critique. Rather, it’s what works about The Force Awakens. The new film is resetting the myth, not reinventing it. This is what we do with good stories. We develop them, not scrap them. Han Solo takes the place of Obi Wan. Rey is our new Luke. The story isn’t unoriginal for these facts because originality doesn’t always come from inventing new themes; in most cases, it comes from using myths we already know to develop new strands of the tale through old character growth and new character perspective.

When familiar structures are used—such as in both Episodes IV and VII when an older, wiser figure gives advice to a young hero afraid of their destiny—the audience feels a sense of comfort. That comfort is necessary for the storyteller to play. And play is critical for good stories, as nobody gets tangled up in learning a new set of rules. We can start right away with the elements we know and begin building something both familiar and unique together.

Of course, this also means that future audiences might have to do some work, as we do when we read pieces of Shakespeare that included cultural nods with no outright explanations. Still, that’s the work demanded of us as participants. Storytelling is an old, old game, and newcomers simply have to learn as they go.

Hearing or telling a good story is part of our identity as human beings. It’s a deeply tribal thing we do. It’s a world-building, society-sustaining thing we do. Which is why no one should be so worried about hearing spoilers. Storytelling is rooted in oral repetition, in finding out why things happened more than what happened. So the new villain Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son and, by movie’s end, Han Solo's murderer. Finding that out isn't the important part. The important part is understanding why and how he's that person.

Good stories give us the why and how if we listen enough times. They're made to be told, heard, watched again and again, each time bringing us deeper and deeper into a relationship with the themes at work, each time revealing more of ourselves to ourselves. The better the story, the better its ability to hold a mirror up to our most lovely and hideous selves. We are people, and our best stories will always be about our nature. They will be personal and essential. Which is why the only way someone can spoil a good story for you is to make sure you never get to know it.