Almost any writing rule can be broken, as long as the author 1) earns the right to break it and 2) executes properly.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing how to create the suspension of disbelief in readers by surrounding our make-believe elements with believable elements (click here to read the blog post). Today, we are going to discuss how you can break this rule and get away with it using George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope as an example.
Think of the opening scene in Star Wars: First we see a tiny spaceship being chased by a colossal space ship. Then, we see some men in weird helmets start shooting lasers at some…dudes in white armor. All the humans die or retreat. Then, we see this masked guy, who dressed all in black—with a cape—and sounds like he is breathing through SCUBA gear, enter the scene and step over the dead people, including his own. Oh yeah, and the female lead looked like she was wearing hair-wrapped bagels over each ear.
I ask you: What part of this seems believable?
Lucas didn’t even bother to surround his make-believe elements with believable elements or prep the reader in his opening scene, and yet this scene captivated the audience. Millions of people, who by the way don’t love science fiction, love Star Wars. This shouldn’t make sense, should it?
Lucas broke the writing rules, and it worked because he earned the right to break them and executed properly. Here’s how he did it:
He used mythological archetypes. Lucas studied myths, legends, and The Hero’s Journey. We can relate to his characters because we’ve seen models of them before in other stories. Star Wars is actually an epic fantasy wrapped in a science fiction shell.
He had great characters and great character development. Han, Luke, and Leia had depth and individual personalities. They were well-developed. They didn’t fit clichés. Think about this. The hero, Luke, whines. The princess, Leia, shoots a couple of storm troopers the moment we first see her. The sidekick/friend is an anti-hero smuggler, in it for himself and the money. (Come on, admit it. Your heart still jumps when Han Solo comes back at the end of the movie. You know it does!)
He used epic conflicts. A small band of rebels fighting for freedom from an oppressive dictator is a conflict you can find throughout both history and all genres of literature.
He used a great soundtrack. In a world of dissonant soundtracks that sounded more like that of Planet of the Apes, Lucas gave us John Williams. Writers can’t use sound tracks, but we can use sensory details and description to enhance our readers’ emotions. I discussed this in a series of blog posts on description and creating a main impression a few months ago:
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #1—Create a Main Impression
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #2—Choose Details that Enhance Your Main Impression
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #3—Group Related Details Together
- The Writer’s Descriptive Techniques: #4— Use Comparisons that Relate to Your Main Impression
He used great special effects no one had ever seen. Again, writers don’t get to use special effects, but we can, in a sense, create the need for them by creating amazing, new concepts within our books. Think “shock and awe.” Be creative. Break the mold.
His world had back story, which helped it feel real. Obi-Wan mentions the Clone Wars to Luke. Luke knows exactly what the Clone Wars were, and the fact that Obi-Wan fought in them impressed him. Likewise, Han Solo mentions that the Millennium Falcon is “the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs,” as though Luke would know what he meant. Heck, Luke used to bull’s-eye womp rats in his T-16 back home. (I may not know what a womp rat is, but I’m sure it’s not much bigger than two meters.) Little things like this make the world feel real.
What we saw visually made sense, even if it was make-believe. Luke didn’t traverse the desert in some odd contraption we had never seen before. He used something that looked like a beat-up car that hovered. His speeder made sense. (Notice Lucas saved the AT-ATs for Empire Strikes Back.) The same can be said for other items, such as blasters, armor, and light sabers. They looked normal—not like something Dr. Emmett Brown would wear on his head to read someone’s thoughts.
The story appealed to people on a deep level. This is the magic of stories, which I will in much more detail later. For now, remember that humans desire adventure, companionship, and the ability to make a difference. You can help your readers meet these desires by allowing them to live vicariously through our characters.
He opened with an exciting, tension filled scene. At the end of the first scene, we know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. We know the bad guys seem to have the advantage. We also know the chick in those sweet bagel buns is someone you don’t want to mess with, and she’s a good guy.
What to take from this: You can break the rules, but make sure to do it properly. Study the works of successful storytellers who broke the rules and got away with it.
Mainstream writers: Open your story with something that hooks the reader. It doesn’t have to be a space battle, but it needs to be something. Grab your readers head on and don’t let them look back.
Speculative writers: Yes, you can break the rules and hit your audience with some hard-core make-believe, but make sure you execute!
If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.” Thanks for stopping by!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.
I love this, and of course, George Lucas is one of the most successful storytellers of all time. I still remember being in line for the premiere of the very first movie as an 11 year old.
I find it interesting that writing is a world where rules are ignored, the writer is rightfully able to do so, and it happens all the time. But I wonder, what qualifies a writer to be able to ignore these rules? I’ve posted about the writer’s ability to create words that haven’t previously existed, but your post takes that point farther with rules we all know it could be disastrous to break. Oh, and thanks for the tips.
No problem. I have no idea what the formula is for breaking the rules, either. My first novel appeals to middle schoolers, but it has an adult protagonist, and technically, that shouldn’t happen. I guess I broke the rules for writing YA.
I think a lot of it also comes down to writing a good story, too…