by Nathan Butler of Prelude To Hope
Most die-hard Star Wars fans have heard George Lucas' infamous quote, "A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing." A lot of times when making fan films, though, many of us do precisely what GL is warning against; we put the effects before the story.
I'm not going to lie to you. I enjoy special effects as much as the next guy, but when it comes right down to it, the films, television series, books, etc. that I like the most always have one thing in common: a compelling story. If you intend to make an entertaining fan film that leaves a lasting impression, you're going to need a compelling story, too.
So, I'm here to give you a quick (or as quick as a writer's mind can be) tutorial of story/script writing for Star Wars fan films. I'm not going to give you a story for your film, but I *will* tell you some things that may help you make your ideas come to life.
Any true storyline does three things: begins; middles; and ends. In Star Wars fan films, this works great because the formula for the Star Wars films has always relied on three main acts. In ANH it was Tatooine, the Death Star, and the Battle of Yavin. With ROTJ it was Tatooine, Pre-battle Endor, and the Battle of Endor. With TPM it was Tatooine, Corusacant, and the Battle of Naboo. (Okay, so GL has an affinity for Tatooine.)
Your first task in writing any story/script for a fan film is to determine your scale. Are you wanting a multi-planet adventure or a one-planet tale? How long of a film are you shooting for? All of these go into the first major step in the actual script-writing, wich is deciding on a general premise.
For a general premise in the SW universe, remember that you have an entire universe in which to play. If you want to shoot a Jedi-based film, do it, but don't just settle on Jedi as your default characters because you don't want to take the time to consider other options. How about a smuggling film? Political-maneuvering? Maybe even a day-in-the-life film? Of course, all of these options require more than just "killin' and white uniforms." They need a well-written script and a good story to make them fly. But even Jedi-based stories need that, though many a fan film has forgotten this fact and simply relied on special effects to tell the story.
Okay, so you have your general premise, an idea of the length of your film, and an idea of its scale. Now you're ready to come up with an idea of your storyline. Any storyline will tend to be broken down into three acts, as I already mentioned. Each act would have a similar, but not identical, tone to the rest of the acts. In ESB, for instance, each act had the feel of desperation--the Rebellion on the run. However, the first third felt different from, say, the second third, didn't it? That's what I mean by similar, yet different, tones.
Each of your acts, no matter how small, serves a function. Act I will usually help to introduce and establish the situation and characters, while putting them into a small amount of action, but nothing approaching the action of the film's climax. TPM, for example, has the Podrace and Maul vs. Qui-Gon. These are in no way near as frantic or "eventful" as the Battle of Naboo in Act III, but it helps move the film along at a good
Act II will usually contain a fair amount of action, but not as much as Acts I or III, while further developing the characters beyond how we perceive them in the first act. Take, for instance, Qui-Gon in TPM. In Act I, we are introduced to him, but it isn't really until Act II that we discover how he is often at odds with the Jedi Council and his passion for training Anakin, which both serve to broaden his character. It is often in this act that things get "bad" for the characters, though that depends somewhat upon how you take the bad situation of Act II and turn it around (or don't) for the characters in the first chunk of Act III.
Act III is where things get really hairy. That doesn't necessarily mean things get more action-packed. There was certainly less military action in Act III of ESB compared to Act I's Battle of Hoth. Act III will contain your climax and its resolution. Don't forget the resolution! If you're going to end a film, END it. Don't just leave it hanging. Hell, even
Back to the Futures I and II had resolutions. Cliffhangers come AFTER the resolution.
Resolution doesn't mean tying up all loose ends, but it does mean giving viewers a sense of completion and closure to the experience while they await on the edge of their seats for the answer to the few things you left hanging if you're making a series of films.
Of course, having your story set up perfectly by act, scene, shot, etc. won't mean squat if you're characters are flat. Make your characters three-dimensional. Make them lifelike. You have one of the most excellent resources at your disposal for writing "living" characters: You're a living human being. There isn't a single one of us who has never dealt with happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment, optimism, pessimism, or any of a hundred other emotional states. USE THAT EXPERIENCE!!! There isn't a single special effect in the world that can compensate for characters that the audience just plain doesn't care about. Even if the audience HATES a character, it's still better than them being indifferent because it means they are reacting to your film! It is evoking emotions.
So, how do you write a good character? That's a matter of instinct. Your best bet is to first come up with a general idea of how the character would fit into the story. Then decide what kind of background comes naturally for that role. Only then should you come up with a more concrete background or set of attributes for your character. Give the character mannerisms, a tone of voice, a "look," and above all give them emotions. That doesn't mean they have to cry or explode in anger. Sometimes a simple under-the-breath
chuckle at something the character finds ironic or unusual can go much farther in character development than an outburst of tears or rage. Make your characters come alive! If you can't find amusement and emotional resonance with them, no one else will either.
Characters will be the center of your story. It's a universe full of people, and you're chronicling the exploits of those people. Give them life, "get into their heads," and writing them will become second nature.
What should NOT be the center of your story, of course, is your special effects. Just because you CAN make a neat animation of the Millennium Falcon spinning like a top with balloons hanging from the gun turrets, that doesn't mean you should do it, or especially that your story should revolve around it. If you are going to use an effect, make it make sense in the story. Have it mean something. For instance, many have criticized the force-ripple used in The Dark Redemption (which, as a kid inside, I liked, but as a
storyteller, I found a bit out of place). We'd never seen the Force do that before, and it seemed to come out of nowhere. But what if a film was about Jedi and in various instances you could see the Force as they perceived it?
In that case, and with other example and instances of the Force being shown, it would make more sense and flow with the story. In essence, what I'm saying is that if you're going to use an effect, don't make it a gimmick, make it mean something. So you can do a double-bladed lightsaber. Wow. We've seen enough of them. The novelty is gone. So if you're going to use it, make it FIT. Make it something other than a gimmick.
That being said, when it comes to effects or any aspect of your film, don't be limited by what you know you can do when you are writing. Unless what you write is incredibly off the wall, a skillfull crew and director can usually make your ideas work. It may be a pain in the butt, but most ideas *can* work, with the right amount of time and effort.
And speaking of directors, if you are NOT the director, don't over-write the scene framing and shot angles in your script, unless you want a VERY specific look. Otherwise, that is the director's job. It's what they're there for.
You provide the story, they'll make sure it comes off on film.As a final word of caution (and, yes, I could go on for hours), remember this: the story is the heart of the film. The characters are the heart of the story. The emotional resonance and "humanity" are at the heart of the characters. In the end, your life has trained you immeasurably for creating good, solid characters to interact with that galaxy far, far away. It is simply a matter of putting your imagination to work, letting the characters and story thrive in your mind, and pulling that middle lever that can send your project forward at lightspeed.