by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
(Warning: as the title implies, this article is FULL of spoilers)
While crafting The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams wisely decided to lean into the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) universally engaging. His take on a galaxy far far away shows us that we cannot reinvent the narrative techniques that have engrossed audiences for millennia. We don’t need to. The secret to great storytelling is bringing those timeless truths to the audience in a new (and hopefully unexpected) way. Here are seven story secrets found in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that are also found in the original Star Wars trilogy.
1. SACRED CARGO: THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
The storylines for Star Wars: Episode IV and Episode VII are remarkably similar. They both revolve around a band of outsiders trying to get a droid that contains a secret file to the good guys before the bad guys catch them. Rey is attempting to deliver BB-8, a droid that carries the secret map to Luke Skywalker, to Princess Leia and the Rebellion. In Episode IV, Luke was attempting to deliver R2-D2, a droid that contained crucial information, to Alderaan.
Giving your protagonist a valuable object that must be delivered to a specific location provides an organic structure to your story. Adding an antagonistic force trying to catch them before they get there provides suspense and conflict. Some stories succeed by employing protagonists trying to keep themselves safe. Surprisingly, we have an even greater connection to stories about protagonists trying to keep something outside of them safe, because this scenario gives potential for the character to consider sacrificing for someone (or something) greater than him or herself.
2. FAMILY TIES: A CONFLICTED ANTAGONIST
While speaking to the mask of Darth Vader, Kylo Ren confesses that he feels light rising within him. We see the conflict between good and evil battling inside him as he peers into the eyes of his father, Han Solo. We are reminded of the struggle his grandfather faced. Darth Vader was torn over his allegiance to the dark side and his feelings for his son. In Episode VI, his feelings for Luke win out, causing him to destroy his own master, The Emperor.
Both Kylo Ren and Darth Vader are conflicted beings, torn between allegiances to a cause they believe is worthy and family they just can’t forget. This conflict is universal and powerful on many levels.
3. THE COMEBACK KID: DEATH AND RESURRECTION
Early on in the story, we are led to believe that Poe didn’t survive a fiery crash. Our hearts leap with joy when he later swoops in to save the day. In Episode IV, Han Solo leaves Luke and the rebel forces but makes a similar return at the moment they need him most. Whether through literal death or figurative, audiences love to see a character circle back for their friends.
Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda even go outside the plane of physical existence to return as helpers. This device is a form of death and resurrection in story. We love to be reminded that even when we are abandoned, even when we are at our lowest, even to the point of death, rising again (resurrection) is still possible.
4. A SKILLED ORPHAN WITH VISION: CONNECTING LUKE AND REY
While we still have much to learn about Rey, what happened to her family, and why she wants to return to her home planet, there is one thing we know for sure: she bears a strong emotional resemblance to Luke Skywalker. Luke also wanted to return home to his aunt and uncle until the Empire killed them. Will we learn that Rey’s family suffered a similar fate?
Rey is a natural pilot. Even Han Solo is impressed. Luke was also a skilled pilot and naturally handy with a light saber, as we’ve seen Rey prove to be. Perhaps most importantly, both Rey and Luke are fascinated with the stories of the old Jedi who came before them. They feel a deep sense of connection to the tales. They feel as though there is a calling or role they are supposed to play in the battle of good versus evil.
A skilled orphan with a vision has been a character that people have connected with since the earliest days of religious mythologies. From Moses to Superman, we subconsciously crave these heroes.
5. UNEXPECTED REVEALS: WHO’S YOUR DADDY?
Perhaps the greatest reveal in cinematic history was that Darth Vader was actually Luke Skywalker’s father. Episode VII gives us a new paternal surprise. Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, son of Han and Princess Leia.
This narrative device and cinematic reveal works because it is deeply connected to our own maturity into adulthood. As children, we see our parents as gods. They provide for all our needs and wants. When we become adults ourselves, we are confronted with our parent’s humanity. We learn they are not gods but merely women and men. This can be jarring to the ego. We mature by finding a new relationship with our parents despite their humanity. Luke Skywalker did this in Episode VI.
Ben Solo has killed his father, but a chance still remains with his mother.
6. OLD WISE MENTORS: DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT TIL IT’S GONE
Obi Wan Kenobi is one of the most important characters in Episode IV. He introduces Luke to the ways of The Force. He initiates his journey. He provides wise training and he eventually lays down his life for the cause, providing an example to all those watching. Yoda picks up the torch of the Old Wise Mentor, though Luke must later face losing him as well.
There is an important life lesson contained within these characters. There are people, usually older than us, in our lives who have important wisdom and lessons to share with us. We must glean what we can from them, for one day we will lose them. This truth makes for a powerful story element because of its application far from the realms of the theater. Rey and Finn come to rely on the insight of Han and Chewie in Episode VII, but just as in life, Han is taken from them (and us!) far too soon.
7. DAVIDS AND GOLIATHS: THE IMPOSSIBLE FIGHT
The Star Wars saga has always been about a huge Empire of evil and a small band of rebels trying to overthrow them. Story history is filled with tales of underdogs overcoming massive forces they have no business going to battle with. The most cited example is likely the story of David and Goliath.
Most of the Star Wars films (including the original Episode IV and the most recent Episode VII) open with an enormous space cruiser either chasing or firing on a smaller space ship. Visually, we are always given this image of the odds our heroes are up against. The task of good protagonists should seem impossible. This is the only way their victory will touch our emotions in the third act.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.