The start of Obi Wan Kenobi shows a quick reel of Star Wars Episode One, Two, and Three clips. Seeing those clips immediately made my hackles rise. Everybody is free to love or hate the prequels like they see fit, but from a writing perspective they are filled with horrible mistakes. So, today, eight writing tips with examples from the Star Wars prequels as illustration how not to do ti.
The story of Episode One to Three
So, I’m not going to give you a summary of Star Wars Episode One to Three. You can look those up online, or just watch them. But, some background on why I’m writing this might be useful.
Once upon a time, a man called George Lucas made a scifi movie. It was called Star Wars. It became vastly popular and spawned two sequels. But wait… the first movie started with a scrolling text calling it ‘Episode IV’. It turns out, George Lucas had written a much larger nine-part story, and only turned part 4, 5, and 6 into movies.
For twenty years, fans were left wondering at the first three episodes of the epic space saga. Until, in 1999 Episode One: the Phantom Menace saw the light. The world went wild. A friend of mine traveled to the UK to watch it, because it only came out in the Netherlands months later. When I finally saw it… well, it was okay.
Then I saw it again… I noticed it was a bit of a mess. Then I saw it again, and I could only say: it’s terrible. Then episode Two came out, and that was worse. And episode Three was so bad I decided to write a satiric version of the script.
Now, two decades later, I read some nostalgia for these prequel episodes, and that they really were not that bad. Alright. Fine. Everybody can like what they want. But from a technical writing perspective they still suck. Like, really suck.
#1 Stepping down from grace
Star Wars Episode One to Three are all about the fall from grace of Anakin Skywalker. Many stories feature a fall from grace. This story mode has a long tradition going all the way back to ancient times. It evolved through Shakespeare’s plays to the movies we see today.
The crux of a tragedy is that it features a character the audience can identify with, but who is flawed. Instead of overcoming this flaw, like we see in a positive character arc, the character embraces their flaw. Because of that flaw they do something unforgivable, fall from grace, and suffer a terrible end for that mistake.
In the case of Star Wars, this means that we should see Anakin Skywalker as a relatable hero, with a fatal flaw, who commits an unforgivable transgression, and then falls from grace and suffers for it. Unfortunately, George Lucas dropped the ball on all three of these.
Anakin is introduced as a wise-ass, side-tracking the heroes of Episode One, and an annoyingly wise-ass and over-capable brat. He’s the prototypical Marty-Stu, with superpowers that allow him to pilot a pod racer, and a brilliant mind that allow him to create droids from scratch. He also suffers barely any ill effects from being a slave his whole life, nor being dragged into a full-on war. The first episode of the series should have painted a picture of a likeable hero. It doesn’t. Worse, because the second episode switches to a grown-up (different) actor, we’re basically left with the sour aftertaste of the first episode as the basis for a new character in Episode two, who is an arrogant teenager. Maybe it was Lucas’s his intention to make the first episode about Obi Wan, and the second and third movie about Anakin, but given the screen time Anakin gets… well.
Anakin’s flaw is arrogance, but that doesn’t lead into an unforgivable act. His Jedi trainers basically leave him out to dry. His ‘unforgivable’ act is avenging his mother’s murder and marrying the woman he loves. He was a huge a-hole about all of it, that’s true, but it mostly makes you groan, not see him as a tragic character. Worse, one reason his mother is dead, is that when Anakin left she was a slave on Tatooine, and he simply never came back, because the Jedi discourage it.
Finally, his fall from grace is not even the result of this unforgivable act. No, Episode Three goes in a completely new direction. Anakin has a Force vision of his (secret) wife dying, and he turns to evil to save her. Why he chooses to even believe this vision is not explained, but okay. The problem is it bears no relation to either his flaw or the unforgivable act. It’s just a new made-up problem. And so he turns to evil to save his wife, after which it immediately turns out his evil Emperor can’t help him, but once he’s decided to become evil, well, done deal, apparently.
It’s a mess, and it could have been done so much better with only a few story tweaks.
#2 First impressions matter
The hook of a story is at the beginning and tells the audience what it is about.
In the case of Star Wars Episode I, that hook is that we see two Jedi come to end the Trade Federation blockading the planet Naboo. Clearly, the story is about the two Jedi and their struggle to save Naboo and it’s queen. Okay… so what’s with Anakin then? And why do his shenanigans take up so much screen time? Why is he even in the movie? The answer is: bad writing.
The second episode starts with the Naboo Queen from the first episode coming to the heart of the republic, the planet Coruscant. There is an assassination attempt! The movie will clearly be about the senator and… wait, what is Anakin doing in this movie then? And Obi Wan? Is Anakin the love interest side character? Er… and something with clones?
The third movie explodes into action with Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin rescuing Senator Palpatine from the evil General Grievous. Well, finally. A movie about Anakin and Obi Wan! Oh wait, what is Obi Wan doing there? Obi Wan and Anakin do their own thing for most of the movie then come together to fight. And something with Joda and Samuel L Jackson. Bad Writing strikes again.
Bottom line: hook the reader, and keep the promise you make in that hook. Don’t hook them with something, then bait-and-switch and make the story about something else.
#3 Evil heroes
Supposedly, the Jedi are the good guys in Star Wars. Unfortunately, they’re mostly a bunch of incompetent cowards throughout the first three episodes, and they hurt many people for a set of nonsensical rules.
It starts with episode one, where the Jedi supposedly try to end the Naboo conflict. In reality, though, they make it worse, and they refuse to actually do something. “I can only protect you, I cannot fight a war for you” the ‘great’ Jedi Qui-Gon Jin says at one point. Thing is: that’s a blatant lie. The Jedi could fight a war for Naboo, but they choose not to, and watch the suffering and war from the sidelines instead. And yes, that’s because of senate oversight, but they get involved in spite of that oversight anyway.
Qui-Gon Jin is a bastard for another reason. Much as the Anakin plot is a weird side-track of the movie, it does show Qui-Gon is fully willing to use his mind-tricks to try to steal engine parts from a merchant, but he is unwilling to do so to save a young boy from slavery. Worse, when he does enact a convoluted scheme to acquire the boy, he only saves the boy. Anakin’s mother can rot, and does so: she’s murdered — and who knows what else — in the second episode.
In Episode three we see the Jedi act even more cowardly. Senator Palpatine draws them into a full scale war, then turns out to be an evil Sith Lord and stabs them in the collective back. But instead of taking him down, they decide to split their forces, take him on one at a time, then throw in the towel at the first set-back and flee. Oh, and Palpatine manages to backstab them with a mysterious clone army that came out of nowhere, but that everybody decides to trust for no reason.
Don’t make the heroes of your story incompetent cowards. Or, if you want to make them the tragic heroes — maybe George Lucas wanted to make it about the tragic fall of the Jedi? — then set up a proper fall from grace arc. Or make them the villains. Make their downfall feel like a moment of justice, not the triumph of stupidity.
#4 Clown intrigue
I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones, but I can appreciate how it does political intrigue well. So do shows like the Expanse. Star Wars Episode One to Three, however, mess it up.
Supposedly, the movies shows us how Senator Palpatine of Naboo uses complicated political maneuvering to grab power in the senate and turn it into an Empire. However, he does things in an utterly nonsensical way. The fabricated war is between the Trade Federation and the Republic. However, it doesn’t become entirely clear what the Trade Federation is trying to achieve, and how.
The ‘political scheming’ is mostly the Trade Federation taking orders from a hologram of a guy in a dark cloak. You have to ask: why would they do that? They are an extremely powerful organization. It turns out in episode Three that they decide to start a costly war and follow it through in defeat because the evil Sith Lord… wait for it… promised them wealth and power. Which they lost when they started the war.
The Jedi, on the other side of the conflict, have exactly zero idea about what is going on, even though it’s obvious to everybody with a mind. And then there’s the clone army that somehow pops out of nowhere, without anybody thinking ‘well, that’s a problem’.
The senate has no role in the whole story, except to host some of the in-your-face speeches that supposedly are the dramatic conclusions of the intrigue. ‘This is how liberty dies’ Anakin’s wife says in Episode three. Which might have been a powerful line, if she had not spent the rest of the movie doing absolutely nothing.
In short, if you want to do intrigue, do actual intrigue. The readers/viewers shouldn’t be able to see it coming from a mile away, and it shouldn’t hinge on the utter stupidity of most of those involved in the scheming. Plus, it should show actual scheming.
#6 False prophecies and fascism
The core reason the Jedi train Anakin at all, and supposedly set off their own downfall, is the prophecy that a child will come who brings ‘balance to the force’.
Now, I would say ‘balance’ could be interpreted as ‘an equal amount of good Jedi as bad Sith’ but that doesn’t come up. Apparently, that’s just stupid. ‘Balance’ means that the Force is balanced and only happy Jedi are left, and no evil Sith. Yeah. Bad. Writing.
Aside from that, the result of this prophecy is that the Jedi behave like idiots. Worse than that, their whole religion is a kind of sick fascist cult. They’re supposedly peaceful, but they train young children in the art of war, and they kill any they deem impure (Sith). They follow a prophecy of a final battle against evil, led by a mythical hero. That, unfortunately, ticks just about all the boxes of fascism.
I’m pretty sure George Lucas didn’t intend that, but Episode One to Three paint the Jedi as a really disturbing cult who measure worth based on genetic heritage (how much midi-chlorians you got from your genes), prolonging wars by doing just enough to keep them going under the guise of ‘being peaceful’. They worship the dead, as demonstrated by how they drool over speaking to their fallen. They have strict rules that treat love and attachment like a debilitating weakness. The great Joda literally says ‘Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose’. Great advise there, psycho.
So, simple writing advice: don’t write your heroes like a fascist death cult.
#7 Failing climax
Remember that climactic fight between Obi Wan and Anakin? That battle that went down in movie history as… oh wait, it didn’t. Do you remember any of it beyond ‘two guys fighting and something with lava’.
The first problem with this climax is that it doesn’t flow from the character arcs. Anakin and Obi Wan have very little interaction this movie. They are together at the start, then do their own thing. Anakin turns evil, and Yoda decides to send Obi Wan to take him down. Obi Wan is not the antagonist of Anakin’s arc, and Anakin is not the antagonist of Obi Wan’s arc. Anakin’s nemesis is really his own stupidity, and maybe the Jedi, but he can’t light-saber duel his stupidity, and he already took care of the Jedi – well, some Jedi children, off-screen. Obi Wan has no arc. He just walks around and gets pummeled by events, until he ends up facing Anakin because the Jedi are gone. But really, the Emperor is Obi Wan’s enemy.
Because the character arcs don’t lead to the climax properly, there’s no real emotion behind it. Anakin doesn’t really hate Obi Wan, and Obi Wan actually thinks of Anakin as a son (apparently). That makes the whole fight feel like a teenage tantrum against a parent. It doesn’t help that the two keep throwing one-liners at each other.
Finally, when Obi Wan defeats Anakin, he does so in a very silly way. “I have the high ground” he says, and then slices Anakin’s limbs off when he jumps. Well, great emotionally impactful line there. Is that it then? No. Obi Wan proceeds to rant at Anakin how he loves him and can’t kill him, while Anakin is burning alive in agony. You chop off a guys arm and legs, and he’s dying an agonizing death in lava, and you can’t end his suffering? WTF?
So, to sum it up: a climax needs to be the emotional pinnacle of your story. And the good guy shouldn’t torture the bad guy while screaming about love.
#8 A sad death
This last one is sweet and simple. NEVER, ever, ever let a main character die because they have lost the will to live. Do you know how many healthy people die of ‘losing the will to live’ in the real world? NONE. It doesn’t happen. It is not a thing.
People can kill themselves, or neglect themselves until they die, but they cannot just decide to die then magically do so. Human bodies don’t work that way.
Amidala, Queen of Naboo, Senator of the Republic, and wife of Anakin, dies in child birth because, according to the medical droid ‘she’s lost the will to live’. Not because Anakin beat her up, not because there are complications during her giving birth, not because she gives birth under bad circumstances. Nope. Because she lost the will to live.
Don’t. Ever. Write. that.
I could say a lot more things about Star Wars Episode One, Two, and Three. About Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen having the chemistry of two slugs mushed together. About the vomit-worthy one-liners, and so much more. But that’s directing and acting, although the terrible writing makes it worse.
But, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. I just hope the things I listed here will help you be a better writer, or understand why certain writing is just bad.
And, before I get hate mail: you can enjoy things that are terribly written. I really like Sharknado, but that is utter garbage writing. You can like the prequels, I won’t say you can’t. Just don’t say they are masterpieces of writing, because they’re not.