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Storytelling in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story blasted into theaters at lightspeed this Memorial Day weekend, marking the fourth installment in Disney’s new era of Star Wars films. Everyone’s favorite intergalactic scoundrel and lovable Wookiee are back for this thrilling caper that delivers some solid twists and turns. What lessons in storytelling can we learn from the latest Star Wars adventure? Continue reading to find out!

Solo was penned by father-son writing duo Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, the former being a legacy Star Wars screenwriter. Having crafted scripts for The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens (not to mention Raiders of the Lost Ark), it’s no surprise that Kasdan Senior is one of my all-time favorite screenwriters. At this point, he might as well just write the story of Harrison Ford’s life. Suffice it to say that the seasoned writer knows a thing or two about writing for Han Solo.

As with the release of any new Star Wars film, fans are abuzz with burning questions in the wake of Solo. Did Alden Ehrenreich do a good job of stepping into the charming rogue’s boots? (Yes!) Did the Millennium Falcon actually make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? (Kind of!) And—most importantly—did Han shoot first? (You’ll have to watch the movie to find out!) Here’s one question many people may not be asking: how has Han’s story changed from the old Star Wars lore? We’re about to take a look with our first storytelling lesson.

Adapting Material

It should come as no surprise that a beloved character like Han Solo would have a rich history outside of the films. When crafting Solo, the Kasdans had to decide which elements from Han’s checkered past to keep, which to leave in the past, and which to reimagine for this new story. For example, let’s take a look at Han’s love interest—Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra. In the pre-Disney lore (known now as Star Wars Legends), Han had a former flame named Bria Tharen. Long story short, Bria was Han’s first love from a time when he was young and idealistic. Circumstance separates them, but he never forgets her. They ultimately reunite, only for Han to find that Bria has changed in her values and motivations. After she deceives and uses Han to further her own ends, Han is forced to change too, if he is to grow. While Han and Bria’s story slowly unfolds across a trilogy of books by author A.C. Crispin, Kasdan2 had only a two-hour movie to develop Solo’s tumultuous affair with Qi’ra. Though her own character, Qi’ra shares many similarities with Bria. It’s as if the Kasdans took bits and pieces of Bria Tharen—the most important ones—reassembling, repurposing, and ultimately condensing them into a brand new character that still hits all the same beats. And is it just me, or are there definite hints of Marion Ravenwood in there, too? Oh, Larry Kasdan.

Show, Don’t Tell

This one’s a little different in that it’s actually a minor critique. While I thoroughly enjoyed Solo, there were a couple of small things that rubbed me the wrong way. One of them occurred within the first few seconds. Unlike any Star Wars movie before it, Solo opens not with a crawl, but a handful of blue intertitles that follow the standard “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” This text provided exposition explaining the plight of the Corellian street urchins, who hustle and thieve for the Lewis Carroll-esque Lady Proxima. It is to this downtrodden band of orphans, runaways, and scumrats that Han and Qi’ra belong. However, this is pretty plain to see from the first few minutes of the film. It was almost like the movie wanted to have a crawl, but didn’t want to commit. I’d argue that, generally, any important context or exposition should be conveyed naturalistically within the story, whether visually or through natural dialogue. If anything, the unnecessary text may have actually confused things even more. Paint a picture and trust that the audience will be smart enough to figure it out for themselves. In other words: show, don’t tell.

Plant the Seeds

The next two points will get into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen Solo yet, proceed with caution. Still here? Cool. When Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is playing dejarik with Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon, the frustrated Wookiee angrily tries to wipe the holographic pieces off of the board. Beckett offers Chewie a word of advice, telling him to think two steps ahead and anticipate your opponent’s move. This, of course, is exactly what Han does later, when he anticipates Beckett’s betrayal and thinks two steps ahead, presenting Vos with the real coaxium while Beckett still believed it was fake. An excellent example of foreshadowing, here the Kasdans imbued a seemingly frivolous moment with meaning that would be important later. Storytelling is like a game of chess—er, dejarik—where you strategically position your pieces to snag that check-mate in the end. Plant the seeds early so that, by the climax, your twist will have maximum payoff. Which brings us to our final lesson.

Plot Twists vs Subversions

Again, a spoiler warning is in effect for this final point. When our “heroes” first encounter Enfys Nest and her gang of Cloud-Riders, we are led to believe that they are pirates and marauders—in other words, villains. However, in one of the movie’s many twists, we learn that Enfys Nest is not at all what she seems. The Cloud-Riders are not a crew of sordid pirates, but a band of fledgling rebels. They are the good guys! What makes this such a great twist? Well, it’s the fact that it’s more than a simple plot twist. For example, when Darth Vader drops the ultimate F-bomb on Luke (“Father,” of course! What were you thinking?) that is a plot twist. A doozy of a plot twist, to be sure, but nothing more. It was something out of left-field that no one saw coming and blew all our minds. What’s different about the reveal that Enfys is actually the good guy (er, gal)? Throughout the film, other characters constantly reinforce her villainy, conditioning the audience to view her one way, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. The best plot twists are not only twists, but clever subversions: when we’re led to believe one thing the entire time, only to find out the exact opposite is true.

And it all goes back to positioning those dejarik pieces just right.

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