Be mindful of your influences, Edinger: they reveal you.
I make fun of the Star Wars prequels a lot, but I have no malice towards them. I was 6, 9, and 12 respectively when Episodes I, II, and III came to theaters— I was at the perfect age to watch them. They’re bad movies, ones that I have difficulty rewatching, but Episodes I and II still gave me a few hours entertainment and a wellspring for imagination back in my single-digit days. I left out Episode III in that mention because I still love that movie. There are two camps regarding ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ Some say it’s a last hurrah that proved itself worthy of the name Star Wars with excellent action, legitimate catharsis, and a devastating tragic story. Others say it’s just as much a mess as ‘Menace’ or ‘Clones,’ still plagued with lackluster acting, a rushed pace, and just plain bad directing. I exist in both camps simultaneously. Maybe it’s because the movie’s such a shot of raw emotion and energy as compared to its dull brothers. Maybe I’m just a child who’s easily amused by multiple flashy fights and recognizable (marketable) icons. I don’t care. It’s my number one guilty pleasure, and I fell both more and less guilty about it depending on what day I’m thinking about said movie.
Back in 2005, when I first saw ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ I absolutely loved the movie, no guilt there. So how excited I became when, on vacation, I picked up Matthew Stover’s novelization (which you can read for yourself in the link) for August reading. I thought I’d just relive some pleasant cinematic memories back when I started reading it. After finishing the book, I knew then and there that I wanted to be a writer.
Pretty crazy, right? Some people are inspired to write by tragic evens or a need to create or a classically recognized book. I could’ve been cool and said that my actual favorite book of all time (Frankenstein) got me into writing. But no, it was the spinoff of a film franchise. I could talk about the positives of this book; the beautiful prose, the fully realized characters, the great metaphors; but in a sense, doing so would feel like trying to justify my own work. For you see, I can trace nearly all the elements of my own writing, good and bad, to the creative decisions of this book.
Let’s start with the element of my writing that I’m trying to fix: the unclear descriptions. Both Stover and I use long and complex sentences to describe unusual or alien things. Both of us are not as clear when doing so, however. Pretty prose, but not great for clarity. Stover has an excuse. Say you read a passage from him like “Sometimes his [Obi-Wan’s] whirling spinning dive through the cloud of battle skimmed bursts so closely that the energy-scatter would slam his starfighter hard enough to bounce his head off of the supports of his pilot’s chair.” That sentence is in the first paragraph of this book, and it could take a bunch of rereads to understand. But if you see the film before reading this— like I did and I assume others did— you read this and go, “Oh, it’s that shot where Obi-Wan goes into a space battle and his head knocks into the back of his cockpit chair.” Here’s the problem: when I write like that, no one gets to see the movie version of what I meant. Stover’s style is appropriate because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
If you did read this without knowing about Star Wars, you’d be hella confused. Do you know what an “energy-scatter” even is? I reckon you can guess, its name seems self-definitive. But Stover tries to world-build like that a lot, and it doesn’t always work. I can guess what a turboblaster or humaniform droid is, but what’s an electordriver? And may the Force help you if you go into this novel not knowing about the Force. I only reread this story a few days ago, and guess what? A few months ago, I wrote a sci-fi short story trying to world-build in this exact manner with confusing results. When you imitate something, make sure you know why that something is doing it in the first place.
One of the ways this book improved my writing for the better was in terms of character. In particular, how important they are. First off: when you’re reading a book, you can make the actors in your head as good as you want. All the major players; Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Count Dooku, Sidious; are given wonderful descriptions from the third person omniscient narrator who loves these people and knows (and explains, which my writing needs to do) what makes them tick. Some people criticize the prequels because they’re too focused on politics. I maintain, especially after rereading this book, that the problem’s not dealing with politics, but dealing with politics badly. Star Wars is a vast universe, and a political setting can let those vast parts interact. This story knows what makes politics interesting: good characters, and the emotional relationships that build them. We don’t care as much about Chancellor Palpatine gaining more executive power, but we do care about how this brings brave and defiant Padme into conflict with her husband and Palpatine’s friend, the heroic-but-secretly-terrified Anakin. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is the most emotionally charged of the prequels, and having characters that can express, play with, and desperately hide those emotions really brings out the tragedy in this story. The action scenes are kind of hard to read in this novelization. But Stove shows his mastery when he just has two people and a room to work with. My hands became stapled to this book during those parts.
Oh yeah, metaphors! The metaphors in this book are good too, which explains why I packed a lot of them in my older writing. In particular, I recall Stover describing Anakin’s gnawing fears as a dragon: always lurking, always reminding him of mortality, always stronger than him. Anakin doesn’t just turn to the Dark Side to save Padme; he does it so he can crush the dragon under his heel and say to it, “I am Darth Vader, and you are nothing.” Beforehand, people in the Republic called Anakin “The Hero With No Fear.” He never believed it. Now, after becoming Darth Vader and crushing the dragon, he finally can believe in the “Hero With No Fear” myth, even at the expense of others’ well-being and lives. See how this is much better than just saying, “Anakin is scared”? That’s not even the end of that character arc, which ends on a devastating note. Thing happening in character’s heads are already kind of unreal. Metaphors help make them real to the audience. I may go overboard with this in my writing, but segments like this remind me why I started doing it.
I guess it’s a given that I’m influenced by the whole of Star Wars, not just this book. I’d go as far as to say that I, like George Lucas himself, sometimes needs help unpacking the worlds in my head. And that’s what Stover’s great accomplishment in this book was. He took the rushed Dark Side transformation from the movie and unpacked it, made sure we understood the characters, made the journey slower and more relatable. Someone once said that the ultimate sin of an adaptation is to make the audience question why they liked the original work in the first place. Stover did the opposite— he made me appreciate the original more, and made me wish that Lucas had Stover on board with screenwriting so that Lucas could flesh out and explain his ideas better. Some things the book can’t fix. How anyone doesn’t realize that Palpatine’s the evilest dude in the galaxy is beyond me, and both book and movie waffle on whether the Jedi Order is corrupt or noble at this point in history. Still less of a guilty pleasure for me to read than to watch.
That’s what I’m thankful for this (belated) Thanksgiving: influences and the sometimes slightly embarrassing places they come from. This book will always have a special place in my heart. But, if I’m going to improve my writing, maybe I should get it out of my head for a bit.