Tag Archive | Star Wars

Laugh It Up! How Comedy Adds to Story

Recently it was Star Wars Day (happy belated “May the Fourth be with you”).  So what was I doing as I was supposed to be eating breakfast and getting ready for church?

I was online, searching for the Star Wars: Rebels trailer that had just been released.

I admit, as a fan of Star Wars: Clone Wars, I was sad to see the show go, but I have to admit that I’m looking forward to its replacement, Star Wars: Rebels.  As I watched the trailer while busy scarfing down chicken and rice (I’m not much of a breakfast food person), I felt ecstatic.  To me, this show looks great.  I love the art, the style, the acting, and I’m sure I’m going to love the story.

But as I read the viewer comments that followed the trailer, I was astounded at a common theme of their complaints: Rebels looked too much like a “kiddy” show because it was more light-hearted and fun (and therefore, as viewers said, it would not be very good.)

And thus began yet another internet Star Wars debate (can’t we all just get along, ha ha?)

It got me thinking, though, about how comedy effects a story.  Does comedy (especially if it’s in a more “serious” setting, such as the Imperial period during Star Wars) add or take away from the plot?  Or are the viewers right when they say the “fun” takes away from the seriousness of the story?

The debate about Rebels reminded me of another cartoon show that was on a few years ago.  Remember Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender?  It was a big hit for the network and had three successful seasons followed by a live-action film and a sequel show called The Legend of Korra.

I remember watching the first episode of Avatar.  There was plenty of comedy, to be sure.  Aang, the hero, was silly and goofy.  Even villain characters like Iroh had their funny moments (the man seriously loved jasmine tea.)  At first watch, I thought that it was going to be “just some other kiddy show” with silly laughs and not much plot.

After three years of watching it, however, I was proven wrong.

Avatar, though it’s considered a kid’s show, had a lot of dramatic moments.  A world war was happening.  The hero lost nearly everyone he knew from his childhood.  The villain’s father was abusive and burned him to teach his son a lesson.  Characters were hurt and imprisoned.  Emotions flew as Aang struggled with losing Appa or Katara faced her mother’s killer.

That’s some pretty serious stuff, if you ask me.

But Avatar didn’t concentrate on only the drama.  It told a serious story without it weighing you down.  It used comedy and happy, hopeful moments to make the show watchable and enjoyable.  It didn’t sugar-coat the hard times of life, but capitalized on the fact that you could still laugh while being sad or still have hope when all was thought lost.

And let’s be real-what would Avatar be like without the cabbage merchant?

Though I’m all for drama and emotion in story, I find myself needing to laugh once in awhile.  If Avatar ignored comedy, I would’ve still watched the show as I love dramas.  But as a person who really “feels” emotions, I probably would’ve felt sad while watching it.  For me, sometimes too much drama, too much emotion, too much sadness/action/fright, can become a bit overwhelming.  I don’t want to spend my entire time with a story feeling depressed (though for some stories, that may be the intent to invoke that type of mood.)  Instead, I want to laugh on occasion.  Why?

Because sometimes we need a break from the hard facts of life.  Sometimes we go through so many struggles that we need something to help us cope with our problems for a little bit and find something to enjoy.  Sometimes we just need a good laugh because we haven’t had one in awhile and laughing helps us feel so much better.

And what better thing to do than to sit with a good story and laugh it up?

 

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When A Good Story Ends

When it was first announced that Disney was going to be taking over the Star Wars Universe, I was a bit indifferent. I was happy with George Lucas and Lucasfilm and I was happy with Disney (“Tangled” is still one of my favorite films of all time). But when it was announced that Cartoon Network’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” was going to be ending abruptly after five seasons, six if you include what’s been released to Netflix, I was befuddled. The story was still going strong and many questions created by the series were left unanswered.

Though I still like Disney and am looking forward to “Star Wars: Episode VII” and “Star Wars: Rebels”, TCW’s successor, I admit the abrupt ending given to the “The Clone Wars” left me with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Yes, stories can’t last forever, but as the YouTube video link above demonstrates, the show was still going strong for many viewers.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, even in a Galaxy Far, Far, Away…

Ending a story can be tricky. End it too late and you can leave your audience feeling bored and disinterested, like the story is dragging on with no end in sight. End it too soon and you can leave your audience scratching their heads wondering just what happened to this character and that character (the TV show “Flashforward” comes to mind for me on that one-I really, really wanted more than one season).

And then comes the biggest problem: you can end it on the right timing, but if there are questions that haven’t been answered, the audience may find the ending bittersweet. One example of this is the show “Lost”. It was a popular show with a huge following, but after the series finale aired, many fans were left unsatisfied as many questions still hung in the air. (I’m still not quite sure what that smoke monster was, exactly.) Yet another example is “Mass Effect 3”. Though I’ve never played the game, I’ve heard many a gamer express their discontent over the ending of the otherwise successful trilogy.

Ending a story isn’t easy, as there have been countless examples of those who have tried and failed. And yet there are also examples of those who tried and succeeded. Many feel a good ending includes a lesson learned, a happy reunion, or an emotional farewell. All of those are true for certain stories. But for me, and I’m sure for many other audience members, a good ending provides closure. It makes the audience feel content that the conflict has been resolved and questions have been answered. There’s not too many great mysteries to be left in the air to drive the audience crazy for years to come (and if there is a mystery, there’s hope for a sequel, ha ha!)

As “The Clone Wars” has finished its course and transitions to “Rebels” in the Fall, I’ll admit I still have questions left by the show. What does Sidious plan to do with Darth Maul? Where did Ahsoka go, and how does Anakin handle her departure? Does Captain Rex disobey Order 66 or does he follow it like every other clone? Do things on Mandalore ever settle down? But even if these questions don’t get answered, I can at least watch the past episodes with a smile. Just like Lost, or maybe even Mass Effect 3, I can still enjoy the journey to the end.

Character Names (a Lesson from Darth Vader)

I love foreign languages.  I love learning them, speaking them, writing them, and incorporating them into my day-to-day vocabulary.  One of my prized possessions in college was a pocket-sized dictionary that not only told me the meaning of English words, but also Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and Italian.  This dictionary was one of the best portable translators I’d ever had, and often times I’d type in words and look up the translations for fun.

One time I was looking up the translation for “father”.  I typed it into the translator and began receiving its translations in different languages.  For Spanish, it was padre.  For French, it was père.  When I came to Dutch, however, I was surprised at what I found.

The translation for father was “vader”.

Now being the Star Wars nerd that I was, my reaction was simple: “Wait-was George Lucas revealing Darth Vader was Luke’s father all along?!?!?!”  The character naming made sense to me.  If “vader” is Dutch for “father”, then Darth Vader’s name was essentially “Darth Father”.

Regardless of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker “Vader” as a hint towards his connection with Luke is anyone’s guess, but as a writer and student of story, I couldn’t help but be intrigued that Vader’s name revealed a part of his character.  The biggest revelation of his story was that he was Luke Skywalker’s father, and what better way to reveal his character than to have his name be a reflection of who he is?

I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about how they name their characters.  Some take names from people they know (with permission, of course).  Some search the baby name book for ideas.  Some invent their own names, whether widely used or not.  And others give their characters names based on what the name (or word) means.  Which route an author chooses depends on who the author is, and many writers mix and match how they name a character.

When I write stories, I’ll often use a name that just fits with a character.  But ever since my own “Vader” revelation, I found myself looking up meanings before branding my character with a name he or she will be stuck with.  I want the meaning of the character to match the meaning of the name.  But even if I love a name that doesn’t have much of a meaning (or, if the name is invented, no meaning at all), there are a few questions I find myself asking:

  • Does the name reflect my character’s personality or story?
  • If writing about a specific culture, does the name reflect the culture the character is in?
  • If writing about a specific time period, does the name reflect trends of that time (or, if it doesn’t, does that name exist?  Some names weren’t created until later.)
  • Does the name simply sound like it fits the character?

I Don’t Like Sci-Fi (But That’s What I’m Writing)

You know the age old saying for writers, “Write what you know”?  Yeah…I probably should’ve thought of that more when I started writing fiction.

I’m not one to really stick with writing in one genre.  I’ve got one series in the works that is a high fantasy/romance piece.  I’ve got another one that’s historical fiction/adventure.  But the one genre I seem to keep going back to is science fiction.

And that’s the one genre I know next to nothing about.

Fantasy stories aren’t a problem for me.  Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are the books I read annually and practically live off of when I need a good book.  Historical fiction and adventure stories are what I grew up reading as a kid, so there’s no unfamiliarity there.  But science fiction?  Not a chance.  Honestly, the only science fiction books I remember reading ever are two Star Wars: Clone Wars books I read a few years ago.  Other than that…nothing.

The problem I had with sci-fi books was that I couldn’t relate to the stories.  I love space travel, I love imagining the future.  Heck, I grew up wanting to be an astronaut (who else does their first research paper on Neil Armstrong?)  But when it came to actually sitting down and reading them, I always got stuck after a few pages.  Often the stories I *tried* to read were filled with scientific words I didn’t understand or had plot lines that focused more on the technology instead of the characters.   Sci-fi films and television shows weren’t a problem for me-I loved Star Trek and Star Wars.  But the sci-fi books I had seen were just too difficult for me to understand or too boring for me to continue with.

Now for friends and family I have, sci-fi is *their* genre.  They love it and can’t get enough of it.  They enjoy the technical lingo and terms and love to debate the various technologies (the favorite debate is The Enterprise vs. The Death Star.  Who would win?  And no, you can’t factor in The Force.)  Taking the technology and terminology out of sci-fi would be like taking the word “science” out of science fiction.  All you’re left with is…fiction.  It no longer is it’s own special story.
 
So as I’m writing sci-fi, I’m thinking of two audiences my stories are geared towards.  The non-sci-fi fans (like myself) who have a hard time understanding or being interested in the science of it all, and the sci-fi fans (like many of my friends and family) who live and breathe all the amazing technologies that are mentioned.  How can these two audiences be brought together?  
 
I think I found my answer by observing the sci-fi stories I do like.  Grant it, they’re mostly movies, but a story is a story, no matter what form it takes.  I asked myself why I liked stories like Star WarsStar TrekDr. Who, and the like.  And this is what I discovered:
 
  • Science fiction creates a sense of wonder.  What will the future be like?  What impact will modern technology have on our society?  What if the impossible suddenly became possible?  
  • Science fiction is inspiring.  Many of our current gadgets and technologies were developed by people who were inspired by science fiction stories.  You never know what technology you imagine will inspire a future-scientist or engineer.  
  • Science fiction stretches the imagination.  Remember the cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope?  That’s a lot of different alien species, all with their own looks, language, and culture.  With regular fiction, you’re often times just describing humanity-something we’re all familiar with.  But describing an imagined species takes a lot of creativity.
  • Science fiction looks deep at humanity.  Whether it’s the morality of advanced technology or the question on whether the past or future can (or should) be changed, science fiction often makes us take a look at hard, difficult questions we may not want to ask.  Stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or I, Robot take a look at technological progression not through rose-tinted glasses but through a crystal clear lense where our future may be more difficult than we think, and it’s our humanity that may be the deciding factor on whether things will go good or bad.

Taking these few observations has made me look at sci-fi in a new light.  Could it still be boring?  Like any story, yes.  Writing can be good or bad in whatever genre it’s written in.  But as long as we look at what science fiction really is-not a long list of boring terms and slow plots but a gem of exploration, observation, and imagination-then a sci-fi story can win over both fans and non-fans alike.

Jedi, Zombies, and GLaDOS: How Story is Changing the Game Industry

“You gotta get this game.”

I looked at my cousin with a quizzical brow.  Sure, I had my fun with Super Mario Brothers back in the day, but I was far from a hardcore gamer.  I was in college and working part time plus volunteering at my local church.  I didn’t have time for this computer adventure called “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.”

“But you gotta at least try it!” He pleaded with me again.

Maybe later, I replied.  And so I went on with my daily routine of studying, taking exams, and volunteering.

A couple of years passed and my cousin handed me a box.  “Here you go.” He said.  I looked at the title.  “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”, it read.  He then explained I could have it because he got a newer copy from the “Best of the PC” collection.  And being the Star Wars fan that I was, and also finally being free from full-time-student-status, I decided to give the game a try.

And what I experienced was one of the greatest stories I had ever been witness to.

(spoilers following…)

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan.  Ever since I first witnessed Luke leave Tatooine and follow Obi-Wan and the droids into space, I’ve always loved the story of Star Wars.  I’m even not ashamed to admit that yes, I enjoyed Episode One (and even collected those little circle toy things offered from Kentucky Fried Chicken.)  So when I began playing KoTOR-as Knights of the Old Republic is often called-I expected it to be good, but not great.  After all, there was no Han or Leia.  There was no Luke or Darth Vader.  There wasn’t even Jar Jar (maybe that was a good thing, though.)  Instead, we get a story set thousands of year in the past where there’s a bunch of Jedi and Sith running around in a very different looking galaxy.

Like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I grew up with as a kid, KoTOR follows the same principal-you play a character, make a choice during a conversation, and the story follows your choices.  You can either save the galaxy or conquer it or be a grey character who does a little bit of both.  But what makes KoTOR so exciting isn’t just the complex characters, emotional side quests, or exotic landscapes you visit on your quest to become a Jedi.  It’s learning that the villain you hear so much about throughout the tale-how Darth Revan practically brought the galaxy to its knees through conquest-is actually you.  The pilot who flies you around saving people?  You caused the destruction of his planet.  The loyal bounty hunter who fights by your side?  You crushed his people and left them scattered.  The madman who’s running around destroying other worlds for power?  He was your apprentice.

And then you learn the Jedi who were now training you to fight the dark side actually reprogrammed your memory so you would retrace your steps and find the Star Forge-the machine that helped you conquer the galaxy.

Yeah, it gets pretty deep.

When KoTOR was first released, it became an instant hit.  Bioware, the company that made it, became a household name in the gaming industry and went on to create another successful series entitled Mass Effect.  But what made KoTOR stand out wasn’t the graphics or the gameplay.  It was the story.

Before, gaming was a simple yet fun way to spend an evening with buddies button-mashing your way through a castle or asteroid field.  As gaming evolved, however, story has gained a bigger role.  Instead of just saving the princess, you learn why you have to save the princess and how she got locked up in the first place.  Instead of saving the world with an ABAB combo with the controller and calling it good, you get drawn into a story that has you just as hooked as the final boss battle.

Even console games are jumping on the success of story.  Modern hits like “The Last of Us” and “Portal 2” take players on an emotional roller coaster ride.  Unlike KoTOR, these games give players little choice in changing the overall story, but create a setting so gripping we probably wouldn’t be able to write it better.  With Portal 2, you see GLaDOS, a sadistic robot who uses Chell, the player, as a human guinea pig to test science.  You then must team up with your former enemy (who is now comfortably nested in a potato) to escape another crazy robot, all the while learning the history of your scientific prison.  And though I haven’t played “The Last of Us” (I’ve never been a big fan of zombies), from friends I have heard who have played it, the story is one of the reasons the game is considered great.  Joel’s decision to save Ellie over (potentially) the rest of the world is a choice that makes us ponder whether we would’ve done the same thing.  And knowing Joel’s past, how he lost his own daughter so tragically at the beginning of the game, it makes the decision all the more powerful.

In the end, gaming is evolving.  No longer is it the simple button mashing fun that it used to be.  With the integration of story, games are becoming more complex and involving the audience in newer ways.  Though not all games have great story, some stories make great games, and with tales like “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”, these stories are now becoming just as popular as their book and movie counterparts.

Creating an Imaginative Universe: The Importance of Setting

Recently the television show “Legend of Korra” aired a one hour special telling the history of the first Avatar, Wan.  I won’t get into too many of the details of the plot here (just in case you haven’t seen it yet), but what I will spoil for you is that the episode is much different from its predecessors in both the Legend of Korra series and Avatar: the Last Airbender.

No longer do we see bustling cities full of people or lush landscapes with unique animals like the so-adorably-cute-you-must-have-one-for-a-pet turtle-duck.  Instead, we see isolated towns living atop giant, living animal guardians.  We see jungles fit for a nightmare.  We see a peaceful oasis where it seems no one wants to leave.  We see a city in the clouds, barren and rocky plains, towering cliffs and isolated stone.  It’s the same world we’ve seen before (there’s still people and firebenders.  Lots and lots of firebenders…), yet it is somehow different.  There’s a unique feel to it, as if the world the characters move in is a whole new world we’ve never seen.  But it’s this uniqueness that breathes imagination into the story.  It’s what sets the story apart from so many others, bringing an element of excitement and wonder to what we, the audience, are witnessing.

Imagine Wan’s journey in learning how to bend all four elements and bring balance to the world if he were only staying in a town.  Would the story have been as effective?  Or even if it was effective, would it still have made the story stand apart?

Setting is the integral background of a story-the part that often isn’t the center of attention or the most popular part of writing, but without it, the story would not be as powerful.  Setting is to storytelling the way the background strokes of a painting are to art.  You can have a lovely picture of a person in the painting, but where he or she is in that picture helps tell the story.  If the person is standing in the middle of a beach, doubtless it is a story of a nice vacation (and it’s a story I want to be in!)  If the person is standing in a church with his or her new spouse, doubtless it’s a story of a wedding.  Where the person is in the picture adds depth and meaning.  If it were simply a blank canvas, the meaning of the picture would be more difficult to interpret.  Why is the person happy in the picture?  Why is the person sad?  Without the background, we might not have any clue.

Other stories have stood apart from others because of a unique setting.  Imagine Star Wars on Earth instead of space and other worlds.  Luke wouldn’t have much of a journey and Chewbacca would look pretty awkward walking down the street.  Imagine Lord of the Rings in a modern city instead of Middle Earth.  Places like Moria, Hobbiton, Lothlorien, and Minas Tirith would cease to exist.  What made Star Wars so unique was the different worlds Luke visited in his journey to become a Jedi-Tatooine, Hoth, even the different space ships.  What made Lord of the Rings stand apart were the many lands inhabited by the Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Men, and Orcs.  Their lands were a reflection of who they were.  Without them, would we have been able to understand the ethereal quality of the Elves or the simpleness of Hobbits?

Setting is imagination at its finest.  It’s the area where the writer or artist creates the world in which the characters live and the plot proceeds.  It’s often times the most difficult part of writing, yet it’s also the most rewarding.  It provides us a chance to create a world no one has ever seen, a chance to make dreams become a reality.

It’s the chance to share your imagination with the world.