Darth Vader is Not a Squid: Writing lessons from a truly awful Star Wars novelization

George Lucas, why do you frustrate me so? Why must you be so good at imagining things but so bad at writing them?

99 percent of the time, I prefer a mediocre writer with a great imagination to a beautiful prose stylist with nothing to say. This is why I became one of the few people to unironically enjoy the Star Wars prequels. But this prose is beyond mediocre–it is, in fact, so bad I think we can learn something from it. Ordinarily, I would feel bad about spending an entire post trashing someone else’s writing; that’s why I took down my review of The Book of Strange New Things (though it’s still available on request, if you feel like 2,000 words of mostly unfunny vitriol would brighten your day).

But Mr. Lucas is a Kennedy Center honoree, so I feel like he can take the hits. Without further ado, I’ll start.

Not everyone knows that Lucas wrote companion novels to all three original trilogy films. I didn’t until a few weeks ago, when A. brought this Amazon page for the Episode IV novel to my attention and told me to read the sample pages until the introduction of Darth Vader. I did, and was not disappointed. In the name of being constructive, I’d like to offer up some of the early mistakes of this book, along with the lessons they can teach writers–and genre writers in particular.

I apologize–that was definitely another paragraph of ado. There really won’t be any more this time, I promise. Let’s begin…

It was a vast, shining globe and it cast a light of lambent topaz

…and let’s stop right there. Pack it up. Good run, blog post.

Seriously, lambent topaz? Why would you put that in the first line of your book, when reader attachment is most tenuous? To be fair, it means what it’s supposed to mean–glowing yellow–but it’s such an unnecessary complication of that simple idea. Now, I don’t believe words need to always be the simplest possible, but there’s a time and a place for saying “lambent” instead of “bright” and it’s not the exposition.

Yet both massive G1 and G2 stars orbited a common center with peculiar regularity

Amazingly, we haven’t made it through the next paragraph before George runs into the opposite problem. Having started too literary, he’s now not literary enough. When you’re writing genre fiction, it’s never a good idea to use too many words your reader won’t have an immediate mental picture for: this is why people get exasperated with fantasy novels that lard on too many made-up words right at the start. Unless it’s crucial to the plot that we know the designations of Tatooine’s suns, don’t bother naming them.

And it’s not crucial to the plot. Remember that famous scene where Luke Skywalker outwits the stormtroopers by correctly naming the categories of his home stars? Yeah, neither do I.

Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host.

After a pretty good introduction to the rebel cruiser, Lucas demonstrates another rule: when employing a simile, make sure the thing you’re comparing the event to actually resembles it somehow. I’m trying to play this scene out using sea creatures instead of spaceships, and I can’t find any way it makes sense. Are the remoras getting…fired from somewhere? If they miss the whale, why can’t they turn around? This is not the kind of thing I should be thinking on the first page. Any literary device should involve me more deeply in the action, not forcibly jerk me out of it.

Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic

What’s the deal with gems, George? You sound like Christopher Paolini. You do not wanna sound like Christopher Paolini.

a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapons emplacements.

Fear the Imperial Space Cactus!

In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.

Fear the Imperial Snuggle Cruiser!

All gods, this paragraph just keeps topping itself. Seriously, this is crucial for all writers to remember: words have connotations. I posted more than a year ago about the magic that occurs when you describe aid to the poor as “welfare”–the listener’s mental image changes completely. “Snuggle” is another such word. If you employ it, I am going to think of a kitten curling around a consenting teddy bear, not the forcible capture of a spaceship.

Artoo Deetoo or See Threepio

Wait, what? Has anybody else in the history of Star Wars ever written these names this way? Are they like this all the way through the screenplay, too? No writing lesson here, I’m just confused.

while Threepio might have sniffed disdainfully at the suggestion, they were in fact equal in everything save loquacity.

The writing advice “show, don’t tell” is thrown about a lot, and it’s often misunderstood. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out, her students are often so intent on following this “rule” that they become terrified of all exposition. There is absolutely a place for telling, and it doesn’t need to stop your readers in their tracks–I love writing exposition, and I know a lot of people who love reading it.

Right here, however, we have a textbook case of when “show, don’t tell” should be followed. The information here would be conveyed in short order if Lucas had just let C3P0 and R2-D2 (because those are their names, god damn it) act, and I’d be much more invested. When characters do things, I get a starting point to identify with them. This just sounds like a case study.

Accompanying the last attack was a persistent deep hum which even the loudest explosion had not been able to drown out. Then for no apparent reason, the basso thrumming abruptly ceased

The basso thrum is introduced, and then immediately cancelled in the next sentence. Right here, I’m beginning to see the common thread that unites all these complaints: so much is unnecessary. The adverbs, the weird similes, the hamfisted characterization. The solution for all is so simple–cut the crap and tell the story. It’s as though the fact that the tale is on paper means it has to take three times as long to tell. If you were telling a funny story to your friends at a party, would you stop every three words to compare something to a cactus?

A small band of humans suddenly appeared, rifles held at the ready.

There are exceptions to Lucas’s habit of always saying too much–namely, these weird moments where he doesn’t say enough. I have no idea where these people came from. Since it’s a sci-fi setting, it’s not impossible they teleported into the corridor. Call that your lesson from this sentence: even if you’re not writing a play, direction matters. Always be mindful of space.

“Quick–this way!” Threepio ordered, intending to retreat from the Imperials.

Oh, really? He intended to retreat? He wasn’t planning to, I don’t know, snuggle them? It might work.

Screams of injured and dying humans–a peculiarly unrobotic sound, Threepio thought

Next time you watch a Star Wars movie, you’ll have the pleasure of knowing C3P0 is constantly thinking the most obvious thought possible. “Master Luke, this sand on Tatooine is nothing like water!” “Oh, dear! Obi-Wan Kenobi, now dead, is very much not alive!”

Two meters tall. Bipedal. Flowing black robes trailing from the figure and a face forever masked by a functional if bizarre black metal breath screen

There you have it, folks. Straight from the horse’s mouth: Darth Vader is bipedal.

Now, I’m aware there’s a substantial fan community that contests Darth Vader is a squid, and always has been, even in his days as Anakin Skywalker. I hate to disappoint the folks over at the r/squidvader subreddit, but it’s time to pack it in. He’s bipedal. Not a squid.

This provides a chance to talk about an important concept in genre fiction. It goes by a few names, but I keep it simple: it’s the like-earth-but-different rule. Basically, when reading about a constructed world, people will assume that everything there is like the real world unless the author explicitly tells them something is not. If George Lucas had started things off by explaining everyone was a quadriped, then it would make sense for him to highlight Darth Vader walking upright, because it deviates from the new baseline he’d have established. But everyone’s pretty much been bipedal so far (except R2-D2, but kinda him, even) so saying it just sounds goofy.

Much more of this book is available in the Amazon preview, but I’m going to stop here, because I fear I’ll start repeating myself. Instead, I want to end with this video, which demonstrates how much clearer everything could have been. It’s the same scene, but I guarantee any one of you watching could retell it without all the extra words and frippery its own creator found necessary.

The tale comes first. Then the telling. See for yourself.

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