I Did It 35 Minutes Ago

By | Wednesday, September 02, 2020 2 comments
I saw Star Wars during its original theatrical run back in the '70s. I was probably only six when I saw it and, like a lot of other kids my age, it left an indelible mark on my childhood. I obviously didn't have a wide experience with science fiction or fantasy at that age, so a lot of the ideas and concepts in the movie were entirely new and different to me. I remember the cantina scene was a standout because it was the first time I'd really seen multiple alien races all mingling together; every other sci-fi story I knew from before then was humans and one other alien species, and always a very human-looking one at that! So the idea that this universe was inhabited by dozens of aliens races was mind-blowing to me!

As I got a little older, I started to analyze it a little more and looked at it from a stortelling perspective. I recall having to write a short story for our eighth grade English class, and I wrote a two or three page warrior versus dragon fantasy piece. I think it was a pretty standard save-the-village-from-the-evil-dragon concept, but I vividly remember starting the story in the midst of the battle bewteen the two. No setup, no introduction, nothing like that. I think the first line or two may have even just been sound effects of swords slashing and fire breathing and such. I also clearly recall doing that expressly because that's how Star Wars starts. It opens with a screen full of stars and then two spaceships fly through blasting at each other. "There'll be no escape for the Princess this time!" Wait, what? What princess? Who's she trying to escape from? What do you mean 'this time'?!?

By the time I was hitting puberty, I had already recognized that you could catch a reader's attention immediately by skipping the start of the story and just dropping them right into the middle of it. They'll catch up soon enough. Star Wars was one of the first pieces of fiction that made me re-think storytelling. You didn't need a "once upon a time" (which, technically, Star Wars has but I can guarantee you I didn't read that when I was six!), you didn't need to stop the narrative to introduce each character as they appeared... The information all needs to be present in the story, but it doesn't need to be laid out at the outset. I've watched the movie repeatedly over the years, and I absorbed a lot about narrative fiction by doing so.

Watchmen was also kind of like that for me. There's the notion running through most of the story that the captions don't necessarily have to tell the same story the artwork is telling. The captions' narrative can run parallel to the art's. That whole bit when Tales of the Black Freighter is introduced was impressive, and really caught my attention. But honestly, the standout moment -- in terms of my learning about storytelling -- can be boiled down to: "I did it 35 minutes ago."
Watchmen panel
It sounds a little cliche now to say that it's my favorite line from, well... anything by Alan Moore. But it was, for me at least, a really defining moment in learning about storytelling. I was still in my middle teens when I read that in '87 (when it was just a monthly limited series, and not a graphic novel, thankyouverymuch!!) but that line was revelatory. I mean, he's clearly breaking the norms of the genre; Ozymandias even contrasts himself against the stereotypical villain. But the notion that, as a writer, you could lay out the entire plot retroactively was mind-blowing. I'm pretty sure when I first read that, I just stopped cold on the page. "Can... can you even do that?"

Moore somewhat famously re-wrote the rules of comics with Watchmen. And it's been pointed out by many others in the past that many people took the wrong lessons from it, helping to give us a decade of superficially "grim and gritty" stories with no substance to them. Granted, there's a lot going on in Watchmen and much of it was novel at the time. But the next time, comics gets a re-defining how stories get told narrative, be sure to keep your eye on the story itself. Don't get distracted by the bells and whistles. Star Wars is really just a simple "hero's journey" story, but there's still narrative lessons that can be learned, if you look past the invented-for-the-movie special effects and innovative ship and set designs. Whatever the new whiz bang story is that everyone's trying to copy, keep your eyes on the story itself. The other bits might be flashy and clever and original, too, but it's the story that's drawing people to it.
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Matt K said...

"I think the first line or two may have even just been sound effects of swords slashing and fire breathing and such."

I still remember a list of guidelines for better writing in one of my English classes, or at least a couple of items from it. One e.g. was to avoid the phrase "center around" because it doesn't make sense.

Another was "no bombs, please," and your opener was exactly what they meant. ;-)

Clearly, I had't seen a set of those guidelines at age 13. :D