Happy Accidents

Most people acknowledge that the Star Wars prequels are flawed at best and substandard at worst.  I don’t imagine there are many people who would say they’re great films, though I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find diehard fans who would claim they’re amazing.  Those people are wrong.

Truly, objectively wrong.

But I’m not here to beat the dead AT-AT that is the Star Wars prequels.

Most people agree that the prequels have their flaws, and most people tend to agree that George Lucas is at the heart of those flaws.  The most common reason being that Lucas has “lost” it, but to me, the question isn’t whether or not Lucas lost whatever special magic he might have had.  It’s where that magic came from in the first place.

The problem I’ve always seen with the prequels is that they were Lucas given an unlimited budget and no oversight.  The prequels are a mixed bag, but for better or worse, they are exactly what George Lucas wanted them to be.  If we were to look at the difference between the classic trilogy and the prequels, I’d say that more than anything else, it was all the difficulties and limitations that made the original trilogy great.  Those difficulties are absent from the prequels, and that is why, whether fans want to accept it or not, the prequels are the films Lucas always wanted to make.  The original trilogy are the films he ended up making despite himself.

Limitations and happy accidents often end up making great stories.

Absolute control often works against that.

As a novelist, you would think this wouldn’t come up quite as much as a filmmaker.  Film has an element of logistics that novels lack.  If I want to create a scene with a million space ninjas or have a dragon as big as a continent, it’s as easy as typing a few words.  That unlimited canvas is a novelologist’s most perilous asset.  It’s something most of us learn to adapt to fairly quickly.  After a while, you learn to limit yourself, to pick and choose what you will do from EVERYTHING you want to do, and that, usually, your story is better off by focusing on a few really awesome ideas rather than a ton of good ones.

The other truth I’ve come to accept is that often the best ideas are the ones you never quite saw coming.  Whether it’s a malfunctioning robot shark forcing Spielberg to rely on other, more subtle methods to portray the shark in Jaws or an under-the-weather Harrison Ford deciding to just shoot a bad guy rather than get into an elaborate swordfight, there are a lot of great moments in the films we love that were improvised or altered due to circumstances and a willingness to experiment in the moment.

Writing novels is a little different again, but there are plenty of happy accidents in my own stories.  In my first novel, Gil’s All Fright Diner, I created a ghost named Cathy.  Originally, she was going to be a male character, but I decided at a spur of the moment to make the ghost a woman because I wanted another important female in the story.  I also added, without much forethought, the idea that vampires could touch ghosts.  Both ideas weren’t considered as necessarily vital when I came up with them, but they ended up creating the foundation for a romantic element that became integral to the story.

(Not that there couldn’t have been a romantic element between two male characters, except that just wouldn’t have happened.  At that time, I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own writing chops to attempt a homosexual character, much less any kind of same sex romance.)

This is true for all my stories.  Elements just pop in my head and sometimes, I run with them.  There was initially no reason for Mack Megaton to have a talking gorilla for a friend other than I liked the idea.  Chester the paper gnome was simply a cool image (i.e. an assistant Monster could carry in his pocket), who became a character in his own right.  Franklin, the orc wannabe, was just there to be the butt of some jokes and ended up becoming something more.

It’s mostly in the development of characters that I trust the happy accidents.  The plot can benefit from them too.  I find if I hold too tight to an idea or plot point, even when it’s not working, I can often end up wasting a lot of time not adapting to the great idea before me as I cling stubbornly to the bad idea I want to work so badly.

Flexibility makes great stories, and limitations encourage flexibility.  It’s cool to have a vision and, if you’re fortunate, that vision can be exactly the story you need to tell exactly the way it should be told.  But, more often, you end up with something as uneven and confused as the Star Wars prequels or Star Trek: Into Darkness.  By being chained to their creators’ vision, such stories are hobbled.

This is also why I’ve so rarely experienced a prequel or reboot worthy of the original.  Flexibility and experimentation is exactly the opposite of what most prequels have in mind.  Lucas knew the ending he had to get to, and he had no choice but to railroad the plot along those lines.  Into Darkness is a bit stranger, considering it has more innate flexibility.  Yet in the end, it chose to revisit older material, cramming it into the tale in nonsensical ways, and there were so many scenes that seem to be storyboarded first, then justified later.  I’ve often heard it said that Lucas planned the sets for the prequels before penning the script.  Even if this isn’t true, it often feels like it.

Creativity isn’t a straightforward process.  It’s a mysterious affair, and if I could tell you how to do it, I would.  I rarely understand it myself.  I just trust that if I make myself sit down and write AND I focus on what is important while being open to the occasional happy accident, then everything will work out in the end (with the help of judicious editing).  But the more I write, the less I concern myself with knowing all the cool stuff I want to put on the page and the more I benefit from being open to discoveries along the way.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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7 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    My blogger buddy Tony Laplume is one of those who loves the prequels. I think he’s just a contrarian by nature.

    I refer to those happy accidents as audibles because it is like in football where the quarterback goes to the line with one play in mind but then at the last second sees something better might work and changes the play. Like in football those audibles don’t always work out for the best.

    I wrote a couple of prequels and found I ended up with some of those problems. It is hard when you’re locked into ending something a certain way, though in Lucas’s case I think he had a little more flexibility because if you discount any of the comic books, novels, etc. there isn’t that much in the original movies about the fall of the Old Republic. All we really knew was that Anakin Skywalker was a pilot and Jedi in the Clone Wars, made a couple of babies with someone, and turned to the dark side to become Darth Vader. All that stuff about Naboo and the Trade Federation and whatnot wasn’t in the original movies. I think he just made some poor choices in how to incorporate those facts. If I ever felt the urge, it’d be fun to try to come up with my own Star Wars prequels.

  2. Posted October 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Franklin was a great character.

  3. JB Sanders Jr
    Posted October 18, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I liked Franklin as well, especially the way he Steved up at the end.

    JB

  4. Rodney Baker
    Posted October 19, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Another great movie that would have been no where near as cool was John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. If I recall carefully the creature wasn’t originally going to be this absorbing lifeform, but actually a bug of some sort that latched on to people and made them hallucinate. One of the creative team members died and a rookie got the chance to show his idea of the ‘Thing’ as we know it. There’s lots of instances in Hollywood where we almost lost awesome films because of unplanned incidents, and of course there’s lots of instances when Hollywood could have done it better but didn’t. Ever read the original script to Alien Ressurection? The writer never intended for the human/xenomorph to look like that albino space monkey.

  5. Elenna
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    OK Mr. Writer, if you are going to misuse the word objectively so egregiously you are no better than the recent surge of people who will insist on using the word “literally” to describe figurative situations.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted October 22, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if I consider it a misuse, considering how flawed the films are from every single angle. Although it’s also true that quality is subjective, overall, I think only the most diehard fans would argue that the prequel films are anything other than flawed works. Of course, like all such assessments, it is a matter of opinion.

      Still, I’m comfortable saying the prequels are objectively flawed, and I stand by my assessment.

  6. Shawn
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Asimov said that he came up with the ending first then started writing and worked his way toward the end. So it can be done well.
    I think Lucas started his problems way back with Return of the Jedi, by changing the name from Revenge of…to Return of…and changing the tribe of Wookies to Ewoks just to sell toys. What bigger sell out of his creativity can there be? Those two changes radically changed the tone of the film. It should have been dark. But he had to appeal to 5 year olds for money. The new films are just one big commercial for video games and toys.
    Films in general are all remakes because Hollywood lawyers do not want to risk millions on new ideas. Have you noticed all movies are named after song titles just so you will remember them easier. And just like the music industry, you can’t have a modest profit. You have to have a blockbuster that is guarantied with a built in audience. Maybe that is why you are no longer with TOR.
    By the way I love your books for the fun and creativity, all those hanging around certainly not the plots.

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