Story Structure: Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars:  Written by George Lucas

From the standpoint of story structure, Star Wars is a perfect film.  It's so good, that you sometimes wonder if the same writer was involved in the various sequels and prequels which each have their up (and down) moments, but, in my view, are not as strong.  From a structural standpoint, Star Wars has it all: a well-developed and sympathetic hero a heroic journey that gives him a worthwhile goal and epic struggle in Act II, an Act III that elevates the action to a still higher level, a crowd-pleasing denouement, and most important an Inner Need that is fully resolved through the actions of the hero by the end of the film.  As imaginative and fully realized as is the world of Luke Skywalker, what makes this film a classic is a hero's journey that works beautifully and will survive the test of time.  

Who’s Story Is It?  Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil)

Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action: In the prologue, we are introduced to the power of Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) as he attacks the ship of fleeing Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in an attempt to receive the stolen plans to his ultimate weapon, the Death Star.  But Leia has secreted the plans inside droid R2D2 and with fellow droid C3PO sent them out in an escape pod to seek help from former Jedi knight, Obiwan Kenobi.  Next we meet young Luke Skywalker and learn of his frustrating life at his uncle’s farm.  Luke dreams of joining the rebellion and becoming a starfighter, but his uncle demands he remain to work the farm for another year.  Things change for Luke when his uncle buys Princess Leia’s droids which then play a partial message from Leia.  Luke is intrigued.  The next day, one of the droids (R2D2) escapes and makes it to Obiwan (Alec Guiness) who plays the entire message and asks Luke to come along and help him fight the empire as his father did before him.  Luke refuses the call, however, citing commitments to his family.

Inciting Event 1: Luke gets R2D2’s message from Leia, originally meant for Obiwan, asking for help.

Inciting Event 2: The Storm Troopers who have been searching for the droids kill Luke’s aunt and uncle.  

Star Wars is a good example of a film in which there is more than one Inciting Event.  The function of the Inciting Event is to knock the hero off balance and make it so that it is impossible to stay in their everyday world established in Act I.  But sometimes, a hero needs more than one nudge to be knocked off axis enough to make the BIG DECISION.  Clearly, Luke needs more than one.  He wants to join Obiwan in his mission to deliver R2D2 to the rebellion and, in so doing, lead a more exciting and purposeful life.  But something is holding him back from committing.  Is it his commitment to his uncle, or is it fear?  Or is it maybe a little of both?  Whatever, the appearance of Leia's message is not enough to cause Luke to commit to the cause.  However, when he and Obiwan find that his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Storm Troopers, he agrees to join Obiwan's mission.  This is his Act I Turning Point (Decision).  

Act I Turning Point: Luke realizes that there is no longer any reason to stay on the farm.  He DECIDES to go with Obiwan, deliver R2D2 to the rebels and fight the good fight against the empire.  

See how the Turning Point Decision leads Luke into Act II?  He is now committed to the Struggle to Achieve the Goal, which is the central action of Act II.

Act II Basic Action: Teamed up with Obiwan, Luke goes to the space bar where he makes a deal for passage on the Millenium Falcon, the ship of intergalactic pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, who become his chief allies in the film.  They leave the planet, skirmishing with empire fighters before heading to the planet Alderan.  Along the way, Obiwan instructs Luke in the use of The Force, the special power that resides within him.  Obiwan becomes Luke's teacher, and his mentor as he will be even after this movie ends.  But when they get to their destination of Alderan, they find only floating debris where the planet used to be; it had been destroyed by Vader and the Death Star.  Solo’s ship is sucked into the Death Star, and our hero and his allies disguise themselves as Storm Troopers in order to rescue Princess Leia.  Obiwan sets off separately to disable the tractor beam that holds Solo’s ship to the Death Star.  After rescuing Leia, fighting many Storm Troopers and escaping near death in a garbage compactor, Luke, Solo and the droids make it back to the Millenium Falcon.  But in a light saber battle in the cargo bay, Obiwan is killed by Vader, with whom he clearly has a past relationship.  Luke has lost his mentor, he must carry on alone.  Their ship escapes the Death Star and they make it to the rebel planet and download plans to the Death Star.  Since the Struggle to achieve the goal (delivering the plans to the Death Star) has now been realized, we are clearly at the end of Act II.  But it comes with a price...

Act II Low Point: Luke has not only lost Obiwan, but the rebel alliance realizes that Vader has planted a homing device on the Millenium Falcon.  It is only a matter of time before the Death Star arrives. 

Act II Turning Point:
Luke DECIDES to join the rebellion forces and pilot a fighter against the Death Star.  A weakness in the Death Star defenses has been detected.  Though the odds against him are great, Luke believes in their cause and decides that it is worth the risk.  This DECISION leads Luke into the battle with the Death Star that is the centerpiece of Act III.

Act III Basic Action: Now paid by the rebels, Solo elects to duck out before the battle.  Armed with information about a weakness in the Death Star, the rebels head out to do battle, but they are greatly overmatched.  One by one, they are picked off by the superior forces of Vader.  Eventually it looks like all is lost, but Solo comes to Luke’s rescue, giving him a clear path to a bombing run.  At a critical moment as he approaches his target, Luke gets a message from Obiwan to trust The Force and he switches off his targeting computer and lets The Force guide him to victory.  The Death Star is destroyed, Vader spins off into space.  

Denouement: This is the emotional "wrapping up" of the story.  The end of the Death Star is the end of the struggle as the goal is achieved.  But the denouement gives us a resolution, not to the struggle, but to our emotional investment in the herol  In the denouement, Luke, Solo, Chewbacca and the droids are honored by Princess Leia as heroes of the rebellion.

Hero’s Outer Need: to deliver the droids and the plans (the MacGuffin) to the rebels, then later to destroy the Death Star.

Hero’s Inner Need: to become a man, specifically a Jedi Knight and realize that deep within him beats not only the heart of a hero, but an amazing power (The Force).

What makes this story so satisfying is that Luke achieves his Outer Need and his Inner Need at the same moment.  When he punches the button to send the missiles into the Death Star's reactor, he is not just blowing up a piece of enemy hardware, he is doing so by using the special powers (the Force) that lie within him.  He is becoming the man he has longed to become.

Central Question: Can they rescue Leia, and get the Death Star plans to the rebellion.  Can they stop the Death Star?  Is Luke a hero?

Opponent: Darth Vader’s Outer need is to build the Death Star and use it to destroy the rebel uprising.  His Inner need is to manipulate those around him to show his power.  

Allies: Obiwan, Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, R2D2 and C3PO

Opponents:  Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, The Emperor, Storm Troopers

Sub-plot Characters:
Characters in Space Bar that reference Solo's notorious past.

Theme:  We should trust in the power within ourselves and not technology to solve problems.   Sometimes even the small and powerless can take down the huge powers.

The MacGuffin: the plans to the Death Star.

Subplots:  Han Solo and his renegade life.  Solo and his romance of Leia.  Leia and her family on Alderan.  Obiwan and his teaching Luke in the ways of the Force.  R2D2 and his relationship with C3PO


In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer