Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! A New Hope begins as Princess Leia is held hostage by the Empire in order to crush the rebellion against them. During the attack on Leia’s ship two droids, R2-D2 and C3PO, escape with a secret map with the location of the rebel base. They land on a foreign planet and are captured and sold to Luke Skywalker. As the Empire searches for the map, they destroy Luke’s home. With nowhere to go R2-D2 leads Luke to Old Ben, one of the last Jedi Knights. Ben takes Luke and the droids across the universe in search of help, and they meet Han Solo and Chewbacca who have a ship to get them there.
In an attempt to get the coordinates for the Rebel base from Princess Leia, Darth Vader, a leader of the Empire, destroys the same planet with their new space station the Death Star. Luke and company are near the planet and caught by the Death Star, but they escape their captors and look for a way off the Death Star. They find Leia and free her. Ben also finds Darth Vader, who used to be Ben’s student. Vader wins, but Ben’s spirit remains with Luke. The heroes flee to the rebel base to warn them that the Empire has located them. There’s a big space battle, and Luke destroys the Death Star.
In The Empire Strikes Back, the rebels have moved to a new base. The Empire attacks again, and the rebels flee. Luke heads out to find Yoda, Ben’s Master, and learn the force. Leia, Solo, Chewie, and the droids are captured by the Empire in an attempt to catch Luke and turn him to their side. Luke finds Yoda and has a vision that his friends are in danger. He goes to save them against Yoda’s warning and not knowing of the trap. Leia confesses her love for Han right before he is frozen and sent to Jabba the Hutt for a debt. The others escape. Luke and Vader fight. Vader cuts off Luke’s arm and escapes, but not before telling Luke that he is his father. After refusing to join the Dark Side, Luke ejects himself into space. The others rescue him, but they’ve lost Han and learned some dark truths. Everyone is sad. Jeni, what’d you think about the movies?
Jeni: I believe I may have mentioned on the show before that Star Wars is a big deal at my house. Well, that’s an understatement. My husband is so obsessed that I’m honestly not sure we would have gotten married if I hadn’t seen the movies haha And we have had many … um, strained discussions over the years because I don’t love the other trilogies. But these original movies are so good. And even more so when you really take a moment to think about how groundbreaking they were and how much they really changed the face of filmmaking and moviegoing as we know it. As stories, they still hold up, even if the graphics don’t so much–although they’ve been remastered like a dozen times since then haha They have such strong character archetypes and honestly so many references in all kinds of other media. Everyone needs to see these at some point. What did you think?
Carly: I mean, it is the original Star Wars. What is not to love? It’s a classic! I’ve watched these movies so many times. Starting as a little kid all the way until now. They are the best. And they really hold up, they are still as good as they were when we were young as they are now. It is a classic story, but it is told really well and set a lot of standards. I will say though, Han shot first and I’ll hear no argument about that. Umm, I don’t really have anything else to say, what more is there to say about such a classic? So Jeni, what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Jeni: Well, we’ve really been wanting to talk about series so we may or may not have intentionally picked these so we could talk about series. I’m not sure there’s a better known series than Star Wars. The worldbuilding is so immersive and the characters so iconic. It really exemplifies everything that makes a series so addictive and engaging. And there are some really great takeaways from these movies in terms of how to handle stories individually and how to make them work together in the series. I do want to point out that, yes, we are aware that this is only two-thirds of the original trilogy, with Return of the Jedi making up the last film. And also that I’ll try really hard not to get into analyzing the series as a whole, but I’m not making any promises. Anyway, part of why these two particular movies make such a good example for a series is that the first movie does a great job of introducing everything and then the second movie really takes it in another direction, which I think we will get into a bit more later. But, yeah. Let’s talk about writing a series!
Carly: It’s really important to understand what readers look for in a series. The main elements are: story continuity, continued development, and getting more engaged with the characters. Let’s break each of those down. Story continuity may seem like an obvious statement, but there are so many times where continuity is often thrown out the window in lieu of a fun story. This is most often done in cartoon TV shows or procedurals. And often the shows poke fun at the fact that there is no continuity. But when it comes to books in particular, it is important that you are expanding on the world, filling in details, making the story progress in a way that honors the first in the series. You are creating worlds, and you want the physics of the world to make sense, in a non literal and also literal sense. Next you want to continue to develop the story, take it to new places while again staying in line with the first story. Readers don’t want a duplicate story, they don’t want the same thing to happen again, they want progression. Your characters should have learned from the original or else it didn’t mean anything. There needs to be progression and development. If there isn’t further development, the first book will feel like a waste of time. A series builds on itself, both in story and in character development. Which brings me to my final point: which is getting more engaged with the characters. If you’ve done the first in the series correctly, then your characters have had a character arc (see our previous episode) and have changed or grown in some way. You don’t want to throw that out the window, you want to deepen it. Don’t regress your characters back to who they were in the beginning, but instead continue their growth. Luke is not the same naive innocent that he was at the start of A New Hope by the time we get to Empire Strikes Back. He has grown so much, had to deal with the loss of his master, made new friends, and traveled across the galaxy. At the beginning of the second movie, he is much stronger and more determined. But he is now struggling with the loss of his family and now Obi Wan. So he goes to find Yoda, to develop his training, to be better prepared to face Darth Vader. He takes the trauma from the first movie and uses it as an emotional wound in the second movie that motivates him to take action. It is the perfect way to continue to grow his character.
Jeni: Yes! It’s so fun to really be able to dig into a world with a series. I think that’s why they’re so popular–you get to hang out with characters you love for so much longer than you would normally in a single movie or book. Although, I do have to say, I’ve read–and watched–some series that probably went on too long and started to feel tired or repetitive. I’ve also read/seen some that don’t feel as strong at either the beginning, middle, or end of the series. So one thing I want to mention is to think about the overall structure of your series a little bit. I know this is a challenge for hardore pantsers especially, but even for plotters, planning a whole series can be difficult. I think it can be really helpful to think of each book as both its own thing and as a part of the whole. It’s kinda like how each scene in a single book needs to have its own goal and conflict and its own beginning, middle, and end, as well as fitting into the whole big main plot. So, in a series, you want each book to have its own goal and conflict and its own beginning, middle, and end–including a sense of resolution of the conflict for that particular book–as well as fitting into the series as a whole. You can definitely tell sometimes when a series is planned from the beginning, versus when the writers have to figure out how to bring things together or how to extend a story beyond where they originally planned it. This is definitely one area where I can get a bit lecture-y about the entire Star Wars series. But I won’t! But I will just say that it’s clear some parts were planned from the beginning and some weren’t. You’re welcome to DM me if you want to hear my whole TED talk about it. Anyway. When you’re writing a series, I think it’s really important to keep this element in mind so your reader stays engaged throughout the series. So I always suggest that as soon as you know you want a book to be part of a series, spend some time creating an overall map of where the series will go, even if it’s just a couple sentences of what needs to happen in the big, overarching story. The alternative is often writing yourself into a corner that you have to find your way out of and making future you regret all your life choices.
Carly: That’s the perfect way to describe it. You want each individual book to stand on its own while still serving the whole series. In this trilogy, each movie ends with a conflict being resolved, with a solid resolution, but we know the Empire is still out there, that they are still a threat. So by the end of the trilogy we have a resolution of the overarching threat from the first two movies (we’re going to ignore all the other movies in the rest of the Star Wars universe for now). Speaking of the Star Wars universe: let’s talk about worldbuilding. The worldbuilding should expand in each book. Often the first in a series takes place in a couple of locations with only the pertinent worldbuilding details on display. But a series allows you to explore other parts of the world, other aspects that you wouldn’t be able to in only one book. And you want that world to expand, you want to take readers to places they haven’t been before or have them deal with new elements of the world that they haven’t seen before. You want to expand the world so it becomes fresh and new. It isn’t a repeat of the original story. It is showing different sides and different aspects of the world they’ve known thus far. If the first book takes place in the upper crust of society, bring the readers to the seedy underbelly in the second book. Show them what they didn’t get to see in the first book. The elements that were working behind the scenes to further the original story. In these movies we start by introducing a lot of the different elements of the galaxy. A couple of planets, a little bit of the Empire’s army, and a little bit of the Rebels. But in the sequel we really get to dive into the Rebels and how they are planning and fighting back against the Empire. We get to see new worlds and different environments. We get to learn about more uses of the Force. You get to develop the worldbuilding slowly and effectively over the course of a series because you have time to explore the systems and details through your storytelling instead of cramming it all in. Don’t feel like you need to introduce an element in the first book so that it will make sense when a character utilizes it in the second. The worldbuilding is ever expanding and doesn’t need to be crammed into the first book.
Jeni: For me, I almost always connect with characters more than anything else in a story. So a series lets the readers get to know main characters and watch them grow and change over the course of several books. When I was a kid and read the Wrinkle in Time series, it was so cool for me to see Meg go from being this awkward teenager to a much more confident and self-accepting adult. It’s always fun to meet new characters in each book as well. It really makes a world feel realistic when the main characters continue to meet new people, and sometimes those characters that come in later in the series end up being more important overall than some of the characters in the first book. And then there’s the element of exploring secondary character arcs. With a series, we get the opportunity to go deeper with characters who maybe don’t get as much page or screen time in the first story. For example, Han Solo doesn’t come into the first movie until about halfway through, but by the end of the series, he’s really a main character. And of course, he’s become so popular that they even gave him his own movie. So as you’re expanding on the first story, consider who else you can bring into the world, how they might help show your main character’s growth, and how you can let some secondary characters get more of the spotlight. One problem that can happen, though, is that it can become challenging to keep up with everything about all of these characters, and that become more of a problem the longer the series goes on and the bigger the world is. I highly recommend keeping a series bible. You can think of this as being like a condensed wiki for your series. You can use it to keep track of all the elements of your stories, like each character, their appearance, their backstory, elements that are revealed or things about them that change in each story, etc. This is so helpful when you get deep into a series and everything starts blending together, which, trust me, it happens way more than you might think.
Carly: Agreed. Okay next I want to talk about how you should write a book as a standalone with series potential. If you are going the traditional publishing route, or even as an Indie author, the temptation to either write the whole series or to have your heart set on it being a series is strong. But don’t do that. You can write the whole series if you want to, but you can’t market it that way. That’s because as a debut author, there is inherent risk involved. Agents, editors, publishing houses, etc. don’t know how well your book will sell. And readers don’t know if you will sell enough to keep writing the series. It is a risk. You want the first in your series to stand on its own with the potential to be made into a series. If all goes well, you will get to publish a whole series. But if all doesn’t go well, you’ve still written a book that can stand on its own and still be enjoyable for a reader. You don’t want intense cliffhangers when readers don’t know if there even will be another book. It is a risk management tactic. If the book sells well, publishers have the opportunity to continue expanding the series, but if it doesn’t, they don’t have to invest more money knowing there won’t be a return on investment. Publishers are wary of taking those risks with debut authors. Which brings me to A New Hope. George Lucas didn’t know if he would get the funding to make more than one of these movies, so he made the first one so that it could stand on its own. Only after it was a success did he get the money to make the sequels. Even the subtitle of episode 4 wasn’t added until later. This isn’t to say that you can’t write more than one book, George Lucas had created this massive universe in his head. But you want the first one to stand on its own. Had the sequels never come out, A New Hope would still be a great movie. We meet wonderful characters, Luke has a strong character arc, the plot has a satisfying ending, and the main conflict is resolved: the Death Star is blown up. Without the sequels viewers would feel like this was a close look at a battle being won, if not the war. That’s a good way to think of a series arc actually, each book is a battle, and the series is the war. Both have solid resolutions but at different scales.
Jeni: So I talked earlier about thinking of your series with each book on its own and then also as part of the whole. When you know in advance how many books you want to be in your series, you can use that to your advantage when it comes to all these overarching elements. So, for example, this original Star Wars series is three movies, and these two movies kind of follow the structure of Act 1 and Act 2 of what would be three act structure for the whole series. The first movie shows the everyday world, has the inciting event, builds tension, and then has this big climactic moment that kind of changes the course of the story. It’s no longer just about the Death Star. If this were a book series, you could really kinda walk away at this point–ie, the movie could stand on its own–because everything feels resolved. Then at the beginning of the second movie, the Empire is exerting new power over the rebels, and the whole movie sort of spirals through various conflicts. This would definitely not be a murky or soggy middle. There’s a lot of conflict and tension! Then we get to the end, where it’s really the dark moment for our heroes. It’s hard to tell at the end of this movie how in the world everyone is going to get out of this and how they could possibly still win. And then, yeah, we can’t talk about the last movie, but it is basically like Act 3 of a book. With Ewoks. Haha So, if you know you want to write 3 books, or 5 or 8, you can use that basic three act structure to help guide you when it comes to keeping up the conflict, tension, and sense of urgency, and how to keep your character growing and changing. If you don’t know how many books you might write in a series, you can still plan out what will be little arcs within the overall series. Then even if you don’t know where you want the whole series to go long term, you can still plan out a few in advance so you don’t end up with stories that don’t feel like they fit overall.
Our query this month is an adult science fiction. Carly, what are your thoughts on this query?
Carly: First of all, I want to read this story. It sounds like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy brought into the modern era. My biggest concern with this query is the use of the phrase “YA crossover”. As a rule, YA can have crossover appeal to the Adult market, but Adult stories don’t crossover to YA. That’s because YA deals with a specific subset of conflicts. They focus on coming of age stories and struggling to find your place in the world or be yourself. That’s not to say adult books can’t explore these topics, but in order to be YA you typically have to be exploring these topics with a distinctive YA voice. YA crossover is usually code for you aren’t sure where this fits in the market. And that is something you need to figure out. Does your story have a YA or adult voice, theme, and conflict? Just because a main character is a teenager doesn’t mean it is definitively YA. It is more about the type of story and the theme that dictates its placement. So basically all of that is to say: really research into where your story fits and market it that way instead of trying to market to both audiences.
Jeni: I also love the premise of this story. You really had me at the Becky Chambers comp. Also I was thinking about how this is sci fi and Star Wars is sci fi but that it seems like the comparison kinda stops there. But I definitely think the Empire is a lot like an evil megacorporation. Just sayin. In the query, I struggled a little with some of the finer details. For example, there’s a part that reads, “he must first discover what that word truly means,” and I’m not clear on which word you mean. Home, I think? But I’m unsure, and that’s not a good thing in a query letter, since agents won’t ask for clarification. So just watch for those kinds of little issues that might need clarification. I know it’s tricky with such a limited word count, but it’s so important to make sure your reader has clarity.