The Force & the Storytelling of Star Wars

Disclaimer: Spoilers throughout. I will be speaking mostly to the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Films. However, when speaking to the story elements and how they come together, there’s a lot to consider from legends canon, creator comments, the expanded universe, and more.  It goes without saying I do not own Star Wars and all opinion contain within are my own, images and dialogue used for the examples presented here and not in any sort of attempt to make a profit etc. This is just one fan speaking about the storytelling takeaways from a franchise they love.

Preface: I will assume you are well versed in the Star Wars franchise and subsequent lore because we’re going to be diving deep into several plot points. This is in no way to say that my opinions are the end all be all. This is simply how I see the Force. How it’s used as a storytelling device, my views on Star Wars – specifically through the lens of how the franchise has evolved to tell some amazing stories.

I think it’s important to understand that Star Wars, as a worldwide phenomenon, has touched so many people’s lives, each in a unique way. I grew up with the Original Trilogy. Watching VHS tapes until they wore down enough to be unwatchable. Images of the seedy hives of scum and villainy, dark swamps of Dagobah, or industrial monuments to imperial rule will be forever etched into my mind.

Yet some of my best friends didn’t start watching the films until the Prequels were coming out. The adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin and the tragedy that followed. Others grew up watching with me but didn’t take away the same Promethean flame of creativity that I did.

Science fiction has always been such a wonderful playground in which the mind can have fun. The two biggest film franchises from my childhood that influenced me are Alien and Star Wars. I’ve always clung to that gritty, dirty future. That’s not to say that I don’t love Star Trek. Star Trek is fantastic, but it never really felt like the same sandbox I wanted to play in.

Star Wars literally starts in a sandbox, a metaphor that I’m sure no one envisioned except maybe for Mr. Lucas himself. Star Wars is a universe of stories with layers and complexity told using strong plotting (when it’s done well) and even stronger archetypes. 

There’s a lot of philosophy at the center of Star Wars. Maybe because Star Wars have taken so much from the westerns and samurai films that inspired it. Lucas merely changed the backdrop. I could do an entire post on how these influences allowed Star Wars to not only be the greatest Western of all time but also, potentially, the most magnificent version of a jidaigeki ever seen, albeit in a different setting. 

If a story is the series of events that occur, then the plot is how we execute the story. Many times the plot follows a structure (think the three acts at its most basic). It’s a character arc, a lesson to be learned. It’s the level of meaning under the story’s surface that gets us closer to the theme. 

That’s the lens that we are looking through, not the facts and semantic trivia you find in a story. We’re talking plot, and if it doesn’t add to the plot, we don’t need to go into it.

What do I mean?

The Millennium Falcon clearly has only X number of thrusters; it’s a spaceship, it needs thrusters to move. But we don’t ever need to know precisely how many unless one of them breaks. Why? Story vs. Plot.

How about the fact that Vader’s breastplate is flipped in one scene but back to normal in another. This isn’t a fanboy breakdown of what I hate about Star Wars. This is one fan’s insight into why he loves the franchise, what I’ve learned from it, and how it’s informed me as a storyteller and writer.

I say all that to say this, they take this with a grain of salt, my opinion, and one that’s open for lively if not respectful debate. 

What is the Force?

“The force?”

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the Galaxy together.”

-Luke Skywalker & Obi-Wan Kenobi

Obi-Wan Kenobi explaining the mystical nature of the universe to Luke Skywalker

Within the world of Star Wars, the Force is a powerful mythical energy field. But even Obi-Wan’s simple explanation is the tip of the iceberg. As a viewer, we are in the same boat as Luke, wondering what exactly that even means. It would be easy to just dump a ton of information here, and if you look at Lucas’s notes even for a New Hope (which was simply ‘Star Wars’ in the 70s), you know he could easily do that here. But he doesn’t. The plot needs to be teased along through the actions and journey of Luke. 

There are tons of pages that you can break down into the nitty-gritty of what the Force is or isn’t. Wookipedia even has a canon and legends entry covering it all. Which brings us right back to the story versus plot debate. Let’s push through. Plot.

Obi-Wan’s description is vital, as this mystic element show up a lot in the original trilogy. It is an important distinction; this is a science fiction story that is really loose with the science. This is done on purpose. Ultimately this is a story of space wizards. That’s what we are dealing with here, Space Wizards with fucking laser swords. It’s genius, and in the original trilogy, wonderfully reinforced. The protagonists of Star Wars use the Force for the benefit of the universe. The Force is natural, mystical, old, and powerful. The Empire is the opposite; rigid, industrial, military, oppressive, all the things that the Force and, by association, the Rebellion are not. Even Imperial officers openly mock Vader’s belief in the Force. The Empire as a whole is drastically different from the protagonist; this is why the parts of Vader that do not fall in line with Imperial values (his use of the Force) are ostracized. This makes the revelation of the Emperor being a big-time Force user himself so dramatic. The Force serves as a multi-faceted storytelling device used to build a universe, culture, opposing forces, and opportunities to subvert expectations when appropriately used.

The Empire, its fight against the Rebellion, and the Force are essential elements in showcasing Star Wars’ themes, and possibly its most significant theme: the struggle of light and dark. Duality and the struggle that both sides create is fundamental in the storytelling of Star Wars. Light against darkness, nature against industry, love against hate—strong oppositions colliding together, set in space. Star Wars. 

Hence why the characters are more important than technology. We don’t need to know how a lightsaber works until a character needs to know. Even then, only if it helps that character’s story. This is as it should be since when you let the story lead instead of the plot, far too much gums-up the works.

Star Wars is more folklore and mythology than story sci-fi and schematics. 

This is a crucial distinction because this shows why some aspects of the Legends canon show up so often in the Disney Canon. Disney really focused hard on story, less on plot. I could but won’t give a laundry list of grips, but that’s not the purpose of this, but I will briefly address the Disney Trilogy (DT).

If you look at the Disney trilogy, some elements are poorly executed from a narrative viewpoint. They had a series of events (story) with no plot to give actual meaning and resonance. This is not constant in the Disney films; some of those endeavors have genuinely hit the Star Wars nail on the head (I’m looking at you, Rogue One and the Mandalorian). These missteps can be felt far more as the Disney Trilogy progresses. Because no plot held the movies together, the weaker story elements give way to glaring character issues. I don’t want to get sidetracked further, but some character studies could prove useful in the future. 

Back to the subject at hand. Obi-Wan tells Luke that the Force is an energy field created all by all living things; this gives us a kind of scientific but very mystical explanation. 

I mentioned earlier that the audience is on the same journey of discovery that Luke is on. We’re his side-kick through the Hero’s Journey (it’s little wonder why so many see the movies as told through the viewpoint of view of R2 – more on that later). 

Harry Potter takes the same journey with magic (and more importantly reader’s introduction of magic). Peeling back layers and layers of a mystical, magical world that is best enjoyed in those first tentative steps into a larger world of fantasy. This is even said by Luke and confirmed by Obi-Wan Later in the film.

“You know I did feel something; I could almost see the remote.”

“That’s good. You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

-Luke Skywalker & Obi-Wan Kenobi

The first steps.

As the story progresses, we get a much larger view of the Force. Not only via the Original Trilogy but also as we go back through into the Prequel Trilogy, we see it vastly expanded upon in the canon. 

At no other time in the Galaxy’s history do we see such a wide array of Force users. In ‘A New Hope, ‘ Obi-Wan says for a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and hope in the Galaxy, before the dark times. Before the Empire. That’s the backdrop of the Prequel Trilogy. The hight of the Jedi order and subsequently the Republic.  

I’m going to get a little technical just to explain some other elements of the story. For that, a slightly more comprehensive understanding of the Force is needed.  

The Force is this energy field, but it comes in two forms. The living Force, which is very much in the here and now. This energy is created singularly by living creatures. The vibration that you as a living creature give off in the universe. The second is the cosmic Force; this is the Force that exists through the vastness of the cosmos. Possibly the energy from the big bang itself. The cosmic Force is sometimes seen as the Will of the Force. 

In rough drafts, Lucas’s script indicated it was taken from the ‘ Journal of the Whills.’ Vague terms that plainly create a sense of magic and wonder. What we are left with is the understanding that the Cosmic Force has a will of its own. Simply put, Deus Ex Machina is an actual element of the universe. Once again, reinforcing a certain sense of mythology, supporting that these are stories of folklore, theme, and parable. Not hard science-fiction. 

For most kids, myself included, the Living Force was your best friend in the playground of childhood imagination. You walk up to an automatic door, timing it just right so you can wave your hand, the door opens, and that little voice in your head goes, “The Force is strong with this one.”

It sticks with you. As an adult (on more than one occasion), I’ve turned to my significant other and waved my hand, informing them that I’m not trouble. I then say I’m free to go about my business before moving along. 

We don’t see much of the living Force in the Original Trilogy. The examples we do get are far more tied to the mythical views that see the Force as a religion instead of something scientifically quantifiable. 

During his training with Yoda, Luke is given a gauntlet of physically demanding tasks and drills, not to make him physically strong, but to open him up to listen to the Cosmic Force. By becoming an ally to the Force, you can wield it through you. Only through symbiosis with the Force can you genuinely meet your potential. Even the most talented must learn, and something UN-learn to really make progress. Yoda’s giving Luke life lessons. This is pure, delicious plot. These lessons stick with Luke, develop and inform the character he becomes.  

If it was any other 80s movie, we would probably get a montage. But there’s no plot in a montage, just some quick cuts, and catchy tunes. Star Wars is about the journey. We need to see Luke’s failing because it makes him a stronger character in the end. Training with Yoda is critical because he corrects both Luke and our own assumptions of what the Force is.

Luke, like us, initially sees the Force as something quantifiable – something that can be measured. Here’s a scene from Empire Strikes Back after Luke’s X-wing sinks into the swamp:

Luke: “We’ll never get it out now.” 

Yoda: “So certain are you?” 

Yoda (after a heavy sigh): “Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Luke: “Master, moving stones around is one thing, this is totally different.”

Yoda (stamps his cane into the mud): “No! No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn, what you have learned.”

Luke: “Alright, I’ll give it a try.”

Yoda: “No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

After Luke’s failed attempt to lift the ship, he slumped down defeated. Nothing so heavy can be raised. He’s not big enough, not strong enough. This is more plot; this defeat happens internally in Luke. We are almost frustrated that Yoda could ask so much of our hero. 

After Luke protests that the ship is simply too big, we get an excellent explanation of the mysticism behind the Force offered by Yoda. It piggybacks on Obi-Wan’s description to great effect:

“Size matters not. Look at me, judge me by my size do you? Hmm? And where you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere. Yes, even between the land and the ship.”

-Yoda

Yoda’s training of Luke is relentless but it serves to temper the youth for unforeseen challenges.

Luke stands and scoffs at the suggestion. The Jedi Master is asking for the impossible, and Luke tells him as much. 

But then something else happens. Then the slight frame of Yoda does the impossible; he lifts the X-wing out of the swamp. He’s not even winded – because the living Force is about harmony, patience, endurance, a stillness of mind. 

There’s a ton to unpack here, and I could take eight hours gleefully doing so, but I’ll keep it as short as possible. TL;DR being a Jedi, using the Force is a discipline. A life long commitment and not something that one can just pick up willy-nilly. It’s a state of being, a belief.

The Prequels

I feel there’s an inherent problem with telling a prequel. Sometimes the origin story can do more damage than good. The Prequel Trilogy, on their own merit, have some issues. Overall, they are decent films that spearheaded every technological advancement that filmmaking had to offer and even created some unique ones along the way.

But as Vader himself said, “Do not be too proud of this technological terror you’ve contructed.” 

The Prequels, in many ways losses some of the heart and soul of Star Wars. Its attempt to shift a little more into Science-fiction instead of staying in the kingdom of Science-fantasy hampered it.

Midi-chlorians.

Ouch. It’s tough to say sometimes; I remember how confused and almost angry I was. It was not because the Force is microscopic bacteria that are communicating through our cells. There’s nothing wrong with that. It was because it was trying to turn some of the fantasy into hard science. This made the Force predetermined, measurable, mechanical, and cold. Anakin could use the Force because his innate Force score was high.

This upturns some of the narrative consistency in my eyes, especially when going from the OT to the prequels.

It also borders the edge of something more dangerous. Destroying the original plot. I’m not referring to the angry fanboy rant—more of an examination of the cause and effect of the choice to include something like that. 

By pigeonholing the mystical aspects of the Force into a measurement, you quickly establish the strength of Anakin to the audience’s meta-knowledge of how strong Yoda is. This is why it was the “easy way” out. Anyone remotely familiar with Star Wars knows Yoda. He’s in the public zeitgeist. 

Lucas gives us a number, and both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are astounded that someone could be that strong in the Force.

I need a midi-chlorian count.

The reading’s off the chart. Over 20,000. Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midi-chlorian count that high.

No Jedi has.

―Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi

There are many ways the exposition of Anakin being strong in the Force or the Chosen One can be delivered. By taking an easy way out instead of science fiction instead of well crafted Science-fantasy, the PT started out in a far deeper narrative hole than they needed to. 

Here’s where the narrative flow gets wonky. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars wasn’t the son of Darth Vader; he was just a farm boy. It’s only until the finale of Return of the Jedi that we understand the gravity of who Luke is in his place in the Galaxy. Even then, Anakin is not the chosen one at this point. It has never been narratively established.

In the Original Trilogy, anyone can be a Jedi. This is the established narrative that is used. Granted, we only have a pinhole view of their customs through the perspective of Luke. But this is the dangerous line that a prequel tows. There’s never a mention that having children or personal relationships of love are forbidden among the order. The Jedi in the OT are far more Samurai-like than their Monk-like counterparts presented in the Prequels.

It may seem innocuous, but it’s not.

The Force presented in the OT is a balancing act in and of itself. The Force, according to Yoda, to be used for knowledge and defense, never attack. Feelings of anger, fear, and insecurity are commonplace in an OT Jedi’s life. The audience is taught from our surviving Jedi Masters. Yoda does not give up on Luke even though the young man makes huge mistakes. Instead, Yoda challenges him to learn from those experiences, to grow stronger. The Dark Side is quick and easy, giving in to temptation for a faster outcome. It does not have the same temperance, patience, and inner strength.

This reaffirms the place of discipline in a Force user’s life. It parallels real life and, thus, why the plot and theme are so wrong.

In the Prequels, these topics are mainly missing in favor of connecting the dots chronicling Anakin Skywalker’s fall and the rise of the Empire. Simply put, lots of story, not much plot. 

Because these Mystical elements are light or non-existent, the Force changes. It becomes more a McGuffin or thing to have, be born with, or wielded versus a state of mind, means of connection, or source of learning.

There are narrative lines within the OT that the PT holds that keep the story arc coherent. From the Original Trilogy, we find out that the Force can run strong in one family as an example. Here’s the issue, though. You now have to create storylines that can get a character from point A to point B in a way that doesn’t undermine or threaten your story. Seems easy, but without the same cohesion of plot, those lines are not smooth. Your original story now becomes a sequel in a sense. The prequel trilogy struggles with this as it favors story over plot. 

Many of these plotlines are thankfully cleaned up in the expanded canon. We are given a larger view of the Star Wars Universe. Again, that is not to say the Prequels are not good; they are. Just that without the attention to the narrative flow of the plot and theme, stuff gets messy. They’re good, not great, not excellent, and without the same moralistic take-always of the OT.

If you’ll excuse the pun, the expanded canon brings balance to the Force as a storytelling device. The Jedi are shown as having flaws, some running so deep within the order it’s no wonder the Emperor was triumphant during Revenge of the Sith. Thanks to the efforts of content like the Clone Wars, Rebels, Jedi: Fallen Order, and the well-executed Star Wars Comics, the mystical elements of the Force have received more space within the sandbox. I surmise that many creators also grew up on the OT, and their view of the Force has at least a passing similarity to my own. This allows the full experience of Star Wars e far more intricate. The Prequels can primarily take its place as a cautionary tale of the hubris of the Jedi and the consequences of enabling children raised to feel they are owed the Galaxy.

The rabbit hole here goes deep. The Jedi and the Sith. Forces users (beyond Luke and Anakin) and their place within the plot. Even the Mandalorian (or How the Outrim Was Won) all have an immense bearing on Star Wars’ storytelling. Topics for future discussion.

Until then,

Excelsior!