Five Writing Lessons from the Machete Order

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The new Star Wars film—Episode VII, The Force Awakens—is coming out in one year. And lots of people will be re-watching the series on DVD to prepare. So what order should you watch them in? You have a few options.

Purist Order. IV-V-VI. Screw the prequels. P.S. Han shot first!

Release Order. IV-V-VI-I-II-III. Experience the films the way you remember them. The thrill of the originals followed by the letdown of CGI-laden crap.

Chronological Order. I-II-III-IV-V-VI. This is the way George Lucas wants you to watch them. He’s wrong. It’s spoils all the surprises. Palpatine’s the Emperor, Anakin is Vader, Luke and Leia are twins, blah, blah, blah …

And Han shot first, damn it!

Machete Order. IV-V-II-III-VI. Rod Hilton came up with this idea (modifying another alternative ordering) and wrote a fantastic post about it in 2011. It is by far the best way to watch the films without ditching the prequels altogether. He gives extensive reasons why, and in rereading his post last week I discovered five important writing tips exemplified by the Machete Order. I’m sure you’ve seen variations of these on many writing sites. They are five reasons why the Machete Order works, and five writing lessons you can take from it and apply to any project.


Star Wars: The Machete Order

1) Start in the middle.

This is the way Lucas began, and he was smart to do so. The original Star Wars (aka Episode IV) drops the viewer right into the middle of the action—Princess Leia fleeing the Empire with the plans for the Death Star. From there we meet the other main characters very quickly. Darth Vader boards the ship, Leia leaves her message with R2-D2 Luke buys the droids, finds the message, his aunt and uncle get killed, he finds Obi Wan, and books passage with Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon. This is the way all good stories begin. You jump into the middle and catch up on the backstory later. The Machete Order accomplishes this best by treating the prequel films as a flashback. Good novels do the same thing, injecting backstory little by little as the action proceeds. I could even envision an epic novelization of all six films that interlaced the two stories together allowing them to build off of each other. One long flashback in the middle would be clunky in a written work, but in film it works well.

2) Cut the first chapter.

Writers often need to set the scene for themselves before moving to the action. The information in this “first chapter” is important to the writer but not to anyone else. This is the problem with The Phantom Menace, and why it doesn’t work as a stand-alone film. It’s the background that Lucas needed for Obi Wan, Palpatine, Anakin, and Padme, but nothing that happens is essential to telling the big story. The Machete Order cuts it out, which is what Lucas should have done. It’s what almost every writer should do as well. Cut it, and bring bits back if you need them. You probably won’t.

3) Let cliffhangers hang for a while.

The biggest cliffhanger comes at the end of Empire with Han encased in carbonite, the rebellion on the brink of defeat, and Luke teetering on the precipice of the Dark Side. It was suspenseful for the three years between theatrical releases, but when you’re watching the films back to back the tension is relieved too quickly. Holding the cliffhanger to tell Anakin’s backstory heightens the tension and makes the payoff more fulfilling. Especially given the parallels between Anakin’s and Luke’s paths, the final suspense of Luke’s decision becomes the biggest cliffhanger of all.

4) Time your twists well.

As Hilton points out, the biggest failing of the chronology is that it spoils all the surprises. We know that Anakin is Darth Vader, we know that Yoda is a Jedi Master and not an annoying old troll, and we know that Palpatine is the emperor. Worst of all we find out that Luke and Leia are twins at the end of Episode III and then see them kiss in Episode IV. Ick! The release order keeps the Yoda and Vader reveals, but spoils Palpatine, making the thinly veiled “mystery” of  The Phantom Menace look idiotic. The Machete order not only keeps the twists, it paces them beautifully. In Empire, we find out the identity of Yoda and then get the shock of Vader being Luke’s father. Then at the end of Attack of the Clones, we get the Palpatine reveal. Finally at the end of Revenge of the Sith, we get the Leia is Luke’s sister reveal. The rhythm of these reveals keeps the surprises coming.

5) Darkest before the dawn.

You want to build the tension up to an unbearable level at the climax, and the Machete Order does this. First we meet Luke. Then we find out about Luke’s relationship to Anakin/Vader. Then we watch Anakin fall and the Republic fall with him. And finally we see Luke same path as his father repeating the same mistakes. He’s on the verge of falling and the rebellion is on the verge of failing. Right up to the climactic scene where Vader redeems himself and sacrifices himself to save his son.

Tension, resolution, and redemption, made more effective by the Machete Order and improving all the films simply by watching them the way the were meant to be watched.

And just because Lucas didn’t see it that way doesn’t mean it isn’t true. As a rule, writers are too close to their work and often miss the most obvious solutions. Like all writers, maybe all Lucas needed was a good editor.

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