How Marcia Lucas (and smart editing) saved Star Wars

Marcia Lucas
Marcia Lucas

Among fiction writers, the editing process is notoriously dreaded as drudge work, but revision is where the magic happens. It’s where a struggling, plodding story is shaped into the author’s vision.

Recently I discovered “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”, an impressive and succinct video on the high art of film editing. It demonstrates revision so well, it should be required viewing in creative writing courses everywhere.

That’s right: Creative writing. Even though it regards film editing, almost all the techniques described have application in revising fiction.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the Star Wars story line. The formula behind Star Wars has been so imitated and overdone over the past forty years, there are few crumbs or morsels left to claim as one’s own. Narratological analyses of George Lucas’ little sci-fi flick are bountiful, as are the reminders how he borrowed much of his structure from mythology, especially the work laid out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All of this is well-trod ground and not what concerns me here.

What “Saved in the edit” highlights is a criminally unknown aspect of Star Wars‘ mega-success: The role of Lucas’ then-wife Marcia in sculpting the movie’s rough cut into a blockbuster. If Marcia Lucas had applied her formidable editing talents solely to the movie’s heart-pounding conclusion (the rebel attack on the Death Star), she would have deserved the Oscar for editing she eventually received. Her contributions went far deeper, it turns out.

Ordering scenes

I’m most interested in two of the video’s sections. The first is the explanation of intercutting (or cross-cutting), starting at 6m50s in the video. Marcia Lucas and her fellow editors deftly shuffled the first act’s scenes into a crisper progression, to better establish the story and get the audience involved. Since viewers are able to fill in blanks on their own, the reordering allowed for the removal of entire scenes, keeping the story line brisk and taut.

Intercutting is a technical term referring to a specific film editing technique. For fiction, a more general (and blander) term would be scene ordering.

Revising scene order is the author at her most godlike. She is rearranging the events of her dreamworld like a child building up and tearing down sand castle turrets. Scene reordering requires bold moves and wide peripheral vision. It’s not about word choice and tightening dialogue, it’s asking if each scene is in the right place at the right time—or even if it should be included at all.

(Another visual medium that uses visual cuts effectively is comics, a topic I’ve explored before.)

My latest (and, as of today, unpublished) novel offers a personal example of scene reordering in my editing process. My early chapters were a mess. The main character was traveling quite literally in circles. An early reader (and good friend) pointed out the wasted time and lack of energy in the first act.

Although I like to make a rough outline when I write a novel, I don’t organize down to the scene, or even the chapter. After hearing my friend’s criticism, I went through the draft and produced a rough table of contents, each chapter listed in order with a brief one- or two-sentence summary of its major points. (A writing notebook, even a digital one, is a good tool for this task.)

Thinking of his complaints, and referring to my makeshift table of contents as a guide, I “re-cut” the opening chapters and produced a sleeker first act. Sections of one chapter were lifted and dropped into another chapter. Events were shuffled to tighten the story, sharpen focus, and get the story on its legs. Thousands of words wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was worth it.

Marcia Lucas and George Lucas
Marcia and George Lucas

Ordering beats

My other interest in “Saved in the edit” regards the first meeting between Luke and Obi-wan (11m50s in the video):

Originally the scene started with Luke and Obi-wan watching the princess’ message, then they play with lightsabers, and then they consider to go help her.

The editors realized how “heartless” this scene played out due to the lag between hearing Leia’s holographic plea and discussing whether or not to help her. The editors reordered the scene, opening in medias res to make it seem the two have been talking about Luke’s father for some time. From there,

  1. Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber,
  2. then they watch Leia’s message,
  3. and then they argue about flying off to help her.

It’s a simple change, which is kind of the point: Sometimes vital edits are not complex or massive, but surgical and subtle. What’s more, notice how this edit did not require reshooting the scene. All the elements were in place, the problem was their presentation.

The new ordering creates an emotional cone. The tension starts low with exposition (Luke’s supposedly-dead father, a forgotten religion that tapped into a mysterious cosmic “force”). The stakes rise in pitch as they watch Leia’s plea, and then reach a tension point when the old man in the desert tells Luke he must drop everything and travel across the galaxy to save a princess. If you find a scene you’re working on meandering or feeling aimless, consider how the tension rises within it. Is it building, or is it wandering around?

In playwriting, the basic unit of drama is called a beat, A beat consists of action, conflict, and event. Marcia Lucas improved this single scene by unifying a beat that had been split apart with the lightsaber business:

  1. Action: Obi-wan wants Luke to learn the Force and save the princess;
  2. Conflict: Luke has to stay and help his uncle with the farm;
  3. Event: Luke refuses Obi-wan’s call and goes back to the farm.

Not all edits are rearranging action/conflict/event. If you think of a scene as a collection of little beats, sometimes revision is moving the beats around, much as scenes can be reordered.

One sin I’m guilty of is opening a chapter with the character in the middle of action or a conversation, then dropping to flashback to explain how the character wound up in this situation, then returning to the scene. It’s a false and inauthentic way to start chapters in medias res.

How do I correct this? Sometimes by moving the flashback to the start of the chapter and rewriting it in summary. Often I simply drop the flashback and assume the reader will catch up on their own (as Marcia Lucas did by opening the Obi-wan scene in the middle of the conversation). Each edit is situational and requires a film editor’s mindset. Simplifying scenes is the core of powerful revision.

These editing skills really should be the stock-and-trade of every novelist and playwright. I’ve never seen a book on writing fiction explain these points as ably as “Saved in the edit”. It’s too bad it takes a YouTube video on the making of Star Wars to lay out the power of editing in such a lucid and compelling way.

Writing a book is like being an all-in-one film crew. The author is director, screenwriter, editor, and casting agent. The author plays the roles of all the actors. The directing and writing and acting is the fun part, or at least it can be. But editing is where a manuscript goes from a draft to a novel.

Further reading

For more on Marcia Lucas, I suggest starting with her biography at The Secret History of Star Wars. It details the shameful way she was written out of the history of the movie after divorcing George Lucas.

“Marcia Lucas: The Heart of Star Wars is another fine YouTube video, focusing more on her career and her role with other 1970s films you’ll recognize, such as Taxi Driver and The Candidate. It also does a nice dive into Marcia Lucas editing American Graffiti into the phenomena it would become.

Marcia Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and film editing is still felt today. The Beat‘s “5 Editors That Broke the Hollywood System” are all women, including Marcia Lucas, even though the article is not specifically about women in film history.

Revision is where the magic happens

“Yorkshire Sculpture Park” (scrappy annie, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Recently on Twitter I wrote: “Revision is where the magic happens.”

I’m not trying to be mysterious here. I truly believe revision is where a story is honed, sharpened, and distilled. Revision is where the writer’s vision and passion surface after cutting away the dead weight and dead prose. The act of revision is pruning back a bush and revealing the topiary within. Revision is cutting away the stone block to find the sculpture trapped inside.

My tweet was in response to a question (“What’s your favorite part of the writing process?”) which was followed by a warning (“If you say revising I will have a hard time believing you”).

What can I say. Every stage of writing is difficult. There are no moments of pure pleasure for me. Even calling a manuscript finished and walking away is painful. The satisfaction is in the sum of the parts (akin to “work is its own reward”) as well as pride in the finished work.

One response to the question said something to the effect of “getting paid is the best part of writing.” That’s not part of the writing process, no more than collecting the bill is part of the cooking process in a restaurant. Even if you’re earning enough from writing to keep the lights on, great, but that’s not the writing process.

Computer programming & writing fiction: Iterative processes

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Previously I’ve noted the similarities between computer programming and writing fiction, saying both attracted their own practitioners. I then explained why I view computer programming, as well as computer programs, as forms of art.

How else is writing fiction like computer programming? Practicing the two, one common aspect I’ve gleaned is their repetitive natures. Both are iterative processes.

I cannot in good faith declare any fiction I’ve written “done” until I’ve read the final draft from start to finish eight or more times. (Usually the number is higher.) With each read, sentences are moved or removed, paragraphs rearranged, punctuation revised, word choices are evaluated, and so on. Shaping prose is one of the most important skills a writer can cultivate. (Journalists do this in their sleep. Minutes after the final out, San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser files a game summary that is polished, informative, and to the point.)

In fiction, editing is usually described as fine-tuning a manuscript, but more often it’s about being bold—knowing when to strike a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter, all in the service of a better story.

As any computer programmer can tell you, this is a familiar process. Programmers probably spend more time at the keyboard revising existing code than writing new code. Small program edits—similar to line edits or word choice—are common enough, but when more major surgery is performed, programmers will often use a special word: refactoring. Refactoring is restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. (It’s usually done to make the code easier to read and maintain, not to add a new feature or fix a bug.)

That’s the crux: Without changing existing behavior. It’s funny, in writing fiction, if you make a lot of bold changes, it’s considered a success if the story seems “new” or “better” to a reader. In writing code, success is if you make a bold refactoring and the program operates exactly as it worked before.

The Ouroboros

I enjoy reading how other authors developed their fiction. Authors selected for Best American Short Stories (and other volumes in the Best American series) are given the opportunity to write a capsule for the books’ back matter. They often discuss inspiration for the story, and how external factors shaped its outcome. Writers’ correspondence is another goldmine for learning creative processes. (In particular I recommend Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters, which is a master class in writing, style, and technique.)

Often when an author discusses how they developed a story, I’ve noted they can’t pin down the exact moment of inspiration. There might be some flash where the creative process launches, but so many times writers confess how stories come from a nagging itch to write on a subject or develop some character trait. Long-forgotten inspiration will come roaring back to life for some reason. Writers some times talk about stories as though they “demanded” to be written.

Programmers have similar stories, although the inspiration may not be as abstract as, say, a line of dialogue or a character detail. Usually it’s a need driving the creation of new software, needs like “I wish there was a web site for me to connect to all my friends” (social networking) or “I wish I had a typewriter where it was easy to correct mistakes, and it would even check my spelling for me” (word processor).

Many times I’ve read of authors returning to old work and fighting (or succumbing to) the urge to edit it. The edits may only be a comma here, a semicolon there. They may be larger edits , striking paragraphs or scenes in the pursuit of a tighter tale. Programmers deal with this urge too, always looking to tighten up code and make it more efficient or elegant.

I’ve quoted this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end. [Italics mine.]

That was written by Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language. Everything in this quote pertains to writing fiction as much as it pertains to writing code.

When I edit stories, I visit and revisit the story as part of the editing process, to smooth and refine the language, to ensure the story flows smoothly. Programming has a similar process, a continual revisiting and revision of the code to remove flab and tighten up its execution.

That’s what Stroustrup meant when he said the process has no beginning and no end. Stories and computer programs are never finished. They can always be made a bit better.

Sometimes alteration worsens the final product. When coding, I often talk serious changes as “surgery.” While it might be necessary, it’s possible to hurt the program while improving it. Touching code in one place can break code in another place. This is why sometimes you’ll download an update to an app and it seems slower or simply broken, even though the developer swears they’ve made improvements.

Likewise, fussing over a novel or a story can hurt it too. In the original editions of The Martian Chronicles, the chapters were dated like a diary, starting from 1999 and ending in 2026. Today, revised editions use dates from 2030 to 2057. A small change, undoubtedly made to preserve the story being told “in the future,” but it stole away some of the book’s charm. In my youth, 1999 was a magical date, a momentous odometer signaling a shift to the bold 21st century. 2030 is just another number.

A common adage among software developers is “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” The same can be said for fiction.

Distillation

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Programmer Ben Sandovsky observes:

Treat yourself [the programmer] as a writer and approach each commit as a chapter in a book. Writers don’t publish first drafts. Michael Crichton said, “Great books aren’t written– they’re rewritten.”

Sandovsky is exhorting computer programmers not to make hasty changes to a computer program, but to edit and revise those changes before officially adding them to the program.

Late in the editing process, I’ll often read my stories aloud to make sure they flow well. I’ve never read my code aloud—computer languages aren’t like human languages, for the most part—but I’ve certainly eyeballed my code closely, going over it line-by-line, before committing it.

I often use the word distill for both pursuits—to purify, condense, and strengthen through repetitive processes. Writers and coders don’t simply edit their work, they distill it down to its essence.

Lazy writing makes for boring reading. Lazy programming makes for buggy software. In general the process has no beginning and no end. The art is knowing when to let go and release your hard work to the world.