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December 16, 2018

Star Wars & the power of editing

Here are two versions of the opening crawl for the first film.

Original

The REPUBLIC GALACTICA is dead. Ruthless trader barons, driven by greed and the lust for power, have replaced enlightenment with oppression, and “rule by the people” with the FIRST GALACTIC EMPIRE.

For over a thousand years, generations of JEDI KNIGHTS were the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy. Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one they have been hunted down and destroyed by the sinister agents of the Emperor: the DARK LORDS OF THE SITH.

It is a period of civil wars. Rebel Armies, striking from fortresses hidden deep within the Great rift, have won a crushing victory over the powerful Imperial Starfleet. The Emperor knows that one more such defeat will bring a thousand more solar systems into the rebellion, and Imperial control of the Outland systems could be lost forever. To crush the rebellion once and for all, the Emperor has sent one of his most ferocious Dark Lords to find the secret rebel strongholds and destroy them…

Edited

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

There’s a lot to care about in the original.

Ten things are introduced: the Republic Galactica, trade barons, the First Galactic Empire, Jedi Knights, the Emperor, the Dark Lords of the Sith, Rebel Armies, the Great Rift, the Imperial Starfleet, and the Outland Systems.

You’re expected to sift through 166 words of jargon and nuance to find out which team to root for.

Compare it to the edited version which uses 83 words – exactly half – to introduce some Rebels, the evil Galactic Empire, a Death Star, and Princess Leia. Or: the goodies, the baddies, a thing which can blow up planets, and a princess. Everything you need to enjoy a high fantasy space romp.

This refinement of the intro was accompanied by tons of sweeping structural edits to the film itself, expertly outlined in this video. George Lucas surrounded himself with people who could see the potential in his broad, lumbering vision; and he listened to their ruthless feedback to cut scenes and restructure entire sections. The result? One of the most successful film franchises of all time.

There are some lessons here:

  1. Be concise: if you can say something in 83 words, don’t use 166.
  2. Be selective: your reader doesn’t need to be introduced to every concept at once.
  3. Don’t be sentimental: Lucas probably hated trimming half of the opening. The original articulated the story how he saw it, but not in the most effective way.

And perhaps most importantly:

  1. Get help: surround yourself with expertise, and take advice. An idea can fly or fail depending on the people who help to realise it, and cutting bits doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad.

There you have it. Why Star Wars, of all things, is a shining example of the power of editing.

Image source.