Retroactive Continuity: The Secret to Star Wars Success

Star Wars: A New Hope

With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on the horizon, the ubiquity of George Lucas’s groundbreaking creation is enough to choke a rancor. Every time you venture online, there’s a slew of clickbait promising spoilers, beat-by-beat breakdowns of the latest trailer, and advertisements for the newest doodad with Star Wars stamped on the box.

It takes a near-Herculean effort to slog through all the malarkey and remember what it is that makes Star Wars so dang good.

“I don’t like Star Wars. It’s course and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.”

The Internet
Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.
Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.

Lightsabers. AT-ATs. X-Wings. Epic space battles. Metal bikinis. The Force. That little green dude. Those things are Star Wars, right?

Well, yes, those elements are in Star Wars, but they don’t make the story of Star Wars unique. There’s plenty of stories that share similar ingredients (Dune, Blade Runner, Alien, Firefly, Star Trek, etc.), but the characters, structure, and dialogue put Star Wars into a class of its own.

George Lucas on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1983.

In a 1983 Time article, Lucas claimed he originally envisioned nine movies (three separate trilogies) that would detail the adventures of the Skywalker family. This is, in essence, a bunch of bullstuff.

Back in 1977, when A New Hope premiered, it was a stand-alone movie. I mean just watch the darn thing. The Empire’s defeated. There’s bombastic music. Han and Luke wink at Princess Leia and, when we cut to the end credits, we can only assume that they’re gonna go get it on in some funky intergalactic ménage à trois. Everything wraps up nicely.

After the success of A New Hope, regardless of what Lucas said in later interviews, he didn’t have a follow-up story planned. In fact, he had to reach out to other writers to help him continue the trilogy.

Initially, Alan Dean Foster wrote a sequel to Star Wars called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye released in 1978. This book was written to be filmed as a low-budget sequel if the original film wasn’t a success. However, after the record-breaking success of Star Wars at the box office, it was dropped in favor of a big-budget sequel.

In a moment of divine inspiration, Lucas turned to veteran pulp science fiction writer Leigh Brackett to do the initial draft of The Empire Strikes Back. If you don’t know who Brackett is, she was the screenwriter behind such films as The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye. Brackett introduced elements that would become many of the franchise’s most famous moments.

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s plot.”

—Leigh Brackett
Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.
Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan in the ice tunnels on Hoth.

After completing the initial draft in 1978, Brackett died of cancer and the screenplay was further developed by Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan.

The development of the original Star Wars trilogy has been explored in several fantastic books. I’d recommend checking out The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski. It’s a moment-by-moment breakdown of the screenplay development from conception to execution. It outlines Lucas’s influences, notes, and revisions.

All this goes to say that Star Wars was developed as it was being made. It wasn’t part of Lucas’s grand design. The original trilogy was pieced together through an ingenious array of retroactive continuity (retcon). And that is the secret to its success.

In A New Hope, when Obi-Wan tells Luke his father was killed by Vader, he wasn’t bending the truth “from a certain point of view.” That was actually the truth. They hadn’t decided that Vader was Luke’s dad yet. When Yoda says, “No, there is another,” in The Empire Strikes Back he wasn’t referring to Leia. Leia and Luke weren’t twins yet. The writers were leaving a door open to introduce another Jedi in the final installment.

The retroactive continuity in Star Wars is why people have fallen in love with these stories. It’s engaging. It’s shocking. It leaves you with questions that must be answered.

In a roundabout way, it’s good storytelling.

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