5 Things to Know When Writing a Star Wars Spin-Off

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Rogue One Screen Shot

Rogue One. Photo courtesy: Lucasfilm Limited

As a young writer, it is important to understand how franchise writing works.  Here we are going to talk about writing a Star Wars spin-off anthology film.  But where do you start?  How do you know what kind of movies Lucasfilm will want to make in the years to come?  That’s where my investigative work comes into play.

A brief history of Star Wars movies

The only Star Wars movies before 2015 were written by George Lucas.  Sometimes Lucas would include writers like Lawrence Kasdan or Jonathan Hales, but they were still HIS stories.  After the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion dollars according to USA Today, we got our first non-George Lucas Star Wars movie ever.

The Force Awakens, written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, kicked off a new trilogy. These new stories tell the further adventures of original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. They also introduced new characters portrayed by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver.  

In addition to these new saga films, Lucasfilm announced an ambitious plan to release at least one new Star Wars movie per year, in perpetuity.  Therefore, it was decided anthology spin-off films would be the best way to continue the series.

So far, we have three Star Wars anthology films in play:

Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards, was the first spin-off movie Lucasfilm released in 2016. It told the story of Rebel Alliance soldiers who stole the plans for the Death Star. This sets up the events in George Lucas’ initial entry into the Star Wars universe, A New Hope.  

Han Solo is the second spin-off film from Lucasfilm and is set to be released in May of 2018. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon, the untitled anthology film will be directed by Ron Howard.  It tells the origin of perhaps the most charismatic character in the series.

In development for 2020 is an Obi Wan Kenobi spin-off.  This movie will likely take place during the twenty year period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.  

All three of these films expand on the Star Wars lore without compromising George Lucas’ original vision.  They also form their own prequel trilogy set outside of the Skywalker Saga.

Considering there is now no end in sight for these anthologies, that leaves plenty of opportunity for young scribes to fulfill their dreams of creating new stories for Star Wars.  The only prerequisite is that it fit into the continuity of the original saga films.

No. 1 – Know Your Star Wars Crawls

Crawl Text from A New Hope

Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope. Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

You can actually find the logline for Rogue One right there in the opening crawl of Episode IV.  There are more clues for other possible stories in the subsequent crawls if you look hard enough.  There are three years of the Rebels evading the evil Empire between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  Before Return of the Jedi, you have the Bothans stealing the plans to the second Death Star.  

Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker are unlikely to be the focus of these stories.  However, thanks to the CGI used to bring back Peter Cushing in Rogue One, we know it is possible to use these characters in limited fashion.  

There’s an opportunity to also focus on Darth Vader during this period.  Imagine what mission Vader could go on for the Emperor that might further develop his character.  The possibilities are eminently endless.  However, your goal would be to create new characters who can have their own adventures that feature these familiar faces.  

No. 2 – Pay Attention to the Dialogue in Star Wars

Lando and Han Solo

The Empire Strikes Back. Photo courtesy: Lucasfilm Limited

In the same way much of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel’s plot was actually mined from Lucas’ original dialogue, a lot of the Han Solo origin movie we are getting is rumored to take on story points from the original trilogy.  In the Han Solo origin film we are likely to find out how Han won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, a plot point mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back.  

We will also probably see the Falcon make the Kessel Run in 12 Parsecs as Han bragged to Obi Wan and Luke when they first meet in A New Hope.  We’re even likely to find out how Han and Chewbacca first met.  There’s a lot of real estate for a writer to explore in how all of these things came about.  

Yoda is a perfect character from the original trilogy to be explored. Having lived for 900 years, a young Yoda movie could bridge to the events linked to the Knights of the Old Republic, which is essentially the Game of Thrones time period in the Star Wars Universe.

No. 3 – Notice the Supporting Characters from Star Wars

Bounty Hunters

The Empire Strikes Back. Photo courtesy: Lucasfilm Limited

The Bounty Hunters we met in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK are perfect ancillary characters to tell a new story.  These bounty hunters include Boba Fett, IG-88, Bossk, Dengar, 4-Lomm, and Zuckuss.  How much fun would it be to see them in a heist film?  Jabba the Hutt is another Outer Rim character that could be the subject of a spin-off.  There’s even the opportunity to return to the prequels. You could follow different Jedi on solo missions before the Empire rose to power.  The possibilities are endless.

Let your imagination run wild by exploring the backstories of these amazing side characters.  ROGUE ONE taught us the Star Wars universe is bigger than the Skywalker saga alone.

No. 4 – Don’t Be Afraid to Tackle New Genres in Star Wars (within reason)

Production Photo from Untitled Han Solo Film

Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Story. Photo courtesy: Lucasfilm Limited

One of the more interesting aspects of Rogue One was how it was trying to be a dark and gritty war film that didn’t rely on the magic of the Force.  The new Obi Wan movie is rumored to be something akin to Hugh Jackman’s Logan, a dark western of sorts.

It’s important to think outside of the box when you are trying to make an impression.  A horror film could be the perfect genre for Star Wars.  With Stephen King’s IT shattering box office records, you might see Lucasfilm go a little darker.

After all, The Empire Strikes Back is a pretty terrifying movie at times.  Han being frozen in carbonate is quite traumatic.  C3PO gets blown apart and Luke nearly gets eaten and almost freezes to death.  Imperial Officers are choked out by Vader and Chewbacca nearly chokes out Lando. Luke cutting off Darth Vader’s head and Luke getting his hand cut off are both horrifying. These are all debatably scary moments!

However it’s important to remember not every genre will work in the Star Wars universe.  Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s comedic take on Han Solo didn’t mesh with Lucasfilm.  They were fired mid-way through production, according to Variety.

As a writer, you must discern what genres are going to work in this franchise.  Never be afraid to take a chance though.

No. 5 – Create Dynamic New Star Wars Characters

The Cast of Rogue One

Rogue One. Photo courtesy: Lucasfilm Limited

The characters in Rogue One are what worked best.  These were new character who we had not met before.  Felicity Jones gave us a layered heroin, Diego Luna a conflicted and brutal assassin, Ben Mendelsohn a crooked and vile politician and Alan Tudyk, a hilariously nihilistic android.  

Characters are what make Star Wars work.  Without great characters, you cannot tell a great story.  Remember George Lucas based characters like R2D2 and C3PO on the comedic foils in Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress.  He used many Joseph Conrad archetypes as well.  You should think about some of your favorite characters when deciding who you want your protagonist to be.

After you create dynamic new characters, you must find something great for them to do.  George Lucas used Flash Gordon serials for inspiration.  Don’t be afraid to emulate the films you love when creating new stories for your Star Wars characters.  Hugh Jackman’s Logan used Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as inspiration.  Good writers tell familiar stories in new ways.

In conclusion

If you ever think you won’t have the chance to write for a franchise like Star Wars, remember the story of Roger Corman disciple James Cameron.  

Cameron had only made two films when he wrote Aliens, which was a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien.  Even though James Cameron had nothing to do with the first movie, he was able to write and direct a SPIN-OFF.  Cameron’s sequel grossed over $131 million dollars and garnered seven Academy Awards nominations, winning Oscars for Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing.  

What does this lesson prove?  Never be afraid to dream too big.

author-avatar

Jason Dolan is a WGA screenwriter whose credits including the supernatural indie Enter Nowhere and Sidney Hall which premiered at Sundance in 2017 and sold to A24. He is currently prepping his directorial debut Bloodloss. You can follow him on Twitter @jdolan74.

43 Replies to "5 Things to Know When Writing a Star Wars Spin-Off"

  • comment-avatar
    Natalie September 21, 2017 (11:17 am)

    Love this Jason!

  • comment-avatar
    Alexander Robinson September 21, 2017 (11:52 am)

    This is a very insightful outline on the future of Star Wars anthology movies and how to do them right. You bring up a lot of interesting details and ideas some of them I agree with (the bounty hunters) and some that I don’t agree with (Yoda).

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 21, 2017 (12:17 pm)

      I agree Yoda is the trickiest of them all. My theory is that it is the BEST way for an audience to be transported backwards, a longer time ago if you will, into this galaxy. I think you can also create brand new dynamic human characters alongside Yoda. For example, Qui Gon Jinn was maybe my favorite new character in the prequel trilogy. I’d like to see more actors of Neeson’s caliber in this universe. Plus, it allows us to get AWAY from all of the Skywalker business for a minute. Many complaints about Rogue One and the Han Solo anthology film revolve around them shrinking the universe. Ironically, a Yoda movie might be the best way to expand the horizon.

  • comment-avatar
    Alex September 21, 2017 (12:10 pm)

    Such good advice! It’s so important to honor the source material while keeping things fresh and exciting. Thanks for the awesome article!!

  • comment-avatar
    Victoria Ghar September 21, 2017 (12:15 pm)

    For someone who is constantly confused about the storyline this cleared a few things up. Looking forward to the new movies.

  • comment-avatar
    Sakib September 21, 2017 (12:27 pm)

    Can’t believe we live in the era of the Star Wars franchise being able to shoot off into so many directions, and I envy my kids who will grow up with a new Star Wars film annually (or more!). Thanks for a look at what it takes to pitch and write for this ever expanding literary world.

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 21, 2017 (1:51 pm)

      Perhaps we’ll even get more actors like Riz Ahmed in this universe!!!

  • comment-avatar
    Lauren Halperin September 21, 2017 (12:35 pm)

    YES! Love this. Thanks for the great read…

  • comment-avatar
    Josh September 21, 2017 (12:58 pm)

    Awesome article! I really enjoyed it and think all Star Wars fans should read it.

  • comment-avatar
    Theodore Williamson September 21, 2017 (1:16 pm)

    I totally dig this.
    Excellent insights and fun reading.
    XO,
    MrMF

  • comment-avatar
    Adam Campbell September 21, 2017 (1:24 pm)

    Crushed it with this article, Jason. Too bad you don’t love this stuff, at all! Keep up the great work!

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 21, 2017 (1:50 pm)

      Haha, yes, too bad! LOL

      Thanks my man!

  • comment-avatar
    Karen September 21, 2017 (1:31 pm)

    Great read!

  • comment-avatar
    Philip September 21, 2017 (1:34 pm)

    That was awesome — both as a fan and as a writer. Thank you!

  • comment-avatar
    ace norton September 21, 2017 (1:38 pm)

    great job jason 🙂

  • comment-avatar
    Sarah September 21, 2017 (1:59 pm)

    Before reading this article I hadn’t considered writing a Star Wars movie. Now I’m not only interested in writing one, I also feel prepared to create something that would actually engage Star Wars fans.

  • comment-avatar
    Alex Ostapiej September 21, 2017 (2:48 pm)

    Great read, especially enjoyed your insight into Rogue One (which I thought was a really strong flick) and what it did so well; I do think if humor was going to work in this universe, it would have been Miller/Lord with that character (a shame they didn’t get to make the movie they wanted, my two cents)…will be interesting if more information ever comes out about what exactly happened. I smell a good behind the scenes doc, Lost in La Mancha style.

  • comment-avatar
    Houston Sonnier September 21, 2017 (3:06 pm)

    This is awesome! I want more of the supporting characters from the original trilogy to have screen time in the new movies!

  • comment-avatar
    AB September 21, 2017 (3:17 pm)

    Great stuff and well thought out and written! Very exciting possibilities and this really maps out a workable strategy to write an original story that will be in line with the originals.

  • comment-avatar
    Stanley Philips September 21, 2017 (3:24 pm)

    Because of these “good writters”, i have to endure all of these poor plot stories that make the “nowadays” Star Wars mood. It’s really like nobody understand the original myth. When I read Homer’s Odyssey, I just don’t want another guy to begin an adventurous and dangerous journey in the Egean see after or during Odysseus’ ; “but the Aeneid” is not a good answer, I assure you that you’re not/they’re not modern times Virgil. You have to make things breathe when you work on a pre-existing licence, not obliterate it because you want to make “something new” or because the guy in the far background in the fortieth scene looks like a real badass who could have his own epic. The rise and fall of Darth Vader is the highest peek in all Star Wars history, THE big time. Like the end of the third age in Tolkien’s “franchise” (what a shity word to talk about a whole story) : the whole story was written on that purpose. If the guy in the far background is in the far background, surely there is a good reason for it.

    And please, you never write for your audience : what a shity advise to all newcomers. You just share something with it, which is your own way of thinking.
    And please², Rogue One’s characters are, if not simple marketing products, just a rash mix of pre existing Expanded Universe characters and stories. Nothing new, nothing original.

  • comment-avatar
    P September 21, 2017 (3:28 pm)

    Great article!

  • comment-avatar
    Misha September 21, 2017 (3:30 pm)

    GREAT article! And so informative!

  • comment-avatar
    Henry September 21, 2017 (4:06 pm)

    Spot. On. One thing Kathleen Kennedy’s LucasFilm is doing that George Lucas, himself, failed to do is open the casting to a more diverse group of talented, deserving actors.

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 22, 2017 (5:07 pm)

      I actually somewhat disagree with your assessment of Lucas and it is not the first time I’ve had this debate. I feel like Lucas was something of a pioneer when it comes to recognizing how important inclusion is… after Star Wars A New Hope, he realized he needed more diversity and immediately created Lando Calrissian. Lucas didn’t HAVE to do that. And by the time we got to Return of the Jedi, the entire Rebel fleet was multi-ethnical, something that was not lost on me as a child. And while he bumbled through some racial stereotypes in the prequels, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he cast Sam Jackson as the baddest Jedi in the galaxy. And of course, JJ Abrams gave us our first black Stormtrooper and another strong female heroine. Rogue One cast Riz Ahmed, as well as Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang. And in The Last Jedi we’re getting another major character of Asian descent with Kelly Marie Tran. Hopefully, Lucasfilm keeps it up! And more so, Asian and African writers should feel empowered to tell their stories in the Star Wars universe, which is just a backdrop to be used to tell empowering stories of all races and sexes!

  • comment-avatar
    Evan September 21, 2017 (6:37 pm)

    So when does Jason get to write a STAR WARS film? He’s got my vote.

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 21, 2017 (6:41 pm)

      Haha. Aww shucks. Thank you!

    • comment-avatar
      Patricia Grande September 25, 2017 (12:08 pm)

      Me too ! Jason is an amazing talent .

  • comment-avatar
    Chrissy B September 21, 2017 (7:15 pm)

    Great read. More please!!

  • comment-avatar
    Jordan Brown September 21, 2017 (8:42 pm)

    Awesome Read!!! Are there any more?

  • comment-avatar
    Drea September 22, 2017 (8:09 am)

    I was surprised to learn about James Cameron’s start. Interesting!

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 22, 2017 (4:58 pm)

      I recommend listening to the Marc Maron podcast when he interviews Bill Paxton (who worked for Cameron in the art department when Cameron was working with Roger Corman) and just to hear it from his perspective, how The Terminator came about and Aliens after that… it’s mind-bottling!

  • comment-avatar
    Brenna Clarke September 22, 2017 (9:44 am)

    Great article for fans of Star Wars and film writers! Great insight into the core film and understanding of the importance of character. More articles like this please!

  • comment-avatar
    Brenna Clarke September 22, 2017 (9:59 am)

    Great article for film writers and fans of Star Wars! More like this please!!

  • comment-avatar
    Sam Burns September 22, 2017 (10:30 am)

    Great informative piece…. Didn’t know that about Conrad and Kurosowa …. I feel the genius of these films (and those of Spielberg) were their ability to merge high art and pop sensibility, and their ability to merge genres. .. I agree with the writer in that you will need to merge the old and the new and that hopefully will bring about new characters that challenge the norm….

  • comment-avatar
    Amanda September 22, 2017 (11:23 am)

    I have always LOVED the Star Wars films and this article is excellent. There are so many hidden gems in these movies that I often don’t immediately recognize until someone like YOU points them out. Thank you for that, Jason. I love experiencing that “a ha!” moment. However, it also proves to me just how little I actually know about this universe, lol…..even though I’ve been watching these movies for decades now. As a filmmaker myself, your article has brought a fresh perspective to those important things that I often miss when I’m entrenched in my own personal visual experience of the Star Wars universe. Plus, I’m now totally inspired to write about Yoda. Thanks Jason 😊

    • comment-avatar
      Jason Dolan September 22, 2017 (4:56 pm)

      I think Yoda is a highly underrated candidate for a solo adventure, too. As a wee thing, I was always fascinated by him. I remember him saying “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not” and thinking to myself, wow, I wonder what the Star Wars universe was like when Yoda was 42. Haha, I want to see 42 year old Yoda. And more importantly, I want to see what the Star Wars universe looked like 850 years ago!!!!

  • comment-avatar
    Alex September 22, 2017 (3:52 pm)

    Star Wars is cool. My son is named Anakin. He is 21. He is going to get married on Halloween. Should I wear a dark Jedi costume even if he says I shouldn’t?

  • comment-avatar
    Nal T September 22, 2017 (8:30 pm)

    Great article with good insights! Definitely gave me some things to look out for in the films the next time I watch this series.

  • comment-avatar
    Zachery Vaughn September 23, 2017 (3:01 pm)

    Great read! Keep it up!

  • comment-avatar
    fran k September 26, 2017 (9:40 am)

    amazing article. it sort of breaks my heart what’s happened to star wars, but this would be the most thoughtful approach to milking the star wars teet dry. i mean there is no god so why not?
    great work mr. dolan

  • comment-avatar
    Paul September 26, 2017 (1:09 pm)

    I love Star Wars as much as anybody but make it stop please. But since its not going away then please, please, please, bring back the Ewoks. And Jar Jar. And the different worlds and environments the first two trilogies gave us so we have somewhere new to walk around in. Wait did I hear someone say that the Ewoks and Jar Jar were dumb. Its all dumb really. Just admit it. Okay here is my bid. The a concert film with The Modal Nodes and The Max Rebo Band on tour !

  • comment-avatar
    Angelo September 27, 2017 (10:54 am)

    This is an insightful article that could very well serve as a college course for Star Wars. I know that I learned a lot from it and I can’t wait until some of these come to fruition. There are a lot of opportunities to build on and I anticipate writers like Jason will be at the forefront.

  • comment-avatar
    Allison October 2, 2017 (8:26 am)

    Great article with good advice! I hope we keep getting inspired plot lines from Star Wars movies for years to come. When are you going to write one Jason?

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