The evil ruler wanted to destroy his enemies and rule the galaxy forever. So, under the guidance of an elderly warrior, and with the help of a charming rogue, a giant beast, and two robots, they set out to rescue a kidnapped princess. With that relatively straightforward story, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope started a massive transmedia storyworld that everyone’s come to know and love.
At Whittier College, I learned how they did it—and how we can, too.
In January, I took a class called Transmedia Storytelling, where my classmates and I were asked to create stories that could translate across multiple media. We learned about the art, history and business of designing vast fictional storyworlds such as the Star Wars universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (I’d like to mention that Whittier College offers some of its most interesting courses during the January term, called JanTerm, between the fall and spring semesters.)
Looking at the original Star Wars trilogy, I learned how transmedia stories require a rich fictional world, one that expands beyond the boundaries of a given text or, in this case, film. Within a fictional universe, it’s important to engage your audience by inserting references to people, places, or things that we might not initially see on screen, which George Lucas planted in Star Wars from the very beginning. These unseen parts of the story can make for excellent spin-off stories and help enrich the sense that this fictional world is vast and can be explored in other media.
A perfect example of this can be seen in A New Hope, through a scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s a quick moment where Luke Skywalker looks around and sees a bunch of different alien species. These aliens are never explained to us. They just exist in the background with their own personalities and customs, making us as the audience want to know more about them and the world that they live in.
Or consider when a character makes a passing reference to a significant, past conflict called the Clone Wars. This event is never explained in the film, but that intriguing seed existed for other media—like a prequel, comic book, or spin-off TV series—to explore and grow the Star Wars franchise.
Through this JanTerm transmedia storytelling course, I also learned the basics of storytelling, such as the three-act structure (setup, confrontation, resolution) which can be applied to almost every popular film. I also learned to identify a common thread in narratives across media: the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey is a pattern of storytelling that can be found everywhere from Lord of the Rings to Spider-Man. Professor Sean Morris has this fun explanation of it:
Star Wars is a great illustration of that pattern. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, has to leave the comfortable familiarity of his life and meets a wise old man in the desert named Obi Wan Kenobi, who becomes his mentor and presents him with a call to action: joining him to resist the villainous Empire. Luke refuses and returns home, only to find that his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Empire.
In the hero’s journey, I learned that there’s always a time when the hero must commit to change. In Star Wars, this is when Luke sets out with his mentor and he’s forced to cross the threshold from the world that he knows into the unknown. Heroes don’t complete their journey until they face some sort of an ordeal. For Luke, this is destroying the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, to avert the destruction of entire planets.
Besides talking about story structure in my Whittier JanTerm class, I also got a chance to create my own fictional transmedia storyworld. Since I happen to be a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, I created a storyworld inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Expanse, among other sources. In order to build that world, I had to look at other successful fictional stories and ask myself the question, “What if?” This is what we called our central deviation from reality. In Star Wars, the central deviation from reality is “What if there was an energy field created by all living things? What if this force is what binds the galaxy together?”
We asked these questions and more during class debates, where we had in-depth conversations about Star Wars and other fictional fantasy worlds, such as Harry Potter. As a class, we talked about what worked and what didn’t and tried to apply what was successful with these transmedia storyworlds to the fictional narratives we were designing.
So, the next time you’re applying for classes at Whittier College, don’t overlook those JanTerm classes.