How to Write a Sequel: 'The Empire Strikes Back' Script
The Force is strong with this classic script...
Writing a sequel is a huge undertaking. You have to expand, contract, and push the story forward. So how did The Empire Strike Back script do it?
With sequels, not only do you have to uphold the expectations of the original, but you have to create a deeper world that exposes new character arcs that continue whats familiar -- and do it in a new way. Few sequels have ever had as much pressure as The Empire Strikes Back script.
Star Wars was a cultural and costly phenomenon. There was so much pressure on George Lucas that he decided not to direct the sequel and focus on the script. It had to be filled with surprises, plot twists, and also deepen character development.
Let's take a deep-ish dive on how this screenplay exceeds expectations and the lessons you can learn from where Lucas went right.
New Character Arcs in a Sequel
Congratulations on your successful first film. That's no small feat in today's world. In any world. But when you're tackling the sequel you need to focus on how your characters can arc even more. Or change their arc entirely. One of the best case studies in this is Han Solo.
We looked at the Star Wars script and saw how heroes are made. Han Solo only accepts the title when he flies in at the end to save the day. But what can he do in a sequel?
Empire forces Han to make a sacrifice after sacrifice to help the rebellion. He's not just a pawn, but a key part of the rebel force. He risks his life to save Luke over and over again. But Han has already become a hero. His arc now is about how his past catches up with him.
Jabba sent a bounty hunter. His childhood friend isn't trustworthy.
And in this version of the script, his "I know" reads more like "I'm not worthy."
It's not only Han. This is the first movie where we really see Leia as a leader. She's in charge of a rebel base; there, she barely escapes with her life, and then leads the getaway from Cloud City. Empire also adds a another layer to Luke. Here, he's become much more introspective, in tune with the force, and desperate for answers.
Luke was all bravado in the first installment, but now he seeks out Yoda and alienates himself from his friends. His mission is about him. About his past as well.
And speaking of his past...
Add another layer to the antagonist
Darth Vader might be the greatest movie villain of all time. He still causes shivers to run down spines. And even though we know Vader's arc is one of redemption, you can't have that without what happens in the second installment. This screenplay was built around some huge reveals.
And the biggest one makes both the protagonist and antagonist linked.
When Vader is revealed as Luke's father, it not only sent a shockwave through the world but also through the screenwriting community. Mostly because it would be so hard to have another reveal like this ever again. It was a bombshell, something no one saw coming and that only had subtextual allusions as the story went forward.
Still, this is an excellent backstory for Vader. It gives us a distinct mirror to the protagonist and shows how they are diametrically opposed moving forward. We get a full sense of what the dark side is, and we understand how alluring that side can be.
Up until now, it was hard to see Luke joining Vader, now we know Vader was once seduced and it becomes ever more possible it can happen again.
Be okay ending on a sad note
Empire ends on a downer. Han is frozen. Luke needs a new arm. the rebel forces are on the run. If there's a glimmer of hope, it's that we know they're going to keep fighting. But that's not much. this installment definitely leaves room for the third movie to complete the story.
It's also a bold move. Ending on a down note is hard in an adventure movie.
These characters get what they want and it totally backfires on them.
Still, you have to be okay taking a chance like this, because it means so much to the audience
Sequels have to subvert expectations, not just play fan service. Star Wars ended with a bang. This one ends with a retreat and a whimper, but a promise to come back even bigger and better.
So if you're writing a sequel don't pull any punches. Take the characters further, surprise us with the ending, and keep the audience invested for whatever happens next.
You never know when a trilogy is afoot.
What's next? Read Reservoir Dogs!
The Reservoir Dogs script is where it all began for Tarantino. Read the PDF and see what you can learn from the screenplay.