I don't know how good stories work.
I could rattle off random tidbits pulled out of a hat, but half of them, at best, would be conditionally true, and null in alternate circumstances.
The truth is that the only way to know if a story works is to experience it. If you enjoy the experience, it's good. If not, it's either for someone else or destined to stay in someone's desk until an estate sale long after they're gone.
That's what I was thinking after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens earlier today. The movie works so well that it's restoring the faith of millions in a franchise that has long been a running joke among its most devout fans.
Tone, action, dialogue, acting, set pieces, story. Any aspect of film you can name, this movie does it better than the prequel trilogy. But as for specifics on how J.J. Abrams has handled George Lucas's universe better than the master himself, you would be hard pressed to identify how. Narratives tend to have their own personalities, and respecting what they require in order to be successful and complete is mystifying even to the greatest of writers.
I personally think the hardest job of a writer is identifying a good story while in the drafting process. How do you know you're going in the right direction? If we're always making decisions, how do you spot when you've made a bad one before it's too late? If you're on the right track, how do you convince yourself of this so you don't throw in the towel?
I've come to believe there is only one truth about good writing: when it's good, you can FEEL IT.
I know. I sound like I'm using The Force to craft fiction. But that's kind of what it's like. Watching The Force Awakens, I could sense the presence of a cog missing from the prequel trilogy the moment the opening crawl floated across the screen. An intensity in the dialogue. A feeling of dread within the story's conflict. A sense that the actors really were who they were playing. Making that happen comes down to so much more than the order of twenty-six letters and an assortment of spaces and punctuation. You have to view the work in its entirety, and cut, edit, and paste together a holistic something that is bigger than its parts.
How do you know when you've accomplished that? You don't. You just let go and hope the end result is good enough. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it's not.
That leads me to my theory -- I think George Lucas has long been an artistic prisoner. I think he has always loved and hated the masterpiece that made him rich and famous. It's been a lucrative monster that has destroyed any and all dreams he might have achieved in an alternate life.
Making the prequels was his attempt to accept his fate as the tortured leader of one story that usurped every other script he'd written. He was forever fated to explore this world, and because it was his, he didn't want anyone else to ever put their hands on it, even when it had become clear his heart was no longer there. I don't think it was his fault, necessarily. I have an agent and editor who have given me guidance in my writing career, but no one had the power to tell Lucas his hold on the story was gone, save for a raging army of fans whom Lucas had come to loathe. I suspect that if I had written Star Wars I would have burned out managing the subsequent explosion, too.
Then, in his own words, Lucas had his "divorce" with Star Wars when he sold it to Disney. I'm sure it's both frustrating and a relief to see it in the hands of someone else, but it was the right choice. He arguably should have made it sooner.
Meanwhile, after years of having sworn off this series, I'm excited about Star Wars again.