Heir to the Empire: A Lesson on How to Weave Together Story Threads

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I know, I know. It’s taken me way too long to read Heir to the Empire.

For those of you not immersed in the Star Wars galaxy, Heir to the Empire is like the Star Wars book. As in, “you’re not a true fan unless you’ve read this.” (Personally, I don’t like the whole “true fan” culture – you should be able to just enjoy something however much you want to without going through fandom rites of passage – but I digress.)

But until a few years ago, I was always a casual Star Wars fan. I grew up watching the movies and loved them, and I also enjoyed Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is still my favourite Star Wars “thing” ever. That was pretty much it, though. I knew the books existed but didn’t care to read them.

I think everything changed when I read Bloodline by Claudia Gray.

Those of you who have read “fandom franchise” books (as I call them – there’s probably an official name for books that are written based off of a series but oh well) can attest to the fact that most of the time, these books are in their own category. If there’s a “good book,” it’s “good” in relation to the rest of the books from this franchise. Is it a good book, though? Probably not. It’s probably pretty surface level and tropey. Compared to “real” books, it’s probably just okay.

Bloodline was one of the first books I read that transcended that boundary. Not only was it a good Star Wars book, but it was just a good book, one that could stand up against non-Star Wars books and win. I was astounded at how well it was written.

And so, of course, I wanted more.

I still haven’t delved very deep into Star Wars extended canon, but while watching Rebels for the first time in 2020 (I know, super late, again), I almost instantly fell in love with Thrawn. Again, for non-Star Wars fans, Thrawn is a great character, sort of a cross between a standard Imperial officer and Sherlock Holmes. He’s so incredibly smart that it seems very unfair to the heroes most of the time. Also, he studies art from the cultures of people he’s up against, and that’s how he does his Sherlock Holmes-y stuff. Among the Imperials, he’s known as scary, unsettling, and just plain odd. To the heroes, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn is the book that introduced Thrawn back in the 90s. I found it just sitting there all lonely in a bookstore a few months ago, and since I’d already torn through one of the newer Thrawn trilogies (also written by Zahn), I knew that it was finally time for me to experience Heir to the Empire.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I’d already begun to expect this before even reading the book for how much I’d heard it hyped, but I found that Heir to the Empire was another book that transcends just the “good Star Wars book” boundary. It’s masterfully crafted. Not only does it give everyone what they wanted from the original trilogy but missed out on – Luke and Leia being caring siblings, Leia training to be a Jedi, Han and Leia being married, the Rebellion dealing with the aftermath of the Empire, etc. – but it also weaves a wonderful tale that moves seamlessly from one book to the next (though I haven’t yet read the final book in the trilogy).

It takes a great deal of planning to create a story where multiple characters have separate stories that all intertwine. The timing has to be perfect, you have to complete each individual character arc while progressing the overall story, each character’s predicament has to somehow be connected (but that can’t be immediately apparent or else it loses the element of surprise)… It’s complicated!

And yet, from the very beginning of Heir, Zahn manages to set up different journeys for Luke, Leia, and Han. The actions they take and the situations they pursue are direct reflections of how they’re developing. Here’s a summary of the main characters’ problems throughout the trilogy:

Luke: unsure if he’s skilled or knowledgeable enough to raise up a new generation of Jedi
Leia: balancing her roles as a political figure, Jedi-in-training, and soon-to-be mother
Han: figuring out his place in the new government, trying to live up to Leia’s expectations and protect her

Up front, these three things don’t seem to be connected at all. And yet, slowly through the first and second books, you see how these goals/problems all tie into each other. It makes sense; these three characters serve as the driving “trio” in the Star Wars universe. Their journeys should intersect to make the most impactful story (think of other “trio” stories like Harry Potter or Avatar: The Last Airbender).

The characters’ goals don’t always interact nicely, either. Sometimes, characters get in one another’s way, and this is what creates beautiful tension and friction in stories – the stuff that keeps readers flipping the pages. One easy example is the conflict present between Han and Leia’s goals. Han wants to protect Leia, but Leia doesn’t want the fact that she’s pregnant to compromise her influential status and keep her from doing what she believes is best for the galaxy. But you love both characters, so who do you want to win this argument? (Leia, obviously.)

It’s my opinion that these kinds of stories involving multiple main characters with interlocking story threads are some of the absolute best.

They’re clever, they’re intense, and they pretty much inherently have great characters that are all varied in personality. This aspect is one of the reasons why I love the Dragons in Our Midst series by Bryan Davis so much!

If you want to learn how to craft great stories, you have to read them first.

Heir to the Empire is definitely one of those great books – for you Star Wars fans out there who haven’t yet picked it up, I highly recommend it! Not only is it enjoyable, but you can learn quite a lot from it.

So happy reading – and writing!

-E.J.


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One thought on “Heir to the Empire: A Lesson on How to Weave Together Story Threads

  1. Pingback: Eragon: Worth the Hype from My Childhood? | E.J. Robison

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