Why is The Mandalorian such an engaging show?
Is it the gruff and mostly faceless hero? Is it the episodic road trip? Maybe it’s the cute green baby (now officially named)?
There are quite a few reasons to explain why The Mandalorian is the most-watched original series on streaming services. It’s a Venn diagram jam packed with many overlapping circles, the most obvious being: it’s really, really good Star Wars content. But there are others, specifically circles of interest to writers and storytellers. Let’s examine a few of the ways this show captivates its audiences and how you can delve deeper into the craft for your own stories.
1) We’re going on a road trip
What does a highway, the ocean and outer space have in common? They each make great settings for road trips. And that concept just happens to be one of the core storytelling devices The Mandalorian employs.
Think about one of the most famous road trips in literature: Jason and the Argonauts. Apollonius of Rhodes didn’t write Jason and his pals hitting the pavement like some 800 BC version of Clark Griswold, but he did give us a template for Jason and his team to face trials, partner up with side characters like Hercules and create an unforgettable “it’s the journey, not the destination” adventure.
The Odyssey does this, too. Odysseus encounters obstacles on his decade-long journey home from war. So what does The Mandalorian have to do with this? Think about it. Din Djarin (aka Mando) is going on one long road trip with his pal, Grogu (aka Baby Yoda). Along the way they encounter obstacles, meet side characters and gain new resources. They evolve ever-so-slightly across each episode until they reach their limit of change for the season.
For example: Mando looks like a scrub, gets better Beskar armor. Mando hates droids, a droid saves Mando’s life. Mando never shows his face, Mando betrays his life code to pop off that sweet helmet for a peek at Pedro Pascal. And to save his live, I guess.
So how can I use this technique?
Jessica Brody, author of Save The Cat! Writes A Novel, writes about road trips as a genre of storytelling. She recommends breaking down your road trip into three parts: the road, the team and the prize.
Think of your road trip as a heist. Your characters are seeking a treasure. They’ve made a plan to obtain said treasure. But you, the author and terrible manipulator of your characters’ lives, must make like a Greek god and rip up those plans. Your road trip characters need conflict to learn about themselves, to react under pressure and to engage the audience with cliffhanging “what will they do now?” questions.
Most important to remember: It’s not really about the prize the end. It’s about the transformation of the characters. Jessica Brody on why the treasure your character seeks is not really the most interesting item they’re going to gain:
The primal prize is what sets the story in motion—often tied in with the Catalyst beat—but it often has less value and meaning once it’s actually achieved (or not achieved!). It’s more of a device to get your team on the road and the story into action. In the end, your hero or heroes may not even get the prize, and that’s OK! Because that’s not what the story is really about.
Brody, Jessica. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (pp. 230-231).
2) The Wild West … in space!
You wouldn’t be the first person to compare The Mandalorian to a space western. It makes sense: Mando is the Star Wars equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name, he gets most of his work from saloon-like cantinas and the theme song relies heavily on flutes and percussion. Imagine the show’s opening tune. Sound familiar? Compare it to one of Ennio Marcone’s most famous pieces below.
Okay, sorry. I went off on a tangent. Your novel doesn’t have a soundtrack (unless you’re from some sci-fi future where books are animated and play music like some kind of Harry Potter photograph). What it does have is a common theme with famous works from cinema history.
Where can I learn more about this style?
Just like The Mandalorian, you’ll find this sort of episodic storytelling structure in famous Westerns, like the Dollars Trilogy or The Rifleman. Another great, yet under-appreciated and lesser known, source of inspiration comes from samurai films, like Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. These stories follow a lone character with a sketchy past and a heart of gold (of varying degrees). Each entry of the series introduces a conflict of some kind, a contract includes turning over a sweet green baby, a gang of outlaws are terrorizing innocents or somebody has poisoned the waterhole. By the end of the serial, our character has leveled up with new gear, new mindset or a new group of friends to call in later in their travels.
3) Rules of the road
Rules suck and authors hate them. Broad statement, yeah, but I’m pretty sure most creatives just want to create and not worry about constraints and boundaries. Sadly, this is life, kid, and you’re gonna have to follow a few rules to create some engaging fiction.
Dan Holt, who wrote this piece on episodic drama, has these guidelines to keep in mind while writing your episodic narrative:
- The work involves a dynamic character, one who changes in fits and starts throughout the course of the story.
- Episodes vary in length.
- Episodes are roughly chronological, but not specifically so.
- A single unifying device runs throughout the story, appearing in each episode.
- Episodes are not related directly by cause and effect; instead, all are related to a central theme.
- If a traditional short story is a movie, moving in a linear fashion from beginning to end, an episodic story is more like a slide show or a music video.
- And finally, to borrow a rule from George Orwell, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Remember that thing I said about rules? Well, George Orwell says to break them. So do a lot of other authors. Yes, there are fantastic stories that bend and break the traditional rules of storytelling. Just do so at your own discretion and maybe after you’ve mastered the plot beats of this kind of fiction.
Let’s tease out one key piece of information from above. The bit about characters? Yeah, pretty important. As a writer, you’re not creating a story powered by a world or setting or pre-planned heist. You’re letting the characters drive the action.
Who are some famous characters that fit this kind of storytelling?
Think about some of your favorite characters. Like dig deep into that all-time list of yours. There’s probably a lot of anti-heroes there, right? Wolverine, Harry Dresden, Arya Stark, Bender from Futurama, Han Solo, Din Djarin the Mandalorian, just to name a very small few.
Anti-heroes are so interesting to us, both as humans and as consumers, because they are in a constant conflict between what is convenient and what is right. It’s like the angel and devil sitting on your shoulders trope. Han Solo has a price on his head, but overthrowing the Empire is the right thing to do. Arya Stark wants to dismantle a corrupt system, but to do so, must corrupt the ideals her father taught her by becoming an assassin.
If you want to write an episodic series, on the screen or in a book, anti-heroes have great potential to be a long-lasting source of story juice. They have flaws to overcome, past enemies, future friends and tons of potential for story hooks and obstacles.
Episodic storytelling, like the kind used in The Mandalorian, is a real treat for audiences and authors alike. Readers grow attached to these characters that they’ve seen grow across books or seasons, and authors can use them across so many genres and styles and settings.
If you’re looking to start your own series or perfect an existing one, be sure to analyze previous iterations for inspiration. The Dresden Files, The Mandalorian, Zatoichi, for example. Then write your heart out and follow those rules above. Then trash the rules and become famous. Just send me a check when you do. Um, (shameless tip-jar plug) speaking of: