In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death following an in-flight heart attack last year, she left the last of 15 books, The Princess Diarist. The book deals, perhaps fittingly, with the cultural events that first made her famous—the filming of the original Star Wars and the relationship she had with her much older co-star, Harrison Ford.
“When I was a young man, Carrie Fisher was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen,” Steve Martin tweeted the day of her death. “She turned out to be bright and witty as well.” Martin caught some heat about his wording, and eventually deleted his tweet. But the same basic sentiment was there in a number of industry tributes: the journey from the highly sexualized, urgently sought starlet to distinguished afterthought, which seems to happen, for women in film, in the blink of an eye. Fisher deals with this issue in the book, when she discusses the hordes men who confessed to her that they masturbated to her in Star Wars. “If I’d known about all the masturbating I would generate…let’s just say I have mixed feelings. Why did all these men find it so easy to be in love with me then and so complex to be in love with me now?”
The Princess Diarist can be read as, in effect, a postcard from being a young working actress—but now reads more as an ambivalent missive we are perhaps in a better place to understand a year after its author’s own death. In some ways the book treads familiar ground for readers of Fisher. Ever since she published Postcards from the Edge (1987) she has been known for semi-autobiographical works (first fiction, then increasingly, memoir) which are simultaneously edgy and cozy. Fisher seemed to defy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stricture that there are no second acts in American lives. Her reinvention of herself as a sober role model and an accomplished writer seemed to promise all kinds of happy endings for mankind, and maybe womankind in particular. Her death at 60 with cocaine, morphine, and ecstasy in her system complicated that rosy picture, as does this final book.
There is a strong undercurrent of sorrow and anger in The Princess Diarist, her seventh memoir. The meat of the book is Fisher’s secret (at the time of publication) relationship with Harrison Ford, her married and 14-year-senior costar on the original Star Wars film and its sequels. But despite this detail, at first the book doesn’t seem that far outside of Fisher’s usual wheelhouse. After all, part of her allure as a writer has always been her backstage access. Ever the thoughtful hostess, she takes us with his on her adventures with celebrities and drugs, without ever really challenging our preconceptions. After all, when you were cradled in the tabloid scandal of the century (Eddie Fisher leaving her mother, Debbie Reynolds, for Elizabeth Taylor) nothing’s shocking, and Fisher’s jaded wit has always been the armor in which she presented her prose. In The Princess Diarist one senses Fisher had allowed herself, for the first time, to let us feel her experience, not just the comic anecdote of it.
At first this seems like the regular stuff of Hollywood memoir. Now it can be told! Famous liaison never before revealed! The Princess Diarist also contains elements of what we’ve come to expect from the Fisher oeuvre: anecdotes about Warren Beatty getting consulted about whether she should wear a bra on Shampoo, her first film (a casual no), bookended by George Lucas’s odd stricture that she should not wear one in Star Wars because there’s no underwear in space, for the simple (?) reason that a bra could strangle you there. These zippy stories were widely quoted in reviews and memes even after her death—because they were fun, mildly risqué but not too challenging, involving famous and beloved figures and films. Anyone reading quickly, say for a hot take immediately following release, could be forgiven for only picking up on these superficial aspects of the book.
The month before Fisher died, reviewers responded to a ghost book, the one that was mainly there in outline, in the imagination of its beholder. If they found themselves discomfited by parts that did not fit, they pinned the blame squarely on Fisher for a less than slick execution of what they’d come to expect. J.D. Biersdorfer of The New York Times asks “whether anyone cares about the dalliance four decades later.” A year later, reviewing the paperback edition, Barbara Ellen asserts in The Guardian that Harrison Ford “comes across as an emotionally distant crashing bore.”
I too struggled with The Princess Diarist just after Fisher’s death. There was something unexpected—hell, downright unsettling here. I lent the book to several friends and they all returned it to me, eyes more or less averted, saying, “Thanks, I guess…not sure what to make of that.”
I’ve only encountered one reviewer willing to acknowledge the dangerous nature of the book. Tasha Robinson, writing a few days after Fisher’s death, admits she feels “alarm and empathy,” and calls it “weird and dysfunctional how the media has represented their brief relationship as the giddy confirmation of a collective fandom fantasy, rather than the way Fisher actually presents it, as exhausting and gutting.” Robinson brings her attention to what should, conventionally, be the most giddy scene—the start of the affair with her costar. Instead, it is one of the more disturbing moments of the book, prescient when it comes to what we came to know in 2017.
The heart of this book is the three notebooks she kept while filming Star Wars and dealing with her remote, manipulative lover and costar. Fisher found the notebooks under the floorboards of her living room when she began an extensive renovation. From them we first learn the reason Fisher feigned enthusiastic support for the Dutch donut hairdo that was to haunt her the rest of her life: she had been ordered to lose 10 pounds and sent to a fat farm in Arizona, but had failed to subtract herself the contractually stipulated amount, and thus was terrified she would be fired. Therefore she wanted to appear especially game regarding the Dutch girl braids. This need to appear game turns out to be the key to the whole Harrison Ford affair, which begins under an inebriated, faintly violent cloud.
On a Friday night a few weeks into filming, the almost entirely male crew threw a surprise birthday party for George Lucas. They ply the inexperienced 19-year-old Carrie Fisher with drinks, even though she tells them she’s allergic.
The male crew talk about how they wish they were somewhere where finding sexually compliant partners was more convenient, “on the coast someplace where the locals are ready and willing.”
Fisher explicitly states that at this point she has never really drank or taken drugs. She’s drinking lukewarm coke when the crew decides to get her drunk. They start insisting she drink, and, wanting to fit in and be friendly, she’s soon very drunk. The scene gets a little scary, the men vying with each other for who is going to whisk her off. Then, as if on cue, in steps Harrison Ford to save the day, or rather, to initiate a demoralizing and ultimately destructive sexual relationship with his much younger colleague. He’s married, with young children, with no desire to undo those things, something that tortures Fisher during the course of their relationship.
“[T]here was also an element of danger,” she writes. “Not with a capital ‘D,’ but the word in whatever form applies due to the roughhousing that seemed to rule the day, or the roost, or the world.”
There is a lot going on here. Fisher, working against her tendency to gloss over and glide manically, draws the scene out. This is clearly an experience that has troubled her for more than half a lifetime, though in the pre-Harvey Weinstein era she hesitates, and parses her words. On set, she still struggled to appear “somewhere between sophisticated and louche—someone you’d think had gone to boarding school in Switzerland with Anjelica Huston and had learned to speak four languages, including Portuguese,” but the reality was that Fisher is very inexperienced and had only had one boyfriend, in drama school the previous year.
To be clear: on the Matt Damon scale of sexual harassment (in which anything less than rape doesn’t count), what is described in The Princess Diarist does not register. But Fisher, to her credit, allows her 19-year-old self to state her case. Not only does she allow that inexperienced, but talented and ambitious girl, her own words, but she also chews on them herself from her perspective 40 years later. Her verdict: that dismal sexual experience helped form the template for a life marked by mental instability and drug abuse, as well as her voice as a writer. Ford contributed to both by keeping her high on his never-ending supply of potent weed, by preying on her when she was inebriated at the forceful urging of the all male crew, and by being so inaccessible that she turned to her notebooks for company.
Those notebooks form the heart of this book, which, to this reader, is paradoxically her most alive—uncomfortable, uneven, yes—but also raw.
I recently had a conversation with my mother-in-law about this moment of reckoning in our culture vis-à-vis sexual harassment, and more broadly, the treatment of women. While sympathetic, she couldn’t understand why “these women are dredging up stories from 30 years ago.” In response, I show her this book—a hologram from 1976 with Fisher’s 19-year-old person intact, delivering her urgent message from a galaxy not so far away.
For the last twelve years I have taught fiction writing at Delta College in Michigan. For six of those years I have also taught Introduction to Screenwriting as part of Delta’s Film Production program. Arguably, screenwriters and fiction writers are going about the same thing, even if in different forms: they are trying to tell a good story. I certainly can’t say that the ways I teach screenwriting and fiction writing are universal, but I have noticed that, while the two courses essentially focus on storytelling, my pedagogical approaches for each are very different.
When I teach fiction, I usually focus on the “craft” of fiction. I use words and phrases like “conflict,” “character development,” “backstory,” “interior landscape,” and “dialogue.” When it comes to plot, though, I find myself saying something cryptic like, “Plot comes out of character. Whatever your protagonist does must be true to his or her character.” It’s good advice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really help students understand what makes for a solid plot. When I talk about fiction writing, the vibe is mystical: “You don’t need to know where you’re going. Just sit down and write. Discover what you have to say sentence by sentence. Let the journey surprise you.” Sometimes I’ll even quote E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that simile, but the more realistic side of me notes that it’s also a perfect situation for crashing and going nowhere.
Screenwriting often seems so much more practical and story-oriented. Right out of the gate, I am talking with students about the importance of movie-mapping. Much more time is spent on the plotting of the story to make certain that “something happens” and that the movie is always escalating tension and conflict as it moves toward the climax. For such a modern form of storytelling – barely 125 years old – screenwriting seems to draw much more of its understanding of plot from Plato’s dissection of narrative structure.
Before my students begin to learn screenplay format, I first ask them to consider their film’s major dramatic question, or MDQ. In screenwriting, the major dramatic question is a yes-or-no question that is answered by the climax. For instance, in the 1977 classic Star Wars: A New Hope, the MDQ would be, “Will Luke blow up the Death Star?” Before ever writing, my students are encouraged to know their MDQ and to know the answer. They have to know what they are writing towards in order to make every scene lead the audience there naturally and believably. To understand how movie structure works, we talk about a movie’s Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and Climax. Screenwriters are encouraged to know their ending before anything else, which seems very different from all of that driving blind in the fog business.
Star Wars: A New Hope provides a good example of the rest of the plot points. The inciting incident of a movie is the event that is necessary to get the movie going. Usually the first ten minutes of a film focus on character and situation introduction, but right about ten minutes in, something happens that calls the protagonist to his or her quest. In Star Wars, the inciting incident occurs when the droids escape Princess Leia’s ship with the plans to the Death Star inside R2-D2. (Notice how the inciting incident already alludes to the MDQ.) If the droids don’t escape Leia’s ship, then we don’t have Star Wars…or at least not the Star Wars that we know.
Right around 25 to 30 pages into the script, the screenwriter must begin to think about Plot Point 1. This is a moment in the movie that makes action on the part of the protagonist necessary. In Star Wars, Luke isn’t really sure what he’s doing with the droids. He’s chasing R2-D2 rather than making his own choices. Even when Ben asks Luke to join him, Luke says that he can’t leave his uncle’s farm. It’s only when Luke races back to the farm to find his uncle and aunt dead at the hands of the Empire that he can commit to his quest. Nothing is holding Luke back, and his hatred toward the Empire has been fueled.
About halfway through the script, screenwriters need to give thought to the Mid-Point. The Mid-Point often shows us a strength in the character that we have not seen up until this moment. In the first half of Star Wars, Luke takes a backseat to the much more interesting Ben Kenobi and Han Solo. It’s only when Luke is free of them that he can truly shine. Rescuing Princess Leia, Luke faces a daunting chasm. Storm troopers are slowly opening the door behind him. Across the chasm, stormtroopers fire upon him and Leia. Oh, and as you’ll remember, the bridge across the chasm is no longer functional. Probably unknowingly using the Force, Luke flawlessly tosses a grappling hook up to an overhead pipe and swings himself and Leia to safety. He does this on his own. That’s the movie’s midpoint, which helps the audience believe what happens in the climax because it reveals that strength of character that the audience had yet to see.
Finally, to escalate conflict and to make success that much more difficult, a screenwriter has to think about Plot Point 2, which is a major setback to the protagonist. In Star Wars, the setback happens when Ben is killed by Darth Vader. It’s a major blow to Luke, and it makes their entire mission against the Death Star seem that much more hopeless. Watch nearly any movie, and right around three-quarters into it, something really bad will happen to the main character. That event serves to escalate tension and keep the audience uncertain.
The rest of the movie now plays out toward answering the MDQ. If the movie has been plotted well, the climax is not only satisfying but believable.
It’s my belief that no novelist would be hurt by taking a screenwriting course or by studying a screenwriting text, not for jumping ship and becoming a screenwriter, but to understand storytelling from a new vantage-point. At Delta College, the students who take creative writing courses represent a small but passionate pool. They often take every creative writing course available. In Screenwriting, I will sometimes get students who want to adapt a novel that they are working on into a screenplay. More often than not, they actually end up learning what they have to do to make their novel work as a novel. It is the strict attention to plot involved with screenwriting that helps them see how they can make their story work better in prose form. At the end of the class they’ll tell me, “This class helped me understand my novel so much better, and now I’m going to rewrite the entire thing.”