Warning: Spoilers ahead. You can also watch the video version.
Andor is a rarity among TV shows. First, because it’s a legitimately great Star War show. I don’t hate the others—the Mandalorian is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed Obi-Wan Kenobi despite its flaws (anything related to Star Wars has earned the suspension of my disbelief)—but Andor rises above the rest thanks, largely, to exceptional writing.
But Andor is also rare because it does so many things so well. Not just the writing but the cinematography, the music, the set design—the show’s whole aesthetic is on point, whether we’re talking about the beautifully understanded intro sequence or the costume choices meant to evoke imperial sterility and the French Revolution. Each piece serves the greater narrative.
That’s how you should think about your own writing. Every word, sentence, and paragraph should achieve multiple goals. Maybe they establish character, or reveal more about the setting, or even tell a joke. For example, when Luthen Rael, a rebel leader (and so much more), evades an imperial cruiser in his small starship, he first takes out the tractor beam and then several tie fighters. As he lightspeeds away, the camera cuts to the stricken face of the imperial officer who just watched it all happen. It’s a quick visual joke that punctuates the action sequence perfectly.
Herein lies the first major point I want to make about Andor’s writing. It doesn’t just do levity well—although it does that surprisingly well, given the somber tone and revolutionary subject matter—no, its true brilliance is in characterization. Not only how the characters’ dialogue is written but also how their choices bounce off one another like pinballs in a tilted machine, how their fictional lives converge into interlocking nets of decision and consequence.
How did the writers achieve this? I believe it was by ensuring that every character had clearly defined wants and needs.
That might sound like an oversimplification, so let me explain. “Wants” and “needs” can also be called external and internal goals, or A story and B story, but in essence, these concepts refer to what a character desires—the thing they are actively chasing—and what they require—how they need to change, which they may or may not be aware of.
The first one, the want, drives the plot forward while grounding the character in reality for the audience. We’re all pursuing goals constantly, whether it’s to get a new job or make a sandwich. The second, the need, refers to the transformation a character must undergo to become a better, more “complete” person. This usually happens via difficult choices made in situations of conflict. Most of us can relate to that too.
Look at Cassian Andor, the show’s titular protagonist. His external goals revolve around his family and friends. At the start, he wants to find his lost sister—but as the story goes on, he simply wants to protect his loved ones (like his adoptive mother, Maarva, and her adorable droid, B2EMO) by paying back his debts and escaping the empire’s grasp. But Cassian’s internal goal—what he learns by the end—is that you can’t always run from trouble. Sometimes, to earn a better life for those you love, you have to fight.
Next, you should use these wants and needs as catalysts to create complications that escalate conflict. When I say “complication,” I mean the obstacles we place in a character’s path that force them to change or grow.
Remember how I said the characters bounce off one another like pinballs? Complicating the narrative makes that possible. By establishing characters with diametrically opposed goals, you can use obstacles and interpersonal conflict to push these individuals into each other’s paths (or, in the case of Andor, force them to outmaneuver one another at every turn), which further complicates the story. These gradually escalating obstacles elevate Andor to true greatness. The writers ratchet up the tension so smoothly that more complications are always waiting to ruin our characters’ days, even after a storyline comes to an end.
Endings are a common thread in Andor. The writers conclude story arcs at the pace of two or three episodes per arc. Creating these smaller, encapsulated stories not only gives the events a grander sense of scale—as if these are tiny goings-on in a much larger universe—but also keeps the show moving at a quick clip, making it the TV equivalent of a page turner even though, when you look closely, it’s mostly dialogue.
Luckily, that dialogue is amazing. When you’ve done the hard work of creating characters with memorable wants and needs, even a simple conversation over cereal can be riveting. Everyone talks about the show’s monologues, which are dynamite—“I share my dreams with ghosts,” come on—but the moment-to-moment dialogue carries the story.
So, Andor has brilliant characterization, complications, pacing, and dialogue. Great. But how can you achieve the same results in your own writing? The answer is simple (although not necessarily easy).
Think about your characters. What goal do they want to achieve? What truth do they need to learn? Answer these questions for each character, even minor side peeps who won’t get a big climactic scene or satisfying payoff. The important part is that you understand them and let this knowledge inform the choices they make. A good example is Dedra Meero’s assistant, who is just a little overeager but still competent enough to be likable despite also being a fascist. (I could write a whole essay on Dedra, so let’s not look too hard at her right now.)
Don’t neglect the complications. Complications are one of the hardest parts of storytelling to do well, but they’re also one of the most important. Some writers call the second act the “muddy middle,” and that’s mostly because organic complications are hard to write. When complications go wrong, however, that’s when we start calling a story “forced” or “contrived.” Remember to let your characters create conflict by building opposing goals into their worldviews. And the choices they face must be difficult—always between two equally good or bad options. An example is when Cassian decides to give Luthen what he wants by showing up and saying, “kill me or take me in.” That’s a tough choice because Cassian has seen Luthen’s face, making him the proverbial man who knows too much, but Cassian’s skills, unwavering loyalty, and willingness to pull the trigger when others won’t also make him a potentially valuable asset.
Work on the dialogue. Dialogue is one of the most important parts of any story. In a TV show, it’s how your writing is “heard” by the audience, but in any medium, it represents your characters’ attempts to interact with one another. Dialogue can’t just be speeches—those are fun and memorable, but only if used sparingly. Too many monologues make a story seem pompous and one-sided, like a lecture, whereas good dialogue is more like a tennis match. The characters hit the ball back and forth, trying to score points; each point might convince them of something or reveal new information. Andor does this beautifully, so I’ll provide another quick example, from when Luthen tries to convince Saw Gerrara to let a group of rebels die in an ambush to protect the identity of a double agent at the Imperial Security Bureau or ISB. Watch how the dialogue ebbs and flows, how they’re saying so much without ever stating what they want, how the words create and resolve conflict simultaneously through realization and revelation.
Saw: It’s 30 men.
Luthen: Plus Kreegyr.
Saw: So you know he’s doomed. Which means either you’re ISB, or you have someone inside that you’re protecting.
Luthen: Or I’m just a very good listener.
Saw: You think it’s worth losing Kreegyr.
Luthen: I did. I’m not sure right now.
Saw: What if it was me instead of Kreegyr? What would you do?
Luthen: Kreegyr doesn’t know me. I’m not vulnerable if he’s captured.
Saw: Surely you’ve met him.
Luthen: I’ve met him, been in a room with him, but he doesn’t know that. We send people. We drop supplies. We have special radios. He can’t hurt me.
Saw: Like I can.
Luthen: It’s your decision, Saw. It’s your decision. But know the choice. Do we let Kreegyr go down and play the long game, or do we warn him and throw away a source that’s taken years to cultivate?
If you haven’t watched Andor already, I hope this convinces you. It might be the best piece of Star Wars content we’ll ever get to see, and improving as a writer means appreciating and absorbing great writing. So get out there and appreciate it already.