If you've been with me for a while now, it's no secret that I'm a proud dork. Movies, video games, comic books, TV, cartoons ... you name it, I've probably flailed about it for a couple of months at some point. But there's one common thread running through them all, which I believe accounts for the success of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) films over the last nine years: they all tell a damn good story. I'd like to illustrate this point by comparing the first of them with the most recent. If you'll kindly indulge me, there are some great writing and plotting lessons to be had amidst all the explosions and - yes - spandex.
Exhibit A: Iron Man (2008)
I shouldn't have to worry about spoiling anyone for this one, but the gist? Super-smarmy, self-important, booze-soaked billionaire Tony Stark gets a serious reality check when he's kidnapped by terrorists and has to invent, engineer, and snark his way out to freedom. Once he's out, he realizes he's got to fix the mess he started, and thus, we get Iron Man. That, alone, sounds like a pretty good story, right? It gets better. The writers (it took four of them) add in little subtle layers to raise Tony's stakes even higher. He's got family issues in his past, which seem a little obligatory, but provide great hooks for his later development. He's got a romantic arc which, to my great delight, didn't actually resolve itself by the end of the first movie... or even the second, or third, or ... you get the point.
But the best thing about Tony's story isn't necessarily his "jerk-to-good-guy" redemption: it's the growth he has to undertake to get there. He doesn't just lose his creature comforts. He's reminded of some hard truths, he loses, he fumbles, he falters. People around him fail to understand what's going on in his head, because they weren't there for these things: they just see sudden change, and react with frustration and bewilderment, which makes it just that little bit harder for him to maintain The New Tony Stark. Why does this make a better story than the "bad things happened, now it's time for REVENGE" tale it could have easily been? I have a one-word answer for you: empathy.
Everyone knows what it's like to go through personal changes and not be "heard", to be understood or completely validated. Everyone has multiple stakes in their lives, and everyone has issues which can't be resolved within a two-hour or two-hundred-page storyline. The key to a great story, for me, is the growth. It's not just about how much they lose (I'm looking at YOU, George R. R. Martin), but how much they gain back, and how. It's about shedding any previous conceptions about the world that may have been keeping them from moving forward. Enter Exhibit B.
Exhibit B: Spider-man: Homecoming (2017)
This is, refreshingly, not a third take on "oh no, my Uncle Ben died, with great power comes great responsibility, and now I have to save my girlfriend from a villain who I thought was a mentor". Marvel does themselves a favor by skipping the bits that we, the audience, already know, and dropping us into the thick of something new. Peter Parker knows he's got these awesome powers, and he's pretty high on them. He caught Tony Stark's attention - he feels like the king of the world. He knows he can help, he can make a difference, and he's very eager to do so. He reclaims a bike without even knowing who it's been stolen from. He helps old ladies cross the street. His heroism is both big and small ... but it's the big stuff that gets him in trouble when he gets in over his head. Despite his great intentions and his giant squishy heart, Peter's Achilles' heel is the same as Tony's - his ego - and because of that, we're cringing for him from day one, because we can sense where this is going to go. Downhill.
Downhill it does, in spectacular fashion: not once, not twice, but three times, and by the end of it, you really just want to see the kid figure it out and triumph, because by this point, he really deserves it. Again: empathy.
So, what can a writer learn from these movies? SO much, but I'll give you the biggest bullet points:
I hope you enjoyed this little foray into fandom as a teaching moment ... If you have any movies, shows, or other media which have taught you about story structure, drop me a line in the comments: I'd love to start a discussion on this! Please join me back here next week, when I'm going to take a brief detour into crafts and DIY to show you a great writing tool.
Until next week, be yourself, create something good, and have FUN!
Along with reading, I have always had a love for the theatre, and participated in my share of school plays. In junior high, I even had the good fortune to spend a summer as an intern at one of the local theatres, where I got to know the people in the community who helped make the magic come to life. Though I haven't had the chance to contribute personally to a play in years, either on or off the stage, I still enjoy making it to plays whenever I can. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of The Foreigner by Larry Shue, at my favorite venue: the Winnipesaukee Playhouse. I'd never heard of the play before, but that never stops me, and I'm glad it didn't, because it is now quite possibly my favorite.
For anyone unfamiliar: it is the story of a British science fiction proofwriter named Charlie who, distraught and plauged by stress, is brought along to Georgia by a friend so that he can take a vacation and get some rest. Charlie is reluctant about the whole thing, and is about to change his mind and leave, when his friend comes up with the perfect solution: if Charlie pretends he is a foreigner who speaks no English, he won't have to interact with anyone at all, and will be left alone to rest. The friendly Southern inhabitants of the inn being as they are, that doesn't stop them in the least: and soon the plan backfires. Charlie has to pretend he is, indeed, foreign ... and in the course of it, ends up learning everyone's secrets. I won't spoil it for you, but all turns out, as Charlie would say, "Rrrrrrremarkable!", and a happy ending is had by all who deserve it.
But what does this have to do with being a writer, and coming up with plot, you ask? It's quite simple. One of the reasons I love The Foreigner so much is that there is not a single word or action wasted. Everything that seems as though it's mentioned off-handedly ends up serving a purpose at some point in the story, right down to some of the decorative props on the walls. Larry Shue weaves a water-tight basket for his plot: nothing gets through, no ends stick out. I came out of that theatre not only satisfied as a viewer, but inspired as a writer: I wanted to write something that air-tight, that complete and neatly crafted and clever. I'm hardly about to say I'm succeeding completely, but I had a realization last night, when trying to decide whether or not to include one scene in the onslaught of dramatic events at the height of From The Desk of Buster Heywood.
The scene is one of the first that came to mind, and as the plot has evolved by leaps and bounds since it came to me, I was fully prepared to "kill a darling", as the saying goes, and live without it. I had spent the majority of my summer letting the characters drive the writing, and trusting both my instincts and theirs to let the plot flesh itself out. There seemed to be no room for this scene, anymore. However, the more I looked back over more recent scenes and tracked through my outline, the more I realized that several characters had each left a tiny breadcrumb throughout the book that led up to, and properly supported my old, endangered scene. I was flummoxed; I hadn't even planned this! How had it happened? It was then that I was reminded of a scene from The Foreigner, in which Charlie exults to his friend, Froggy, that this act of his is bearing unexpected fruit:
CHARLIE: . . . I— if only I could tell you what an adventure I've been having!
I haven't quite sorted it out myself, yet, but I— Froggy, I think I'm acquiring a
CHARLIE. Yes! People here just seem to hand it to me piece by piece as
they walk into the room!
Like Charlie, I started out thinking that in some places, I had no plot - no "personality". I simply let my characters walk onto the page and speak their piece, taking in what they had to say. And piece by piece, they've handed me what I came looking for all along, without my even really thinking about it.
I know that the subject of trusting your characters tends to come up most often when people discuss the dreaded Writer's Block, but in truth, you should be trusting them every step of the way. It's their story you're telling, after all, not yours. Who knows it better than they do? No one likes to be treated as though they don't know what they're doing. Listen to what your cast has to say, or just sit back and watch them do whatever they feel like doing, and dutifully record it all. I guarantee you you'll end up with something a lot more rrrremarkable than what you expected.
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