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!
As an independent author, I encounter the same stereotypes, repeatedly:
Ouch, right? So I’ve decided to do my part by creating my own little toolkit to help fellow indie authors ensure that their writing shatters those stereotypes into tiny little splinters. I know there are a million other blogs and e-books that hand out this advice, but everyone does things their own way … why not document mine? This week, I’m going to start with the most technical of the three: Your Writing Must Not Be Good Enough.
In order to debunk this, we indie authors must first define what constitutes “good writing”. For my own part, when I review a book, I look for the following benchmarks:
This can be subjective. There are some very famous authors (I am looking at you, James Patterson and Danielle Steel) who can use almost cookie-cutter elements like sex or action scenes to string together the weakest of plot points. They have found something that works for them. The trouble is, if you want to be truly noticed as an indie author, cookie-cutter is not going to, well, cut it. Your plot should have a good, sharp hook or a unique element to it. Take a look at your writing, and if you can compare its plot easily to that of a famous author, try to find what makes it uniquely yours. Are you telling people “it’s just like (insert best-seller here)”? If they want Best-Seller X, they can just go and read it again. Tell them why they want YOUR story.
Well-defined Characters We Can Care About
I’m not just talking about lengthy, detailed descriptions of their hair, eyes, body, and clothing. What makes them tick? What do they fear, love, or have inside jokes about? Give your readers a glimpse of this before you’ve ended Chapter One - even on page one, if you can manage it. Also, I cannot stress this enough: character is not plot. If your main character is in trouble because they have to evade fifteen unpaid parking tickets and the police in their dystopian future consider this punishable by death? That’s plot. If they didn’t pay their parking tickets because they lined their guinea pig’s cage with them as a form of protest, and/or donated the money to the homeless guy on the corner of their block instead? That’s character. They can run from the cops all they want, but unless I know about that guinea pig and/or homeless guy, I’m not gonna care, even if they are gorgeous.
No Typos, Excessive Verbosity, or Overused Words
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Unless you are Lemony Snicket, if you say “The bomb covered in multicolored wires of various lengths and thicknesses like a spaghetti casserole from hell was getting closer to detonation. Esteban opened the junk drawer of the oaken hutch that his Great-Aunt Hattie had left to him in her will before she died of dysentery and gave it a thump to keep it from sticking, before pulling out the neon orange tool set at the back right corner of the drawer and opening it. He popped the latches and pulled out the smallest pair of tweezers with their red rubberized handles and whirled back around to face the explosive device with fervent determination” … your readers are going to be praying for that bomb to go off.
Consider, instead: “Esteban pounded on the junk drawer, cursing. Behind him, the bomb ticked on. He wrestled out his toolkit, almost dropping it in his haste to pop the catches. The pair of tweezers shook in his hands as he turned back to his work.” Sentences of mixed length help the prose flow more naturally, but leaning on short phrases with sparse description help create the sense of urgency Esteban is probably feeling as he’s trying not to get his apartment blown up.
Few to No Cliches
Unfortunately, the genres I see most in self-publishing are those which fall prey to the most clichés: romance and fantasy. Yes, I know that clichés and tropes exist for a reason: we love them, they’re fun. But they’re also super-predictable. If your reader knows what’s coming, they’re not going to want to bother reading it… unless, as with your plot, you give it that little dash of spice that makes it uniquely yours. Exhibit A: The brooding love interest who has to do That One Big Epic Thing to redeem their reputation. Make them less than perfect in the looks department, or completely unable to resist a sing-along. Give them a life-long dream of raising hedgehogs. It all goes back to the first two points: plot and character. Make them as indisputably yours as possible, and you’ll be well on your way to shattering the first Indie Author stereotype.
Thanks for joining me Between The Lines! Please share your thoughts below, and I hope you’ll join me next week, when I’ll bust the stereotype of The Lazy Indie Author!
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