(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.)
This is probably the biggest stretch of any of my letters, but shut up, it’s the end of the month. Anyway, we all know that beginnings are hard. You have to very quickly orient your audience in your new world and get them rooting for the right characters, and you have to do it in a way that feels natural while making the whole thing interesting enough to keep people hooked. We’ve already looked at a couple of examples of this balance that were less than great, so let’s go for one that does it really well.
I’m not the first person to express admiration for the opening credits of Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m probably not going to be the last, but really, it’s glorious. After the gut-crushing cold open, we see the adult Peter landing on a dead planet. He takes off his imposing mask, slips on some headphones, and starts grooving. Right away, it establishes the tone of the movie, alternating between grandiose and goofy. But more importantly, it establishes the character of adult Peter within seconds. By the time that title card appears, with Peter dancing his heart out underneath it, you know who this guy is: he’s a space pirate with a shameless sense of fun. There’s a little more to him than that, but you’re already on board after that opening. (Cleverly, there’s actually plot being foreshadowed with this sequence too, since Peter dancing to his mix tape winds up being a surprisingly crucial part of the climax.)
Star-Lord’s intro gets the most attention, but they do it with others, too. Let’s look at Rocket and Groot’s intro on Xandar. It’s no accident that it starts with Rocket’s voiceover; a talking raccoon gets dangerously into kiddie movie cute animal territory, which was one of the big reasons people were so skeptical about this movie’s chances for success. But you get the sarcastic, misanthropic running commentary first, before you see that it’s coming from a tiny fuzzy guy. It cuts off any preconceptions toward cuteness before they can take root. Meanwhile, Groot is playing adorably in the fountain, and pouts when Rocket yells at him.
It’s not just the heroes getting this treatment, either. Ronan’s first appearance shows him ritualistically preparing to brutally murder a member of the Nova Corps. He doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime in the movie; his presence is more felt by the other characters’ fear of him, and of what he could do with the Orb. But that’s not quite enough to make the audience feel that same fear, hence he gets a more… impactful introduction. (I would apologize for that pun, but nope, not gonna.)
Even if you’re writing a more plot-driven story, it’s still characters that people connect to, and so their introductions should be handled carefully. What’s the most important thing that we need to know about them right off the bat? Where is their character arc going to end up, and what’s an effective way to contrast that? What kind of impression do you want this character to make? Answering these questions can help you craft an electrifying and memorable opening that lets the audience dive right in.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Star Trek (2009). Page image is TNG, but I’m using it because holy shit, “star trek yoga” actually gave me an image result. Wasn’t expecting that.)
Okay, I’ll admit, using “yoga” to describe this concept is a bit of a stretch, twisting what I have (an idea for a blog post) into the not-necessarily compatible position that I need it to be in (a tricky letter in this alphabet challenge). But that makes it quite a perfect metaphor for the topic at hand, really. The trope of the day is Contrived Coincidence. You all know this one: the plot gets stuck in a corner, and some outlandish, utterly improbable occurrence comes along to get it moving again. This is mostly an acceptable break from reality as long as it’s not too egregious. After all, insane coincidences happen in real life all the time, and depending on the tone of the story, the audience is frequently willing to just go along with it to keep things moving. Hell, sometimes it gets explained by there being some force within the story that’s manipulating events to its liking (instead of it just being, you know, the author doing exactly that).
Still, it’s kind of a lazy technique, frequently the mark of a writer with two preconceived story points and no reasonable way to connect them who just said “Fuck it” and moved on. It’s laid out in one of Pixar’s rules of storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” Once you get past a certain point in the story, the audience wants things to connect, to pay off the setups and tie everything together.
The Star Trek reboot is a prime example of cheating coincidences. Of course having every leadership position on the ship vacated just in time for the familiar characters to step in is a bit of a stretch, but it pales in comparison to what happens after Vulcan gets ‘sploded. Spock dumps Kirk on the nearest planet, where he almost immediately finds… Spock Prime! And naturally, the elder Spock has information to impart that’s critical for moving the plot forward. Naturally.
I know, dude. I can’t believe it either.
That would already be a pretty staggering example, but it gets worse! Because only a few miles away from the Ice Cave of Destiny, there’s a Federation outpost, staffed by none other than Scotty. The fact that it’s Scotty is not that huge a stretch; this is an origin story after all, so he’s not a main character at this point, just a random dude. The fact that said random dude has just invented exactly the technology that Kirk needs to get back onto the Enterprise? Less forgivable.
The worst part of all is that there’s no explanation. This goes back to what we discussed earlier this month about lampshade hanging: when you’re giving suspension of disbelief that rough a buggering, there desperately needs to be some sort of acknowledgment to keep it from breaking entirely. In this case, you could have had Kirk dropped off actually at the Federation outpost, or have Spock somehow mention that he’s purposefully dropping him not too far away, which solves one Scotty conundrum. As for the transwarp beaming, perhaps a throwaway line earlier in the movie about some dude who was working on that technology would have softened that blow. And with Spock Prime, well, any way you slice it, that’s still going to be one hell of a coincidence. But having it piled atop the other whoppers pushes things from “That’s rather unlikely” to “Look, if you’re not going to take this seriously…”
Willing suspension of disbelief relies on trust. It’s the writer being able to credibly say, “Yes, I know what I’m doing. This is going somewhere worthwhile. Just stay with me and we’ll have a good time.” But leaning too heavily on something like coincidence jeopardizes that trust. Like an inexperienced yoga practitioner attempting a pose that’s way beyond their level, the whole thing is unstable and likely to fall over if you look at it funny. The foundation of a good story is a logical progression of events (even if that logic isn’t readily apparent the whole time). Life can rely on coincidence sometimes, but as a writer, you should probably think twice.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, and The Music Man.)
We got the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon pretty much as soon as it was released, and I was utterly engrossed. But one thing bothered me quite a bit. The song “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”…
…sounded awfully familiar.
It kind of stuck in my craw. The rest of the songs are great, so why rip off something contemporary and distinctive? But the more I listened, the more I realized that it’s supposed to sound like Wicked, because they do the same thing throughout the show.
The thing is, it’s not a straight copy so much as a quote. The difference is that they’re doing something with it, using the musical similarity to make a distinction. With this and with the other similar songs, they’re using the same familiar music to accompany a polar opposite situation.
Let’s look at this pairing to start. “Defying Gravity” sees both Glinda and Elphaba realizing that while they’re choosing to walk different paths, they’re still joined together as friends and equals. However, in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elders Price and Cunningham are acknowledging that they’re being forced onto the same path, but they’re not so much with the friends and equals.
It goes on like this. The Ugandans’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”…
…actually references its doppelganger:
In the latter, Simba has left his home in terror and shame, only to discover that his fate isn’t nearly as unpleasant as he feared. In the former, the missionaries leave their home in triumphant expectation, only to discover that their situation is far worse than they could have imagined.
One more! “All-American Prophet” kicks it old-school:
Harold Hill doesn’t remotely believe the things he’s saying, but the townsfolk are all over it. Kevin Price believes what he’s saying body and soul, but the townsfolk are decidedly unimpressed.
Sure, the writers could still establish the story beats on their own. But by invoking these familiar standbys, they subtly set up audience expectations, which can then be subverted to add another layer to the joke. There’s an old saying about knowing your audience, but it’s not just about what they’re likely to find funny or offensive or what have you. If you have a good idea of the works your audience is familiar with (someone who sees one musical has probably seen others, for instance), you can use that knowledge as a sort of springboard to let you build something new.
The important thing is to make it new, mind. Just pointing to something familiar and saying, “Hey, here’s a thing you should recognize!” isn’t going to get you many points. But if you can provide a twist to it, that’s when you’ve got something special.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Quick and the Dead. Also, this page has several images and large GIFs, so you might want to give it a minute to load before proceeding.)
I love me some dialogue. There’s nothing quite like a good snappy exchange, and great quotes are the kind of thing that becomes timelessly viral (as evidenced by the average quantity of Monty Python quotes in a given D&D session). But dialogue isn’t everything, and there’s a whole lot you can do without ever saying a word.
As befits a story about a stoic badass riding into a town full of stoic badasses, The Quick and the Dead is practically a master class on this topic, packed with just about every kind of visual communication you can imagine.
Here’s one silent exchange from very early on, when the Lady first arrives in Redemption:
The creepy mustached guy, Eugene Dred, will be her secondary antagonist, right behind Herod. Notice the way she shows him her gun, and his reaction? Their enmity gets set up immediately, in just under 15 seconds.
Another similar exchange of glances establishes Herod’s primary challengers (Ed. note: This GIF cuts out a couple of shots in the middle):
In both cases, pretty much all it takes to set up these relationships is eye contact. There are a whole lot of characters in play and not a lot of time to set everything up, so this method efficiently builds audience expectations, so we already know what’s going down even before individual beefs get explained.
Efficiency occasionally leads us to an entirely wordless scene. The Lady meets with Cort to work out the rather complicated conspiracy that will see her fake her death and blow up half the town, but we naturally don’t see that whole discussion. All we see of it is this:
Of course, it’s not a silent film, and there’s quite a bit of dialogue. But the visuals still don’t slouch, frequently providing crucial subtext:
The barkeep is talking about the food and drink Herod is paying for. Later on, Dred will rape the girl, and the Lady will kill him for it.
And, of course, there’s the trailer-friendly, not terribly subtle but still rather awesome:
The movie is thick with background details, too. I’ll spare you examples of the gun porn (every fighter carries a unique, frequently blinged-out and customized, weapon) because this page would be about eighty screens long. But look over the Lady’s shoulder in the saloon for a wanted poster for one of the other contestants:
Or the skulls and bones that are all the hell over that scene:
The saloon scene is a good example of how the film divides its focus well among its large ensemble cast, and they’re frequently worth watching in the background throughout. For instance, you can spot every character who makes it past the first round as they watch the first duel:
Here’s Foy’s priceless reaction to the glass of water that almost hit him in the face:
Or watch Cort’s hands twitch after he’s held a gun for the first time in years:
Those little details help keep the character present and active, even while the lines are going to other people.
Okay, so that’s an awful lot of examples, and admittedly, things like subtle acting choices or set dressing aren’t really major tools in your arsenal as a fiction writer. Still, there are a few things that can be drawn from this for writers in any medium:
- Don’t forget who’s in your scene. If a character is there, they’re going to have a reaction, even if they don’t have any direct involvement.
- Well-chosen details in the setting can reveal a lot. For instance, describing in prose everything happening in the densely-packed saloon scene would take dozens of pages, but it would be easy enough to include the skeletons.
- Don’t be afraid to pare down. If you can establish something with just an exchange of glances or a gesture, maybe you should, especially if it helps build the tension.
- Remember your other senses! Though we’ve mainly discussed visuals here, the click of a gun and the thunk of the clock are omnipresent throughout the film.
In short, make sure you’re making the most of all the ways people communicate and interact. There’s a lot more to it than just words.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to… well, anything by Robin McKinley.)
I read voraciously as a kid and teenager, although I had a tendency to stay in a comfort zone of familiar books and authors. One of the most influential authors, both on my writing and on my general outlook on life, was Robin McKinley. In fact, she wrote pretty much my favorite book of all timekee. Here, I’ll describe it for you:
We meet a young woman who’s something of a misfit, although she has strong family ties. She gets swept up against her will into a new exotic world and befriends its brooding, magical ruler (who’s quite a bit older than her). In this new world, she discovers that she has position, power, and purpose: to save her new home and its prince.
I am referring, of course, to Beauty, though you may have been forgiven for thinking I was referring to Rose Daughter. Or The Blue Sword. Or The Hero and the Crown. Or Chalice. Or Sunshine. Only the first two are actual retellings of the Beauty and the Beast legend, but the others all pretty much riff on it. This basic format can be seen in her other retellings, of Sleeping Beauty and Donkeyskin and even Robin Hood. For nearly forty years, McKinley has been coming back to this same well.
And it works.
See, there are multiple elements that go into making a unique story. Plot is just one of them, and it’s probably the one most likely to get regurgitated. Though theories differ about the exact number of original plots in existence (one difficult to confirm quote goes as low as two), there are certainly common structural threads that run through the tales we tell. If you demand pure originality in your plots, you’re going to be sorely disappointed (and it’s a fairly new concept anyway).
What keeps McKinley’s novels distinct from each other is the details. The characters may be filling similar roles, but as individuals they’re quite different, and the dynamics between characters vary as well. And, of course, the world-building sets each apart; Damar looks nothing like Willowlands looks nothing like Sherwood. The stories may hit the same beats, but they get there by different means and provide different experiences along the way.
Sometimes I worry that, as an author, I’m repeating myself, since I see a lot of common themes and situations in the manuscripts that sit in various stages of completion on my shelf. But you know, that’s okay. There’s nothing new under the sun, and some people might call the use of such pet tropes “consistency” and “good branding.” Just because one component is familiar doesn’t mean that the whole thing will be. It’s about finding a fresh take, leveraging that familiarity into a unique spin.