(No spoilers this time. At least, I’m pretty sure. Proceed with caution just in case.)
You know, I find myself growing weary of the series. Specifically, I think I’m worn out on epics, where the author takes hundreds of thousands of words to tell a single story. The more I study the craft, the more I feel that telling a complex story in a shorter framework demonstrates a higher level of skill. I think I’ve just read too many stories relentlessly padded into trilogies because trilogies are cool, too many first volumes that feel like barely a first act, too many books that read like game manuals with only the most tacit of nods toward structure and plot. Perhaps my attention span has just been rotted by social media, but I find that I’m just not willing to commit to half a million words of my life just to see if there’s a point to all of this.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. For my money, a perfect series is one where the individual books still feel like books in their own right; not necessarily something I could pick up cold or out of order and have it make sense, but something that gives me the same sense of satisfaction as a standalone book. This is probably easiest to pull off in an episodic property like Artemis Fowl. Each installment of that series is a contained caper: someone makes a nefarious plan, geniuses try to outmaneuver each other, and everything gets wrapped up by the end. They’re not completely interchangeable, because continuity carries over, the fallout of major events gets explored, and characters develop and change. But the overall arc is one of character rather than plot, charting Artemis’s development from devious child to responsible young adult.
The Miriam Black books have a similarly episodic feel, in that each book has Miriam presented with a problem early on that she’s resolved by the end. But as has become clear by the third book, there’s a definite plot arc having to do with the forces of fate and change that Miriam finds herself caught between. This element drives the story forward from book to book while remaining subtle, a contributing element of each individual battle rather than the main focus. It’s not that there aren’t teases and even cliffhangers, but they come well after the climax has been sorted out so you still get a feeling of accomplishment. A bad dude has been introduced, battled, and overcome. There may be a whole lot of that larger story left to tell, but the individual books don’t feel like a holding pattern.
The Lunar Chronicles is probably the closest of these to epic; the overarching story concerns Queen Levana’s plans to conquer the Earth and the plan to find the rightful heir to the Lunar throne to supplant her. Unlike with the previous example, this bigger plotline is a major component of each book; other characters and subplots get introduced, but the bulk of the action drives the main conflict forward. However, the series benefits from the conceit that each installment is a fairy tale retelling, so each book has a built-in arc and climax. Cress, the most recent main novel at time of writing, probably strays farthest from its folkloric blueprint, but the plan to infiltrate the palace still provides a satisfying crescendo. The key to the overall flow of the series is in that structure: we get a climax, then our heroes are given time to regroup, reflect, and plan for their next move. It’s all building to one big huge grand finale, but each book makes significant progress toward that goal while still resolving its individual dilemma.
With this, as with so many things in life, it’s all about balance. Very large stories are fine, but it can try the reader’s patience if you’re spending, say, an entire book just touching base with each main character because there are too damn many of them and they’re scattered all over the damn planet. (Not that I’m bitter about that one.) Making each part of the larger unified whole feel unified in and of itself will help keep people coming back for more. I want to be eager to read more, not frustrated that I didn’t get enough. It’s a fine line to walk, but for me it’s the difference between reading the next book and reading the summary on Wikipedia.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Avengers.)
You know, scene changes are kind of weird if you think about it. Most stories don’t lend themselves to a contiguous telling, because there’s all sorts of little details that would drag the story down if dwelt on. So the story just stops and skips ahead to something more interesting, and as a reader or viewer we absorb this and go with it. It’s just not something we really tend to think about, although perhaps we should.
The Avengers features a few rather clever transitions worth examining. First, we have Fury talking to the World Security Council:
SHADOWY DUDE: War isn’t won by sentiment.
FURY: No. It’s won by soldiers.
Then at the end of the same scene:
STEVE: You should have left it in the ocean.
The first act of the film has the potential to be a little disjointed, as it jumps from character to character so that they can be brought into the story. The link between dialogue and the subsequent image helps smooth out the transition, showing one way that the scenes fit together before the primary narrative connection is clear.
As far as narrative elements go, scene transitions probably aren’t major stumbling blocks, a minor point that doesn’t require a great deal of thought from either reader or writer. But points like that are great opportunities to add a little extra oomph, to take something standard and make it something special, something more. It’s that sort of attention to detail that can take a story from good to great.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
The Rocketeer was one of my favorite movies growing up, although I was never a big fan of the love interest, Jenny Blake, who always seemed kind of like a sexy lamp to me. (If you didn’t follow the link, the “sexy lamp” test means that if you could replace your main female character with a sexy lamp and the story would still basically work, you have a problem.) But the more I try to pin it down, the more I think it’s not that simple. She may not be your standard strong female character (a nebulous phrase my loathing of which is well-established), but if you were to remove Jenny from the story, it wouldn’t just be different–it wouldn’t exist at all.
In hanging around writing groups and forums, I’ve encountered a lot of writers who struggle to figure out the genre they’re writing in. My advice is always to look at the stakes–what’s the worst thing that will happen if the hero fails? That tends to be the main thing that defines a genre. So in a comedy, the stakes are personal happiness and success. In epic fantasy, it’s stopping the forces of darkness. In dystopia, it’s breaking free of the corrupt institution. And so on and so forth. After repeated viewings of The Rocketeer, I’ve come to realize that while we may be dealing with Stupid Jetpack Hitler, the primary thing at stake is Cliff and Jenny’s relationship.
No, seriously. This movie is a rom-com with gunfights and Nazis, also known as the best possible kind of rom-com.
Although Jenny’s not present in the first act, Cliff keeps a picture of her in his cockpit, even risking himself to rescue it from the fire. After a bunch of setup about the rocket, the two go out on a date, a scene which gets a fairly substantial amount of screentime (the whole sequence takes about 10 minutes). They have a fairly contentious meal, highlighting the issues in their relationship: Jenny wants a change of pace and doesn’t feel like Cliff respects her career or trusts her with important news. It’s because of this and in the hopes of making amends that he seeks her out on set the next morning, revealing to her–and to the eavesdropping baddie Neville Sinclair–that he’s found the rocket. That directly leads to Sinclair moving in on Jenny in the hopes of getting to Cliff.
Then we’ve got a couple of action sequences, and the escalating danger is enough to prompt Cliff to call it quits and turn the rocket over to the FBI. That is, until one of the mobsters spots Jenny’s phone number, and we see Cliff’s look of horror as he realizes that the guys who murdered his boss and are trying to torture his best friend are also after his girlfriend. From that point on, protecting her is the only thing that matters to him, more than even his own safety or that of anyone else. And this concern is mutual, as evidenced when Jenny goes back into the club to save Cliff from Sinclair’s goon (without which the third act wouldn’t happen). The crisis makes them both realize that, despite their quibbles, they’d do absolutely anything for each other, and they end the movie in a much stronger place.
So what makes this the primary stakes? Well, let’s compare to another similar film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both movies, the hero realizes that rescuing his kidnapped girlfriend will further the Nazis’ goals (which is a rather specific parallel, come to think). Indy’s response is to promise Marion that he’ll return for her after he’s secured the Ark. Cliff’s response is to fight his way out of FBI custody and go to the hostage exchange anyway. Even knowing what else is on the line, Jenny’s more important.
There’s still the issue of her lack of agency, which tends to be a major sticking point with female characters. After all, she’s reactive rather than active, and her choices aren’t really what drives the story. She also doesn’t really have much of a character arc, ending the story more or less where she started.
But here’s the thing: You could say basically the same about Cliff.
See, context counts for a lot in these sort of situations. The Rocketeer is a very conscious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s, and those pulpy plots are usually driven by the villain. The bad guy is the one who has a plan and takes steps to achieve it, and the good guy has to stop it, generally staying a step or two behind the whole way and only prevailing due to a last ditch, desperate gamble. Really, the only choice Cliff makes on his own is to try using the rocket pack in the first place, and even that is in reaction to their financial situation after the crash of the Gee Bee test plane (which was shot at by a bad guy because… the plot wouldn’t happen otherwise, pretty much). Everything else he does is in response to someone else being in trouble. Agency is the wrong yardstick to use in a case like this, because the only one who really has agency is Sinclair. These stories also tend to trade in stock characters, which is why no one really has an individual character arc, but Cliff and Jenny do go through an arc as a couple.
It’s easy to write her off as just another damsel in distress, but part of what consistently fascinates me about that trope is how rarely it’s played purely straight anymore. The standard damsel will run off with the hero she’s only just met once he’s proven himself by saving the day, but Jenny and Cliff are in an established relationship, one that seems fairly serious from the start, so them getting together at the end makes perfect sense (and, as previously established, is kind of the whole point). She’s also crafty, deftly manipulating Sinclair and doing pretty well at escaping until she gets sidetracked by the whole Nazi discovery. Oh yeah, and when she gets handed over to a random mook, she stone-cold kicks the dude through the window of the zeppelin.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure Cliff doesn’t have any confirmed kills in this movie (I only give him partial credit for Sinclair, personally), but Jenny sure as hell does.
I think it’s important that, as scholars, we don’t give into our first knee-jerk reactions about a character and look deeper, and that as writers, we seek out ways to add that depth. The Rocketeer may be working with a fairly established formula, but they manage to take a role that’s often marginalized and make it an intrinsic part of the story. With no Jenny in the picture, Sinclair never gets on Cliff’s trail, and he returns the rocket to the Feds as soon as things get hairy. With her, we have a much more interesting film.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Finding Nemo and John Carter.)
This one isn’t so much “original analysis” as “Brittany watches directors’ commentary so you don’t have to,” but it’s still a good lesson for writers to learn (especially because the filmmaker seemed to forget it later).
In early drafts of Finding Nemo, the story started with Marlin taking Nemo to school for the first time, and the opening scene played out essentially the same as in the finished film, with Marlin being overprotective and neurotic. As the film went on, the tragedy in Marlin’s past would be hinted at through snippets of flashbacks until a late reveal of the full version of how he lost his family.
What the filmmakers realized was that, without knowing what he’d been through, Marlin came off as obnoxious, whiny, and unlikable. You could sympathize with the loss of his son, but he was still a pain in the ass that you didn’t want to spend ninety minutes with. Further, they realized that there wasn’t even any dramatic benefit to withholding the information. It was readily apparent that something bad had happened without even flashing back, and pretty much as soon as you showed Coral, the audience got the gist and the specific details didn’t make a difference. It was a reveal for the sake of a reveal, so it was scrapped in favor of a straightforward prologue scene.
“But wait!” I hear you saying. “Agents hate prologues, don’t they?” If we’re talking novels, yes they do, and for good reason. I talk about different media a bit interchangeably around here, because to a certain extent, story is story and the lessons carry over. However, fiction has certain tools at its disposal, like narration and internal monologue, which film tends to use rarely because they’re awkward as hell in a primarily visual medium. So while a novel version of the story could use a little authorial intrusion to let us know in a couple of sentences that Nemo is the sole survivor of a predator that killed the rest of Marlin’s family, the simplest way to convey this information in a movie is just to show it.
To get an idea of how the original plan would have played out, you need look no further than another film by the same director, Andrew Stanton.
It’s not that John Carter lacks for prologues, oh no. First, we get one showing how Pretty Much Always Evil Mark Strong gives Pretty Much Always Asshole Dominic West the secret magic weapon thing. Then there’s the framing device of Burroughs getting filled in on the peculiar circumstances of his uncle’s death. Then after that there’s the setup with Carter searching for gold. When the Army tries to pressgang him back into service, we get this bit:
CARTER: Colonel Powell, sir, whatever it is you suppose I owe you, our country, or any other beloved cause, I have already paid it.
(Meaningful closeup of Carter’s hand, where he wears a man’s and a woman’s wedding bands)
CARTER: I have paid in full, sir.
It’s quite an elegant bit of exposition, really. With that one image, we get an illuminating glimpse of Carter’s past, which helps us understand his desire to be left alone.
But Stanton doesn’t think we’ve gotten the message, because the next hour is scattered with flashbacks to Carter’s tragically pretty family, until the midpoint, where it’s “revealed” as some sort of big climax. The argument could be made that the specific details of their fate do matter: it’s not just that they died, but that they died while he was fighting someone else’s war, and that’s why he tries so desperately to stay out of things.
But really, that’s the same problem as with Marlin, isn’t it? Without understanding that detail, Carter looks like kind of a dick for persisting in his refusal to help people he clearly seems to like. By the time you really see where the character arc starts, he’s already most of the way along it, so the whole thing loses quite a lot of its effectiveness.
The reveal is a useful tool, one that can elevate a story into something exciting and memorable. But it is not intrinsically valuable and it is not an absolute good. It’s okay if the details about a person’s past aren’t shocking game changers, but if they’re not, perhaps it’s better not to pretend they are.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Jurassic Park.)
I love me a good action movie. Tense standoffs, well-choreographed brawls, car chases that make me go, “Oh, shit!”… I just eat it up. But you can definitely have too much of a good thing. No matter how much you love a given food, if you eat nothing but you’re going to get sick of it. As great as action is, it needs context for us to be able to care, and if it’s unrelenting, it overwhelms us and causes us to tune out. This is the mistake of a movie like King Kong, where everything ran twice as long as it should have been, to the point where I’m checking my watch during a fight between a giant gorilla and a dinosaur.
So speaking of dinosaurs, let’s check out a movie that understands that good pacing is a balance between crazy high-powered action and quiet character moments. YouTube ahoy!
Now, Jurassic Park isn’t an action movie in the shooty explody sense; some of its greatest moments of tension are in the frozen terror rather than the running and screaming. (“He can’t see us if we don’t move” is bad science, but very, very good cinema.) Things go steadily south as treacherous code monkey Nedry enacts his plan to shut down the park and steal the embryos, until we get to the midpoint and the T-Rex busts out and wrecks shit up. The next several scenes show the characters trying to evade and survive, until everyone still standing has found a place to hunker down for the night.
If you can’t watch the scene above, Hammond is eating ice cream (which is melting, since the freezers are off), and he tells Ellie about the flea circus he used to operate. Up until this point, Hammond has been the smooth showman, more concerned with getting his park open than with the danger it represents and the people who’ve been injured and killed. But here, he gives us a little explanation for his obsession, and in that moment, he’s vulnerable and human in a way he hasn’t been even when shit is headed fanwards.
More importantly, he’s still hanging onto the obsession until Ellie directly calls him on it. She has to remind him that the safety of their loved ones–remember, it’s his grandchildren and her boyfriend still out in the park–is more important than even his lifelong dream. It’s a pivotal moment for Hammond’s character, the first time he’s forced to seriously consider that he might not be able to salvage this project. The scene ends with a sad echo of his proud refrain: “We spared no expense.”
Hammond’s meeting with Ellie is flanked by two scenes of Dr. Grant and the kids, first reaching a safe place to sleep and then waking up and interacting with the brachiosaurus. As with Hammond’s scene, this provides a significant character moment, showing Grant’s growing connection to the two children (symbolically represented by him dropping the raptor claw fossil he’d used to antagonize the brat at the Badlands dig). Of course the audience saw how far he was willing to go to save Lex and Tim from the T-Rex, but the scene in the tree is the first time Grant himself has had the chance to stop and think about what he’s doing and what it means.
It might seem odd to have this fairly lengthy interlude in the middle of an action movie, but it’s really quite necessary. As I touched on in my discussion of Paper Towns, we’re just not capable of sustaining fear for very long; our baselines readjust because otherwise our hearts would explode. This lull gives both characters and audience a chance to make that readjustment after the devastation of the T-Rex attack. It lets the characters process the events and deal with their reactions, and it helps remind the audience of what’s at stake by reintroducing the characters as rounded people after they’ve spent the last few scenes as screaming dino chow. And, of course, there’s the narrative convenience of letting us skip ahead to the next morning, because daytime shoots are cheaper and easier.
Contrast is an extremely useful tool in the writing arsenal, establishing patterns and providing context the reader can use to derive meaning. Without some moments of quiet, the loud whizbang action just isn’t as effective.